Sicily, a large fertile island at a pivotal point in the Mediterranean, is one of the world’s most desirable patches of land. Colonized by Phoenicians and Greeks, and fought over between Greeks, Carthaginians and Romans in the Punic Wars, its architectural and artistic remains bear witness to its past grandeur – in the great series of Greek temples, or the Roman mosaics at Piazza Armerina.
In medieval times the island achieves a different creative blend, of three later cultures – Byzantine Christianity, Islam and Roman Christianity.
Byzantine Sicily: 6th – 9th century AD
The Byzantine influence in Sicily begins with the capture of the island from the Ostrogoths in 535. It is consolidated in the 8th century during the Iconoclastic Controversy. The clash between the pope and the Byzantine emperor on this issue prompts the emperor to give the patriarch of Constantinople jurisdiction over Sicily, removing it from the papal see. Meanwhile the island has received a large number of Greek immigrants from the Balkans, fleeing from invasions by Slavs.
It is therefore largely Byzantine in culture by the 9th century, when a new threat emerges. From 827 Arabs begin arriving from north Africa, in what will amount to a slow conquest of the island.
Muslim Sicily: 10th – 11th century
The last Byzantine stronghold falls to the Arabs in AD 965, beginning a century of Muslim rule. Arabs settle in large numbers, and many Christians convert to Islam. As in other Muslim countries, Christianity is tolerated and Christian communities survive throughout the island. Sicily in the 11th century is therefore a mixed community of Arab Muslims and Greek Christians when a third element arrives, in a new wave of conquest.
The newcomers are Latin Christians. The pope in 1059, wishing to recover Sicily from the infidels, grants feudal rights over the island to an adventurer family of Normans. One of them, Roger I (as the first Norman count of Sicily), completes the conquest of the island in 1091.
Norman Sicily: 1091-1194
The first Norman ruler sets a pattern which will characterize Sicily for more than a century. Roger I has brought Latin Christianity to the island, conquering it as a vassal of the pope. But he is also a generous patron of Greek Orthodox monasteries in his new territory. And, continuing in reverse the tradition of Muslim tolerance for Christians, he encourages the Muslim communities in Sicilian towns and employs Muslim serfs from the countryside in his army.
Unrivalled in medieval Europe except in certain Spanish cities, Norman Sicily achieves a vibrant culture of three religions – differing from Spain in that the third religion here is Greek Christianity rather than Judaism.
The complexity of this culture is evident in the fact that the Normans issue their official documents in three languages – Latin, Greek and Arabic. Sicily’s religious unorthodoxy is attacked by scandalized opponents who describe a later Sicilian king, Frederick II, as a ‘baptized sultan’ (he justifies the nickname at a more elementary level by keeping a harem). The vitality of the island is evident in the superb Norman architecture.
The building which most powerfully brings together the three traditions of Sicily is the exquisite palace chapel built by Roger II.
Capella Palatina in Palermo: 1132-1189
The small palace chapel in Palermo, with its walls covered in bright pictorial mosaic, is one of the most exquisite buildings of the Middle Ages. Known as the Capella Palatina (Latin for ‘palace chapel’), it is begun in 1132 and completed in about 1189.
The mosaics are in the Greek tradition, created by craftsmen from Constantinople. Christ Pantocrator is in the apse and cupola, in traditional Byzantine style. Round the walls are sequences of scenes from the Old Testament, and from the lives of St Peter and St Paul. This is a narrative convention which will later be much used in Italian frescoes.
The roof of the Capella Palatina, by contrast, is unlike anything in a Byzantine church. In vaulted wood, carved and painted in intricate patterns, it would seem at home in a pavilion of a Muslim palace or in a covered section of a mosque. The sturdy round arches supporting the walls are from yet another tradition – that of European Romanesque. Classical pillars, inherited from an earlier period of Sicily’s rich history, complete the influences seen in this eclectic building.
It perfectly encapsulates the merits of Norman Sicily.
Sicily and the empire: AD 1184-1254
The papal encouragement of the Normans, as conquerors of southern Italy and Sicily, makes political sense in the 11th century as a way of protecting the southern flank of the papal states. It seems less wise a century later. Now Rome finds herself in danger of being surrounded by territory belonging to the empire.
The reason is that Henry, heir to the emperor Frederick I, marries in 1186 Constance, heiress to the Norman kingdom of Sicily.
The marriage of Henry to Constance brings Sicily and southern Italy into the German empire. Henry VI is crowned emperor in Rome in 1191 and king of Sicily in 1194. But he dies shortly afterwards, in 1197, when his son Frederick is just three years old.
At first it seems unlikely that the boy can inherit both Sicily and the German kingdom, particularly since the prospect displeases the papacy. From 1198 he is recognized only as king of Sicily. But after a period of confusion, with warring candidates, he is also elected king by the German princes in 1211. With some reluctance the pope accepts the situation. He crowns Frederick II emperor in Rome in 1220.
Subsequent popes have cause to regret this coronation. They excommunicate Frederick II twice, and even proclaim a crusade against him, in a prolonged power struggle which eventually weakens his authority in both Sicily and Germany. In spite of the brilliance of his court in Sicily, and the nonchalant ease with which he achieves his own crusade to Jerusalem, Frederick leaves an inheritance which cannot long survive him.
His son, Conrad IV, becomes the last ruler in the Hohenstaufen line. With Conrad’s death, in 1254, there is a vacancy on the German throne which is not filled for another nineteen years.
The popes and Sicily: AD 1254-1282
Sicily, linked politically to the southern region of Italy, is an area of profound concern to the papacy – this kingdom is Rome’s southern neighbour. Rome therefore takes seriously the vacancy on the Sicilian throne in 1254, caused by the death of Frederick II’s son Conrad IV. Admittedly there are claimants from Frederick’s Hohenstaufen line. There is his illegitimate son Manfred. And there is the legitimate heir, Conrad IV’s son Conradin. But Conradin is only two.
In the circumstances the papacy feels it right to intervene. The kingdom of Sicily is a vassal of the Holy See, and a sympathetic ruler needs to be found. The crown is first offered in 1255 to one of the sons of Henry III, king of England.
The English show little interest. Meanwhile, in 1258, Manfred arranges for his own coronation in Sicily. This fait accompli leads to prolonged negotiations with Rome which finally break down in 1263. The pope then offers the crown of Sicily and Naples to Charles of Anjou – a younger brother of Louis IX, the king of France.
Charles brings a French army to Italy and kills Manfred in battle near Benevento in 1266. Two years later the 16-year-old Conradin is captured and handed over to Charles, who has him executed in a public ceremony in Naples.
Sicily and southern Italy are now in French hands, to the satisfaction of Rome. The French and the papacy share a profound hostility to the German empire – a rivalry expressed in Italian terms in the opposition of the papal party of the Guelphs to the Ghibellines, the supporters of the empire. The popes are therefore delighted to have enemies of the Germans as their southern neighbours.
The Sicilians, however, are less enchanted by the arrival of French nobles (to whom large tracts of Sicilian land are distributed as feudal territories) and by high taxes imposed on them to pay for the military campaigns of Charles of Anjou.
War of the Sicilian Vespers: AD 1282-1302
Sicilian resentment against the new Angevin dynasty breaks out suddenly in the uprising of 1282 known as the Sicilian Vespers. After the initial violence the Sicilians appeal for help to the Spanish kingdom of Aragon whose ruler, Peter III, has a claim to the Sicilian throne through his marriage to the daughter of Manfred.
The papacy, the French king and the Italian Guelphs are on the Angevin side. The Aragonese have the support only of the Italian Ghibellines. But they are greatly helped by their naval skills (as a seafaring kingdom possessing much of the east coast of Spain) in this conflict over the island of Sicily.
The war rumbles on for two decades, with many reversals of fortune and complex shifts of alliance – including even some which set members of the Aragonese royal house against each other in opposing factions. The only consistent thread is the determination of the Sicilians not to be ruled by anyone from the French house of Anjou.
The Sicilians refuse to accept a peace agreed by the other participants, in 1295, which would return their island to the Angevins. Instead they elect Frederick, one of the sons of Peter III, as their king. He is crowned in Palermo in 1296.
Frederick’s mother Constance was the daughter of Manfred, the illegitimate son of the emperor Frederick II – Sicily’s outstanding monarch of recent times. The young man therefore has a dynastic link to the kingdom, something never claimed by the Angevins. He calls himself Frederick III, to the confusion of the annalists (his great-grandfather was Frederick II as Holy Roman emperor, but Frederick I as king of Sicily).
Frederick III’s position in Sicily is finally established in 1302 by the treaty of Caltabellotta. Its terms declare that he is to rule the island for his lifetime, after which it will revert to the Angevins – who still hold Naples and the mainland.
Sicily and Naples: AD 1302-1373
Frederick III proves a subtle ruler and he has the benefit of a long reign. He uses his forty-one years on the throne to consolidate his family’s hold on Sicily. As elsewhere in Europe at this time, parliament is an increasingly important institution; Frederick skilfully retains the support of this assembly with its three bracci (‘arms’), which are the three estates of the clergy, the nobles and the citizens of the royal boroughs.
As early as 1314 the Sicilian parliament declares that the terms of the treaty of Caltabellotta should be disregarded, and that Frederick should be succeeded by his son Peter rather than the kingdom reverting to the Angevins. In 1337 the Angevin king of Naples proves powerless to prevent this happening.
For the next century the two halves of the ancient kingdom of Sicily remain separate. The French house of Anjou, ruling from Naples, controls the mainland of southern Italy and is a close ally of the papacy, which from 1309 has been based in Avignon rather than Rome. For a while the king of Naples even stands in for the pope as vicar in the papal states.
The rule of the Aragonese in Sicily is formally accepted in Naples in 1373. By then the Aragonese command an uninterrupted stretch of the Mediterranean, from the coast of Spain through the Balearic islands and Sardinia (under their control somewhat uneasily from 1324) to Sicily.
Sicily and Naples: AD 1442-1516
After 1343, when Joan I inherits the throne of Naples, dynastic rivalries and murders weaken the Angevin house. A century of chaos ends with the capture of Naples in 1442 by Alfonso V, king of both Aragon and Sicily.
The link with France is thus broken. There is one reckless attempt to revive it. In 1494 the 22-year-old French king, Charles VIII, invades Italy to claim his Angevin inheritance in Naples. Charles captures Naples and is crowned there in May 1495. But before the end of the year he is forced out of Italy by an alliance of Milan, Venice and Austria. Naples and Sicily revert to their Aragonese king.
Meanwhile the link of the two kingdoms with Aragon is developing into a firmer attachment to the kingdom of Spain. Sicily is part of the inheritance which Ferdinand of Aragon brings to his marriage in 1469 to Isabella of Castile. Naples is his from 1496, after being held for a while by another branch of the Aragonese royal family.
Ferdinand’s death in 1516 adds the entire Spanish empire to the German lands of his Habsburg grandson, Charles V. Thus Naples and Sicily, united within a much larger realm, revert to the enemy most feared by the papacy three centuries earlier – the German empire, which last controlled the two kingdoms in the time of the Hohenstaufen dynasty and Frederick II.
The Spanish kingdom of Naples: AD 1554-1860
The Habsburg presence in the kingdom of Naples soon becomes Spanish in flavour rather than German. In successive stages between 1554 and 1556 Charles V abdicates in Naples, Sicily and Spain, handing the crowns to his son Philip II – whose rule does not include the German part of the Habsburg inheritance. Thereafter, for more than 200 years and almost without interruption, Sicily remains linked with Naples and is governed by members of the Spanish royal family.
The exception is the period from 1713 to 1735, when Spain cedes Sicily first to Savoy and then, from 1720, to Austria.
The Sicilians, frequently restless under Spanish rule, find their Austrian masters even more unacceptable. So a Spanish prince is welcome when he drives out the Austrians in 1735. Unlike previous Spanish rulers, this prince is Bourbon rather than Habsburg – because of the change of dynasty in the War of the Spanish Succession. The new arrival is Charles IV, as king of Naples; he later becomes Charles III of Spain.
Sicily remains with the Bourbon dynasty until 1860, when Garibaldi lands on the island with his famous army of 1000 red-shirted volunteers. After the rapid success of Garibaldi’s campaign, Sicily joins the new kingdom of Italy.