The island of Sicily floats regally in the centre of the Mediterranean Sea, a treasure trove for invaders over the centuries; Greeks, Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs, North Africans, Normans and Spanish all wanted to control this bountiful territory and benefit from its riches.
SAPPHIRE – The sparkling sapphire sea gently caressed the white sands of a crescent shoreline enchanting and intoxicating visitors in equal measure. The balmy delicious spring days and the vibrant warmth of autumn more than compensated for the relentless, stifling heat of high summer. For many this was the mid-point of the journey, a stopping off place. A welcoming port, a place to recover before the final voyage was undertaken. For some it became the final destination. Situated in the geographic centre of the Mediterranean Sea, Sicily’s beguiling charms were irresistible. A welcoming jewel, with sheltered harbours, nestling in the lee of the land.
BASALT – The richness of the land was extraordinary, a mountainous interior provided a gushing network of springs that danced across the hillsides and meandered down to the seashore, watering vegetable gardens, vineyards and orchards with divine generosity. The Romans regarded this land as their bread basket, delivering Sicilian wheat to the citizens of Rome. Ships loaded with grain plied the waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea bound for the ports of Ostia and Napoli. Beautifully preserved black and white mosaics still exist at Ostia Antica offering an artistic tribute to this vital trade. Dark, volcanic soils rich in minerals, slate grey rocks, snow-capped peaks, a monochrome palette of La Sicilia.
GREEKS and ROMANS – They all arrived here over the centuries, Greeks and Phoenicians, Romans and Arabs, Normans and Byzantians. As a tour guide in Ragusa Ibla once said to me, ‘Believe me Janet, nobody passed us by, nobody’. Friends, enemies, traders and migrants. Each leaving a unique footprint in this fertile terrain. The Greeks left temples on the south coast to rival those of Athens. The Greek port and trading colony of Siracusa on the east coast was the birthplace of Archimedes. A Greek theatre in Taormina with a stunning backdrop towards the sea and Mount Etna offered a little cultural entertainment. The Romans developed the Greek towns and built vast villas, elaborately decorated with frescoed walls and mosaic floors. When Verres was appointed Governor of Sicily he ruthlessly exploited and manipulated the local people. His corruption was so great that a delegation of Sicilians went to Rome and recruited Cicero, a young senator to plead their case against Verres. Cicero was successful and won the case. Verres was removed from office, and the case marked the start of an illustrious career as an orator for Cicero. For the Sicilians it was the start of millenia of abuse from external powers.
ARABS and NORMANS – As the Roman Empire declined Arab invasions from the east became more common. Sicily was occupied by various groups of traders from Byzantium. They left behind Arabic style churches that looked like mosques, decorated with clusters of ochre domes and surrounded by exotic gardens and palm trees. By the time the Normans arrived on Sicilian shores, allegedly at the request for help from a Byzantine nobleman struggling to keep locals and enemies at bay, there was an opportunity for a determined and ruthless ruling class to take control. The Normans decisively took charge. They extended and enlarged the spectacular Palazzo Normanni in Palermo, which became their official residence and centre of government. In 1130 Roger of Normandy’s son Roger II became King Ruggero II of Sicily. Sicily remained a kingdom until 1816 – almost seven hundred years. The Court of Ruggero II was an edifying place. There was religious tolerance, Christians, Arabs and Jews worked and collaborated together. The King employed the Arab geographer and map-maker Al Idrisi to create a detailed map of the world. It was completed in 1154. Known as the ‘Tabula Rogeriana’ the map was used by both Vasco da Gama and Columbus when they set off on their journeys to explore the seven seas. Visitors to the court commented on it’s cosmopolitan and liberal philosophy. At roughly the same time a botanical and medicinal garden was developed in Salerno, Southern Italy. This garden too was a shining beacon of tolerance and co-operation where medical experts of all religions, both men and women, worked together to expand our knowledge of disease and illness. Learning and understanding – The Medical School at Salerno
GOLDEN MOSAICS – The Normans left behind an exceptional artistic legacy of palaces and churches creating what is now known as the Arab-Norman style. One of the best examples of this artistic style is the Palazzo Normanni in Palermo, and the treasure chest of the Cappella Palatina which is a spectacular golden confection. Whilst a little to the east the Normans constructed the superb Cathedral of Cefalu with its absolutely jaw-dropping apse mosaic of Christ. John Julius Norwich, art historian, described it as ‘….the most sublime work I’ve ever looked upon..’
TREASURE – To prove my Sicilian tour guide friend completely right with her words, ‘Believe me Janet, nobody passed us by, but nobody’, the next group of colonisers to arrive in Sicily came from Aragon. They were the Aragonese and they hailed from eastern Spain, the territory running from Valencia up to Barcelona. These visitors saw Sicily as a treasure chest just waiting to be emptied straight into their pockets. Often these military types claimed to be ‘on their way to the Crusades‘ or perhaps ‘just passing through’. Although any Crusader with any sanity whatsoever knew exactly what awaited them in the Middle East and the ferocity of their opponents. Consequently, a glimpse of Sicily’s green and fertile land and the richness and diversity of the culture provided endless excuses to remain in Sicily and be part of the throughly agreeable Court of the Kingdom. Later the Bourbons arrived, also from Spain. They stayed in Sicily until the 19th century (almost five hundred years). The Bourbons ruled Naples, Sicily and the Duchy of Parma, in Northern Italy.
A RICH TAPESTRY OF GREEN AND GOLD created the most exotic and luxurious of interiors in the palaces of Palermo. A captivating combination of golden mosaics from the Norman period fused with the verdant green of the Sicilian vegetation. A perfect example is the spectacular and enormous Palazzo Gangi, a sprawling historic palace in the heart of the city. It was here in the gigantic ballroom that scenes from the film ‘Il Gattopardo’ The Leopard were filmed. This ridiculously lavish and opulent room, in a private palace, epitomises the over-the-top extravagance of Sicilian style. A slightly surreal concoction of Arabic, Norman, African and Spanish bound together in the Mediterranean sun to create a bizarre and unique tableau. Against this backdrop the aristocratic blue-blooded families of Sicily danced their final steps, as the rumbles of revolution thundered through Europe and the gene pool available to them became increasingly small and uninspiring. Amongst the Counts and Countesses of Sicily, beauty and intelligence, sparkling wit and charm were not in abundance in the final years of the 19th century. In the words of Stefania Auci in her fabulous novel ‘I Leoni di Sicilia’ talking of the aristocratic families of Palermo she writes: ‘..quelle nobili ragazze – poco piu che bambine – nate in famiglia in ciu il cugino si sposava con la cugina e lo zio con la nipote, e che non brillavano mai per intelligenza, e spesso neppure la bellezza..’
BLUE BLOODED aristocrats, enfeebled by years of in-breeding were coming under threat from business men and entrepreneurs, people who, horror of horrors earned a living and even worse, made money through hard work, intelligence, effort and diligence. The winds of change were blowing through nineteenth century Europe, from France to Spain and throughout Italy. Rioting and revolution were in the air. A new generation of wealthy industrialists were shifting the balance of power and challenging the traditional values of society. In Sicily families like the Inghams, Whitakers and Florios became increasingly powerful, buying and selling goods, creating trading empires and even buying ships. As trade developed and expanded, the industrialists became more and more influential and increasingly wealthy. They employed architects to design and build impressive houses for them. Properties that conveyed their wealth and taste to their fellow citizens. Carlo Giachery was an architect and mathematician, he taught at the University of Palermo. A friend and confidant of Vincenzo Florio – he designed and created the exceptional Villa Quattro Pizzi at Arenella, next door to the tuna warehouse and processing plant owned by the Florio family. The unique design of ‘Quattro Pizzi’ featured four towers, intricate stone carving and arched windows, creating a Sicilian Gothic style reminiscent of the lace work (pizzo) popular at the time.
PALERMO in the 19th century was a cosmopolitan, dynamic commercial centre, trading with most of Western Europe, especially France, Spain and the British Isles. The city had a huge natural harbour and a range of resources that foreigners wanted to buy. Traders expanded and speculated, buying and selling goods from all over the Mediterranean. Herbs and spices, quinine, cotton, sulphur, tuna and lace. Any goods that could be imported or exported generated profit for the merchants that handled the goods. Marsala wine was exported from Sicily to the British Isles and English traders grew wealthy on the proceeds. The Ingham and Whitaker families married into Sicilian nobility, securing their positions in Palermo society. Anxious to establish themselves in terms of style and taste they built elegant villas. This was the dawn of ‘liberty style’ in Sicily effectively Italy’s version of ‘art nouveau’.
ARTISTS like Ettore De Maria Bergler with his charming, romantic and pastoral style, thrived in this atmosphere of commerce and business, where wealthy Palermitani hired him to decorate their newly built villas. He worked extensively in the palaces and public buildings of Palermo in the 1890s and early years of the 20th century. If he’d been born in Britain he would surely have been a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Bergler worked at the Villa Igeia, now a grand hotel, and at the aptly named Teatro Massimo, where he decorated the wonderful Sala Pompeiana. He was also commissioned to paint elegant frescoed interiors at Villa Whitaker and charming portraits of the ladies of the family Delia and Norina.
SICILY has always been a cornucopia of colours and light, an island that captivated visitors to her shores. From the wines of Marsala to the tuna catches of the late 19th century, Sicily was a land of riches from both land and sea. A prize in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, a land of opportunity and possibility for so many. Home to the ‘Liberty Style’ of art which combined quite magically the luminosity of the sun’s rays with the beauty of the Sicilian landscape. A veritable feast for the eyes.
- Sicily’s rich and colourful past has generated numerous books, films and stories. I’d strongly recommend the superb novel “Il Gattopardo’ by Giuseppe di Lampedusa. A wonderful story of a wealthy Prince coming to terms with changes in Sicily and the unification of Italy at a time when he is coming to the end of his life. Made into a wonderful film starring Burt Lancaster. Sicily in the Movies
- ‘I Leoni di Sicilia’ is a wonderful historical novel by Stefania Auci, published by Editrice Nord in June, 2019. It describes the rise of the Florio Family in Palermo, as they built their business in the 19th century. Fantastically written, evocative and compelling. Published in English in June, 2020. https://www.amazon.co.uk/I-leoni-Sicilia-Stefania-Auci/dp/8842931535
- Cefalu is a delightful little town on the north coast of Sicily. Read more here Cefalu, Sicily – a smart little waterfront town
- Other articles about Sicily by Educated Traveller: Palermo, Sicily – discovering the unknown unknown…
- In September 2021 I will be leading a small group tour to Sicily. It will be a 10 day (9 night) trip featuring Val di Noto, Cefalu and Palermo. There’ll be more details at: www.grand-tourist.com
- Ettore de Maria Bergler – a brief biography from http://www.Arte.it: Bio – Uno dei principali esponenti della pittura Liberty d’inizio Novecento, Bergler fu allievo di Antonino Leto e di Francesco Lojacono. Palermo fu la culla del suo operato artistico. Famosi sono i suoi ritratti di Delia e Norina Whitaker e di donna Franca Florio. Autore di ritratti e paesaggi, collaborò, tra le varie opere, alla decorazione del Teatro Massimo di Palermo (palco reale, soffitto della sala degli spettacoli e sala pompeiana) tra il 1899 e il 1900, dietro incarico di Ernesto Basile e nella stessa città realizzò, nel 1908, la sala da pranzo di Villa Igiea. Sempre insieme a Ernesto Basile e Vittorio Ducrot, collaborò a decorazioni e mobili del liberty palermitano. Tra il 1903 e il 1910 decorò i soffitti di alcuni piroscafi della Società Navale Italiana “Florio & Rubattino”. Insegnante di pittura figurativa presso l’Accademia di Belle Arti di Palermo tra il 1913 e il 1931, ebbe tra i suoi allievi anche il futuro pittore Michele Dixitdomino.