Category Archives: History

The Leopard

This month marks the 150th anniversary of Garibaldi’s landings in Sicily as part of the national unification movement – and nobody in Sicily seems to care. Fact is often stranger than fiction, and the historical novel that provoked serious reconsideration of the unification war and its aftermath remains the bestselling Sicilian work of fiction half a century after its initial publication.

is the story of an aristocratic family of Palermo beginning in 1860. Important themes abound within its pages, and it remains as fresh and readable today as it was over fifty years ago. It was published shortly after the death of its author, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, himself a Sicilian nobleman.

What’s interesting is that this unique novel is still fairly popular. More than any other book, it has shaped the opinions of many Sicilians over the last five decades, challenging what – until the fall of the House of Savoy and the end of Fascism – was advocated by the Italian police state as the “official” view of Italian unification.Posted byVincenzo Salernoat7:31 AM

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Prison of the Inquisition at Palazzo Steri

For almost 200 years Sicily lived one of the darkest pages of history, as did many parts of Mediterranean Europe; an execrable “added value” of what was already an oppressive domination at the time: the Spanish Inquisition. Though it began officially in 1601 and ended in 1782 under the enlightened vision of Neopolitan viceroy Caracciolo it had, however, already existed on other parts of the island for many years prior as part of a free-for-all lynching against the Conversos and others found guilty of what was deemed stregonery and heretical.

In its quest to “keep the faith”, it inflicted the most gruesome forms of torture conceived by deranged human minds, and in Palermo, these were practiced in and around the Palazzo Steri in Piazza Marina, which became the Inquisition tribunal and seat. The palace itself, oddly enough, was already the theater of sanguinary transitions of power: built by and belonging to the powerful Chiaramonte family (so imposing was their fame and wealth throughout Sicily that the architectural style known as the Chiaramontano derives from their family) in the early 1300s, the last heir was decapitated by Spanish troops just outside the main entrance; subsequently, the exterior of the palace was rigged with cages that exposed the heads of nobility that rebelled against Charles V, used as deterrents to those who dared to do the same.
It was in this lugubrious environment therefore that the setting became almost natural for the inhumane sentences that were carried out. People of all races and creeds who spoke all the known vernaculars of the time and who still populated the island well beyond the decree of Ferdinand and Isabella were literally swept off the streets when accused of, or even merely suspected of committing, dubious crimes against the church. Packed into minuscule cells, they somehow found a way to express their fears, their anger, their despair – and, in some bizarre instances of Inquisition Stockholm Syndrome, expressions of unwavering faith to the church – through etchings and graffitis that “decorated” the detention cells.

All manner of materials were used, from blood to excrements to smuggled coal. Miraculously, as a testament to the gruesome ambiance that was the Steri Palace, many of these graffitis have remained intact, serving as vivd reminders of the horror and ignorance of the past and as proof of how the Inquisition made no distinction about whom it put on trail – the most exemplary of these graffitis can be considered the one that expresses the verses of the Apostles’ Creed, written in 17th century English.Posted byConchita Vecchioat3:18 PM

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Morgantina Silver

Until the first week of August, Palermo’s Salinas Archaeological Museum is hosting an exceptional display of ancient Greek silver discovered at the Morgantina site near Enna in east-central Sicily.

Interesting as this is, the tale of its discovery – and how the Italian government retrieved it from the Metropolitan museum in New York, which had purchased it from art traffickers in the 1980s – is just as remarkable. Some of these objects are truly unique.

The exhibit is well worth a visit if you’re in Palermo any time soon. read about this treasure in Antonella’ Gallo’s article () in the July issue of our online Magazine.Posted byVincenzo Salernoat10:51 AM

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Operation Husky, July 10, 1943, Licata – Then and Now

Today the city of Licata marked the 67th anniversary of the Allied Invasion of Sicily, which contributed to the liberation of Italy form the Axis, the crushing, ruthless domination of Nazi Fascism. My considerations in remembering this historical milestone are however far from being didactic, as the military strategies and phases of Operation Husky are public domain and the chronology widely available everywhere, in any form of media.

My musings on today’s marking are dictated by purely personal reasons that are twofold, as both my parents and their families had literally front-row seats right in Licata while taking refuge in the countryside and saw the invasion unfold before their eyes, and as an American citizen living in Sicily. Just children back then, what little memories of the past are however very vivid. My mother clearly remembers, as a 6-year-old, waking up one morning and seeing what seemed like thousands of ships in the sea in front of her. She also recalls being approached together with her siblings and cousins by American soldiers who offered them gum, peanut butter, and chocolate, which they all too gleefully accepted – met by the scorn, however, of their grandmother, who had ordered them not to take that “stuff from the devil”. They also remembered the courtesy and respect of the soldiers even when appropriating houses to set up their headquarters. Stories of how almost all the local men buried or burned their “black shirts” – the de riguer symbol of Fascist proclivities – the instant the troops set foot on land and greeted them with cheers and applause is exemplary of how reaction to the invasion was met.

Yes, it can be said that the opportunism ran rampant, but one only has to study the complex history of Sicily to understand the nature of the gesture: three thousand years of invasions and oppressions created a mentality where the next ones coming in were often seen as liberators from the status quo – even if, subsequently, they often revealed themselves to be more belligerent than the predecessors – therefore the appreciation for invaders became an automatic reflex.
But if the Allied Invasion of 1943 was met at the time with a sense of relief, today much of the local media see things differently, barking words and declarations such as “destruction….atrocities….bombings….horrors” from their anchor chairs and paper columns to indicate what happened on that day. Granted, no war is ever fair, nor does it not leave scars, and many were left around Sicily, as evidenced by the bombings of sites and monuments lost forever (never mind the fact however that nearly 70 years later local governments in succession have done little or nothing to restore what is still salvageable). There was, is, and always will be bloodshed and senseless deaths during a war, as happened in the Biscari (now Acate) Massacre, for which Sargent H.T. West was court marshaled for erroneously interpreting the over-the-top orders of General Patton. The battle cry of the commentators today has the underlying innuendo that Americans literally handed over Sicily to the Mafia, which, they lament, is why the island now finds itself in its current state.
Before playing the blame game, a very popular sport in these parts, and even though history does ascertain that the larger-than-life types of the Sicilian-American underworld did have a hand in the skulduggery of the Invasion, I can’t help but ask myself if these detractors of the United States – many of whom despise it yet would sell their mothers down the river to live there – are familiar with the history of the time, and the choices Sicily faced in 1943. For those who still choose to bury their heads in the sand, I’ll refresh their memories: it was either be “handed over” to the Mafia (and nearly becoming annexed to the United States) or fall into German control and ultimately become a Russian satellite country. To those who still choose to be in denial, it would have meant that Sicilians today would not have been unlike the citizens of the former Soviet bloc they so deride for being uncouth, vulgar, and “third world”. It would have meant that if Hitler had carried out his grand plan to eliminate the Mediterranean “race” yours truly would probably not be writing this, nor would these two-bit journalists be alive to express their disdain. In contemplating the lesser of the two evils I certainly do not condone in any shape or form the outcome post-Invasion, as the consequences and ramifications are still more than blatant today, but it baffles me as to why many choose to ignore the course of history, or how they could have benefited from a totalitarian regime not unlikeĀ  the one they were freed from.

Posted by Conchita Vecchioat 7:06 PM

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