Virtual travel to Sicily, Italy

Top attractions & things to do in Sicily:

History, facts and travel tips about Sicily

Sicily is a delightfully verdant island facing the Mediterranean Sea, characterised by its varied landscape, beautiful scenery and multiethnic inhabitants.

The famous coastline of the island varies from sandy beaches and gulfs opening onto peaceful crystal clear bays, to steep cliffs, and crags.

It is the largest of the twenty regions of Italy and the southernmost tip of the Peninsula. Although in modern times Sicily is treated as an Island, according to geological theory, in antiquity it was part of the mainland. This idea is supported by the fact that the Peloritan Mountains of Sicily are of the same rock as those of Calabria, thus the"separation of Sicily" was probably due to rising sea level. 

Sicily in Italy has three principal sides. One facing the Ionic Sea and Greece, one facing Africa, and the last facing the Tyrrhenian Sea (which forms part of the Mediterranean Sea). This unique position as the meeting of many roads by land and sea, made the island the centre of the ancient world. To the Greeks it was an extension of their ancient and extensive domains. Later it became the final frontier of the Arab Islamic domination, which left indelible traces of its influence and culture.

Still greater splendour was added to Sicily during the period of the Norman conquest, during which, Islamic culture fused with the new organisation of the Island. El Idrisi - an Arab geographer and traveller whilst residing in Palermo at king Roger II's court - wrote of this inspiring meeting of the ways between two deeply contrasting cultures.

About Sicily's magic he wrote: "[...] the island of Sicily is the pearl of the century for its abundance and beauty. Travellers from every part, and merchants from other cities and the metropolis are drawn to her, praising her splendid beauty. They speak about the goods every other country has, that Sicily steals, and draws to herself [...]"

Thus the Island was the jewel in the crown of the Mediterranean Sea and the ancient world, holding the monopoly on trade as well as culture and beauty.

During the German occupation, Sicily became the cradle of Frederick II's empire, from which the court at Palermo radiated a new and growing culture of literature and science. It was in this period that a written language, combining the Italian spoken in the area with the elevated French Provençal language of the court, was first attempted. Thus the Sicilian Poetic School was born.

The court at Palermo and Sicily had become a melting pot of architecture, culture and language, in which the best of many worlds had been combined.

With the arrival of the French Angevins, this nucleus of learning and cultural development was checked. The new authorities established and remained in power from 1266 to 1285, their term in office culminating in the famous  uprising of the"Vespri Siciliani" or"Sicilian Vespers", which definitively concluded his rule.

Charles Ist's regime of police control, enforced conformity to the new government, high taxes, a luxurious court lifestyle, rule from the distant Naples and a despotic disregard for established noble families and their rights and customs, was overturned and the French Angevin dynasty was supplanted.

The trigger for this dramatic and bloody event happened at the hour of Vespers: a young married woman on her way to church was harassed by a French soldier. The young woman's husband, seized with rage, struck and killed the offending Frenchman, and a major skirmish ensued between French soldiers and Sicilian natives.

This event, perhaps symbolic of the way Sicilians felt their Island had been molested by French occupation, caused violent riots in Palermo before the city was finally declared an independent republic by the up-risers. The fires of unrest and revolution had been sparked, causing a chain reaction across the island as the French fled before incensed and vengeful Sicilian citizens.

City after city rioted and rejected French rule. Only Messina - a stronghold of the Angevin dynasty which had benefited from the French occupation - displayed loyalty to Charles' cause. The Pope Martin IV, who had originally  secured Charles' power in Sicily in 1260, tried to dampen the rebellion and instructed Sicilians to submit to Angevin dominion. He was unsuccessful.

In response to this support for the French king, from high Papal places, the Sicilian rebels appealed to the powerful Byzantine Emperor Michael, and the Spanish King Peter of Aragon.

This bid to secure a more sympathetic ruler was successful, and both powers pledged their support for Sicily. Thus it was that Charles and the Papacy warred with the Aragon dynasty and Sicilian troops. Peter, having been proclaimed King in Palermo by the rebels, after a series of sieges and battles, gained support and control in Sicily.

Charles and the French continued to assert their claims to power, but combat was largely removed to Calabria and the mainland with the French ever fleeing the fury of the Sicilians and wiles of King Peter.

As the Spanish king was generally involved in the strife, his wife Constance ruled in his stead as regent till Charles' death in 1285, when despite papal wrangling and the continuance of Angevin ambitions, power in Sicily was firmly transferred to the Spanish house of Aragon.

Thus opened the chapter of servitude in the history of Sicily, which, as an island, was still centuries away from independence. The Aragon occupation was succeeded by Savoy and Bourbon domination, which did nor cease to hold sway over the island until the Eighteen Hundreds, with the intervention of Garibaldi and the unification of Italy.

Created: 03 Sep 2013
Last update: 30 Jun 2022

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