Sicily was a surprise to me when I visited last month. It’s amazingly green and lush. Not at all what I expected.
My mental image of Sicily was derived from watching the arid backdrop to the Montalbano TV series. Wrong 😉
I snapped this picture from our moving bus. It shows the road through the mountainous interior as we travelled from the airport at Catania in the east of the island to Palermo on the north coast.
And there was more. Lush citrus groves as shown left. Plus lots of olive trees and vineyards.
I arrived just at the beginning of the hot season. There wasn’t a spot of rain during the 10 days I was there and it was hot. So I can understand how the dry and dusty backdrop to Montalbano comes about.
History of Sicily?
Too complicated to describe in detail here. Except that, since Sicily was strategically important in the Mediterranean, all sorts of peoples strove to control it. It was colonised by, among others, the Phoenicians (also known as Carthaginians) and the Greeks. The two groups were rivals there from the 8th century BC.
The Greek temples were built of local limestone as there is no marble on Sicily. But costly marble was imported for parts of the frieze on the temple, as shown in the fragments here.
On the left, the marriage of Zeus and Hera; on the right, Actaeon dies, torn to pieces by dogs, after he had come upon Artemis bathing naked. (These and other metopes are to be found in the Palermo Museum.)
After the first Punic War (3rd century BC), Sicily became a Roman province, for seven centuries.
The Byzantine Empire reconquered the island in AD 535 and ruled for about 300 years. Saracens invaded in AD 827 and made Palermo their capital. They introduced many changes including new crops such as citrus, sugar, flax, cotton, silk and date palms. They also brought new art and architecture and learning. However, much of the population was still Byzantine Greek Christians. So Sicily had an amazing mixture of peoples and cultures.
Phew, quite a history. Then, in the 11th century AD came the Normans.
Who were the Normans?
The Normans are fascinating. To me, at least. We think of them as French — William the Conqueror and 1066 and all that — but actually they started as Vikings. They were pagan, they had little written culture apart from runes, and they spoke variants of the Old Norse language. And they travelled, and conquered, far and wide, as you can see below, including to modern Russia.
Vikings arrived in what we now call Normandy in the 9th century as raiders. By 911, as part of a treaty deal with the French king, the Viking leader, Rollo, converted to Christianity and promised to protect his new fiefdom of Normandy from further Viking raids.
A splendid irony, I’d say.
By the time of the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, the Normans spoke Norman-French rather than Old Norse and they were firm adherents of the Catholic religion.
But many of the Normans in Normandy were land-poor and so, in the 11th century, Norman knights roamed around Europe, selling their fighting services.
The Normans in southern Italy and Sicily
There seem to have been a lot of these Norman horsemen-for-hire. Often they were ruthless, brutal but very effective fighters. Such were the sons of Tancred de Hauteville, a minor Norman noble, many of whose twelve (!!) sons distinguished themselves enough to gain land and titles in southern Italy from about 1040 on. For Sicily, the key brothers were number 6, Robert Guiscard (= the Wily), and his much younger brother, Roger, number 12. The two maps below show the extent of the Norman conquest of southern Italy and Sicily between 1000 and 1084, shortly before Guiscard died.
Roger had been invested as Count of Sicily in 1072 by Robert Guiscard (who never returned to Sicily again). It took years of campaigning but, by 1091, Roger had completed the conquest of the island and ruled alone.
How Normans ruled: law, language and culture
It’s interesting to compare how the Vikings ruled in some of the differing areas they conquered. In Normandy, the incomers changed both their religion and their language. They became Christians, dropped Old Norse and adopted the local language which became Norman-French. They adopted many local customs, too, and developed French feudal ideas into the strict feudal hierarchy that was imposed there (and later in England).
In England, William the Conqueror did not adopt the local language. The language of power was Norman-French and generations of later Norman and Plantagenet kings spoke it. [It is still used to signify the Queen’s assent to laws: la reyne le veult.] William’s followers replaced the original Anglo-Saxon ruling class and the imposition of William’s power was brutal.
In Sicily, Roger I adopted a different approach. Unlike his compatriot in England, Roger didn’t have a single centralised system of administration that he could put his stamp on. Sicily had many varied systems of laws, depending on the religion and language of the various ethnic groups. So Roger let them all continue as they had been (provided they accepted he was in charge). Arabic was declared an official language, alongside Latin, Greek and Norman French. According to John Julius Norwich, in his very readable and much recommended account, The Normans in the South, 1016-1130:
“From 1072, the Great Count began to lay the foundations of a multiracial and polyglot state in which Norman, Greek and Saracen would, under a firmly-centralised administration, follow their own cultural traditions in freedom and concord.”
And if you have read any of the wonderful Mistress of the Art of Death series by Ariana Franklin, you will know that her doctor/pathologist heroine, Adelia Aguilar, comes from a multi-racial family in Norman-run southern Italy, having been educated at the medical school at Salerno. She works for England’s Henry II, one of whose daughters, Joan, married a later Norman King of Sicily.
Towards the golden age of Norman Sicily
Roger I had laboured for decades, on the battlefield, at sea, and in diplomacy, to secure Sicily and to help his brother, Guiscard, to secure southern italy.
Roger did not enjoy the fruits of his endeavours for long. He died in 1101, leaving two sons who were much too young to take up the reins. Their young mother, Adelaide (Roger’s third wife) became Regent for the new Count, Simon, aged only 8.
It appears she fulfilled her role well. She moved the family and court to Palermo and surrounded herself with able ministers who were mostly native Sicilians of Greek or Arab extraction. And she kept potentially troublesome Norman barons away from power (as Roger had done before her).
But then came a calamity: Simon died at the age of 12. The new Count of Sicily was Roger II, the younger son, aged only 9…
To be continued…
I intended this blog to be about the wonderful art and architecture I encountered in Sicily. You’ll have noticed that I haven’t got to any of that 😉
So there will be a follow-on to this blog, in which I will. And just to whet your appetite for what is to come, here is an image from the Capella Palatina, the chapel in the royal palace in Palermo that Roger II created.
Guy de Maupassant described it as “le plus surprenant bijou religieux rêvé par la pensée humaine.” [The most amazing religious jewel that a human being could imagine.]
And it is a jewel. Even for someone like me, who really dislikes blingy churches, this one is a gem.