Sicily has been invaded many times over the milenia. From the 7th century BC, the Greeks had ruled Sicily, and Byzantium regained Sicily from the Goths in 535 BC, while the Roman Empire continued in the east as Byzantium, with Constantinople as its capital. Other than the Goths, many more would tramp across its fertile soil, including the Phoenicians, Romans, Carthaginians (or Punic) settlers, who lost to the Romans in the Sicilian Wars of 265-146 BC, Vandals, Byzantine Christians, Byzantine Greeks, Muslim Arabs, Jews and Normans. It became a centre for cross-cultural exchange and made it a major European power. Under King Roger, an extraordinary mélange of Arab and Norman architecture emerged, as well as sculpture, jewellery, Norman mosaics and textiles, and Sicily was envied for its wealth and cultural patronage. There was a long period of Swabian rule by Frederick II of Hohenstaufen, which ended when the Pope gave Sicily to the House of Anjou, under Charles I, whose reign ended when the Sicilians revolted against the French in an uprising known as the Sicilian Vespers. The French were slaughtered in their hundreds. Foreign friars were dragged out and told to pronounce the word ‘ciciri’, meaning chickpeas, a sound the French could never accurately reproduce. If they couldn’t, they were slain. Long stagnant centuries of rule from the Spanish Bourbons ended when Garibaldi marched into Marsala in 1860 with a thousand men as part of Il Risorgimento, or the unification of Italy. The Allied troops invaded Sicily and chased the Nazis out of the island and up through Italy in 1943, and now the Germans are back, along with the Americans, British and other Europeans in a tourist invasion of epic proportions, although 70 per cent of all tourism is still domestic.
Sicily is a curious mixture of astonishing natural beauty, dreamy ruins, sensational art, a passion for food, a dazzlingly rich past and a poor, drab present, a legacy of years of neglect, corruption and abandonment. The rich industrial north and the poor agricultural south, is still a great divide. A hundred and fifty years ago, agriculture made up a large chunk of the economy, but mechanisation and then industrialisation dominated, and now it has moved into a service economy. Sicily has neither industrialisation nor a service economy, and farming is not performed on a large scale and is mostly subsistence, due to the difficult terrain, whereas, in the north, they have plenty of flat, arable land. Investors are reluctant to plough money into a declining economy with unemployment at an unprecedented percentage, and many of the young people have migrated north; a trend that has been apparent since after the First World War.
Where to start? Palermo is a good a place as any. It is laid out as though a town planner was about to present his wooden architectural model to the City Fathers, aldermen, merchants, bankers, clergy, developers, aristocrats and the great and good of Palermo in their finery, when he tripped on the carpet and all the buildings went flying. In his panic, he managed to get them all back on the board, but not in the order he originally intended. Baroque churches were hurriedly pushed next to a Norman-Arab-Byzantine style cathedral, grand eighteenth and nineteenth century buildings, in spacious palm-tree-lined squares, were shoe-horned next to sixteenth century oratoria, a gigantic opera house, the third largest in Europe, dropped into the middle of a rich residential area, a loveless marriage of Neoclassicism and Art Deco in the Mussolini-inspired modernist Post Office as a lasting example of Italian (or Fascist) Rationalism, plonked onto the wide thoroughfare of Via Roma, and little streets behind being squeezed evermore closely together, their ramshackle houses a patchwork of crumbling plaster, faded shutters and wrought-iron balconies flagged with washing, until they were too narrow even for a FIAT 500 Topolino. A second uprising known as the Italian Vespas occurs every evening as thousands of scooters swarm down the thoroughfares and up the back alleys of Palermo. “Vespa” in English is, of course, a wasp. The scooter scuderiace**, chase, over- and undertake each other, weaving in and out of the cars, buses and lorries at speeds that would have been respectable on the Isle of Man
In the narrow streets a few metres from the Via Roma, are two extraordinary churches. The Oratorio del SS. Rosario in Santa Cita is a jaw-dropping experience, and one that I was not prepared for. One climbs up a long flight of stone steps and along an open cloister above a courtyard in which an enormous carob tree grows, which was in full blossom of pink flowers, with a warty trunk which was swollen in the middle. The sight that greets one as one enters the chapel is a breathtaking floor-to-ceiling extravagance of white sculpture of angels, putti, musicians, scenes from the bible, martyrdoms of saints, ladies in period costume and battles, including that of Lepanto in which the Christian fleet, protected by Our Lady of the Rosary, beat the Turkish infidels. The floor is an intricate Moorish marble mosaic, around which are wooden benches in ebony inlaid with mother of pearl along the walls. Above the altar is magnificent painting of the Madonna del Rosario painted by the Late Baroque Classical artist Carlo Maratta. However, the astonishing fact about the sculptures is that they are all stucco, and the work of one man, Giacomo Serpotta, who was responsible for the magniloquence between 1685 and 1690. At the back of the the Church of Saint Dominic and a few hundred metres from Santa Cita, is the Oratorio del Rosario di San Domenico, also decorated by Serpotta, in a slightly more restrained manner, but with the addition of an altarpiece of another Madonna del Rosario surrounded by saints by Anthony van Dyck, commissioned during the period of the 1624 plague. A third example of Serpotta’s sumptuous embellishments is the Oratorio di San Lorenzo, completed in 1699, crowned with what should have been a stunning altarpiece by Caravaggio, Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence. Unfortunately, it was stolen, most likely by the Cosa Nostra in 1969, never to be seen again. In the pretty square just outside the church lies the Antica Focacceria San Francesco, founded in 1832, a bustling, slightly chaotic eaterie on three floors, packed with tourists and locals alike, with a mouthwatering choice of home-cooked food, including panelle,bucatini con sarde and linguini pistacchi gamberi. For 184 years the restaurant was popular with the rich and famous, royalty and mobsters, including high-ranking members of the Mafia, like ‘Lucky’ Luciano. Then, the local mob made the owner Vincenzo Conticello an offer he could not refuse. But refuse he did, and the restaurant was put under police guard. He testified against the man who had tried to extort pizzo (protection money), who was found guilty and sent to prigione, along with two hoodlum accomplices.
About 10 km from the centre of Palermo is the hillside town of Monreale, a shabby stack of panelák eastern bloc-style flats on the slope of Monte Caputo, overlooking the fertile valley of La Conca d’oro (the Golden Shell). At the north of the town is the cathedral, one of the greatest extant examples of Norman-Byzantine architecture in the world, completed in 1182 by William II, King of Sicily. The walls, columns and ceilings are completely covered with stunning mosaics with hundreds of thousands of gold tessarae, telling stories from the Bible, and the floor itself has an intricate Arab geometry reflecting Muslim spirituality laid out on a Byzantine plan. Before leaving Palermo, it seemed churlish not to visit the Gallery of Modern Art in Via Sant’Anna, showing off Italian art in general and Sicilian art in particular. The seascapes by Antonino Leto are sublime, and there is some excellent genre painting, like I carusi (The Young Workers) by Onofrio Tomaselli painted in 1905, but, by far the best works are sculpture. Ettore Ximines’ Ecce mater, 1936, and Pietro Canonica’s marble Le communicande are gems, and Domenico Trentacosta’s Faunetta, or “little fawn drinking from a bowl”, is a peach. Renato Gutoso, Sicily’s most famous artist, is also represented by a self-portrait and Nudo; he painted La Vucciria in 1974, which portrays a busy montage of the popular market, full of colour, fruit and carcases, which is close to Via Roma. Italy’s answer to John Singer Sargent, Giovanni Boldini, a society portrait painter, known as ‘The Master of Swish’, has two ‘loose’ paintings on display. Parts of the gallery, like Sicily itself, are excellent.