Mediterranean history - under the volcano
The Invention of Sicily. By Jamie Mackay.
Sicily beguiles. It offers coves with limpid water; Greek temples, such as those at Agrigento and Segesta, that are among the best preserved in the Mediterranean; a Roman amphitheatre at Taormina still used for its original dramatic purpose; grandiose Baroque palazzi; bustling street markets; some of the best food to be had in Italy; an expanding range of fine wines at reasonable prices; and a cathedral in Palermo that is a riot of eclecticism. Etna on a spring morning, still capped with snow and belching smoke, is among Europe’s greatest sights.
The ancient Greeks saw Sicily as rich and fertile yet “dangerous and unpredictable”. For Jamie Mackay, author of this brief and pacey history of the island, their perception reflected a dual view of Sicily that would be expressed in different forms up to the present day. In Mr Mackay’s telling, a tipping-point arrived at the dawn of the 14th century after several hundred years of relatively enlightened rule by Byzantine Greeks, Arabs and Normans. The uprising that came to be known as the Sicilian Vespers sparked a war that led to the expulsion of the island’s French rulers. But it is only too characteristic of Sicily’s ill fortune that this popular victory should ultimately have had such dismal effects.
Sovereignty over an ethnically and religiously diverse island passed, via the rulers of Aragon and Catalonia, to those of a newly unified Spain, obsessed with confessional uniformity and, by implication, racial purity. Sicily became an outlying territory in an empire that favoured traditional social arrangements and a profoundly conservative form of Catholicism. For almost 400 years, Mr Mackay notes, Sicily had been governed by an urban elite in Palermo. “Following the Vespers, though, power moved progressively away from these individuals, and into the hands of rural landowners and church authorities.”