Italy without Sicily leaves no image in the soul...

La Sicilia

Sicily has always been a microcosm: a world in which peoples of different races, religions and languages have come together and clashed together, with each important culture leaving behind traces of their presence on the island which have accumulated over time like so many different layers. From prehistory to the present day one can say that this feature of the island hasn’t changed. The alternation or the coexistence of the major political forces operating in the Mediterranean has driven the history of Sicily, by building a diverse and unique contribution and exchange of cultures that still today characterises its society and its monuments. From the first inhabitants, the Sicani and the Siculi, of uncertain origin, to the Greeks and the Phoenicians, among whom was forced to live the local indigenous population of the Elimi, it seemed like the whole of world history had found a vital meeting point on the island. Here, in fact, the two great powers that dominated the Mediterranean basin and which had created great sea-faring empires were in direct contact with one another. The Greek expansion that followed a more northerly direction, landed on the eastern coast of the island and founded colonies such as Catania, Syracuse, Gela and Agrigento, which developed their own politics and their own culture.


The tyrants of Syracuse, especially in the time of Dionysius the Elder, attempted to conquer the island, which brought them into conflict with the other Mediterranean power of the time, the Punics from Carthage in North Africa, who had consolidated their presence on the island with settlements at Mozia, Lilybaeum (present-day Marsala), Erice, Panormus (present-day Palermo) and Soluntum. There were frequent clashes on the borders of their respective areas of influence, at Selinunte in the south and Himera, in the north (480 B.C.). In fact, the presence of the Greeks and the Carthaginians on the island lasted until the rise of Rome. It was the Romans who subdued the Greek colonies and with victory in the Punic Wars acquired the Carthaginian ones. From that time on, the island’s fortunes were closely bound to the growth in the power of Rome, with Sicily becoming an indispensable province for the politics and the economy of the Republic and of the Roman Empire. The slave revolts and the plundering of Sicily’s wealth by its governor Gaius Verres between the second and first centuries B.C., as reported by Cicero, were the defining moments of Roman rule in Sicily. When the Empire declined and Western Europe fell to the barbarians, the island immediately suffered the repercussions of the radical transformations that matured into a new reality: Romania, heir to the Roman world. The period of barbarian domination of Sicily lasted from 440 to 535 A.D. that is from when the head of the Vandals, Genseric, occupied the province of Africa and as owner of a large fleet imposed his hegemonic power across the western Mediterranean. As a consequence Sicily remained under the dominion of the Vandals until 476, when Odoacer became the king of Italy (after having deposed Romulus Augustus, the last Western Roman Emperor) and the king of the Vandals ceded Sicily to Odoacer subject to certain conditions, with the exception of the enclave of Lilibaeum (present-day Marsala). After Odoacer, the island passed into the hands of the Goths, when Theodoric the Great succeeded to the throne of the Heruli and became the second of the so-called Barbarian Kings of Italy (493). It can be said that during this period of Barbarian rule Sicily enjoyed a time of great peace and a certain prosperity. This was interrupted when Justinian, Emperor of the East, attempted to restore the territorial integrity of the ancient “Roman Empire”. After conquering the African Empire of the Vandals without great difficulty (534), Justinian’s general Belisarius occupied Sicily, which served as a base for the reconquest of the Italian peninsula. The military campaign for the occupation of the entire island was very rapid (535), since there were only a few Gothic garrisons and anyway they were unable to oppose the advance of the Byzantine expedition. The process of “Byzantinisation” meant that eastern customs permeated into life on the island, but slowly enough to permit the survival of the indigenous Latin culture. Scholars and writers flourished in Sicily, such as the popes Agatho, Leone II and Sergio I, and George of Syracuse. This culture continued to exist even after the Muslim occupation of the island and was represented by such important figures as the hymnographers St. Methodios and St. Joseph the Hymnographer. The year 827 marked the moment when Muslims first landed at Mazara, which was a prelude to the conquest of the entire island, in practice more and more distant from the life of the Eastern Empire and now regarded as the land of exile and deportation. Palermo fell in 831, Syracuse in 865, and only much later the last strongholds of Byzantine resistance. The organisation of the emirate was centred on Palermo which became the new capital of the island, supplanting the old capital Syracuse, and which came to be restructured as a result of its new function as a commercial emporium. However the repercussions of the infighting which tore apart the Maghreb were felt even in Sicily, starting a slow but unstoppable process of destabilisation which in the middle of the 11th century allowed the Normans of southern Italy to get the better of the strong Muslim presence on the island. The return of Sicily to the western world came with the Normans, with those adventurers who invaded southern, Byzantine Italy, who had gradually taken possession of Apulia, Basilicata, Campania and Calabria and who, with Robert Guiscard, then attempted to conquer that same eastern empire. During the period of the great Norman expansion the reconquest of Sicily was conceived as a “precrusade in order to cast out the Muslim infidels” from the centre of the Mediterranean. This undertaking, led by the youngest of the Hauteville brothers, Roger, with the support of his charismatic older brother Robert Guiscard, lasted thirty years (1061-1091). With ups and downs and with the support of Ibn at-Timnah, a local emir, in the end the Normans entered Palermo (1071), which remained the capital of the county of Sicily. The task of the new conquerors was to create the structures of the new state: administrative, financial, feudal, religious, taking advantage of or rather exploiting the skills of the various ethnic groups on the island at the time of the conquest. The Norman era in Sicily signified a unique, magical period, for the conquests and for the artistic and literary creations. Politics and culture coexisted thanks to the continuous patronage of the Norman kings, who with Roger II (1101-1154) had also obtained the royal coronation. If in the arts during this period many sublime monuments were created, such as the Palatine Chapel at Maredolce, other typical Byzantine Chapels known as Cubes, and the cathedrals of Palermo and Cefalu, then the heirs of Roger II, William I (1154-1166) and William II (1166-1189) were no less supportive of the arts, and during their time the Zisa castle in Palermo and the Cathedral of Monreale were the most important contributions. At the same time, important officials of the state, such as Admiral George of Antioch and Prime Minister Majone di Bari, followed the example of their sovereign and founded at their own expense great architectural jewels, namely the church of St. Mary of the Admiral (commonly known as the Martorana), and the church of San Cataldo, both of which are to be found in Palermo. The decline of the Norman kingdom however opened the door to the imperial aspirations of the Swabians. The marriage of Constance of Hauteville with Henry VI, son of Frederick I Barbarossa, enabled Henry to claim the throne of Sicily on behalf of Constance who was the daughter of Roger II and therefore the legitimate heiress to the throne. Henry was crowned King of Sicily in Palermo on 25 December 1194 and then set about exterminating the last descendants of the Norman dynasty in Sicily. But the husband of Constance didn’t enjoy possession of the southern kingdom for long, as he died in 1197 after having put down a revolt by islanders who rebelled against his tyranny, it being widely believed that he was poisoned. The Swabian era however found its greatest exponent in Frederick II (1196-1250), the son of Constance and Henry. The new king of Sicily, who was elected Holy Roman Emperor in 1220, made the island the base for his imperial policy. Upon his death in 1250 the southern kingdom passed to his son Conrad I of Sicily (who was Conrad IV of Germany), and later to Conrad’s half-brother, Manfred, who first ruled as regent on behalf of Conradin, Conrad’s infant son. The Swabian age saw incredible developments in terms of case law and literature in Latin, in experimental science and poetry in the common language of the people. When Conrad I died, detested by the papacy and by his European rivals, the crown was given by papal grant to Charles of Anjou, the brother of Louis IX, commonly known as Saint Louis, the King of France. This French claimant to the throne first confronted Manfred, who was killed at the battle of Benevento (1266) and then little Conradin, defeated at Tagliacozzo and then beheaded following a trial for treason in 1268 at the age of 16. But Angevin rule in the kingdom of Sicily, which should have paved the way for Charles I to expand eastwards into the Mediterranean and attempt to conquer the Byzantine Empire, wasn’t welcomed by the Sicilians who could not adapt to the arrogance of the new lords. The Sicilian Vespers is the name given to the successful rebellion which broke out on 31 March 1282 and which led to the extermination of the French inhabitants and the expulsion of the Angevin from the island. For their sovereign the Sicilians chose Peter III of Aragon, who had married Constance, the daughter of Manfred. Since Constance was the sole surviving heir of Frederick II she thus had a valid claim to the kingdom of Sicily, and so Peter III of Aragon became Peter I of Sicily. This choice however opened a long period of continuous war with the Angevin kingdom of Naples and eventually civil war, waged between the great baronial families on the island, among them the Chiaramonte, Ventimiglia, Rosso, Aragona, Peralta, and so on. The process of decline of the Aragonese kingdom of Sicily which included the reigns of Peter II (1337-1342), Louis (1342-1355) and Frederick IV (1355-1377), found its outlet in an Aragonese reconquest of the island, which was undertaken by Martin of Aragon on behalf of his son, also named Martin, who married Queen Maria (the daughter and only heir of Frederick IV). Martin the Younger (1392-1409) had to sustain a long struggle against the indomitable Sicilian barons and eventually he lost his life in Sardinia, where he had gone on behalf of his father the King of Aragon to quell yet another uprising of the Sardinians. He left behind him in Sicily his second wife Blanche of Navarre, (whom he married after the death of Maria), who ruled in his stead while he was away. And against her, following the death of Martin the Elder (who had succeeded his son as King of Sicily) in 1410, there was the great admiral of the kingdom, Bernard Cabrera. The new civil war, which afflicted the island for some years, caused the kingdom of Sicily to become a viceroyalty when Ferdinand of Antequera was elected to the throne of Aragon by the Compromise of Caspe in 1412. Blanche was recalled to the Iberian court and John, Duke of Penafiel was sent to Sicily as viceroy. To avoid the danger of autonomist Sicilians, Alfonso V of Aragon, known as Alfonso the Magnanimous (1416-1450), started sending a series of viceroys to Sicily, carefully chosen by himself. King Alfonso, who was in Sicily in 1320 on his journey to conquer the kingdom of Naples, was able to unscrupulously exploit the financial resources of the island for his own Mediterranean policy, above all with regards to Italy. With the death of Alfonso the Spanish era of domination began, as the King of Naples wanted the two kingdoms (of Naples and Sicily) to be divided and for the island of Sicily to be united with the crown of Aragon. It was also the moment when the great Spain of Catholic kings came into existence; it was the age of great geographical and scientific discoveries; it was also the time in which, with Mehmet II and his successors, Turkish power began its conquest of the West. In the midst of this new political-military balance Sicily came to assume a position of great strategic importance, and was seen as a bulwark against Ottoman aggression. Seen from this perspective, the history of Sicily in the early sixteenth century was an adaptation to its new function as a stronghold against the Turks and against the Barbary pirates. The encircling fortifications, the towers and the castles, the increase of the garrisons and the choice of the viceroy were all in accordance with this fundamental imperative. It was no coincidence that in 1535 Charles V wished to visit the island and enter triumphantly into Palermo. Seventeenth century Spanish Sicily saw the triumph of the ephemeral in art, but also the economic situation worsened, since a series of famines emptied the countryside and hunger spread to the big cities. There was an uprising in Messina in 1646, but in Palermo the following year there was another uprising of a different size and resonance. The crowd attacked the city palace, freed the prisoners of the viceroy and ran riot. Although this revolt was put down by the Viceroy Los Velez, who hanged the head of the rebels, Nino La Pelosa, the revolt of Palermitan craftsmen which followed immediately after, led by Joseph D’Alesi, was more successful. After the expulsion of the viceroy, Joseph D’Alesi was elected Captain General and he tried to establish a popular “government of the people”. He abolished many privileges and managed to temporarily abolish some unpopular taxes, and he also installed three judges chosen from commoners, and three from the nobility. However the nobles rallied their ranks and, with the complicity of many workers worried about the worsening economic situation, they managed to capture and kill D’Alesi on 22 August 1647. The Treaty of Utrecht (1713) gave Sicily to the Duke of Savoy, Victor Amadeus II, who reached Palermo in that same year. In 1714 he received two donations voted for by parliament, and then he departed for Piedmont, loaded up with goods and accompanied by men of culture, such as the architect Juvara. He left behind him Count Maffei as viceroy, who had to deal with the campaign of Cardinal Alberoni, who wanted to return Sicily to the Spanish, by force if necessary. In fact the expedition of 1718 forced the Savoyards to retreat to the interior of the island. However the Hague Treaty of 1720, wanted by the Austrians and the English, brought the island under Charles VI of Austria, who appointed the Duke of Monteleone as viceroy. After the House of Savoy, the Austrians continued to impoverish Sicily with an excessive and oppressive tax system that made the Sicilians long for the old days, under Spanish rule. Philip V of Spain invested his son Charles with the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Charles came to the island and was crowned in Palermo (30 June 1735), becoming Charles V of Sicily. The Treaty of Vienna (1738) recognised his title. Sicily waited for its new sovereign to solve its many problems; in fact Charles heard the petitions from the Sicilians and with an intelligent reformist policy he attempted to lift his islander subjects out of the extreme conditions of abject poverty in which they lived. The reformist wave wasn’t interrupted when Charles inherited the throne of Spain upon the death of his older half-brother Ferdinand VI in 1759, nor with the assignment of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies to his son Ferdinand, because Viceroy Domenico Caracciolo came to Sicily, an intelligent innovator who followed theories of the French Enlightenment. It was he, in fact, who put into effect reforms against the privileges of the barons and suppressed the infamous Court of the Inquisition (1782). But the Caracciolo era also saw the exacerbation of the separation of Sicily from Naples, with conflicts that affected the Bourbon monarchy itself, which in turn could not tolerate the push of autonomist forces in Sicily.

Origin of the Sicilian Puppets

A student of Socrates, the Athenian Xenophon tells us of a puppeteer, a Sicilian of Syracuse, with his puppets glad the banquet offered by Callias in honor of Autolycus, winner of a race athletics. At the banquet, which would take place in 421 BC, Socrates was also present, which required the Sicilian puppeteer to make his puppets dance, and he danced the dance of Bacchus and Ariadne. After the show, Socrates asked him what he wanted to be happy: the puppeteer of Syracuse, Sicily throughout with wit, replied: “That there are many fools, because they, rushing to the performance of my puppets, I endeavor to live.”

Symbol of Sicily: “Trinacria”

The symbol of Sicily, however, is the Trinacria, composed of the head of the Gorgon, mythological character whose hair is entwined serpents with ears of corn, from which radiate three legs bent at the knee. The ears of wheat are symbols of fertility of the land, while the three legs represent the three capes, and extremes of the region: Head Peloro in Messina, Cape Passero (Siracusa), head Lilybaeum (Marsala). According to scientists, this is an ancient religious symbol eastern could represent both the god Baal, in its threefold form of the god of spring, summer and winter, the moon with the legs sometimes replaced by sickle moon. The etymology of the word is of Greek origin derives, in fact, Triskeles (with three legs) or even treis (three) and akra (cliffs).


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