How history shapes Sicily’s character

 (Book excerpt)

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The weight of Sicily’s history makes it an inherently sad place, like all places with long human histories she laments her past glories which in turn give her a unique melancholy. Yes, Sicilia is defiantly as feminine as her beating heart, Etna. Sicily’s infinite stories shape her own sorrowful character which are absorbed into the collective memory. It is a common characteristic of places like Turkey, Palestine and Sicily to carry the trauma, tears and testimony of the great tragedies and triumphs in their past which seem to inhabit the place’s soul.

This is an apprehensive land, savage and full of decay, rich in pagan fears and superstition which keep themselves enclosed like a firmly locked chest. Fear can capture the soul slowly suffocating it with its exotic spell. Here God and hope are forgotten as Sicily absorbs you into its ancientness. There is little movement only the stagnant ramblings of the everyday. Here people live in small towns, think of small things and talk and gossip about other people with small things.

For many centuries Sicily has been dominated by other people and the population has absorbed a certain slave mentality. Any proud Sicilian would be offended if called a slave, but it is something more subtle than this. It is a type of survival instinct which allows them to accept a certain amount of suffering without questioning.

Danilo Dolci a social activist from the nineteen sixties, known as the Italian Ghandi wrote many books about the nature of Sicily’s social problems, which then were akin to the problems of the third world countries, his observations illustrated the Sicilian’s self inflicted sadomasochistic nature.

Dolci wrote about the silent acceptance of the people of Corleone near Palermo, how they: ‘wear the habit of mourning perpetually and in the soul of this habit repose the essence and the apotheosis of Omerta. The Mafia draws strength from Omerta. This word from the local dialect means manliness or self-control and the idea of keeping oneself strictly to oneself in every circumstance; it implies the refusal to help established authority and is native to the Sicilian’s character by the time he is ten years old.’

© Rochelle Del Borrello 2015
© Rochelle Del Borrello 2015

Sicilians tolerate unemployment, high taxes, a complicated welfare system which tricks them, a medical system full of doctors with more political ambition than concern for patients, a public service full of incompetence, laziness and nepotism, a legal system which is slow, complex and often unethical and a political situation which is at times volatile and usually seeks to exploit the population. In short Sicilians endure all of this and much more, but they would rather suffer than abandon Sicily and even those who somehow found the strength to go never forgot their cherished Isle.

The island has been in decay for centuries and its people have lived in its ruins, forever. Through the centuries various conquerors have tried to overwhelm Sicily usually after a period of war caused by a struggle for domination. When the diverse invaders eventually came to occupy the land they struggled to live and develop according to their cultural make up. Any progress petered out as the next aggressor gradually pushed out its predecessor, leaving decay to take over what they had constructed. The layering and intermingling of the dominations of Sicily has created a complex concoction of culture. Sicily has a history influenced by the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Spanish, French, Phoenician, German, Austrian and British occupations, Sicily has outlived them all.

©Rochelle Del Borrello 2015
©Rochelle Del Borrello 2015

The strength of Sicilians to live through many centuries of invasions comes from doing very little other than surviving. The secret to overcome invaders is to have the fortitude to endure them. Sicilians have never been completely taken over or assimilated into other cultures, they have always simply outlasted them. Sicilian people have survived by being stoic and resistant focusing on day-to-day living holding their ground with a stubborn focus on their own internal world.

This passive resistance has served them well in the past but leaves behind unattractive attributes in the Sicilian culture and point of view. Many centuries of living alongside foreign invaders has left a deep sensation of mistrust in those who come from outside of Sicily. Admittedly racism is a strong word, but fear and mistrust of all things foreign is clear in the way Sicilians relate to foreigners.

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Postcards from Sicily: The art of hunting

 

Art of hunting in Sicily

 

The sport of hunting is widely diffused all over Sicily and Italy.

The Greenie in me is terribly uncomfortable about living side by side with this sport.

However I can understand the cultural value of this tradition as it has connections to the proud agricultural world, the community and families from the past.

These empty cartridges are symbolic of an ancient sport which reflect some fine details and elements who illustrate the beauty of the natural world.

 

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Postcards from Sicily: ancient crafts

Ancient arts from Sicily
Ancient arts from Sicily

 

I’m a bit of a postcard addict, always on the lookout for original or vintage images from wherever I am visiting.

I recently found this great series of cards depicting ancient arts from Sicily. Work that is no longer needed or has simply disappeared as the world has become ‘modern’.

It saddens me to think so many once thriving artisans have lost their craft through the ages.

A poignant thought.

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Secluded Sicily: Raccuja’s ghosts

Raccuja
Raccuja, Messina Copyright Rochelle Del Borrello 2014

I live a few minutes drive from the hometown of my maternal grandparents who migrated to Australia in the 1950’s. Visiting Raccuja is like seeing ghosts pass before my eyes, it’s a strange visceral experience. I grew up hearing my grandparents stories and it is emotional to find myself passing upon their footsteps. Even if they lived and worked out in the countryside, Raccuja was were they did their everyday business.

My great grandmother Catena Scaffidi would leave her six young girls home to do the chores while she put on her one good pair of shoes to go to the ‘paese’ for church services every Sunday. The church of the Madonna is where my grandparents and great Aunts celebrated baptisms, communions, confirmations, funerals and marriages.

I would have loved to see the local Carnevale parades filled with masquerade, music, wine and fun. My grandfather once recalled how he and his friends dressed up as particularly ugly looking women, all in the name of Carnival fun.

Raccuja's main church
Raccuja’s Chiesa madre Copyright Rochelle Del Borrello 2014

Raccuja was founded during the Norman domination of Sicily by Count Roger d’Altavilla at the end of the eleventh century and was ruled by a succession of feudal nobel families including the Alagonas,Orioles, Valdinas and Brancifortes it was under the jurisdiction of this final family that Raccuja became an independent town in fifteen fifty two. The name of the town is derived from the Arab words Rahl (farmhouse) and Kuddia (hill), literally the farmhouse on the hill.

Count Roger d’Altavilla led his army in a bloody battle nearby Raccuja against the invading Saracens during the period of the Crusades which left behind many heroic tales and stories of deep dark Saracen tunnels secretly constructed by these mysterious nomadic people in the surrounding mountains.

Today Raccuja is suffering from the decay which is evident in most of secluded Sicily. This tiny mountain village used to be an important agricultural producer, with the wealth of hazelnuts, oranges, lemons, olives, wheat and other once precious crops. With the gradual decline of agriculture Raccuja’s bank has closed, the post office has moved away and many other precious services no longer exist. The local primary school is barely holding on and the parish priest does his best to inject some life into the local square, uniting the younger parishioners for regular celebrations.

Over the past decade the Raccujese have kept their town alive with great love and inventiveness. Their annual festa’s dedicated to the Madonna (21st September) and Saint Cosimo and Damiano (October) still attract small crowds.

Raccuja's Medieval church
Raccuja’s historical centre Copyright Rochelle Del Borrello 2014

However the real crowd pleaser is the annual Sagra of Maceroni. The local businesses, church groups and other volunteers offer a selection of local products together with a small concert one night in August where visitors can eat a flavorsome plate of freshly made maceroni pasta and a drink of your choice for a few Euro.

Last summer I went to Raccuja’s Sagra with some cousins of mine who were visiting from Australia and we had a good time tasting cannoli, eating Nutella covered crepes and sipping hazelnut liquor. People were being ferried in and out of Raccuja well after midnight on courtesy buses. There were many people visiting from places like Germany, Australia, Argentina, northern Italy and local areas.

Some visitors to Sicily (and in fact most of Italy) plan out their vacations moving around from Sagra to Sagra, particularly in the summer. The humble Sagra is a guaranteed cheap meal and you can taste typical products produced in the local area. Some famous Sagra festivals include the Pistachio’s at Bronte (CT), Cous Cous festival San Vito del Capo,  Sagra of the Blood Oranges at Centuripe (EN). There are Sagras dedicated to hazelnuts, salami, cheese, roasted pork, oranges, lemons, it depends where you find yourself in Sicily.

I am contented at Raccuja’s inventiveness and smile at Sicilian’s natural shrewdness, an instinctive trait which helps them to survive. I think my grandparents would be proud of their beloved paese.

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For more information on Sicily’s Sagras see: Feste e Sagre di Sicilia and Food and wine Festivals from Think Sicily

And to see more about Raccuja be sure to check out the Comune di Raccuja’s web page.

 

Literary Islands: Federico De Roberto

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Frederico De Roberto’s I Vicere’ or The Viceroy’s was another accidental discovery for me, thanks to the Italian’s flare for rich television series period drama. I fell in love with De Roberto’s characters thanks to the screen adaptation I watched a few years ago on the RAI television network in Italy (2007).

I was so impressed I went out and brought the book in to discover the world of politics, aristocracy, superstition and Sicilian inertia created by De Roberto and which is still so predominant in contemporary Sicily.

The Viceroys can be easily seen as an evolution or continuation of another Sicilian classic, Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s The Leopard who traces the meandering lives of an upper class ancient Sicilian family. I wouldn’t say I Vicere’ was a sequel rather it shows how the social climate of Sicily changes with the new middle class becoming more intricately intertwined with the world of politics, to keep the distribution of power and wealth the way it has always been in Sicily. Nineteenth century Sicily was controlled by a powerful upper class despite the break down of the class system. Keeping in mind Sicily and Italy made the leap from a type of agricultural feudalism to industrialization in one generation, such quick change was bound to create problems.

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De Roberto shows the development towards the birth of the Christian democrat party who dominated Italian politics for most of the post world war two period, while Lampedusa shows the upcoming working middle class intermingling with the upper class, both significant social and political shifts in Sicilian and Italian history.

Frederico De Roberto masterfully captures the social intrigues and interactions between the aristocracy, lower class and the wider community in Sicily.

Once again it is the Sicilian’s ancient dialect which draws me effortlessly into the world of The Viceroy’s, mixes elements of superstition, religion, gossip, mythology into an earthy language which distills a collective Sicilian experience and knowledge. It is positively intoxicating.

As for english translations our friends at Amazon have The Viceroys available as translated by Archibald Colquhoun which is most promising, I have read many of his other translations and they are wonderful.

To read more about De Roberto’s work be sure to take a look at a wonderful essay by the aforementioned critic and translator Archibald Colquhoun titled ‘De Roberto and The Viceroys‘ published online on Poetry Magazines.

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(Images from Google)

Secluded Sicily: Longi

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Longi, Messina nested in the mountains.
© Rochelle Del Borrello 2013

Longi is a tiny mountain village perched literally on a precipice with one road in and one road out in between the two other rugged mountain towns of Galati Mamertino and Frazzano’

Every time I visit I am amazed at how Sicilian’s were able to establish a place in such an unwelcoming part of the terrain, it makes my head spin to climb up along the road to Longi.

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Detail of Longi
© Rochelle Del Borrello 2013

I would have never discovered this treasure of a place if not for a dear friend and Compare of my husbands who is from this adorable little town. Sicilian’s often use the word Compare (you may recognize the term from the Godfather movies) to describe a close family friend, or someone who has baptized your child or been a best man at your wedding, they are considered great honors which make a Compare or the feminine equivalent Comare part of the immediate family.

Our Compare from Longi has known my husband since high school and my husband was his best man. It is thanks to him and his family that we often make trips up into the mountains to admire the contrasts in the landscape from the lush grazing lands in the tablelands in between the old forests from the highest town site in Sicily, Floresta down to the outskirts of Longi where everything becomes harsh and rocky.

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Longi’s San Leone procession
© Rochelle Del Borrello 2013

Over the years we have discovered Longi’s version of St Leone (yes Longi has chosen the same patron as Sinagra), walked through this timeless piazza and tasted wonderful locally made products from ice cream, to porcini mushrooms, to goats cheese and attended baptisms and other religious celebrations associated with the children of our compare in the equally ancient parish church.

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Viva San Leone at Longi
© Rochelle Del Borrello 2013

This spring we have even discovered the joys of a new adventure park established by the by the wonderful entrepreneurial spirit of the Longesi, together with a surprising array of bed and breakfasts and rustic Trattoria restaurants.

Even if Longi’s hold on the mountains appears precarious it is relatively close to the coast and is a mecca for those who love to pass time in the mountains trekking and escaping the chaos of the overcrowded seaside resorts.

Longi is yet another tenacious Sicilian village who is firmly gripping onto it’s place on the map of Sicily.

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Secluded Sicily: Patti

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Patti, ME © Rochelle Del Borrello 2013

The coastal city of Patti isn’t exactly a typical sleepy little Sicilian town, in the summer it is a buzzing tourist centre and is secured of its importance thanks to the many government offices and organizations that are located there. Patti’s vicinity to other big cities makes it a significant point in the map of north western Sicily.

Patti is symbolic of secluded Sicily in it’s ancientness. I keep coming back to this place thanks to a wonderful literary reference that has given Patti a special place in my heart.

Apart from being the location of a major hospital, law courts, the treasury and land tax office, two major high schools, a university campus and the forestry department amongst others things Patti is also an arch diocese in the Roman Catholic Church.

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Saint Bartholomew Patti, ME © Rochelle Del Borrello

It is this religious element that makes Patti so important. You see, the Basilica of Patti has been around for centuries. The Basilica of Saint Bartholomew is the burial place of Sicilian royalty and nobility dating from the middle ages.

While reading Goethe’s Italian Journey I was left aghast to discover he passed through Patti in the 1786 and was a welcomed guest at the famous monastery.

It surprised me that such an unassuming place could have so much undisclosed history behind it. All it took was a little background reading to discover such an important connection to possibly the most famous travel log of all time.

Patti reminds me never to underestimate any place in Sicily. No matter how dull it may seem, it is always worth taking that exit off the Autostrada to visit Patti and her hidden Mausoleums.

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Secluded Sicily: Sinagra

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Secluded Sinagra (ME)
© Rochelle Del Borrello 2013

My journey into sleepy Sicilian places began with my current home, Sinagra. It is the town that my husband and his family adopted as they gradually moved towards the coast away from the once agriculturally rich mountain regions whose decline began after the post world war two period.

Sinagra is one of those ancient towns who staunchly survives as it is close enough to the coast to be considered a cheap alternative for summer vacation and is an important connecting node in the transport system for trips towards Catania and the interior regions such as Randazzo and Enna.

Like so many other little villages Sinagra is small but steadfast. It’s three thousand inhabitants are tenacious and hold onto their little town as faithfully as they do their patron Saint Leone. Even the many Sinagrese who I have met in Australia never fail to have picture of good old Leone in their house or some other memorabilia dedicated to their birthplace.

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Sinagra in the summer sun
© Rochelle Del Borrello 2013

The main feast day of San Leone at Sinagra is on the eight of May, where a procession of the Saint’s statue is paraded through the town and nearby countryside to herald the beginning of spring. His promenades aren’t limited to May, Leone also makes a sprint over the towns main bridge on Easter Sunday amongst a suggestive pyrotechnic display and has been known to make excursions out to his wintertime home in the country church with his same name where he resides from early November until Easter.

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Santo Leo at the festa on the 8th of May
©Rochelle Del Borrello 2013

Those mad keen Saint lovers of the past used to run San Leone over the rocks of the river that cuts through Sinagra, bare foot and in the middle of the night, where it has been said not a single pilgrim was ever hurt. The Saint seems to have given his blessing to little Sinagra, he helps keep the place alive despite the decay of small townships in Sicily.

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