Sicily is the biggest island in the Mediterranean Sea, in the southernmost part of Italy, opposite ‘the toe of the boot’. The island is separated from the Calabrian mainland by the Strait of Messina, which is only two miles wide. Most of the island is mountainous, with permanently snow-capped volcanic Etna dominating everything.
Wide plains are found in the south, though the region is still hilly in parts. Here vineyards, olive and almond trees are in abundance, though agriculture is difficult due to extremes of heat, damp and cold. To the north are the volcanic islands of Ustica and the Liparis, as well as Stromboli, the most continuously active volcano in Europe.
Phoenicians founded trading posts in Sicily in the 8th century BC, while the Greeks were colonising the east and southern coasts. From the 5th to the 3rd centuries BC there was more or less permanent conflict between Carthage and the Greeks, based in Syracuse. These two hundred years of battle are reflected in much of the island’s history. Many fortifications were built and destroyed; ruins still visible.
In 246 BC the first of the Punic Wars (q.v.) began, between Carthage and Rome. Within six years Sicily was under the total control of Rome, and stayed as such until it was first occupied by Vandals and then Ostrogoths.
The Byzantine Empire under Belisarius occupied Sicily in 535 AD and ruled until the 9th century when they were replaced as overlords by the Arabs, though many bloody battles were required. It is no wonder Sicilians contain so much violence in the psyche. However, and not withstanding the cruel, prolonged and vicious fighting, the Arabs were comparatively benevolent after they had won, and under their regime the city of Palermo flourished.
Peace for the people of Sicily could not last long. After the Arabs came the Normans! Sicily was linked to the Kingdom of Naples from 1139. The Normans failed in Sicily where they had triumphed in England (see William I of England, ‘the Conquerer’), for the Angevins – from a different part of France – replaced them, and in 1282 the infamous ‘Sicilian Vespers’ (featured in this post) took place. There then followed more than five centuries of rule from Aragon and the Spanish kings of Naples and Sicily.
In 1799 Naples was occupied by a French revolutionary force and King Fernando IV of Naples and Sicily found refuge in Palermo, which was then under British protection! Fernando sailed to Naples under the watchful eye of Nelson himself in June. He immediately ordered the killing of one hundred Napolitanos accused of collaborating with the French. This mass execution did not endear him to Naples, and in 1806 he had to flee to Sicily again, when Napoleon Bonaparte established first his brother Joseph, then Murat (q.v.) as Kings of Naples.
The period that followed is properly remembered for enlightenment, and the gradual whittling away of the traditional powers of the old Sicilian aristocracy. The student is advised to read Lampedusa, who wrote about precisely this period of Sicilian history through the eyes of an ancient noble family, in the form of novels.
Highly recommended is The Leopard. If you cannot find a copy of the book, the film made of it by Luchino Visconti is most acceptable and accurate and features Mr B. Lancaster playing Prince Lampedusa himself.
Under relentless pressure from London, Fernando issued a Constitution in 1812, creating a Parliament in the British style, though the old aristocracy began to regain ground despite the new constitution. In 1815 Fernando became Fernando I, King of the Two Sicilies, but his repressive regime was most unpopular, as indeed was that of his successor, Fernando II. The island kingdom became the nucleus of nationalist societies searching (and if necessary fighting) for Italian unification.
There was an uprising in Naples in 1820, and the first of Italy’s Revolutions of 1848 took place in Palermo. Garibaldi (q.v.) and his army came ashore at Marsala in 1860, and soon defeated Fernando II in a sanguinary battle near his palace at Caserta. The Kingdom of Sicily voted by plebiscite (or referendum) to join the rest of the Kingdom of Italy in October, 1861.
Many thousands of Sicilians left Italy in the last forty years of the 19th century to seek a new life in the United States. Some, but by no means all took with them the ancient traditions of omerta (silence), the Camorra and various coloured Hands.
Firmly established in New York and Chicago at first, later in Florida, the organised crime syndicates presented the United States with the phenomenon of Catholic businessmen with a wholly Sicilian background, ready and willing to react with violence when their pride was insulted or their word mistrusted. The interested student can do no better than watch the chronological version made of his own film production The Godfather by Francis Ford Coppola. It begins with the utter poverty of little Vito’s family, and what forces him to emigrate.
The extraordinary thing about ‘The Mafia’ is that entirely Sicilian traditions about family pride, deadly revenge, religious conviction, and eccentric business methods were brought from the Mediterranean to a virgin country by groups of Sicilians who became American without ever stopping being Sicilian. It is a phenomenon devoutly to be observed.
The ‘Sicilian Vespers’
On Easter Monday in 1282 something happened during the celebration of Vespers in a parish church in Palermo. A crowd gathered outside the church of San Espiritu, incensed by King Charles I, an Angevin monarch, whose regime was to put it euphemistically, oppressive. Some French soldiers who had been attending Vespers were attacked and killed by outraged Sicilians. Word spread rapidly, and the people of Palermo ran out into the streets looking for a Frenchman or woman to kill. More than 2000 French inhabitants were eliminated during the night of March 30/31.
As always happens in these cases, historians discovered that the revolt or massacre was not a surprise, especially for Peter III of Aragon, Charles’ rival for the Neapolitan throne, who had been plotting such an insurrection. It happened prematurely, but was rapidly followed by the arrival of Aragonese troops and the War of the Sicilian Vespers ensued. On the side of the Angevins were the Pope, the Italian Guelfs and Philip III of France, while the Italian Ghibellines rushed to the aid of the Aragonese. It ended with the Treaty of Anagni (June, 1295) whereby Peter III’s son acceded to the throne of Aragon as James II, and peace was made with the papacy, France and the Angevins, while James gave up Sicily. The Sicilians for their part took as their king James’s brother Frederick III, who finally got the kingdom to himself in the Peace of Catabellota (1302) which began a long period of Spanish rule in the island.