TravelMapOfSicily.comSicilian History: Art & Culture In Italy

Located between Europe and Africa, island of Sicily was touched, changed and marked by many cultures: first by Greeks and Romans, after that by Arabs and Normans, and finally by French, Spanish and Italians, all of them contributing to an unequalized historical legacy. This multi-faceted culture is evidenced in the fascinating mix of art and architecture (including two of the best-preserved Greek temples in the world!).

The older human skull, found near Agrigento, is over half million years old! The cave paintings found in Addaura cavern, settled on the slopes of Mount Pellegrino, near Palermo, have been dated to 8,000 BC and suggest that the Neolithic culture in the region was quite similar to those from central and western Europe. At around 5,000 BC the Siculi and Sicani cultures gave to this Mediterranean island its name; around 900 BC the Phoenician began to colonize the area, founding Carthage in North Africa and Mozia, Solunto and Palermo on the island of Sicily.

The Greek colonization of Sicily began around 750 BC. The Greeks founded cities such as Syracuse, Catania, Zancle (the contemporary Messina), Gela and Selinus. Sicily and the southern part of the Italian peninsula were completely colonized by Greeks and this region was known as Magna Graecia (Greater Greece); there lived more Greeks and were built more temples than in Greece! Magna Graecia was extremely fertile - olives and vines were introduced and was developed a very profitable trading. Of course, the prosperity conducted to rivalries and the internal battles were frequent and bloody. The Greek settlements, initially democratic in nature, became tyrannic and many war-time alliances were formed. In 480 BC, at the battle of Himera, the alliance formed between Agrigento, Syracuse and Gela defeated the Carthaginian, heralding the beginning of a "Golden Age".

In time, the Carthaginian invaders won the control over more than half of the island. Greece ruled the other part and as result Sicily became a battleground for the rival empires. A century of antagonism between Greeks and Carthaginian was followed by battles between Romans and Carthaginian, which flared in 264 BC with the first Punic War. Syracuse fell during the second Punic War, heralding the beginning of more than 500 years of Roman rule. Sicily was very prosperous under Romans, but the resources of the island were depleted. The forests were destroyed for ship building and the created fields filled the island, consequently Sicily was named the "Bread basket of Rome". The economic development was throttled by the large estates called "Latifundia", created by Romans, whose rule was notoriously corrupt. Despite to the fact that many Greek temples were destroyed, the Greek culture and language retained their importance and influence.

The Christian era began in Sicily sometime after 200 AD. In 313 AD the emperor Constantine lifted the prohibition against Christians, when the Roman Empire began to look towards Constantinople. Following the decline of the Roman Empire, Sicily was invaded and occupied by Vandal, Ostrogoth and Byzantine. In the ninth century was the turn of Arabs, Berbers and Spanish Muslims, named collectively Saracen, to invade the island.

In 832 AD the Arabs conquered Palermo, which became their capital and transformed into one of the most flourishing cosmopolitan places in the world! At that time oranges and lemons were grown commercially for the first time in history and advanced irrigation was introduced to the island. The previously taxes were reduced and started a period of relative religious tolerance.

The Arabs were displaced by the Norman conquest of Sicily. Roger de Hauteville, a Norman knight, conquered and ruled this land with his brothers and with just a few hundred of knights from Normandy, Lombardy and southern Italy. The Norman presence was so slight that they were forced to accept and adapt to the pre-existing administrative and judicial system. Their use of Arabic and Byzantine methodology and architecture resulted into a unique fusion of styles, with a remarkable and enduring legacy of art and architecture.

Roger the Second became the first king of Sicily in 1130. He was invested by Pope Innocent II as king of Sicily and his kingdom included the Norman conquests of southern Italy. Roger II exerted a strong influence over the entire Mediterranean region and his last direct descendant, Constance, married the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI. Their son, the emperor Frederick II von Hohenstaufen, ascended to throne in 1198. Frederick was an enlightened ruler and Sicily started its "Golden Age". In fact, he ruled most of Italy and parts of Germany and was an admired and brilliant emperor - under his reign were made great steps in science, law and medicine. However, he had no children and after his death the island was sold by Pope to the king of England, who gave Sicily to his son, Edmund of Lancaster.

In 1266 the French Pope deposed Edmund and gave Sicily to Charles of Anjou, brother of Louis 14th, the king of France. This French dynasty ruled the island with never previously experienced oppression! Crippling taxes were introduced, the land and property were arbitrarily shared among French aristocrats. In 1282 was a bloody revolt, when the French troops and nobles were defeated and thousands of French occupiers massacred.

The crown of Sicily was offered to Peter of Aragon, who gladly accepted, came in Trapani in 1282 and was acclaimed king in Palermo in short time.

Excepting short periods, Sicily was ruled by Spain for the next four centuries, isolating the island from the rest of Italy. During the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries there was a corrupt and ineffectual government. The power was held by church and local noblemen. The Inquisition ended the religious tolerance and people were chained to the land because the feudal system was reintroduced.

The birth date of Mafia was in the 16th century, when the Sicilian adopted a code of silence, called omerta, as defense against prosecution. In 1713 the Treaty of Utrecht assigned Sicily to Savoy house, which exchanged it for Sardignia with the emperor Charles VI.

Don Carlos of Bourbon, later becoming Charles III of Spain, re-conquered the kingdom of Naples and Sicily. In 1815 Napoleon defeated the British Empire, which administered the island between 1806-1815, and as result Sicily was occupied again by France. In 1816 Ferdinand III unified Sicily and the kingdom of Naples and titled himself "Ferdinand I of the Two Sicilies". A popular uprising in 1820 forced Ferdinand to concede a constitution, but the Austrian intervention in 1821 led to a new regime. Sicily and Naples were occupied by Garibaldi in 1860 and in 1861 the "Kingdom of Two Sicilies" became part of Kingdom of Italy.

Sicily was largely ignored by the central government after unification and the economic and social problems remained unattended. New and important industries were developed in northern Italy, but the southern part remained predominant rural. From this poor region million of Italians emigrated in America between 1890 and 1930. In 1943, after years of depression and poverty, Sicily welcomed the Allies as liberators.

The Sicilian people has a high level of awareness of the ancient and medieval past and in many schools are studied Latin and Greek. Nowadays many efforts are made by the Italian govern to preserve and celebrate their artistic and cultural heritage.

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