The Cathedral of Syracuse, Sicily

Ferdinando Scianna/Magnum Photos

The Cathedral of Syracuse, Sicily, 1988. Ancient Doric columns are incorporated into the walls.

Who governs Sicily? Does it matter? With a population of five million (similar to Scotland’s, larger than Croatia’s), this island of 10,000 square miles lying off the toe of Italy’s boot has a special autonomy within the Italian state: it has its own regional parliament and makes its own laws in such areas as agriculture, fishing, the environment, and cultural heritage. At the same time, it is very much governed from Rome and subsidized by Rome far more generously than other regions that do not enjoy such autonomy. Italy itself is to some extent governed by and dependent on the European Union, something that became all too evident in the early months of 2021 with the EU’s failure to guarantee a timely supply of Covid vaccines, a responsibility it had taken over from its member states. On the other hand, it is providing a €200 billion recovery fund to get Italy’s economy back on track, on the condition that Italy spends the money in a way the EU allows. Some member states have suggested that much of it may end up in the hands of the Sicilian mafia.

Many other small and distinct regions of Europe—Catalonia, Corsica, Scotland—are or were in a similar position, enjoying limited legislative powers and a certain latitude in the distribution of funds from their capitals, but without ultimate responsibility for their people’s welfare. The question that arises with some force as one reads Jamie Mackay’s The Invention of Sicily, a brisk account of the island’s almost three-thousand-year history, is: What happens when for centuries there is not only a dysfunctional mismatch between strongly felt local identities and those governing from afar, but also a frequent blurring as to where power actually resides, who is exercising it, and to what end?

Mackay, a British journalist living in Florence, begins his story in classical times and seeks throughout to celebrate Sicily as a place where many ethnicities and cultures meet; he approves when they blend, or at least peacefully cohabit, and deplores periods of conflict and intolerance. If this approach risks reducing history to a gallery of heroes and villains—cosmopolitanism good, nationalism bad—it at least gives his narrative a powerful cohesion. From 800 BCE to the present day, we follow with a mixture of sympathy and dismay the apparently infinite ways in which a people can be unhappily governed, their potential thwarted, and their resources squandered—all in a landscape that could sometimes be mistaken for paradise.

Closer to Tunis than to Naples, to the Peloponnese than to Lombardy, Sicily lies at the crossroads between Europe and Africa and between the western and eastern Mediterranean. When the Greeks began to colonize the east coast in the eighth century BCE, there were already Phoenician trading posts on the western coasts and a number of indigenous peoples scattered across the island. Mackay calls the first half of his book “Utopian Fragments” and ably summarizes the Greek settlements, the dominance of the city of Syracuse, and the trade but also the frequent wars with the Carthaginian Phoenicians and, in 414, with Athens. He also examines the idea of Sicily that gradually took hold of the Greek imagination: a land fertile but arduous, rich but unpredictable—a polarity symbolized by the imposing volcano Etna, spewing smoke and lava but surrounded by the lushest of landscapes.

This is the kind of account that’s worth reading with your laptop open to find images of the places described: the magnificent fifth-century-BCE Doric temple at Segesta in the northwest of the island, built by the Elymian people but to a Greek design. The temple erected at Erice—dating back to 1300 BCE, built by we know not whom—to the African goddess Astarte, whom King Solomon worshiped; it stands on a rocky spur overlooking the western coast. The Dancing Satyr of Mazara del Vallo, a marvelous bronze sculpture from the third or second century BCE recovered from the seabed near Trapani in 1998. The great cathedral in Syracuse with its baroque façade, Norman nave, and, inside, a remarkable line of massive Doric columns from the temple to Athena that had been built with the reparations paid by the Carthaginians after their failed attempt to invade the island in 480 BCE.

It is exciting too to read of Plato’s three visits to Sicily and his concern about the islanders’ lax morals, of Pindar composing his odes in Syracuse and Aeschylus making an appearance to direct his plays, of Sicilian scholars sailing two days to study in the great library at Alexandria, of Archimedes working on his mathematical formulas, then turning his genius to military matters when Syracuse was under siege—in short, to realize how many fragments of one’s cultural baggage originated in Sicily in the centuries when the island spoke Greek. But it is also intriguing to discover that Syracuse hosted the world’s first cooking school, dispatching chefs around the Mediterranean, including Mithaecus, who in the fifth century BCE wrote a book on the art of cooking that included a recipe for scabbard fish with cheese.


The Greeks colonized Sicily, but they did not govern it from afar. Their settlements remained separate, autonomous. Nor did they gain control over the entire island. It was under the Romans that Sicily would be unified for the first time and governed from abroad. It had inevitably become a pawn in the long power struggle between Rome and Carthage, and to hold it was to hold a decisive advantage. In 227 BCE, after a slow but determined invasion, Sicily was declared a province of the Roman Republic, its territory split up and administered along Roman lines, its various peoples—Greek to the east and south, Phoenician to the north and west—obliged to obey Roman laws. The island’s agriculture was reorganized to provide grain, wine, and oil for Rome. Large farms were bought as commercial investments by citizens on the mainland. Made to work harder, armies of slaves rebelled and for two periods in the second century BCE briefly took control of the island.

Mackay is at pains to prevent his book from becoming a list of battles, tyrants, governors, and viceroys. His focus is on cultural change. So though he tells us about Gelon, Hieron, and Dionysius, principal rulers of Syracuse in its Greek phase, he skips the pragmatic Timoleon and the monstrous Agathocles, both extraordinary in their way. It’s understandable. But it does seem an oversight to skip Verres, the Roman governor of the province between 73 and 71 BCE. In Sicily: An Island at the Crossroads of History John Julius Norwich observes:

Sicily suffered greater depredations from Verres than she had from the Punic Wars and the slave revolts combined. He taxed, he impounded, he confiscated, he seduced, he raped, he tortured, he imprisoned, he robbed, he looted.

Eventually the islanders persuaded the Romans to recall Verres and to put him on trial, hiring the great Cicero as their lawyer.

A pattern was forming: an island made up of many different communities had to learn to live with temporary governors bringing ideas and agendas from elsewhere; Sicilians had to seek to understand those governors’ status in their home countries, where ultimate power and perhaps justice resided. Over the centuries Sicily would be invaded by the barbarian Vandals (468–476 CE) and ruled by the Goths (476–535), Christian Byzantium (535–827), Muslim Arabs (827–1061), the Normans (1072–1194), the Swabians (1194–1266), the Angevin French (1266–1282), the Aragonese and the Spanish Hapsburgs (1282–1713), the House of Savoy (1713–1720), the Austrian Hapsburgs (1720–1734), the Spanish Bourbons (1734–1806), the British (1806–1815), and finally the Bourbons once again (1815–1860) until, at last, in 1860 Sicily was absorbed into the new nation of Italy. Each regime brought its own administrators, its barons and nobles, its taxes. Inevitably, over time, strategies of resistance were developed—how to exploit a new arrival’s ignorance of local reality, how to accept change superficially but not deeply—together with a certain skepticism about the duration of any ruling class.

Christianity established itself on the island in the third and fourth centuries. Mackay notes a Sicilian fascination with martyrdom—particularly female martyrdom: Saint Agatha, who had her breasts burned off, and Saint Lucy, who had her eyes poked out—suggesting that there was a quality of social and political resistance in such veneration. With time, however, the Church would become so much a part of the status quo and such a large landowner as to further confuse the locus of power, something already evident during the Byzantine administration of the island beginning in the sixth century. High taxes were levied and many splendid churches built. Syracuse became home to an important ecclesiastical library. Then in the early ninth century the Aghlabid Arabs, who had long been colonizing North Africa, turned their attention to Sicily. Once again the island was caught up in a larger power struggle. In 878, after a long and terrible siege, Syracuse fell to the Arabs; the city was sacked, its citizens enslaved; from then on the island’s center of power shifted to the north coast and Palermo, which was built up in line with Arabic architectural and urban traditions.

Both Mackay and Norwich enthuse over Sicily’s Muslim Arab period and the Christian Norman domination that followed. These centuries were the island’s golden age. The Arabs were efficient administrators who showed a certain religious tolerance and offered education to converts to Islam. They knew medicine and mathematics. They brought innovative systems of terracing and irrigation together with new crops: cotton, papyrus, melon, pistachio, citrus, date palm, sugarcane. They built mosques and markets, and intensified trade. Muslims, Jews, and Christians thronged into the souks. Mackay seems disappointed to have to recount the growing conflict between Sunnis and Shias in the tenth century and the revolt of the Berbers, treated as second-class citizens, in the eleventh. On the continent to the north and east, the two sides of an equally divided Christendom—Rome, Constantinople—were already in competition to see which could take advantage of Arab disarray and reclaim the island.


Norwich, even more than Mackay, tries to give the reader a sense of the bewildering complexity of competing migrations in southern Italy in the aftermath of Roman imperialism. And where Mackay proceeds with a dogged earnestness—“This was by no means a ‘white’ culture,” we are reassured at one point—Norwich (1929–2018) has the old-fashioned ease of the raconteur born long before the era of political correctness. It is curious to see how these different Anglo-Saxon outlooks color their histories of this Mediterranean island. By comparison, in Storia della Sicilia by Francesco Benigno and Giuseppe Giarrizzo, five slim volumes for high school children, one gets little sense either of Mackay’s moral concerns or Norwich’s glamour, but a wealth of facts that must seriously burden the Sicilian student’s mind: “It was the enmity between two qa’id, Ibn al-Thumna, lord of Syracuse, and Ibn al-Hawwaàs, lord of Castrogiovanni, that induced the former to turn for aid to Robert Guiscard who landed in Messina in 1061.”

For Norwich—who dedicated two volumes to the Normans’ reign in Sicily: The Normans in the South, 1016–1130 (1967) and The Kingdom in the Sun, 1130–1194 (1976)Robert, head of the Hauteville family, is “the most dazzling military adventurer between Julius Caesar and Napoleon,” a sentence unthinkable for Mackay, who is relieved to tell us that despite setting out “under the banner of Archangel Michael…this was not an especially xenophobic campaign.” In brief, Pope Nicholas II, anxious about the ambitions of Norman marauders south of Rome and eager, in his quarrel with Byzantium, to bring Sicily back into Roman Christendom, offered Guiscard, with what authority it isn’t clear, the dukedom of Sicily if he could conquer the place.

It would keep him busy: it took the Normans eleven years to fight their way to Palermo, where Robert’s brother Roger remained to govern the island. This he did with exemplary wisdom, retaining Arab administrators, tolerating both Muslim and Greek Orthodox religious practices, and refusing to join the Crusades to recover Jerusalem. None of this the pope had foreseen. Latin, Greek, French, and Arabic were all official languages. Roger’s son, Roger II, crowned king of Sicily in 1130, “was obsessed,” Mackay tells us, “with the task of building unity among the different cultures in his kingdom.” Hence the great cathedral built at Cefalù some forty miles east of Palermo, which mixed Romanesque, Arabic, and Byzantine influences in “a creative piece of political propaganda.” Sales of relics were banned; women adulterers were no longer condemned to death (merely flogged). Coins were minted with Byzantine religious symbols on one side and Islamic inscriptions on the other. Above all, like many before and after him, Roger II tried to impose a rationale on the privileges and responsibilities of land ownership.

“The most effective solution,” Machiavelli wrote in The Prince, “for a ruler occupying a new state with different customs and institutions” is “to go and live there himself.” Much of the success of the Norman kings depended on their presence, their complete commitment. They had no kingdom in the north to return to; Sicily became home, and they thrived on its cultural and linguistic richness. Even so, they were only keeping the lid on an intercommunal hostility that would break out as soon as their charisma waned.

“There was, however,” Mackay tells us, “one further moment of cultural flourishing in the island’s medieval history,” under Frederick II, the son of Roger II’s daughter, Constance, and the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI of Swabia. Nietzsche would see Frederick as “the first European…an atheist…[and] one of the people most closely related to me.” Norwich recounts the complex negotiations and shenanigans surrounding Frederick’s accession with the greatest verve: The Crown pales by comparison. Mackay focuses on Frederick’s decision in the 1220s to forcibly deport 20,000 Sicilian Muslims to Puglia following an Arab rebellion on the island. Frederick, who had been brought up alongside Muslims in Sicily, granted the exiles freedom, employed some of them as bodyguards, and eventually built himself a palace in their settlement. Nevertheless, this deportation was the end of a substantial Arab community in Sicily. Otherwise, Frederick quashed factional wrangling on the island by centralizing all power around the monarch. He banned judges from hearing cases in which they had a conflict of interest, established a lay-educated administration, and presided over a cultural flowering that saw Sicilian poets invent the sonnet form. Norwich gives details of the emperor’s harem and endless debauches.

Meanwhile, Mackay tells us, “Sicilians of all social classes were beginning to speak to one another using a distinctive romance language with common Latin-rooted grammar and syntax.” It was the beginning of a linguistic identity heavily influenced by Latin, Greek, and Arabic, intensely felt, often in opposition to government from abroad, but potentially divided against itself. One of the folk tales told in this language celebrated the antihero Giufà, a boy apparently dim-witted yet at the same time mysteriously sly, who “profits from the untruths, anxieties and deceptions of a…range of authority figures including sultans, kings, father figures and tax collectors.” A Sicilian character-type was emerging: superficially deferential, opportunistic, dangerously innocent, and ready to face six centuries of Angevin and Bourbon rule.

First came a French Angevin king imposed by the pope, governing most of southern Italy from Naples and replacing all the Swabian barons with French barons. Then in 1282 a long revolt—the so-called Sicilian Vespers—whose leaders invited the Aragonese king to take over the island and bring Spanish lords to replace the French. Since Spain and France were now locked in a long struggle for European hegemony, this development would split the island from the Italian mainland throughout the Renaissance—a terrible impoverishment. It also deprived Sicilians of access to the university that Frederick had set up in Naples to train government administrators. “A new form of provincial despotism began to develop on the island,” Mackay tells us, “which would undermine the concepts of law, order and justice for centuries to come.”

In the mid-fourteenth century, this depressing situation was immensely exacerbated by the Black Death, which wiped out as much as half the island’s population and led to a prolonged breakdown of law and order. In the late fifteenth century an ever more doctrinaire Christianity encouraged anti-Semitism to the point that in 1474 350 Jews were massacred in the small town of Modica. In 1492 Judaism was outlawed and the Inquisition arrived. Ten thousand Jews left the island. In 1513 there were thirty-nine public burnings. Mackay describes the graffiti still visible—in Sicilian, Arabic, Greek, Latin, and Hebrew—on the walls of Palazzo Chiaramonte-Steri, which served as the Inquisition’s prison in Palermo. One “depicts the Inquisition itself…[as] a terrifying monster.” Sicily’s “historic cosmopolitanism,” Mackay concludes, “was finally eclipsed by a Catholic monoculture.”

The first of the Spanish kings had lived in Sicily, waging frequent wars with the Angevins in Naples. However, in the fifteenth century the crowns of Aragon and Castile were united in a single Spanish crown, which in the sixteenth century was united under the Hapsburgs with the crown of the Holy Roman Empire. One man—Charles V—now reigned over such vast territories that Sicily became vanishingly irrelevant. Spain’s attention in particular turned to the Americas. In Palermo, unashamedly corrupt viceroys could pursue their private interests without scrutiny. After the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453, the Church banned trade with the Muslim world in the eastern and southern Mediterranean. The Sicilian economy stagnated. Communications deteriorated. Piracy was rife.

In 1693 two huge earthquakes destroyed many of the cities on the east coast. The Hapsburgs sent foreign architects to rebuild the area in the style now celebrated as Sicilian baroque; Mackay sees it as “a Spanish-led effort to bulldoze Sicily’s long and complex cultural history, and replace it with the fantasy of a homogeneous, ordered society.” Norwich enthuses over the “loveliest baroque” and sees a growing alignment of Sicilian and Spanish aesthetics: the Sicilians “loved color and display…the pomp and splendor surrounding the Spanish Viceroys.” The two positions are not altogether incompatible. Mackay acknowledges that throughout these centuries of Spanish rule, “the Sicilians experienced a complex process of adaptation and integration which combined public devotion…with private subversion.”

Let us now fast-forward to the mid-nineteenth century and see how this uneasy collective mindset reacted at the culminating moment of the Risorgimento. Since 1734 Sicily had been governed by kings from the Spanish house of Bourbon reigning in Naples. There had been serious rebellions on the island in 1820 and 1848. In 1860, with pro-unification fervor on the rise throughout the peninsula, Giuseppe Garibaldi landed on the west coast of the island with a thousand volunteers to take advantage of yet another rebellion. He swept away a 20,000-strong Bourbon army and claimed Sicily for the future kingdom of Italy.

Robert Guiscard and Roger I entering Palermo; fresco by Giovanni Patricolo

Ghigo Roli/Bridgeman Images, Palazzo dei Normanni, Palermo

Robert Guiscard and Roger I entering Palermo; fresco by Giovanni Patricolo, circa 1835

Lucy Riall’s Under the Volcano: Revolution in a Sicilian Town offers a meticulously researched account of a notorious incident that marred Garibaldi’s achievement and posed a corrosive counternarrative to the positive myth of Italian unity. Two months after the garibaldini captured Palermo, a mob of peasants fell upon the small town of Bronte on the western slopes of Etna, burning property and killing seventeen people. Garibaldi dispatched one of his most trusted officers to restore order. The rebellion was put down and, after a summary trial, five of the presumed ringleaders were executed. Giovanni Verga would give his version of events in the ferociously ironic novella Liberty (1883), presenting the Bronte rebellion as the moment when southern aspirations to a better life under a united Italy were first betrayed. The fact that the main landowners in Bronte were British prompted sinister interpretations: the peasants had risen up against foreign oppressors, and the new regime had upheld the status quo. It was the kind of event that appears to justify the skepticism famously expressed in Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s novel about the Risorgimento, The Leopard (1958): “Everything must change for everything to remain the same.”

Riall, an Irish historian, returns to the archives and reconstructs the story in all its bewildering complexity. A 16,000-hectare estate, together with the title Duke of Bronte, had been given to the British admiral Horatio Nelson by King Ferdinand IV in 1799 in return for his assistance in quashing a republican revolution in Naples. Nelson never visited the place. His heirs and administrators had tried to run the remote property along modern commercial lines. In particular, they had sought to rent the land directly to the peasants who worked it, cutting out the middlemen between distant owners and uneducated laborers; this change would have benefited both landowners and peasants. The middlemen—essentially Bronte’s wealthy classes and administrators—fought back with interminable legal cases, exploiting relations with complicit judges and inviting the peasants to unite against the evil foreigners.

When in the 1840s the government in Naples decreed that significant proportions of all large estates must be handed over to the town council for distribution to the peasants, the council members held on to these properties themselves. Convinced of their cultural superiority, the British administrators continued to act as if they were in Surrey or Buckinghamshire. The council split into factions, fighting over the use of the new properties they had grabbed, and it was the losing faction that stirred up the peasants who, imagining that with Garibaldi’s victory change was now possible, attacked the leaders of the dominant faction controlling the town council.

To read Riall’s wonderfully detailed account, cavil by cavil, intimidation by intimidation, is to understand what an intractable and perverse world Sicily had become after centuries of foreign rule. Her book offers a convincing rebuttal to any easy attribution of blame, and indeed to the aestheticizing skepticism of Tomasi di Lampedusa. Mackay notes of the passage in The Leopard in which the Sicilian character is described as “hankering for voluptuous immobility,” “What’s so striking…is how little [this] actually pertains to the real emotional and cultural life of the Sicilian people.”

In 1998 Umberto Eco offered some reflections on the Beati Paoli, a legendary, Robin Hood–like band in Sicily that supposedly preyed on the rich to assist the poor. There is no evidence it ever existed. This “illusory project of resistance and liberation” arose, Eco thought, in response to the Spanish colonial project, just as later Cosa Nostra would form in response to the failings of the modern Italian state. Rather than liberation, the result was nothing more than “a state within a state…another form of domination.”

In 1861 Sicily became part of an independent and unified Italian nation. Two Sicilians, Francesco Crispi and Antonio Starabba, were prime ministers of Italy in the 1890s. In 1891 Palermo was chosen to host the Italian Expo. Yet resistance to authority and the sense of being imposed on from afar did not diminish. All three books under review offer an account of how the mafia developed after Italian unification as a sort of shadow government, offering “protection,” jobs, and sustenance in return for unquestioning loyalty, while drawing its wealth from criminal activities. All of them record the mafia’s extraordinary resistance to both reform and repression. The liberal governments of the early twentieth century could make no headway against it. Mussolini made 11,000 arrests but could not crush it. The Allies negotiated with it in preparation for the invasion of Sicily in 1943, appointing the mafia boss Tasca Bordonaro as the first post-Fascist mayor of Palermo. In the 1990s, Mackay remarks, “many Sicilians still saw the local administration as effectively indistinguishable from Cosa Nostra.” Nevertheless, he ends his book on a positive note, convinced that the many African immigrants who have arrived in Sicily in recent years, bringing with them new energies and a determination to “call out mafia involvement” in the refugee camps, “can become active protagonists in shaping the future of life on the island.”

Such optimism is admirable but hard to share. In crises of every kind, Italian leaders rush to remind their citizens that “the state is present” and that “no one will be left behind.” Yet as the mafia observer Roberto Saviano insists, the Covid lockdowns and the government’s slowness in compensating those who have lost their livelihoods in the pandemic offer the ideal environment for criminal organizations to step in with high-interest loans and “alternative” employment. “How the Mafia Is Ready to Get Its Hands on the [European] Recovery Fund” was the headline of an article in the Italian edition of the online magazine Money on March 4. The “invention of Sicily” continues.