Jeremy Dummett is a lover of history, a dedicated Italophile and a frequent visitor to Sicily. It was while on a trip to Syracuse in 2005 that the seeds of an idea were planted.
Dummett became interested in the history of ancient Siracusa, he discovered an immense amount of literature referring to this city and found no recent publications about this amazingly rich place in English, and so Syracuse: City of Legends (I.B Taurus, London 2010) was born.
The book offers us a wonderfully complete insight into ancient Greek Syracuse, with many exciting links to historical figures such as Socrates, Plato, Archimedes and Cicero.
The city of legends places Syracuse firmly in the timeline of history with exciting insights into Roman Sicily, the early Catholic church, the Byzantine and Arab periods and an intriguing look at Caravaggio’s connection to the city.
The book is divided into two parts, the first dedicated to the history of Syracuse and a second part which is a general guide to the city where Dummett gives us the benefit of his extensive knowledge as a frequent visitor.
Syracuse: City of legends is both an excellent general history of Sicily, a resource for anyone wanting to know more about this place from its origins to recent times and a general tourist guide for first-time visitors.
I recall visiting the Baroque city of Noto last year which is near Syracuse and asking around at many bookstores for a good general history book about this city, but I only managed to find one in Italian which was an architectural book about the project to rebuild the city after a major earthquake in 1693.
Dummett has also published another book about Palermo.
I did a brief email interview with him last year as he was launching his new book where we talked more about this work.
Tell us about your first book Syracuse: City of Legends.
It tells the story of Syracuse, from its foundation by Greeks in the eighth century BC up to modern times, combined with a survey of the monuments. It is the first historical guide to the city.
Why Syracuse? What brought you to this place for the subject of a book?
The book developed out of several visits to Sicily, staying in Syracuse. I could find no book that told the story of the city, which is filled with monuments from different eras. The atmosphere of the place struck my imagination. Back in London, I started research out of curiosity which led to a draft for the book.
And you now have a new book about Palermo, tell us about this new work and how the two places are similar or do they have different personalities?
My book on Palermo follows the same format, so it is another historical guide. The two cities could hardly be more different, geographically or historically. Syracuse was famous in antiquity, as one of the great Greek cities, equal in size to Athens. Palermo was famous in the Middle Ages when it took over from Syracuse as the leading city of Sicily. The Arabs made it their capital of the island in the ninth century AD. The modern cities have very different personalities. Syracuse is primarily a tourist destination. Palermo is the hectic capital of Sicily, the centre of government for the island, a commercial centre and university town, as well as a tourist destination.
What is the most fascinating element of Syracuse and Palermo you want to share with us?
Syracuse: an ancient Greek harbour city, built in golden sandstone. Later it was a centre for early Christianity. There are clear links to the ancient Greek civilisation in the cathedral, which was built around a Greek temple, in the archaeological museum and the Euryalus castle. The early Christians are remembered by the extensive catacombs.
Palermo: a medieval city of the Arabs and Normans, capital of the powerful kingdom of Sicily, which has retained a strong North African feel. Later it became the baroque city ruled by Spanish viceroys. Links to the Arab-Norman civilisation can be seen in the cathedral, the Palatine chapel, Monreale, the Zisa and the Martorana. The baroque style dominates the city, to be seen in churches, palaces and public squares.
Why do you think people are so fascinated by Sicily?
It offers a unique combination of attractions. As an island, it has stunning natural beauty, to which generations have added spectacular urban architecture. The history, monuments and literature are all of outstanding interest. It is very varied by region, with something for everyone. The combination of ancient ruins, sparkling beaches, unspoilt countryside and wonderful food is hard to beat. Not being overdeveloped means that a holiday in Sicily is still something of an adventure.
Sicily has such a complex history, how did you manage to navigate through its immense history? Tell us a bit about the Sicilian history you discovered.
I concentrated upon one city at a time, which makes the task more manageable. Most books on Sicily follow the format set in the eighteenth century by writers such as Goethe, which involve a tour around the island. By concentrating on one city, the history, though still complex, is continuous and easier to follow. Sicily has such great regional differences that you really need to look at each region, or city, in turn.
What’s your own personal link to Sicily, how have you found your way to this place?
Purely by visiting Sicily and becoming fascinated by it. Sicily and Italy, in general, is currently going through an economic and political decline, are you at all concerned about how this could affect historically important cities like Syracuse and Palermo, what is your opinion of the current situation.
The current economic crisis is very apparent and difficult to manage. On the plus side, it is concentrating minds on how to develop in the future. There is huge potential in both cities for increased cultural tourism.
Syracuse seems already to be reaping the benefits of increased numbers of visitors. In Palermo, improvements continue to be made to make the city more attractive to visitors. Central areas such as Piazza San Domenico are now free of traffic while La Cala, the old port, has a walkway around it with new bar-restaurants from which to view the yachts and fishing boats. A clear way forward is emerging from a very difficult period.
What would you like people to get out of your books, what was the reason behind them?
I would like readers to understand what these cities are about, their backgrounds, their stories and how they relate to the monuments to be seen today. No such books currently exist which was the reason for writing them.
You have an academic background tell us a little about your professional life.
See bio on my website.
Are there any other interesting projects you are currently working on that you want to tell us about?
Not yet! I am still working on the follow up to the launch of my Palermo book.
Thanks so much to Jeremy Dummett for finding the time to answer my questions. Molto gentile. I love your book and on behalf do all of your readers I thank you for writing it, as it has enriched our knowledge of Sicily.