Sicily: Island of Beauty and Conflict

Sicily: Island of Beauty and Conflict


The author opens his book with a quote from Winston Churchill writing about the Balkans, ‘They produce more history than they can consume,’ underlining the problems facing any writer trying to bottle the essence of Sicily. He cites beauty, conflict, civilisation and chaos as being the four ingredients that define the island. He has split his book into four main headings, namely History, Cities, Ancient Sites and Artists.

The history is told in quite a dry way, secco, rather than dolce, with outbursts of colour, interspersed with lists of monarchs, princes, emperor, emirs, governors, archbishops and barons, all jostling for position in this most fluid of kingdoms, as invasion after invasion is watched by its incredulous inhabitants like an unfolding pageant. After the Normans left, Frederick II was the most powerful monarch in Europe, being Holy Roman Emperor, King of Germany, Jerusalem and Sicily, and he ruled his empire until his death in 1250. The French had a session of rule but were thrown off the island by the Spanish, who controlled it until the arrival of Garibaldi in 1860. It is a complex scenario, and Dummett does well to tabulate events. There is a large gap in the narrative until Domenico Caracciolo becomes viceroy, appointed by the Bourbon King Ferdinand in 1781, and his attempts at reform were met with a solid barrier by the aristocracy who controlled the island’s wealth through their large estates, the latifondi, which were worked by peasants to produce the grain, which had long been Sicily’s main export. The author references Giuseppi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, published in 1958, which was set in Garibaldi’s Risorgimento campaign and, for whom, the main protagonist Prince Fabrizio di Salina, change was not welcome. Tancredi, the Prince’s nephew, comes up with the quotable line: ‘If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.’

The outbreak of the French Revolution, followed by the Napoleonic Wars, put a hold on any kind of land reform, and Bourbon rule in Sicily was suspended as Britain became involved in the island through the presence of Nelson’s fleet in the Mediterranean, and the island became a British Protectorate. Garibaldi certainly brought change, landing in Marsala with his troops and liberating Sicily from the beastly Bourbons. There were revolutions in Palermo, Naples, Rome, Venice and Florence in 1848, as well as in France, the German states and Central Europe. They were fuelled, as Dummett states, ‘by a common desire among citizens for more participation in government and an end to authoritarian rule.’ Ultimately, the revolution failed to rid the island of Bourbon rule, but it paved the way for Garibaldi’s successful campaign in 1860.

Amongst the, mainly British, wine merchants who ran the Marsala trade, he mentions the illustrious Sicilian Florio family, including Vincenzo, but no mention of the motor race he implemented, the Targa Florio, in 1906, which would become one of the most famous and testing races in the world, rivalling the Mille Miglia and Le Mans, both of which were not started until the 1920s. He tells us twice that the townhouse in Palermo of one of the British wine merchants building up a flourishing Marsala businesses, Benjamin Ingham, is today the Grand Hotel et des Palmes, opposite to which he built an Anglican chapel. According to Dummett, he was the richest man in Sicily, if not Italy. It was not just the British who ‘invaded’ Sicily. Before these entrepreneurs, the island was settled, invaded and governed by Sicans, Sicels, Elymians (three of the ancient indigenous Sicilian tribes), Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Vandals, Goths, Byzantine Greeks, Arabs, Normans, Germans (twice), French, Spaniards, Austrians, British, Americans and Italians.

More repetition in the narrative, this time with the Marsala merchant John Woodhouse, who, having had a chapter all to himself, crops up again in a piece on Marsala, the city, with another reference to Nelson placing a large order for his fleet. He also makes reference to the city of Mazara del Vallo, a fishing town along the coast from Marsala, but does not mention the truly spectacular find by fishermen just off the coast in 1998. Along with the octopus and sardines in their nets, they found a bronze statue of a dancing satyr from a depth of 500m, which experts at first thought was by the Greek artist Praxitales, although it is now thought to be a Roman copy from the 2nd century. It is a thing of remarkable beauty, and was on display, first in Rome, then at the RA, headlining their Bronze exhibition in 2012, then at the Louvre, and now has its own dedicated museum in the town.

For the artists, Dummett concentrates on eight painters, sculptors and architects, including Antonella da Messina and Antonello Gagini from the Renaissance period, four Baroque artists – the great Caravaggio, Pietro Novelli, the spectacular Giacomo Serpotta and Rosarion Gagliardi – the Belle Époque architect Ernesto Basile and the twentieth-century painter Renato Guttuso, a powerhouse of an artist, who came to a wider audience by illustrating Elizabeth David’s Italian Food. These are, for me, the best essays in the book, but, again there is a strange omission. There is no mention of the Galleria d’Arte Moderna in via Sant’Anna, Palermo, which houses some fine paintings by Sicilian artists, including a selfie by Guttuso

Sicily: Island of Beauty and Conflict

Jeremy Dummett

Taurus Parke

314 pp. £20

ISBN 978-1-8386-0216-1

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