Goethe once said to have seen Italy without having seen Sicily is not to have seen Italy, for Sicily is the clue to everything. But 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.
The town of Leonforte casually rests upon the Erie mountains of central Sicily, only about thirteen miles from the principal provincial capital of Enna. Today it is a beautiful municipality surrounded by scenic countryside. It’s a romantic, tranquil place like many other communities 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. They have been the backdrop to many battles and skirmishes throughout history. With its immense agricultural wealth and fertility, the island’s heart has always been more savage or untamed. Its landscape isolates it from the coast, yet it has continually been inhabited since prehistoric times.
Before the founding of modern Leonforte, the area was home to the ancient city of Tabas or Tavaca, which became a substantial 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.
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, the island became a multicultural society that blended both Arab and Byzantine elements of life for two hundred years.
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 that 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 Romanised 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 on where they could practice their rites and were obliged to pay religious-based taxes.
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. 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 industry, retailing and production domination, while Muslim artisans with expert knowledge in government and administration were highly sought after.
After many centuries under 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, the French house of Anjou and eventually the Aragonese House of Barcelona, who gradually transformed Sicily’s culture over two centuries. The Roman Catholic Church gradually became a part of the culture and forced Sicilian Muslims to be expelled from the island.
The Branciforte later founded the town of Leonforte, 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 grotesque mutilation. This heroic action earned him 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, was founded around the same time in the 1600s 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 in the same strategic position on the internal Altesina mountains as the Arabs had used to divide the island into its three historical valleys. These valleys still define the island’s geography today, from the Val Demone to the Val di Mazzara and the Val di Noto.
Prince Nicolò Placido Branciforti built the town from the ground up, his family gradually constructing a castle, a parish church, a convent, gardens and several water fountains. Leonforte developed under the flag of the Branciforte with its regal crowned lion, holding onto the French royal 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 Branciforte. Today it is well known for its agriculture from its mouth-watering peaches, fava beans, olive oil, citrus, terracotta products and cheeses.
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 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. Their works are dotted around the island and include Palermo’s central Quattro Canti at the intersection, which connects the four central neighbourhoods of the Sicilian capital.
The Granfonte, or 24 Canola as it is known locally, is a grandiose succession of twenty-two archways and twenty-four bronze spouts that gush out water into a series of sandstone basins. The fountain was once used as a public washhouse and marketplace in the town’s main square. The archways are ornate 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 Branciforte.
A little over 74 feet long and eight 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. It is literally at the heart of its civic and religious history.
Public fountains in Sicily were used up until the early 1900s and were an essential 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 that commemorates the death of Jesus Christ. An elaborate march weaves its way through all the town’s streets 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 fountain’s waters are silenced as a sign of mourning and respect for the solemn funeral rite. At dawn, the procession 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. The statue of the Madonna Addolorata follows them as a symbol of the grieving mother of Christ.
The parade makes its way up through the ancient stairways of Leonforte, ascending 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 an ancient folk song that 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 community elders today, the young upholds 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. The Granfonte’s waters are reopened, restoring their healing qualities and the baptismal promise of new life.