For centuries, civilizations have warred over Sicily, from Phoenicians to Greeks, Byzantines, Arabs, and Normans. Today, the volcanic island offers its secrets to those who seek them.
As the legend goes, one day, in a boiling rage, three gorgons – Medusa, Euryale, and Steno – threw their stolen treasures into the crystal waters of the Mediterranean Sea. From this place, an enchanting island teeming with succulent fruit, a rumbling volcano, and jagged hills rose. The island of earthly delights would be called La Trinacria by the Ancient Greeks. The gorgons’ legs fastened together by Medusa’s snake-spouting head formed the symbol of the island, called Sicily today. Over the years, I would contemplate this symbol, as it dangled from my mother’s necklace while living in wintery and isolated Canada. It was a memory of our time spent on the island when I was a baby. Ultimately, Sicily’s closed and heartless ways proved too much for my mother to bear. Albeit the wife of a born-and-raised Sicilian, she was an outsider, and reminded of such every day. We left unceremoniously, but returned 40 years later, to an island open and evolved. Here, we built our home by the sea, Villa Rosina, overlooking a thousand olive trees.
“For me, it all started in Sicily. My life, my profession, my career. And that’s where everything always comes back,” recounts Domenico Dolce. The co-founder of Dolce & Gabbana is based in Milan, but often returns to the island, even inviting fashion’s finest for an Alta Roma Sicilian extravaganza in 2012 and 2019. Life wasn’t always so glamorous – rather, filled with diligent work. “One of the most intense memories is certainly my father’s tailor shop, where I learned to sew and cut between fabrics and patterns,” he recalls. Sicily birthed one half of the world’s most celebrated fashion duos, but this is only a sliver of its offerings over centuries: Arabic numerals, pi, the sundial by Archimedes, philosopher Empedocles, rhetoric according to Cicero, oil painting (which was then introduced to the Renaissance), and sorbetto, the precursor to ice cream created during the Middle Ages. No wonder this land of legends, this Magna Graecia, Persephone’s Island, is known as the place where spring is born.
It is Sicily’s youth – educated, internationally traveled, and affable – who opened the island to the world after a period of significant poverty resulting from the world wars, which motivated waves of emigration to the Americas. Prior to this, the island’s inhabitants endured occupations and conquests on its shores; its land, the subject of both warring families and civilizations over hundreds of years. The indigenous Sicels, from which the island derives its modern name, were thought to be an Iberian tribe, with the first urban settlements dating to 1300BC. Phoenicians settled in the 11th century BC, followed by the Ancient Greeks; by 300BC, Siracusa was the most populous Greek city in the world. The Romans were next to control the island but during the early Middle Ages, as their empire fell apart, Frank and Germanic tribes took Sicily, making way for what is known as the Muslim period. An Islamic army of Arabs, Berbers, and Cretan Saracens led by Ziyadat Allah invaded Sicily in 826 when Euphemius, the commander of the Byzantine fleet, forced a nun to marry him. In the 11th century, Norman mercenaries – Christian descendants of Vikings – invaded, with historians debating whether the Norman conquest of Islamic Sicily (1060-91) triggered the Crusades. Roger II of Sicily made it a kingdom in 1130 and under him the island prospered, becoming even wealthier than England.
So continues the island’s history, falling in and out of hands, religions, and languages, with architecture and customs intertwining as the Gorgons’ Island passed through the hands of the Angevins, the Sicilian Vespers, the Aragonese, the Spanish, the British, and in contemporary times, the Cosa Nostra, with a brief time as an autonomous region within the Italian State in 1946. In the Seventies, the Sicilian mafia had the attention of Hollywood when Francis Ford Coppola created the Oscar-winning The Godfather trilogy, reminding the world of the unforgiving nature of Sicilians whose paths were crossed. These weren’t the first major films dedicated to the island. In 1963, Luchino Visconti made Il Gattopardo (The Leopard), a Palme d’Or-winning historical drama offering insight into the sociopolitical turmoil of the Risorgimento (the unification of Italy) from the viewpoint of a noble family in decline in 1860s Palermo. Follow the footsteps of Prince Salina and visit the actual town of Palma Montechiaro, referenced throughout the book.
Sicilian aristocrat Antea Brugnoni Alliata, co-founder of Roi du Lac ready-to-wear, refers to a classic line from Il Gattopardo, “Everything changes, so that nothing can change,” adding, “Today, the new generation has the desire to be the beginning of something, not the end of something.” The desire to forge ahead runs through her veins. Her grandfather Francesco Alliata, Prince of Villafranca and Duke of Salaparuta (along with eight other titles), was also known as lord of the snow on Mount Etna. They are of the lineage that exported ice throughout the Mediterranean, and the aforementioned sorbetto stems from this production. Her grandfather was also a film producer and founder of Panaria Film, which produced Vulcano (1950) with Anna Magnani in Sicily.
The company also drew the interest of director Roberto Rossellini, who filmed Stromboli on the Aeolian Islands just north of Sicily in the same year. It would mark the beginning of his romance with Ingrid Bergman. “I’ve never seen people work so hard,” recalled Bergman in her memoir written with Alan Burgess. “The Italians in those days on those islands didn’t expect anything different. They just worked like slaves,” she noted of the Stromboli crew. Burgess detailed that the Sicilian men “knew nothing but endless, backbreaking toil,” and that “the women, young and old, matched the black volcanic background, with their dark clothes, dark eyes, and hair.”
Other films have centered on Sicily’s suspicion of foreigners, and even each other – not entirely unmerited, considering its history. Malena (2000) stars Monica Bellucci in the role of a widow and town outcast during war times; Sedotta e abbandonata (1964) explores themes of honor and family; while the Oscar-winning Cinema Paradiso (1988) unearths the romance of nostalgia to the strains of Ennio Morricone. A Bigger Splash (2015) by Sicilian-Algerian director Luca Guadagnino brings viewers to Pantelleria in the Strait of Sicily, which, like many of Sicily’s places, once carried an Arab name – Bint al-Riyah, meaning “daughter of the winds” – a nod to those rising from Africa’s north coast.
Today, islanders speak their own dialect, Sicilian, recognized as a minority language by Unesco. Dante Alighieri once wrote, “All poetry written by the Italians is called ‘Sicilian.’” In Sicily the language of love is not just heard, it is felt with all senses. Whose eyes do not smile at the first taste of a sweet cannolo or granita desert? Or a succulent fig or orange picked from its tree? Those same eyes look in wonder at countless frescos and sculptures. In the small, ancient city of Gibellina, Alberto Burri built a monumental landscape artwork on the ruins of the town destroyed by an earthquake in 1968. A white cement structure running 85,000 sqm serves as a “sarcophagus of time,” following the line of the old city streets with walls 1.60m high. Sicily’s artistic heart beats with Arab influence, with the capital Palermo peppered with monuments conceived during the Arab domination. Look up at the ceiling of the Cappella Palatina and discover geometric and vegetal decorations surrounded by inscriptions of good omens in kufi script and muqana. The cathedral still contains phrases from the Holy Quran inscribed on its pillars. From Arabic calligraphy, eyes delight in the language of color, where, in Sicilian fashion, more is always more. In the museum of ceramics, Stanze al Genio houses the Torre Pirajno Palace with eight rooms with dado paneling and more than 5,000 15th and 16th century glazed tiles used for the pavements and walls of privileged society.
Paris-based fashion consultant and Panormita Giorgia Viola, whose family house is on the same floor and whose cousin Pio Mellina owns the museum, considers all this, and remarks of her heritage, “The charm of Sicily is its diversity. Traces of people who have conquered it, leaving indelible vestiges that are tangled in its monuments, its language, its cuisine, and in every aspect of its Sicilian character. It both confuses and fascinates me. It is probably because of its chaotic history, full of powers, that in this land of contrasts, extremely rich and abandoned at the same time, we inherited this sense of hospitality, this art to be bavard, where the answer is always sí.”
Originally published in the May 2022 issue of Vogue Arabia