Seeking Sicily: A Cultural Journey Through Myth and Reality in the Heart of the Mediterranean

Seeking Sicily: A Cultural Journey Through Myth and Reality in the Heart of the Mediterranean

by John Keahey

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"Keahey's exploration of this misunderstood island offers a much-needed look at a much-maligned land."—Paul Paolicelli, author of Under the Southern Sun

Sicily is the Mediterranean's largest and most mysterious island. Its people, for three thousand years under the thumb of one invader after another, hold tightly onto

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"Keahey's exploration of this misunderstood island offers a much-needed look at a much-maligned land."—Paul Paolicelli, author of Under the Southern Sun

Sicily is the Mediterranean's largest and most mysterious island. Its people, for three thousand years under the thumb of one invader after another, hold tightly onto a culture so unique that they remain emotionally and culturally distinct, viewing themselves first as Sicilians, not Italians. Many of these islanders, carrying considerable DNA from Arab and Muslim ancestors who ruled for 250 years and integrated vast numbers of settlers from the continent just ninety miles to the south, say proudly that Sicily is located north of Africa, not south of Italy.

Seeking Sicily explores what lies behind the soul of the island's inhabitants. It touches on history, archaeology, food, the Mafia, and politics and looks to nineteenth- and twentieth-century Sicilian authors to plumb the islanders' so-called Sicilitudine. This "culture apart" is best exemplified by the writings of one of Sicily's greatest writers, Leonardo Sciascia. Seeking Sicily also looks to contemporary Sicilians who have never shaken off the influences of their forbearers, who believed in the ancient gods and goddesses.

Author John Keahey is not content to let images from the island's overly touristed villages carry the story. Starting in Palermo, he journeyed to such places as Arab-founded Scopello on the west coast, the Greek ruins of Selinunte on the southwest, and Sciascia's ancestral village of Racalmuto in the south, where he experienced unique, local festivals. He spent Easter Week in Enna at the island's center, witnessing surreal processions that date back to Spanish rule. And he learned about Sicilian cuisine in Spanish Baroque Noto and Greek Siracusa in the southeast, and met elderly, retired fishermen in the tiny east-coast fishing village of Aci Trezza, home of the mythical Cyclops and immortalized by Luchino Visconti's mid-1940s film masterpiece, La terra trema. He walked near the summit of Etna, Europe's largest and most active volcano, studied the mountain's role in creating this island, and looked out over the expanse of the Ionian Sea, marveling at the three millennia of myths and history that forged Sicily into what it is today.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
When travel writer Keahey first visited Sicily in 1986, he discovered that it hardly resembled the bucolic images of peasant men and women hauling huge piles of newly harvested grapes or of donkey carts carrying oversized milk cans. Disappointed, he began his search for the Sicily of an earlier era and found it in the pages of numerous 19th- and early 20th-century novelists and essayists. Seeking to understand better the richness of Sicilian culture and its 3,000-year history, Keahey visited Sicily four times between March 2009 and March 2010 to see the island in various seasons. He sets out to capture Sicily through conversations with islanders and by studying their writers and their myths. For example, Keahey weaves Giovanni Verga’s short stories about the carts used to carry people on rough 19th-century roads with the story of Franco Bertolino, the last of the traditional Sicilian cart painters; Bertolino is at once nostalgic and resigned to this closing chapter of Sicilian history. Keahey ranges widely over topics from language and festivals to food and the Mafia. He points out that the Sicilian language has no future tense, surmising that was likely due to Sicilians having long been occupied by other empires and had no hope of having an independent future. Keahey’s journey is a rich guide to the culture and history of Sicily. (Nov.)
Library Journal
Keahey (Venice Against the Sea; A Sweet and Glorious Land: Revisiting the Ionian Sea) takes a meandering and inspiring tour through the history, culture, and landscape of Sicily, an island that has been a crossroads for the various peoples of the Mediterranean for millennia. Known to many Americans as the birthplace of the Mafia, Sicily has, through the centuries, been ruled by the ancient Greeks and Romans, Normans, and Arabs, among others, and its language, food, and architecture exhibit influences of its visitors and invaders. Keahey also examines the island through the words of several contemporary Sicilians, most notably the author Leonardo Sciascia. VERDICT Keahey's thoroughly researched book will inspire any traveler to look past the Sicily of the traditional tourist's guide and appreciate its diverse, layered, and sometimes dark history. Armchair travelers will also want to dip into many of the books Keahey references, including those by Sciascia, a number of which have been translated into English (e.g., The Day of the Owl; To Each His Own). (Several recipes are included; maps and photographs not seen.)—Linda M. Kaufmann, Massachusetts Coll. of Liberal Arts Lib., North Adams
Kirkus Reviews
Veteran newspaperman Keahey continues his exploration of Italian civilization with an appreciation of the rich, vibrant surroundings of Italy's largest autonomous island. Having previously explored both the Ionian Sea region and the disastrous fate of an ever-sinking Venice (Venice Against the Sea: A City Besieged, 2002), the author turns his journalistic eye toward Sicily, a "strange, magnificent, brooding island." Keahey meticulously observes the history, colorful customs and culture of Sicilians with boundless curiosity. He climbs the rickety scaffolding in capital city Palermo to capture the best view of the palazzo compound of taciturn Sicilian novelist Giuseppe di Lampedusa. He shares a stroll through a cuisine cornucopia at Vucciria marketplace and observes the region's many unwieldy, grandiose festivals and processions honoring patron saints and Easter Week. After illuminating the island's varying economic strata, Keahey retraces the fascinating history of village squares once used for public burnings and the restoration of a local prison. Some of his sightseeing is informally guided by indigenous "Siciliani," an assemblage of prideful natives whose characteristics the author describes with the same spirited deliberation as chapters on myths, food, native dialects and the histrionics of the Sicilian Mafiosi. In a superbly sensory chapter, Keahey marvels at variations in Sicilian cuisine with mouthwatering descriptions flooding the pages of this lush travelogue. With extensive details and a fond admiration of its people, Keahey effectively articulates why the people of this charming island "are Sicilians before they are Italians, and why no amount of time under the control of Rome will ever change that."

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St. Martin's Press
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“A Leopard in Very Bad Trim”

Don Fabrizio could not know it then, but a great deal of the slackness and acquiescence for which the people of the South were to be criticized during the next decades was due to the stupid annulment of the first expression of liberty ever offered them.

—Giuseppe di Lampedusa, The Leopard (1960)

“IN SICILY, ‘no’ often becomes ‘yes’!”

So proclaims Claudio Cutrona as we scramble down scaffolding erected against a nondescript building just a few blocks from the port of Palermo. It is a bright March morning in 2010 under a cloudless sky near the heart of Palermo’s old town. The day before, Claudio, my host at a bed-and-breakfast tucked nearby in a narrow medieval-era street of the Vucciria, had obtained permission from a group of painters to let us climb their scaffolding. From that perch, we could look down into the ruined grounds of the neighboring compound that holds the busted-up remains of the fabled Palazzo Lampedusa.

The palazzo, in much gentler times, had been the home since his birth there in 1897 of Giuseppe di Lampedusa, author of the great Sicilian masterpiece, Il gattopardo (The Leopard), a novel that is a must-read for anyone who wants insight into Sicilians and how they became who they are, separate both culturally and emotionally from the rest of Italy.

Locked doorways and stone walls, perhaps fifteen feet high, had closed off the 1,600-square-yard compound for the past sixty-seven years. An Allied bomb, dropped on April 5, 1943, and aimed at German and Italian ships in the nearby Port of Palermo, missed its target, blasting the palazzo apart, turning its western wing to chunks of stone and shattered plaster; its eastern wing, still standing, was peeled open like a can of beans, exposing rooms, some with ceiling frescoes and huge carved-stone fireplaces, to decades of rain and wind.

Briefly, in the years immediately following the war, brick-making equipment had been set up in the rubble, complete with a tin roof held up on hastily poured concrete pillars. It served to help rebuild portions of bomb-damaged central Palermo. But that manufacturing site, too, was abandoned and the compound was closed off.

Now this space, with its jumble of stones and large trees, palms and hardwoods springing out of the destruction, is inexplicably full of workers. From the scaffold, we watch them cut up the woody vegetation and haul it away.

Claudio, from his perch, shouts down, asking one of the men piling up great chunks of freshly cut tree limbs if we can come in. His curt response: “No! It is too dangerous.”

Then, the man in charge, an architect who joins the workers during this discussion, shouts up, asking Claudio why we want to come inside. Told that an American writer, an admirer of Giuseppe Tomasi, prince of Lampedusa, and his great Sicilian novel, is with him, the young architect doesn’t hesitate. “Yes! Of course,” he says. “Come around the wall and enter through the small doorway from Via Bara all’Olivella.”

*   *   *

The bombs that laid waste in 1943 to much of central Palermo and this once magnificent palazzo were preparing the way for the Allied invasion of Sicily. Some of the destruction was not Allied-caused, however. German sappers set explosives throughout the city center in preparation for their army’s departure. The island had been under the control of Axis troops of Germans and Italians. The Allied invasion, launched from newly conquered North Africa, began at the island’s south shore the night of July 9. On July 22, American general George Patton’s army, after slogging its way in a northwestern sweep from Gela and Licata, entered Palermo against light resistance, the Germans by then far to the east.

Sicilians, digging out of the rubble of war, generally welcomed the Allied invaders just as they had initially welcomed Garibaldi and his red-shirted army of one thousand–plus northern Italians eighty-three years before. They were eager to get out from under German and fascist domination. That, plus many of the U.S. soldiers were first- and second-generation Sicilian-Americans whose families had immigrated to America decades earlier.

Sicilians, I suspect, also saw this twentieth-century war as a chance to declare their independence from Italy, a once grand but now unrealistic idea that had faded over the decades. Sicilian separatists, along with their neighbors in Sardinia to the northwest, eventually were silenced with the Italian government’s offer to make the islands into autonomous, self-governing regions. Today, there may be some self-governing, but Rome still calls most of the shots.

The battle for Sicily ended August 17, 1943, when what was left of the German army, some sixty thousand troops, skipped across the Strait of Messina onto the toe of southern Italy. Italy surrendered on September 3 and became an ally of the Americans and British. Allied troops did not take Rome until June 1944, and it took nearly another brutal, bloody year before Italy was completely reclaimed.

*   *   *

We scramble down the scaffolding and retrace our steps along the east wall of the palazzo, the most intact part of the building. Our pathway along this edge goes through what used to be the narrow garden of the Oratory of Saint Zita, a building still located on the other side of the open space. The garden is now gone; it is simply a patch of dirt where vehicles for the workers were parked.

Lampedusa’s mother’s dressing room had been on the third floor on this side of the once glorious palace. Lampedusa, in autobiographical writings, tells us that her room had two balconies overlooking the garden and offering a view that remained ripe in Giuseppe’s memory until his death in 1957, just months before Il gattopardo was published. Today, those balconies, and the nine others that dominated the front of the palace along Via Lampedusa, are gone.

I am excited to be invited inside. The location of the palazzo had come to my attention the previous November. Via Lampedusa, a narrow street that, a hundred years before, knew the clatter of horse-drawn carriages used by the wealthy and ancient Lampedusa clan, was closed off at both ends, as were the large wooden gates leading into the compound. Around the corner, a small doorway led through the protective stone wall along Via Bara all’Olivella. It also was shuttered and locked. Peeking through a crack, I could see only junglelike foliage and tumbled masonry.

Via Lampedusa was blocked off because just across the street the Bank of Sicily was renovating the Branciforte Palace, also a sixteenth-century structure. It will become a museum hosting painting and sculpture exhibits. Its restoration architect, Gae Aulenti, created the Musée d’Orsay in Paris out of a former train station.

During that first visit in November 2009, a construction worker had let me through the gate closing off the street so I could see the front wall of the sealed-off Palazzo Lampedusa compound. He had stood with me as I looked over the ruined, crumbling façade of this once great building.

Shrugging, he said simply: “Nessuno. Abbandonato per molti anni. Si è rovinato, perduto.” (No one. Abandoned for many years. It is ruined, lost.)

Now just four months later, we are greeted warmly at that small door through the wall, held wide open by Gabriele Graziano and Alice Franzitta, two thirtysomething Palermitani who introduce themselves as architects. We step into the bombed-out area, gingerly dodging workmen hauling out the great chunks of freshly toppled trees.

This place had a small role in The Leopard (printed in English in 1960). It is a novel, a bit of historical fiction manufactured by Giuseppe di Lampedusa. He based it loosely on his grandfather, Giulio Tomasi (1815–1885), called in the book by the name Don Fabrizio Corbera, prince of Salina.

The book, a blockbuster when it was published posthumously in Italian, was made into a 1963 film by Luchino Visconti. It starred Burt Lancaster as the prince and Claudia Cardinale as Angelica, the bride-to-be of Fabrizio’s nephew, Tancredi, played by Alain Delon. It tells the story of an aristocratic Bourbon family and the impact Garibaldi’s invasion of Sicily in the name of Italian Unification had on its members.

In the book and film, Tancredi convinces his uncle of the need for Garibaldi to overthrow the island’s Bourbon rulers and bring Sicily into Italy. He speaks the oft-repeated lines that seem to sum up a classic Sicilian attitude: “Unless we ourselves take a hand now, they’ll foist a republic on us. If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change. D’you understand?”

Now, standing here in the midst of this long-hidden, bombed-out place, I discover that my timing is remarkable. Gabriele and Alice tell us that the workers began to clear out the trees and the rubble just one week earlier. Soon the rest of the ruined structure will be torn down, leveling a three-story building whose foundations were laid in 1480, and expanded upon in 1505, before being acquired by the Lampedusa family in 1788.

“It is impossible to save any of it for restoration,” Gabriele said sadly.

The two architects, along with another colleague, Sabina Padrut, have been given a remarkable opportunity: the rebuilding of Palazzo Lampedusa.

“Of course,” Gabriele says, “we cannot replicate the interior. But the exterior will be as it originally was, before the bombing. The property is owned by thirty people. They created a foundation, and we will build apartments for each of the owners.”

There will actually be thirty-one units, he says. The extra one may, or may not, be for sale when the project is complete in five years. I have to remember: This is Sicily, where nothing seems to get done according to schedule.

Short of that reality, this is exciting news. Many buildings in Palermo have been rebuilt over the decades following the war; many others are in desperate need of restoration. Some, in the port area and in the medieval market section of the Vucciria in one of the city’s oldest areas, are still in ruins, untouched since the aerial bombardment of World War II. Even in the heart of the city, some of the buildings along busy thoroughfares are abandoned. And many balconies on both occupied and unoccupied buildings are closed off and shrouded in heavy netting to keep pieces of stone and rusted iron railing from falling onto passersby below.

*   *   *

Giuseppe di Lampedusa, who wrote The Leopard late in life, in the opening chapter of an autobiography he started but never finished, “Places of My Infancy,” offers a good description of his family’s palace on Via Lampedusa. If the architects are true to their word—and I have no doubt that they are—they have a solid literary blueprint to follow.

Giuseppe and his parents lived in one wing, the one on the east end; his paternal grandparents occupied the other wing; bachelor uncles lived on the second floor. There were “three courtyards, four terraces, garden, huge staircases, halls, corridors, stables, rooms on the mezzanine for servants and offices—a real kingdom for a boy alone, a kingdom either empty or sparsely populated by figures unanimously well-disposed.”

Lampedusa was inclined, in later life, not to call it a palace. He preferred Casa Lampedusa, the “house” of Lampedusa, believing the word “palace” had been debased in modern Italy.

As for the façade that the architects promise to replicate, Lampedusa said it had “no particular architectural merit.” It was made of white stone. The borders around the windows were “sulfur yellow, in purest Sicilian style of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.” The front along Via Lampedusa ran for seventy yards, he wrote, with wide gates near each corner, and across an upper floor were strung nine balconies.

This palace was the family’s townhome in the 1860s when the novel takes place. Of course, the Lampedusa descendants, including the author’s family, occupied it nearly full-time during the twentieth century; Giuseppe last slept in it just two months before it was ripped asunder by the Allied bomb.

*   *   *

Most of the book’s events take place in two other Lampedusa palaces owned by the family of the fictional prince: one is a palazzo on the northern outskirts of Palermo on the Piana dei Colli, today a scene for concerts and art exhibitions. This palace occupies the opening scenes in both the book and the film with the family kneeling in prayer during a private Mass. The other principal site for both book and movie is the fictional Donnafugata in southwest Sicily, based on the ancestral country estate of Lampedusa’s mother.

As for the house in Palermo, the site of the architects’ ambitious restoration project, it is referred to in the movie only as a place where the prince stashes his carriage when he rides into town, accompanied by his personal priest, to meet with a prostitute—after he drops the priest at his order’s monastery. And when Garibaldi’s Red Shirts are about to enter Palermo, the prince sends his eldest son, Paolo, from the palace on Piana dei Colli to occupy the townhome, saying the structure, if it were empty, would be a tempting prize for an invader.

At the book’s end, in a section not replicated in the film, the dying prince is returning from Naples, where he has seen physicians for his deteriorating health. The family decides to put him up in a Palermo hotel rather than the nearby palazzo because “the house was not in order … it was used only for occasional luncheons by the sea; there wasn’t even a bed in it.”

While in a room in that hotel, the Hotel Trinacria, which was a real place in the late 1800s and early twentieth century, the prince observes himself in a mirror. “He recognized his own suit more than himself: very tall and emaciated, with sunken cheeks and three days’ growth of beard … A leopard in very bad trim. Why, he wondered, did God not want anyone to die with his own face on?”

Giuseppe di Lampedusa, before the bomb, had imagined himself dying in the family’s Palermo home, in the same room he had occupied since childhood, just a few feet from where his mother gave birth to him. Her room was “very lovely, its ceiling scattered with flowers and branches of old coloured stucco, in a design gentle and corporeal as a piece of music by Mozart.”

I saw a photograph in March 2010, taken by the architects, of that ceiling painting. Neither Giuseppe nor the prince made it home, each dying in strange places, alone with their memories.

*   *   *

Reading The Leopard was a significant step in attempting to understand Sicily and Sicilians. Through the dialogue of the characters, principally the prince of Salina and his nephew, Tancredi, Giuseppe di Lampedusa progressively reveals how Sicilians are the way they are and how they differ from mainland Italians.

The prince is a man of the privileged upper class that has flourished for generations under the Bourbon rulers based in Naples. He senses that change is coming and works to adapt to it so his and his family’s way of life will continue. He has taken Tancredi, the son of a sister, under his wing and, it seems, has much more feeling for him as a son than as his nephew. Tancredi is a cynic in the true Italian sense of the word: one who readily adapts to changing circumstances and who can shift loyalties when it’s convenient. He joins Garibaldi and the red-shirted One Thousand to free Sicily from Bourbon rule. Then, when it works to his advantage, he abandons Garibaldi, who has fallen from favor among the Piedmontese. Tancredi joins the royalist army of Vittorio Emanuele II, king of Piedmont, Savoy, and Sardinia, who became the first king of a united Italy in March 1861.

There are telling lines in the novel that reveal much about the secretive Sicilians of the mid- to late nineteenth century: “[I]n this secret island, where houses are barred and peasants refuse to admit they even know the way to their own village in clear view on a hillock within a few minutes’ walk from here…”

The most important part of the book is the dialogue between the prince and Cavaliere Aimone Chevalley di Monterzuolo, who as a government official in the newly unified nation invites Don Fabrizio to be a senator in Parliament. The prince, tired and sensing his days are numbered, turns him down. He cites the centuries that Sicily has been ruled by others of differing religions and languages.

The newest conquerors at the time, northern Italians, certainly did not speak Sicilian. Through all this sweep of history and rule by foreigners, Sicilians accommodated themselves to this reality. Now this accommodation, and the inability to participate fully in government, has become ingrained in Sicilian souls. Since the time that Garabaldi and his Red Shirts landed at Marsala, “too many things have been done without [Sicilians] being consulted for you to be able now to ask a member of the old governing class to help develop things and carry them through.… We’re as white as you are, Chevalley, and as the Queen of England; and yet for two thousand and five hundred years we’ve been a colony. I don’t say that in complaint; it’s our fault. But even so we’re worn-out and exhausted.”

Despite Chevalley’s pleas that things are different now—after all, Sicily is part of a unified nation—Don Fabrizio will not budge. He and his fellow Sicilians want only sleep. “… they will always hate anyone who tries to wake them, even in order to bring the most wonderful gifts; and I must say, between ourselves, I have strong doubts whether the new Kingdom will have many gifts for us in its luggage.”

These were prophetic words on the part of Don Fabrizio. Northern Italians did not offer much to the South, except the draft to fight Italy’s wars. The South became a source of labor; industry was largely kept in the North. In recent times, some industry has moved south; Fiat established a major auto-manufacturing plant on the coast east of Palermo. However, in the late first decade of the twenty-first century, when the company faced economic troubles, it was the plant in Sicily and the thousands of jobs it represented that was targeted for shutdown.

Of course, Giuseppe di Lampedusa had nearly a hundred years of experiences from his own lifetime to know how to give meaning wisely to the prince’s words. Nevertheless, the prince’s concluding words to Chevalley, describing the physical environment Sicilians labor in, capture what writers Giovanni Verga, Luigi Pirandello, Leonardo Sciascia, and others wrote about so brilliantly.

[T]his climate which inflicts us with six feverish months at a temperature of a hundred and four; count them, Chevalley, count them: May, June, July, August, September, October; six times thirty days of sun sheer down on our heads; this summer of ours which is as long and glum as a Russian winter and against which we struggle with less success; you don’t know it yet, but fire could be said to snow down on us as on the accursed cities of the Bible; if a Sicilian worked hard in any of those months he would expend energy enough for three; then water is either lacking altogether or has to be carried from so far that every drop is paid for by a drop of sweat; and then the rains, which are always tempestuous and set dry river beds to frenzy, drown beasts and men on the very spot where two weeks before both had been dying of thirst.

To break this spell of ingrained Sicilian temperament is nearly impossible. “The crust is formed.”

Today, summers remain beastly hot, but air-conditioning is everywhere. Ubiquitous automobiles replace the donkey and led to footpaths between villages becoming paved roads. Irrigation systems keep fields green and vibrant. Markets are full of products. But, Fiat aside, Sicily and its sister regions in southern Italy face still double-digit unemployment and likely will for decades to come.

Life is certainly better today than during the lifetime of the prince, when he and his family lived in robust comfort while the peasants that worked his farms, vineyards, orchards, and olive groves suffered and starved. Many of those former peasants, like Don Calogero Sedàra, whose daughter, Angelica, married Tancredi—a marriage between the social classes that before Garibaldi arrived would have been unheard of—became the new upper middle class. It was Don Calogero, instead of Don Fabrizio, who ended up as senator in the Italian Parliament.

The Sicily I found in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries obviously has much improved on the prince’s preferred feudal world. But the repression by three thousand years of conquerors and the inability to control its own destiny—along with the resistant soil and the Sicilian blood that repeatedly stained it—are part of who the people are as much as the Greeks and the Arabs.

Lampedusa’s gift of The Leopard was the beginning to this understanding.


Copyright © 2011 by John Keahey

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