Leonforte at the beating heart of Sicily

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Goethe once said to have seen Italy without having seen Sicily is not to have seen Italy at all, for Sicily is the clue to everything. But in order to understand Sicily you need to go to its geographical centre because the key to the island’s identity is there. The province of Enna is known as the belly button of Sicily and is the home of the island’s most ancient traditions.

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The town of Leonforte casually rests upon the Erei mountains of central Sicily, only about thirteen miles from the main provincial capital of Enna. Today it is a beautiful municipality surrounded by a scenic countryside. It’s an idealistic tranquil place like many other communities all around the island where everyday life rambles on without much fuss or bother and the locals tend to forget about the outside world, happily going through the rituals of daily life in Sicily.

The provinces of Enna and Caltanissetta have always been a source of great strategical importance in the island’s history and have been the backdrop to many battles and skirmishes throughout history. Together with its immense agricultural wealth and fertility, the heart of the island has always been more savage or untamed, its landscape isolates it from the coast, yet it has always been inhabited from prehistoric times.

Before the founding of modern Leonforte the area was home to the ancient city of Tabas or Tavaca which became an important base during the Muslim conquest of the island from 827 to 902 A.D. The Arab invaders from North Africa saw the island as an earthly paradise. The central province of Enna became a Muslim stronghold for generations together with many other major Sicilian cities such as Palermo and Syracuse.

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Sicily was essentially an Arab Emirate from 831 to 1091 A.D after an extended struggle with the late Roman Byzantine Empire lasting nearly four hundred years. In an extraordinary piece of Sicilian history, for two hundred years the island became a multicultural society which blended together both Arab and Byzantine elements of life.

The new Arab rulers initiated land reforms increasing productivity and encouraging the growth of small estates, by introducing elaborate irrigation systems which tapped into the island’s abundant underground water supply, bringing water to areas which once suffered from drought. The introduction of crops like oranges, lemons, pistachio and sugarcane by North African Muslims also improved Sicily’s agriculture and added new elements to Sicilian cuisine. 

The local population conquered by the Muslims were Romanized Catholic Sicilians in Western Sicily and Greek-speaking Christians in the eastern half of the island. Christianity and Judaism were tolerated under Muslim rule but were subject to some restrictions as to where they could practice their rites and were obliged to pay religious based taxes.

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The gradual breakdown of Muslim rule in Sicily began in the 11th and 12th centuries as a series of Norman Kings began to push the Arabs out of Sicily. The Norman period, however, continued to be multi-ethnic in nature. Normans, Jews, Muslim Arabs, Byzantine Greeks, Lombards and native Sicilians lived in relative harmony. 

Arabic was the official language of government and administration for at least a century into Norman rule and traces remain in contemporary Sicilian and Maltese. Under the guidance of the royal court of Frederick the second of Sicily Italy’s first school of poetics was born, anticipating the Tuscan Renaissance. Muslims also maintained their domination of industry, retailing and production, while Muslim artisans with expert knowledge in government and administration were highly sought after.

After many centuries under the influence of Middle Eastern and North African culture and religion, Sicily began another epic transformation under a succession of staunchly Catholic French Norman Kings who all struggled with endless battles throughout the island to push out other foreign dominations. At Leonforte one ancient folktale recounts how the local river was tainted blood red during brutal wars between the Saracens and Normans to control the heartlands of Sicily.

In the succession of thirteen different invaders of Sicily’s history the Normans were surpassed by the German Hohenstaufen’s, then the French house of Anjou and eventually the Aragonese House of Barcelona who gradually transformed Sicily’s culture over the course of two centuries. The Roman Catholic Church gradually became a part of the culture and forced Sicilian Muslims to be expelled from the island.

Branciforte

The town of Leonforte was later founded by the Branciforti, a legendary Sicilian noble family, whose founding father, Obizzo gained his knightly title and name after heroically holding up the flag of the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne in the battle to expel the German Lombards from Italy.

The first member of this Sicilian aristocratic family is credited as literally holding up the royal flag despite losing both of his hands in a grotesque mutilation. This heroic action earned himself and his family the name of Branciforte, in honour of his strong arms who helped to hold up the cause of  Charles the Great’s campaign to unite Europe after the fall of the Western Roman Empire.

Leonforte together with Scordia in Catania province and Niscemi at Caltanissetta were all founded around the same time in the 1600’s as part of a project to colonise central Sicily with a conscious focus on town development, infrastructure and agriculture.

Building upon what had been left behind from past foreign inhabitants the Branciforte positioned Leonforte on the same strategic position on the internal Altesina mountains as the Arabs had used to divide the island into its three historical valleys which are still used to define the geography of the island today. From the Val Demone in the east at Catania, to the Val di Mazzara of Ragusa and Syracuse in the south and the Val di Noto in the west from Trapani to Palermo.

Prince Nicolò Placido Branciforti literally built the town from the ground up, his family gradually constructing a castle, a parish church, convent, gardens and several water fountains. Leonforte developed under the flag of the Braciforte with its regal crowned lion, holding onto the royal French Lily adorned flag, complete with two severed front paws in the foreground as a testament to the family’s heroic founder.

The town’s name reflects its connection to the Sicilian nobility and its iconic coat of arms. Leonforte flourished and developed under the rule of the Braciforte and today it is well known for its agriculture from its mouth-watering peaches, fava beans, olive oil, citrus, terracotta products and cheeses.

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Of all of the historical treasures of Leonforte, the one which the locals are most proud of is their baroque Granfonte water fountain, which is at the centre of their civic and cultural history. Built on the ruins of an earlier Arab fountain known as the Fonte di Tavi, it is connected to a complex irrigation system of pipes, mills and smaller fountains which go down into the valley and was once used for the irrigation of the surrounding countryside and a now lost botanical garden.

The fountain built in 1652 was designed by prominent Palermo architect and painter Marino Smiriglio, whose works are dotted around the island and include Palermo’s central Quattro Canti at the intersection which connects the four main neighbourhoods of the Sicilian capital.

The Granfonte or 24 Cannola as it is known locally is a grandiose succession of twenty-two archways and twenty-four bronze spouts which gush out water into a series of sandstone basins once used as a public wash house, fountain and marketplace in a main square of the town. The archways are elaborate frames filled with ornamentation and inscriptions, spiral shaped stones and two lion carvings on either side which quote the coat of arms of the ever-present Braciforte.

A little over 74 feet long and 8 deep the Granfonte is imposing and faces out to the original entrance of the old town at the Palermo gates, which lead to the original trade route towards the Sicilian capital. This theatrical backdrop of water quotes influences from the historical papal gardens of Tivoli outside of Rome to the Flemish fountains of Amsterdam and is literally at the heart of the city’s civic and religious history.

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Public fountains in Sicily were used up until the early 1900’s and were an important focal point of everyday lives. Daily trips to gather water, wash clothes and take animals to drink were occasions for socialising, gossiping, visiting the markets and as a meeting place in general. Today the Granfonte at Leonforte no longer hosts the markets but it has become the stage for a much more elaborate religious performance during Holy Week at Easter.

Good Friday at the Granfonte water fountain of Leonforte becomes the focal point of a suggestive funeral procession which commemorates the death of Jesus Christ.  An elaborate march weaves its way through all the streets of the town on the afternoon of Venerdì Santo. The crucifix stops in front of each church it meets arriving at the Chiesa della Madonna near the Granfonte where the ancient life-sized wooden statue of Christ is taken down off the cross and placed in a decorative glass coffin, in a performance played out by the local priest.

Accompanied by a large bonfire lit in the piazza, the fountains waters are silenced as a sign of mourning and respect for the solemn funeral rite. At dawn the cortege is accompanied by a brass marching band playing a funeral march as Christ’s coffin is carried on the shoulders of the hooded and tunic wearing members of the brothers of the Confraternity of the Santissimo Sacramento, followed by the statue of the Madonna Addolorata as a symbol of the grieving mother of Christ.

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The parade makes its way up through the ancient stairways of Leonforte ascending up to the highest point of the town at the Church of Santa Croce, symbolic of the hill where the martyrdom of Christ took place. The band stops playing and in the silence, the mourners begin to recite a poetic lament in the form of an ancient folk song which mixes elements of prayer with the local dialect.

The Lamento is hypnotic, exotic, evocative of a middle eastern call to prayer and is an integral part of the ritual of the Passion at Leonforte. Once performed by the elders of the community today it is the young who uphold this tradition of song handed down from father to son, in a prayer recited in the local dialect which seeks to console the Virgin Mary in her hour of loss.

With the resurrection of Christ on Easter Sunday, the people of Leonforte gather in the square of the convent of Capuchin friars to celebrate. All of the statues who participated in the many processions during holy week, are a part of the meeting of Christ with the Madonna. The Granfonte’s waters are reopened restoring their healing qualities and the baptismal promise of new life.

Per la versione in Italiano clicca qui: Leonforte il cuore della Sicilia

5 thoughts on “Leonforte at the beating heart of Sicily

  1. The article about LEONFORTE was very timely, significant and significant for me! It is the town of my father and relatives and from where I have just returned home after being there for my cousin’s wedding.

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