A place of elephants, lions and bears

Lions and bears post

 

My grandparent’s gardens are gone
like so many poetic laments about lost paradises
nothing of their cultivated land
where father, son, mother and daughter lived
the flowering trees are a memory
recalled by a dying generation
no more sustenance or song
only the shadows of a once fertile island

Ancient olive groves gradually enveloped by slithering vines
slowly strangled hazelnut trees blossoming in the spring
the shadows of disappearing golden gardens
soon everything will be erased by the choking weeds
abandoned in the flow of time
to become forests once again

They left behind youth, families and home
to follow dreams, leaving a past filled with memories
compelled by the constraints of poverty, desperation and ambition
the land left untended by their hands
overwhelmed by loss the oasis is being erased by wilderness.
with no one left to stop the decay

Our ancestors gardens will be like so many other lost empires
we are destined to forget the seeds they planted
like so many graveyards left to themselves
Trincaria will become savage again
a land of hunters and hunted

Once more an ancient home for the beasts
a place of elephants, lions and bears
we will discover the cyclops skulls left behind
and wonder if the myths are true.

 

         – for my Sicilian grandparents Giuseppe and Carmela Bongiovanni

 

Savage sicily

 

Today I thought I’d try something different and share a little of my creative writing.

Poetry is my first love, it is where my ideas come from, yet I have never found a place for it, apart from submissions to obscure literary magazines throughout the years.

I’m currently working on the content for a new creative writing blog which will be the home not only for my interest in poetry but also music, books and conversations. I’ll be sure to let you know the details as soon as it’s all finished and launched.

This is one poem I thought I’d include in my first book, but I’ve had to cut out. As for those who have been following my blog for a while would know, I’m still working on my book, a travel memoir which I’m redrafting and will be self publishing as soon as I raise the funds.

I’ve been thinking and remembering my dearly loved Sicilian grandparents this week, as they both passed away in this period, one nine years ago, the other last year. I thought I’d share a poem which was inspired by them and other Italian immigrants. Sadly their’s is a generation which is slowly fading away, yet I feel their spirit and energy is still very much a part of me.

This poem is inspired by the historical fact that Sicily was once physically a part of North Africa and up until ancient Roman times the island was filled with natural forests inhabited by mini elephants, lions, bears and many other fascinating wild animals which have since disappeared.

The Sicily of my Grandparents was the opposite to this, filled with fertile gardens, abundant fruits and a vibrant agricultural tradition which today has been mostly abandoned. Sadly much of Sicily is destined to return to its ancient abandoned state.

There are many references to mythology, the Sicilian poetic school of the middle ages and other elements which reflect the innate sadness and ancient history of Sicily. The cyclop’s skull image refers to the archeological discovery of mini elephant skulls, which were mistaken as the remains of these mythological creatures.

Let me know if you enjoy this kind of creativity here on Sicily Inside & Out …

Under the feet of Mongibello

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Randazzo squats under Mount Etna, sprawling out along the massive volcano’s base in the fertile valley of Alcantara. Etna has a tyrannical hold over the landscape and is constantly hovering over this place born out of the volcano’s colossal menace. The broad lava streets of the city are filled with a rustic opulence, as if they have been carved out of the volcano, fashioned by the meaty hands of the god Vulcan in his subterranean furnace, deep in the volcano above, lovingly nicknamed Mongibello (literally the beautiful mountain.)

In the burning days of August the historic centre of Randazzo is like a stone garden, the heat re-awaking the memory of the hardened magma’s fire. A heavy layer of darkness poured over every part of the architecture from the jagged streets, to the polished sidewalks and the Romanesque archways of the cloister like courtyard of the town hall. The same hand has touched each feature of the town, like a Midas touch in lava instead of gold.

Randazzo itself is sprawled out along the base of Etna on a ridge between the base of Etna and the Alcantara River which is nothing but a deep gully of hard rock for most of the year. The area surrounding the city runs along the valley and is part of one of Italy’s most productive agricultural areas. The areas around Etna has given birth to the most remarkable wines and there are a succession of considerable wineries in the countryside. Grape vines thrive in the lava soil as do olive trees, pistachios, prickly pears and a wide selection of stone fruit and vegetables. This rugged seemingly inhospitable area is surprisingly fertile.

 

Randazzo is at the crossroads of three important Sicilian provinces connecting Catania, Messina and Enna. If you imagine the island of Sicily as an isosceles triangle lying on its side, its main point facing towards the left, Messina is on its top right hand corner, Catania a little way down on the right side and Enna is in the centre of the triangle, forming a second internal triangle. You can place Etna and Randazzo in the centre of these major cities at the core of the Val Demone in the primordial heart of Sicily.

Like most major Sicilian cities, Randazzo has a long and complex history which has been shaped by all the many invaders of the island. The city’s founding came about with the amalgamation of the pre existing towns of Triracia, Triocala, Tissa, Demena and Altesa, who were destroyed during a civil war by Roman emperor Ottaviano. After the fall of the Roman Empire the Byzantines kept the city united under a central administration. Randazzo’s name is believed to derive from the name of a Byzantine governor known as Rendakes or Randas who governed from the nearby coastal town of Taormina in the tenth century. The name also has its roots in the local dialect, from the word Rannazzu meaning ‘big city’, which aptly describes Randazzo’s expansive urban development.

 

The strategic position of Randazzo has made it the focal point of trade and commerce throughout its existence. A symbol of this tradition are the Randazzo markets which bring together the best of the three provinces products nearly every Sunday (with the exception of public holidays and election days.) On Sunday the town is transformed into a giant sea of stalls, crowds and confusion like a Moroccan bizarre.

The open air market tradition goes back to the times of the Arab domination in Sicily, from the seventh century when the concept of trade markets was imported from the Middle East, creating an expansion of trade and products throughout Sicily and Italy. The market tradition is still a vibrant part of local commerce, once a week each Sicilian town has a day dedicated to the market and most major cities have daily fresh produce markets.

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On market day Randazzo is invaded by endless stalls selling literally everything from: art work, pirated C.D’s, children’s wear, fruit, vegetables, toys, cheeses, furniture, ornaments, fur coats, wrought iron work, fabric, statues, casual ware, sausages, hand bags, shoes, soccer jumpers, socks, suits, dried baccala fish, lawn mowers, scythes, fairy floss, books, cleaning products, dried fruit, lingerie, roast chickens, army surplus products and endless haberdashery.

As people arrive the confusion grows to an impressive level and by mid morning there is a non stop chorus of stall owners who yell, scream and chant about the quality of their products trying to out spruik one another. While experienced market shoppers rummage through the large piles of stock trying to find a bargain. Like any market there are both worthy products and junk, the challenge is to recognise quality objects in amongst the confusion.

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Shopping at a market is an invigorating challenge and offers a completely original experience to the standard sterile shopping at convenience stores or expansive shopping centres. The most important thing about market shopping is recognising a bargain and firmly naming your price, the never-ending stalls mean you can always threaten to go to another to get your price, so being firm and fair means you can often get a decent discount. Walking away from a stall can be just the right strategy to get a vendor to take a few Euros’ off the cost. There is a real skill to shopping at a market. It becomes a game if you are willing to throw yourself into the experience whole heartedly. Just walking through the transformed streets is a journey into the past of the medieval bazaar, full of exotic sensations and products.

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There is an eternal stream of colour and confusion in the late morning the crowds reach their peak as people literally dive into the narrow side streets already congested by the teeming stalls creating a terrible crush and confusion, making people crawl along at a snails pace lined up shoulder to shoulder. The best time to visit is early in the morning before the crowd, when the best offers can be found and you have the energy to submerge yourself into the world generated by the Randazzo markets.

Here is a quick video I shot recently while browsing around the markets, to give you a sense of the colours and character of these markets.

Please let me know in the comments if you like this video and if you’d be interested in seeing others.

Tell me where you’d like me to visit …

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Seeking Sicily an interview with John Keahey

Seeking Sicily

Sicily’s rich history, culture and literature are filled with endless stories, and so one writer or interpreter visiting here will never come up with a definitive interpretation, each experience will remain unique. Sicily has many faces and reflections, depending on where and when you visit and who you meet, it is impossible ever to finish exploring this multifaceted place.

Every book written about Sicily is so valuable as each author who writes about Sicily from a unique experience, and a personal point of view gives us a piece of the puzzle.

John Keahey’s contribution to the story, Seeking Sicily: a cultural journey through myth and reality in the heart of the Mediterranean (Thomas Dunne Books, St Martin’s Press. New York 2011) is a delicate, intimate, intellectual and extremely well-researched portrait of Sicily.

Keahey is an American journalist who has written extensively about Italy and explores many exciting elements of Sicilian culture, history and literature.

Unfortunately, Keahey is a foreigner working with an interpreter, and so there are the usual minor misconceptions, idealism and small superficial errors which will identify him as such.

Sicily is not a comfortable place to explore, at times it is isolated by its own geography, mentality, language, culture and landscape. It is difficult for foreigners to accepted into the community.

Even if Sicilians seem welcoming, they can still exclude outsiders out by switching into their dialect. The centre of local Sicilian communities is made up of an intricate web of relationships, language and interconnections which is virtually impenetrable for an outsider.

But, Keahey’s journalistic eye and sense of story are impeccable, through extensive and detailed interviews with many proud Sicilians he digs below the superficial mask to get to the heart of this place with insightful, rich and evocative insight.

Seeking Sicily offers readers a charmingly well-written introduction to the island. Thanks to a robust journalistic process Keahey sheds new light on the history, culture, literature and cuisine of the island.

In particular, the research into Sicilian writers like Leonardo Sciascia and Pirandello, the Mafia, the Spanish Inquisition, mythology and the many different conquerors of Sicily are exciting and make Seeking Sicily a more than worthy addition to the library of work dedicated to and inspired by Sicily.

After reading Seeking Sicily, I was enthralled at how John Keahey was able to write so freshly and vividly about Sicily. It is surprising to see how Keahey was able to discover so many refreshing facets to Sicily. Many books about Sicily, can be quite repetitive when it comes to Sicilian history.

I was excited when I found a contact email, and John Keahey granted me an interview which I’m happy to share with you along with the great news that his new book about Sicily has been released this November (2018).

Seeking Sicily quote

What is your particular connection to Sicily, how did you fall in love with the place?

I have a hard time defining this connection: As far as I know, I have no direct Italian/Sicilian ancestors, so blood isn’t an issue. All I can sense is that I spent two weeks in Sicily, in the Catania area, at a U.S. Naval Air Station (Sigonella) in 1986. Friends and I would drive into Catania (indeed a remarkable, beautiful city!) for dinner each evening, and on the weekend I rented a car and drove to Sciacca, on the southern coast. En route, creating a small hill east of Agrigento, the Greek ruins strung along the Valley of the Temples suddenly appeared, and I knew I was in love with the place. The people, the food, and the culture cinched the deal. By 1990, I was making almost annual trips to Italy, for pleasure and my first two books, and Sicily kept creeping back into my mind. When I worked on my first Sicily book, I made four trips, and the connection was cemented.

What do you think makes Sicily such a special place?

As I hinted above, it’s the people, first and foremost, then the culture that I learned about from reading Sicilian authors (plus several viewings of Visconti’s The Leopard!) and by studying the history. The culture and the people are shaped by that history and by the reality that Sicilians have never been in control of their own political destinies. The last conqueror of the island is, in fact, the Italians. Northern Italy, not counting ancient Rome, has been in control since 1871, and the island’s people continue to under its wing.

Randazzo, Catania

How did you go about researching your book? What was the process from the initial idea?

My publisher Tom Dunne (St. Martin’s Press) and I agreed that the book would be made up of varying amounts of history, culture, literature, with some Sicilian food and food history tossed in. Anything else ­­ a plan of action, a travel itinerary around the island, which places I would visit ­­ went by the wayside. It’s an organic process, and how it grows is up to chance. I’ve learned to be flexible and allow a change of plans to take over. One example: I am crossing a street in Palermo en route to see something I had read about. I was struck by a thought as I glanced at a street sign, and turned right instead of left, ending up at the crumbling, ruined birthplace of the author of The Leopard. This chance manoeuvre led to the beginning of what became chapter one. I never made it to the place where I was initially headed.

 

What is the one place someone should visit or the one authentic Sicilian experience for anyone visiting Sicily? Tell us about it.

What is an “authentic” Sicilian experience? The impoverished peasant class, beholden for centuries to large landowners, disappeared shortly after World War II; widows almost never wear black once the funeral is over; women, once forbidden from venturing out of the house on their own, are as free as men ever were; the only carts pulled by mules and horses are just seen during festival parades and in tourist rides; streets once used by the occasional cart or wagon are now hopelessly jammed with automobiles; the thrilling tuna harvest off the south­ central coast is nowhere near what it used to be. And, fortunately, the Sicilian Mafia is deep underground; bodies no longer pile up in the streets of Palermo (in a 15­year period during the 1980s­90s, there was a thousand Mafia death in those streets). The mob is still there; tourists just never see it. The streets are alive with activity, day and night.

So the experience today is one where history can be explored, the art of all eras appreciated, wonderful food unlike any elsewhere in Italy consumed, vistas of rolling hills and expansive vineyards abound, and most importantly, friendly people are found nearly everywhere. For example, I made four visits to a small, non­ tourist village in the south, wandering the few streets and speaking with just a handful of residents. By my second visit, several months later, some locals remembered me. By visits three and four, some even remembered my name and would stop by my table at the local restaurant for a conversation. I stay away from the heavily touristed villages with all their T­shirt shops and copycat restaurants with “tourist menus” and seek out the small places where local shops don’t even sell postcards. That, to me, is authentic Sicily.

Obviously, first­ time visitors need to spend time in some of those larger places. That’s where the art, the big museums, the reconstructed Greek ruins are, and they must be seen. I’ve been to the Palatine Chapel in Palermo three times and spent Easter Week in world­ famous Enna, so I’ve done my share of “touristing”. Now I want to seek out the hidden, the less well-known, the secret places.

Why do you think Sicily has inspired and continues to encourage writers?

I can only address what inspires me and why I keep going back. Perhaps it is the fatalism of the people who seem to do quite well living in the moment. While many, of course, speak Italian, most grew up in households where Sicilian, a separate language, was spoken. Sicilian has no future tense, and I speculate this is because Sicilians over three thousand years had no future to look forward to; it was always in the hands of outsiders. Plus they live in a place historically wracked by earthquakes, bloody Mafia control, and occasional catastrophic volcanic eruptions. They view Etna as a giver and a taker: Its lava ­enriched soil gives an incredible bounty ­­ almonds, wine, lemons, oranges ­­ but Etna can kill you in an instant. The sour with the sweet. All this has helped shape a unique Sicilian mindset that has intrigued generations of writers, both from within and without.

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Who is the one Sicilian writer who spoke to you most clearly?

There are many Sicilian writers with whom I did not get acquainted, at least not yet. But of the dozen or so I have read and written about, it has to be Leonardo Sciascia and Giuseppe di Lampedusa. If you only read those two, you would be on your way to a basic understanding of who Sicilians are. Of course, go back a few years and explore Luigi Pirandello and Giovanni Verga, and watch the Visconti films “The Leopard” and La terra trema.

How is Sicily so different from the rest of Italy?

Sicilians famously do not consider themselves Italian. The only time, perhaps ­­ and I say this flippantly, of course, ­­ that they claim to be Italians is when Italy is a finalist in World Cup Soccer. They are different for all the reasons I’ve mentioned ­­ 3,000 years of being ruled by at least 15 or so outsiders, the dangers of everyday life, etc. ­­ but also because of their awareness that those in the north of Italy only want them for their military service or their labour in automobile factories or as maids in their homes. Just recently, a northern Italian Member of Parliament said he considered that sending his home soccer team to play in Palermo was the same as sending it to Africa. Sicilians do not feel they are part of the peninsula. Rome lets Sicily’s roads deteriorate while pouring money into the north. Funds might be sent down for a project, but when the money runs out, work is stopped, often for years. One of my earliest memories while driving around eastern Sicily in the mid­1980s was highway off­ramps heading to nowhere, abandoned ends of bridges over highways with no middle span, unfinished apartment houses and factories, all left to rust and crumble. Sicilian oranges are left to rot unpicked while Rome strikes a deal with Morocco to import oranges in exchange for North Africans buying Fiats made in the north of Italy. It’s complicated, and what I have cited here barely scratches the surface.

 

I know you are a real Italophile and have written extensively about Italy, please tell us more about the subjects of your books.

My first book, “A Sweet and Glorious Land: Revisiting the Ionian Sea”, is about southern Italy, particularly Naples, Calabria, Basilicata, and Puglia. Then came “Venice Against the Sea: A City Besieged”. It deals with Venice’s struggle with high water in the face of global climate change. My Sicily book was third (“Seeking Sicily: A Cultural Journey Through Myth and Reality in the Heart of the Mediterranean”). Fourth is “Hidden Tuscany: Discovering Art, Culture, and Memories in a Well ­Known Region’s Unknown Places”. The fourth deals with western Tuscany, which many travellers to Tuscany ignore while spending their time along the region’s east side.

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You mentioned you will be back in Sicily tell us a little more about your trip and next book.

The Sicily book, in particular, seems to have struck a chord with the travelling public (as well as a lot of the third­ and fourth ­generation Sicilian Americans!). That tells my publisher and me that interest in the island remains high. I have travelled through the same places many times ­­ for research and to take family and friends on visits there ­­, and I want now to find places visitors seldom if ever, get to. So book five will be an exploration of the island seeking out those places. I’ll miss a lot, to be sure, but I’ll also discover a lot as well. There is no title as yet. The release is tentatively scheduled for Spring/Summer 2018.

 

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Thanks so much to John Keahey for finding the time to answer my questions. Molto gentile. I love your book and on behalf of all of your readers, I thank you for writing it, as it has enriched our knowledge of Sicily.

For more information about John Keahey’s books and impressive book trailer for Seeking Sicily see his author page here.

The new book Sicilian Splendors: Discovering the Secret Places that Speak to the Heart has just been released this November (2018) fall and is available on Amazon.

Seeking Sicily is also still available on Book Depository and Amazon.

Sicily: A Literary guide for travellers

 

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Andrew and Suzanne Edwards are both accomplished writers and translators with a deep admiration for Sicily, their guide to the island is a detailed love letter to the history and culture of this place.

Together they trace an outline of Sicily through its rich literary history creating an intriguing portrait of this ancient place.

Not only do they take you on an exploration of the major cities of Sicily but they share fascinating travelogues by foreign visitors and writers together with insights from the immensely significant literary life of La Sicilia.

The range of experts quoted in this literary guide is impressive and includes everyone from Italo American writers like Theresa Maggio, native contemporary Palermitano writer Roberto Alajmo and British travellers completing Grand Tours of Europe in the nineteenth century. You will be amazed to see the diverse range of people drawn to the island through the centuries.

There is an enthralling collection of native Sicilians and foreigners who tell us about Sicily through this unique literary travel guide, the plethora of famous names include: Alexandre Dumas, Harold Acton, Leonardo Sciascia, Jorge Luis Borges, Arthur Miller, Steinbeck, Carlo Levi, Lawrence Durrell, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Nietzsche, D.H Lawrence and Truman Capote.

If the real sense of a place is expressed through its writers, then Sicily is best seen through the words of visitors, travellers and native authors.

Sicily: a Literary guide for travellers takes you into Sicily’s real personality, with fascinating insights into the character, history and culture of this enigmatic island. And it’s also one hell of a reading list!

After hearing Andrew and Suzanne Edwards plans to explore the literary landscape of Spain, I contacted them for an email interview. I had to know more about this intellectual couple’s work.

Largest island

What is your particular connection to Sicily, how did you fall in love with the place?

After working in Greece and having a strong connection to Spain, we have always been interested in Mediterranean cultures. Over the years, we have travelled extensively throughout Italy and, in 2007, finally made it to Sicily – it was a revelation, something akin to a homecoming. Sicily is the crossroads that makes sense of the Mediterranean and it was our good fortune to find a property in the historic town of Caccamo that we could call home for part of the year. Each visit has widened our Sicilian horizons and we are slowly peeling back the layers of history that make the island so fascinating.

What do you think makes Sicily such a special place?

From the Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, the glories of Norman Sicily, centuries of Spanish rule at the height of the Baroque, to the fading twilight of the Bourbons and conflicts over Italian unification, Sicily is unique. Every small town is a microcosm of this history.

The landscape, although affected by man, has a timeless quality and yields the three legendary elements of Mediterranean life – the olive, the grape and the fig, in addition to the glorious citrus fruits. This magnificent countryside and history have, however, left an inevitably complicated legacy that is still playing out in the issues faced by the island in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century.

It is no wonder that such a rich and complex past has provided the backdrop to a prodigious literary output.

How did you go about researching your book? What was the process from the initial idea?

Having established ourselves in Sicily, we, naturally, read authors associated with the island, such as Lampedusa, Sciascia, Camilleri and Bufalino. Rather than explore with the Lonely Planet and Rough Guide, good as they are, we decided to go in search of the locations we had been reading about and discover the inspirations behind the books. It was a great experience that introduced us to many interesting people.

We combined this with reading the views of foreign writers such as Theresa Maggio, Tobias Jones and Alejandro Luque whose books on Sicily Andy has ended up translating. Back in the UK, we approached a publisher with the idea of a literary guide to the island that would enable others to experience Sicily in this manner.

Fortunately, our proposal was accepted and we were commissioned by Tauris Parke to write the book. Our research then took on greater depth as we travelled in the footsteps of over a hundred writers from five continents who had written on matters Sicilian.

The time span encompassed more than two thousand years of textual output. Initially daunted, we soon found that one writer opened the door to another and, once we had decided to make the book a circular tour, the structure and authors led the way. The majority, but not all of the research was undertaken in Sicily – we spent many a fascinating hour in London’s British Library.

The autostrada to Messina as seen from Taormina

What is the one place someone should visit or the one authentic Sicilian experience for anyone visiting Sicily?

Suzanne: To isolate just one place or experience is supremely difficulty; sometimes, a simple meal of fresh Sicilian seafood drizzled in a dressing of local olive oil, garlic and fresh lemon, washed down with a glass of Grillo whilst gazing out at the encompassing ocean is all that is needed to fill the senses and connect with the very essence of the island.

Or perhaps to visit a market and jostle with the locals and marvel at the vibrancy and freshness that the land and sea have to offer – Catania’s fish market is particularly notable.

However, there is nothing like visiting an author’s home to bring a particular era and personality to life. For this reason, I would recommend a visit to Lucio Piccolo’s former residence in Capo d’Orlando. Set back from the smart coastal town, the aristocratic poet and cousin of Lampedusa, shared this house with his brother, Casimiro, and sister, Giovanna.

Now a museum, the first floor captures the idiosyncrasies of the two brothers. The lounge, complete with piano, was divided in two with each of the brothers manifesting their quirks in the décor and arrangements. The library reflects their esoteric reading habits, whilst the family’s love of animals can be seen in the pet cemetery to one side of the landscaped garden.

Andy: I would have to say Piazza Marina in Palermo. The iconic square with the twisted Moreton Bay fig tree at its core contains so much hidden Sicilian history in all its light and shade. To one side of the piazza is the Palazzo Chiaramonte, also known as the Steri, which is now part of the University.

The building, itself, with its arches and crenellations, represents the lordly power of the Chiaramonte who commissioned it. It then became the Spanish viceroys’ palace and a gaol. The lower floor contains the former inquisition prison that housed the supposedly heretical victims of the Holy Office, written about by Leonardo Sciascia. The walls, gradually rediscovered over the years, are daubed with some heart-breaking graffiti. In an adjoining room is the painting of the Vucciria market, painted by the twentieth-century artist, Renato Guttuso. It captures all the vibrancy and tension of the market, now sadly in decline at the reallocation.

Next to the Steri is the former Hotel de France, which once housed those Victorian and Belle Époque tourists keen to see the wonders of the island, including the likes of Freud. A small lane between the two buildings leads into Via Butera and the former residence of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, where he partially penned The Leopard.

Detail of Messina town hall

Why do you think Sicily has inspired and continues to inspire, writers?

Sicily has inspired, not only novelists and poets but also essayists, ethnographers, cultural observers, classicists, cookery writers and theorists of varying stamps. It is precisely the elements that attract these diverse disciplines that continue to provide inspiration to those who have the desire to share their thoughts on paper.

Most aspects of human endeavour have found some corner of Sicily favourable to their expression – be that beneficial or detrimental to the island’s wider society. Sicily’s cultural heritage is not just a pretty backdrop, but an integral character in much literary output.

Who is the one Sicilian writer who spoke to you most clearly?

Andy: Hmm, there are so many, Pirandello, Consolo, Martoglio…! If I had to narrow it down, I would have to pick one poet and one novelist/short story writer. The poet would be Lucio Piccolo – I love his Baroque cadences and imagery, his poem conjuring the Sirocco wind being my favourite. He was a man from another era stuck in the twentieth century, but even the modernists recognised his talent. The other writer would be Gesualdo Bufalino, a man of prodigious lyrical ability from Comiso, who characterised his hometown as a ‘città teatro’, a town of theatrical capacity for life which he was able to capture in some of his writings.

Suzanne: I have to agree with Andy’s choices but, from a female perspective, I must add the writer, Maria Messina. Born in the nineteenth century, and championed by Giovanni Verga, she managed to bring a unique female voice to a literary landscape dominated by men. She shared with her readership the plight of women who often suffered in silence.

From the journeys in your book, which do you think is the most quintessential literary-inspired place to visit?

Suzanne has already mentioned Lucio Piccolo’s residence in Capo d’Orlando; it is perhaps not the most quintessential place though, as we have both alluded to the idiosyncratic nature of the location and the man. There are two locations that immediately spring to mind which vie for archetypical dominance.

The first, Taormina, was the playground for foreign writers to come and spend some weeks in warmer climes whilst waiting for the muse to descend. However, we would pick Agrigento and surroundings with its iconic Valley of the Temples, the Vigata- Porto Empedocle of Andrea Camilleri and the home of Luigi Pirandello in the aptly named suburb of Caos. Pirandello’s home maintains much of the man, including a faintly melancholic air enhanced by the fact that the cliff sidewalk leads to his tomb.

Duomo Messina Madonna

How is Sicily so different from the rest of Italy?

Sicily has so much in common with the ‘continent’, more perhaps than some Sicilians would care to admit; however, the narrow Straits of Messina do make a difference. There is a distinct island mentality – something, for better or worse, they share with the British. Waves of invaders have taken their toll and have given Sicilians a certain initial wariness when it comes to ‘the other’, be that ideas or people.

That’s not to say they don’t know how to enjoy themselves – witness feast days – but on first meeting, they don’t behave with the flamboyance of Neapolitans, for example; although times are changing and the world for Sicilians, as for us all, is becoming a much smaller place.

In terms of culture, Sicily is the original melting pot, more so than Rome. The common perception is that Romans made history, whereas Sicilians had history heaped upon them. We are not sure we believe this completely as some Roman legionnaires, Greek poets, Arabic viziers and Spanish grandees were islanders at heart and have all contributed to this melting pot of cultural distinction that is absent from many other corners of Italy. For example, the Arabs never really conquered the mainland and so their imprint is stronger on the island, notably in the food.

Port of Messina

Tell us about your next project.

We have been lucky enough to receive another commission for a literary guide and have just completed the first draft of Andalucía: A Literary Guide for Travellers which is due for publication in the autumn of 2016. It will follow the same structure as our Sicily book and will also feature over a hundred authors who lived in or wrote about the Spanish region.

Our thoughts are now turning to the next project and we have decided to take a look at the Byron/Shelley story from the perspective of John Polidori, Byron’s physician and uncle to Dante Gabriel and Christina Rossetti. Contrary to cinematic portrayals, notably by Ken Russell, Polidori was not a snivelling, unattractive, little man but a younger, mirror-image of Byron. Unfortunately for Polidori, he was in awe of Byron’s talent and suffered in his shadow. Despite producing one of the first vampire novels (originally attributed to Byron) at the same time as Mary Shelley gave birth to Frankenstein, the doctor never had any true literary talent. He did, however, also leave a diary for posterity and it is this that we intend to follow by tracing the journey into exile he made with Lord Byron.

Next summer we will drive through Belgium, down the Rhine and into Switzerland stopping at the famous Villa Diodati. From there, we will track Polidori’s footsteps into Italy, all the way to his family villa which still exists.

We’ve also written the first few pages of a historical novel set in Messina during the time of Miguel de Cervantes – although it will probably never see the light of day!

Ceramics Santo Stefano

 

Sicily: A literary guide for travellers is available through Amazon, and the Book Depository

For more details about Andrew and Suzanne Edwards see their author page here.

Feel free to follow these two amazing writers on their Facebook and Twitter feeds.

Their new book Andalucia: a literary guide for travellers is also available from the Book Depository.

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Syracuse: City of legends an interview with Jeremy Dummett

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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.

 

Jeremy Dummett quote

 

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.

Symbol of Sicily

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.

Syracuse, City of Legends and his other book about Palermo is available on Amazon  and the Book Depository.

His new book Palermo, city of Kings: the heart of Sicily is also available on Amazon and the Book Depository.

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Trinàcria: A tale of Bourbon Sicily an interview with Anthony Di Renzo

Reading Trinacria

One of the most surprising discoveries on my journey to know and understand Sicily better has been Anthony Di Renzo’s book Trinàcria (Guernica, Toronto 2013) which eloquently evokes the spirit of Sicily.

Di Renzo gathers threads from Bourbon Sicily through the periods most vibrant characters and to bring their energy back to life. With the voice of the Marchesa of Scalea, he creates an eccentric aristocrat character filled with sarcasm, arrogance and shrewd observation.

Trinàcria begins as a Hollywood director is set to film a big budget historical film in Sicily, akin to Visconti’s cinematic masterpiece the Leopard in 1963. The director inadvertently reawakens the spirit of the cantankerous Marchesa who is quite peeved she is being used as the inspiration for cinema and consequently tells us her life’s story, revealing herself to be the Trinàcria of the title.

This tale from nineteenth-century Sicily is intriguingly dark, gothic and morbid as the movie director directly addresses the mummified remains of the long dead Sicilian noble deep in the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo.

The Marchesa’s eternal soul irreverently comments on the ironies of life in a rich monologue about life, death and human hypocrisy.

Following the memories of Trinàcria, we meet other key figures from this period including Garibaldi, the Neapolitan poet Leopardi and opera composer Giuseppe Verdi.

Di Renzo’s novella is a fantastic work dominated by the vivid energy of Sicilian history and is a must-read for anyone who wants to viscerally experience the spirit of Marchesa Zita Valanguerra Spinelli who is part of a genuinely a haunting literary experience.

Not content in merely reviewing this excellent book I pestered Anthony Di Renzo for an interview, which I am happy to share with you.

He answered my questions about the background to this beautiful book and a little bit about the fascinating Sicilian American academic who created it.

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Tell us about your book Trinàcria: A Tale of Bourbon Sicily.

In one sense, Trinàcria is a ghost story. Zita Valanguerra Spinelli, the Marchesa of Scalea, posthumously narrates the events of her life from the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo. The book is literally a tale from the crypt, a bit of Sicilian Gothic fit for November, the Month of the Dead. In another sense, Trinàcria is a meditation on Sicilian history and politics. Most English and American readers think the book is only about the past. Most Sicilian readers, however, claim it is also about the present. The novel has much to say about globalization and neoliberal economic reform.

How on earth did you come across the Marchesa of Scalea?

The Marchesa is based on Alessandra Spadafora (1778-1851), the Duchess of Santa Rosalia, who was the mistress and eventually the wife of Benjamin Ingham, the Anglo Sicilian wine merchant. I first read about her in Princes Under the Volcano, Raleigh Trevelyan’s history of Sicily’s Marsala dynasties. A daguerreotype, taken when Donna Alessandra was a shrunken old gargoyle in bombazine, captivated me.

As I stared at the portrait, the old woman’s lips seemed to move. A hollow voice in my head whispered the opening to Giacomo Leopardi’s Chorus of the Dead: “Sola nel mondo eterna, a cui si volve/ Ogni creata cosa . . .” O Death, alone immortal on earth, unto whom every created thing must come, our disembodied natures now come. The rest of the novel followed from there.

But there is a more sinister backstory to your relationship with the Marchesa. Fill us in on what happened when you ignored her?

The Marchesa originally was a supporting character and an alternate narrator in a multigenerational novel called After the Fair is Over. She played Juno to the Aeneas of that book’s protagonist: her immigrant great-grandson, Attilio Tumeo, A powerful literary agent advised me to cut her story to make the manuscript more marketable. My wife, a student of Jungian psychology, warned against this. The Marchesa, she reminded me, represented the chthonic female energy of pagan Sicily. Did I really want to mess with that? I told her not to be so superstitious. I was the Sicilian, not she. Unless I played ball, I would never get a book contract.

Shortly after cutting the Marchesa, I was stricken with viral meningitis. For three months, my brain was on fire. I dreamt a jellyfish swam in my skull and stung me. When I described this to my mother, she exclaimed, “‘A medusa!” Medusa is the Sicilian word for jellyfish. Clearly, I had pissed off the Furies and vowed to make amends. After a long convalescence, marked by chronic migraines, I restored, revised, and expanded the Marchesa’s story until it became Trinàcria. This process took seven years. I hope the results please her as much as they please me.

But you still had problems finding a publisher for Trinàcria. Tell us about that.

Dozens of American editors rejected Trinàcria. Nobody, they declared, wanted to read about a Sicilian Marchesa, especially a dead one, unless she had written a cookbook.  Granted, Donna Zita made a mean pasta Bellini, but she was no Anna Tasca Lanza.  Unlike that other culinary Marchesa, she had never started a cooking school at Regaleali or served as a consultant for Wegmans Food Markets, Inc.’s Italian Classics line.

Do you think perhaps one of the problems for publishers was the subject of death and the afterlife? Was it too confronting? Why did publishers have such a problem with her?

Actually, novels with posthumous narrators, such as Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, are quite popular in America. Vampire and zombie fiction also sells well. But the Marchesa, a more frightening harpy, is a foreigner from an alien time. She represents the unappeasable and irredeemable past, everything secular commercial democracies had to demonize and destroy to justify their existence. Nobody wanted to stare that gorgon in the face for fear of turning into stone. 

Have you ever visited the Catacombs at Palermo? What are they really like? Did the dead really speak to you?

My mother claims to have taken me to Palermo’s Catacombe dei Cappuccini, but mercifully, I have no memory of this early childhood trauma. Sicilian friends and relatives, however, have described the experience in gloating detail. All cultures enjoy haunted houses as a carnival attraction, but the Capuchin crypt surpasses anything in Disney World. The dioramas are more astonishing, not to mention more political. Individually, the mummies represent the vanity of a specific social class or profession; collectively, they symbolize jaded humanity’s awakening at the Last Judgment.

But one needn’t take a dark ride or a ghost train at an amusement park to contact the dead. One simply needs to be tuned to their frequency. When I was a boy, I was like Haley Joel in The Sixth Sense: I saw dead people all the time. My nickname was Antonio degli Spiriti. Now, these visitations rarely happen, which is for the best. Anglo-American culture tends to classify this phenomenon as schizophrenia. I just think of it as an alternative cell-phone plan.

Does dead frighten you?

Not at all. All Souls Day, il Giorno dei Morti, is one of my favourite Catholic feasts. It’s the living who scare the shit out of me. If you’ve ever washed C-Span or the Republican Presidential Primary Debates on Fox News, you know exactly what I mean.

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Speaking of ghosts, Sicily has so much fascinating history. How did you settle on the Bourbon period? Tell us a little about this phase in Sicily’s history.

The Bourbon period marked the transition from feudal to modern Sicily. Death throes and birth pangs simultaneously convulsed the region. It was a period of repressive reaction and violent revolution. Its paradoxes and contradictions have attracted such diverse Sicilian writers as Frederico de Roberto, Luigi Pirandello, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, and Leonardo Sciascia. As a Sicilian American, however, I am more fascinated by the political oppression and economic corruption that eventually caused the Sicilian Diaspora.

How did you manage to balance the history and fictional elements in Trinàcria?

The novel’s theme provided the balance. Trinàcria confronts the problems of representation and the perils and seductions of memory. I’m reminded of that wonderful line in John Ford’s elegiac Western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” That is why the novel’s frame deals with a movie director’s attempt to shoot an epic about the Risorgimento in Palermo during the centennial of Garibaldi’s invasion. That director, of course, is based on Luchino Visconti.

Apart from the larger-than-life character of the Marchesa you also used some very significant historical characters. Tell us about your interpretations of Leopardi, Verdi, Garibaldi, Bellini, Benjamin Ingham and Joseph Whitaker. How much poetic license did you use?

Except for stage-managing encounters with fictional characters, I used little poetic license with the novel’s historical figures. Most of their dialogue is based on their own letters and journals or on contemporary newspapers and eyewitness accounts. Even the book’s most fantastic sequences—the sudden disappearance of the volcanic island of Ferdinandea, the grandiose speeches and surreal displays at the Great Exhibition—are historically accurate.    

What’s your own personal link to Sicily?

My maternal ancestors were petty Spanish aristocrats who settled in Bagheria in the early 18th century. My great-grandfather, Antonino Coffaro, moved to Villabate in the mid-19th century and studied horticulture at the University of Palermo. He supplied Garibaldi with food and ammo before the siege of Palermo and sold citrus to Ingham & Whitaker.

Do you visit Sicily often? What is your favourite Sicilian memory or experience?

I have not visited Sicily since I was a small boy. It would be too painful. All my relatives are dead or dispersed. Worse, Villabate, once the centre of the Conca d’Oro’s citrus industry, is now an industrial zone. But I have two vivid memories from those early years. The first is sitting in a tangerine orchard at dawn and luxuriating in the healing fragrance. At the time, I was quite sickly, and my mother practised this Sicilian form of aromatherapy to restore health. The second is eavesdropping on relatives and neighbours who had participated as extras in Visconti’s film adaptation of The Leopard. Some of their anecdotes appear in Trinàcria.

Tell us about any other books you are working on.

I am still working on After the Fair is Over, the story of Donna Zita’s great-grandson in America and am currently correcting the galleys for Dead Reckoning: Transatlantic Passages on Europe and America, a collection of lyric essays and prose poems about postmodernity and globalization co-written with Andrei Guruinau. State University of New York Press will publish next spring.

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You are also an academic. Tell us a little about your professional life.

I primarily teach business and technical writing at Ithaca College in Upstate New York. This is fitting for two reasons. First, I worked for several years as a publicist, copywriter, and medical writing before attending graduate school. Despite earning a masters and a doctorate respectively in British and American Literature, I still experience English as the language of public and private institutions and the marketplace. Sicilian remains my mother tongue, and my literary models tend to be Southern Italian and Latin American writers.

How difficult is it to publish literary fiction these days? Tell us about your experiences and strategies.

Commercial publishing rarely values literary fiction, particularly literary fiction that challenges readers and deviates from the conventions of Anglo-American realism. As Nat Sobel once told me, it would be almost impossible for a Gabriel Garcia Marquez to publish A Hundred Years of Solitude today. Ethnic writers are forced to network. Frank Polizzi, editor of Feile-Feste: The Literary Arts Journal of the Mediterranean Celtic Association, and Michael Mirolla, editor-in-chief of Guernica Editions, believed in Trinàcria, but the book never would have been published without help from Debra Santangelo, founder and president of Sicilian Connections, and Roberto Ragone, a consultant and fundraiser, or without the sponsorship of the Italian Cultural Foundation at Casa Belvedere

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You contribute to and help sustain such online publications as The Times of Sicily and L’Italo Americano. Tell us about these projects and how important they are to you.

As Ignazio Buttitta observes in Lingua e dialettu, Southern Italians and their descendants are playing for their lives on a disintegrating mandolin. Every day, another string breaks in the middle of a song. For all its rhetoric about diversity and multiculturalism, global capitalism systematically destroys local cultures and languages to facilitate universal consumption. If we don’t fight to preserve our heritage, nobody else will.

Are there any other interesting projects you are currently working on that you want to tell us about?

When I’m not writing or teaching, I sing English and Italian comic opera in regional music companies. This probably explains my work’s Rossinian brio and sarcasm. Trinàcria treats history and politics as an opera buffa. Unfortunately, the joke is on us.

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Thanks so much to Anthony Di Renzo for finding the time to answer my questions. Molto gentile. I love your book and on behalf do all of your readers thank you for writing it as it has enriched our knowledge of Sicily’s history and character.

Trinàcria: A Tale of Bourbon Sicily is available on Amazon and Book Depository.

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Sicilian Impressions: History

Wherever you find yourself in Sicily, history haunts you and comes alive in a visceral sense.

This slumbering knight in the Duomo at Noto, Syracuse tells us his story with effortlessness as if he is about to sit up on his crib and talk to us.

Knight's tomb, Duomo Noto Syracuse

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Fortress, monastery, castle and town hall: Castello di Maniace (Nelson), Bronte

I’ve always loved Castles as a symbol of European history, grand monuments of emperors, popes, Kings and nobility. There aren’t any Castles in Australia as we are relatively young to European culture so we may have many grand ancient geological monuments and some modern architectural beauties and recent monstrosities but there are no real castles.

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Sicily on the other hand is filled with fortresses left behind by powerful families, men and conquerors that have created these melancholy places as monuments to history’s greatness. I have visited several here in Sicily but also in the rest of Italy and what strikes me the most, after  getting over the initial surreal feeling that I may be on a movie set, is that the real character of these places is one of terrible desolation. Some horrible things have happened in these places and that kind of violence and unhappiness doesn’t go away, it is palpable. I can see how visiting historical sites like Castles can be inspiring as they really do bring history alive.

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One such fascinating place I’m dying to see is the Castello di Maniace (also known as the Castello Nelson). It is an off the beaten track kind of place now mostly farms the small town of Maniace is tucked in the extensive plain between the pistachio capital of the world Bronte and Randazzo who lives in the shadow of Mount Etna and connects the provinces of Messina, Catania and Palermo with the centre of the island.

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The site itself has always been inhabited since prehistoric times as it has always been a fertile area something that is conducive to human settlement. It later became a inland roadway to travel towards Palermo and had many different purposes throughout the centuries including: extensive agricultural holding, monastery, part of the islands central defense from invaders together with other fortresses, home to important historical figures like the grand Counte Ruggero (or the final holy roman emperor) and his wife the Contessa Adelaide.

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The most fascinating aspect of the Castello Maniace’s history is it’s unlikely connection to the famous figure from English history Admiral Horatio Nelson who was given the old monastry and the estate of nine million hectares together with the title of Duke of Bronte as a gift from the Borbon king of the two Sicilies after Nelson helped him to escape certain death during a revolution in Naples in 1796. The Castello Maniace thereafter became known as the Castello Nelson as the family of the Hood-Bridport took possession of the dukedom until the final heir sold it to the city of Bronte in the early 1980’s.

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Isn’t it amazing what twists and turns history has in it, who would have imagined such an unlikely connection. Today the Castello has becoming a living museum and picturesque location for weddings which seems a little bit of a shame as not many who visit are aware of its great history. What a fascinating place!

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The Unwilling expat.

 

Sources: comune.bronte.ct.it, Il castello della Ducea di Maniace by Salvatore Calogero Virzì ,Giuseppe Maimone Editore, images from Google.