In ancient times, Sicily was covered with extremely rich farmland, whose copious wheat harvests fed virtually the entire western part of the Roman Empire. Its thick forests were renowned, but the Romans plundered them to build their great naval fleets and the myriad wooden homes that fueled Neros infamous fire. As an eerie harbinger of what could become our own fate, Sicily is now a mostly barren and arid land.
Like much of southern Italy, Sicily has been the ground upon which the boots of Western civilization have trod. Palermo was founded by Phoenicians who sailed there from their native Carthage; the Greeks colonized the whole island, leaving some of the most beautiful and best-preserved temples they ever built at Agrigento, Selinunte and Segesta. Around those glorious sites they planted Sicilys first olive trees and grape vines.
Traces of the ensuing Roman period can be found in the amphitheatres at Taormina and Siracusa, as well as in that citys Christian catacombs, but perhaps Romes most lasting (and infamous) contribution to the island came in fostering the great land ownerships which eventually impoverished the peasantry and led, many centuries later, to the founding of secret societies aimed at destroying the fabulously wealthy landlords. In Palermo, these groups were known as mafia.
As elsewhere in the Empire, the Romans were replaced by the Vandals and the Ostrogoths, who demolished far more than they built (one rare example is the villa of Piazza Armerina) and were swept away by the Byzantines. The Arabs who followed them moved the capitol from Siracusa to Palermo, renamed most of the existing towns, and planted the first carobs, date-palms, citrus trees, jasmines and melons.
The Normans took over in 1061. They tore down almost all signs of Arab culture, brought the island to a new level of prosperity and planted a different kind of seed, still visible today in the blonde and red tresses of many Sicilians. It is to the Normans that we owe the most spectacular of Sicilys architectural treasures, from the cathedrals of Cefalý, Messina and Monreale to Palermos Zisa and Cuba, the churches of San Giovanni degli Eremiti, San Cataldo and the Martorana.
Under the realm of Frederick II, the Swabian king, Sicily became one of the centers of the Western world, and perhaps it is not surprising that the principal architectural endeavors of this era, which lasted only from 1220 to 1250, were of a military nature, such as the castles in Siracusa, Catania and Salemi. When Frederick died in 1250, his successor Manfred was murdered by the ruthless Charles of Anjou, whose French allies streamed into the island and established a new aristocracy so despised that it led to the popular uprising called the Sicilian Vespers.
Eventually, in 1302, the French gave way to the Aragonese (part of the same dynasty which sponsored Christopher Columbus), who dominated until 1734. The aristocracy created during this realm left their magnificent homes, such as Palermos Palazzo Sclafani and Palazzo Chiaramonte, scattered all over the island. The Aragonese clergy, while wielding the heavy arm of the Inquisition, effectively conspired to keep almost all artistic traces of the Renaissance out of the island.
Ironically, the earthquake that devastated the southeastern provinces in 1693 became the springboard for Sicilys most glorious period, the baroque. It gleams in the cities and towns of Palermo, Catania, Siracusa, Ragusa, Noto, Comiso, Scicli and dozens more, all of which had to be rebuilt from the ground up.
After the Aragonese, Sicily passed briefly into the hands of the Austrians, to be willingly rescued in 1734 by the Bourbons of Spain, whose throne was actually located in Naples. During one forced exile in Palermo, the Bourbon king Ferdinands wife Maria Carolina (sister of Marie Antoinette) built La Favorita, a magnificent refuge in which to hide from the subjects she thoroughly loathed. Sicily remained in Bourbon hands until 1861, when unification created the Kingdom of Italy.
Heavily bombed during World War Two, shaken again in 1968 by another earthquake, ravaged in recent decades by organized crime, Sicily remains what it has always been: a spectacular land of rugged mountains, golden wheat fields and rocky coasts inhabited by a fiercely independent people who bring passion to everything they do, be it a religious celebration or a holiday dinner.
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