Are Sicilians actually Italian speaking Greeks

Understand Sicily


First certificates

20,000 BC BC - 750 BC Chr.

Mondello is a magnet for families from Palermo, especially when the weather is good. There is the most beautiful beach far and wide here. Many bars and restaurants invite you to enjoy Sicilian cuisine. The ambience is also perfect: Instead of gray concrete castles, you will find Art Nouveau villas in Mondello.

The bars, restaurants and villas certainly didn't exist here 10,000 years ago - but the beach did. This was certainly very attractive for the people living at the time. For them, Mondello was interesting for a completely different reason: the Mondello (Grotta dell’Addaura). Addaura is the southern tip of Mondello and lies at the foot of Monte Pellegrino. The Grotta dell’Addaura is a huge hole in this mountain and can be seen from afar:

It also attracted the Allies after their landing in Sicily in 1943. They used the Addaura cave as an ammunition depot. An accident with this ammunition caused parts of the cave to collapse - and cave paintings to appear. Fortunately, despite the turmoil of the war, one of the most famous archaeologists in Sicily was brought in. It is thanks to her that the cave paintings can now be seen in the Museo Archeologico Regionale in Palermo. So in a strange way the Sicilian history of the Stone Age connects with that of the Second World War. The caves themselves can unfortunately no longer be visited since 1997 due to the danger of falling rocks.

Caves, in which our ancestors left traces, can not only be found near Mondello, but all over Sicily. No wonder, as the island was rich in forests and game at the time and produced a lot of fruit even without irrigation: deforestation had not yet taken place. So if you want to try to step back in history, simply replace all modern buildings with jungle in your mind's eye. Can you already feel it, the high humidity?

The first written evidence of the history of Sicily came from the pen of Greek historians. They tell of the Siculians, an Indo-European ethnic group who came from the Italian mainland and displaced the long-established Sicans (probably an ethnic group from the Middle East) to western Sicily. Of course, we only have these certificates because the ancient Greeks, for their part, took a liking to Sicily.


750 BC BC - 215 BC Chr.

The ancient Greeks were so fond of Sicily that they built large cities and some of their most elaborate temples here. The latter are described in detail in every travel guide. A very nice example of this is the Valley of the Temples near Agrigento. The old Cities however, are now overgrown by their modern successors.

One of the few exceptions to this is Solunto on the territory of today's municipality of Santa Flavia. The location and its minor importance compared to Agrigento have at least preserved the streets and foundations of Solunto to this day. The excavations are largely complete and therefore the ancient city is now open to visitors. The article Solunto gives you an overview of the history of this city.

Standing in the amphitheater of Solunto and enjoying the incredible view of the Mediterranean Sea and the surrounding mountains, you can certainly imagine that the ancient Greek stories and legends such as those of Daedalus and Icarus or Demeter and Hades could have originated here.

The Greek Sicilians were not only good at storytelling, they also produced great scientists. The most famous of them was Archimedes. He came from Syracuse (now Siracusa) on the southwest coast of Sicily. At that time Syracuse was considered one of the most powerful cities in the whole of the Mediterranean. Also a sign that the Greeks did not see Sicily as a province but as a home.

Archimedes fits into our picture of ancient Greece as the origin of art, culture and science. The story of the goddess Demeter points to another, less well-known strength of the ancient Greeks - agriculture. Even in the time of the Greeks, Sicily was still heavily forested. Agriculture flourished and Sicily became an export country for wheat, olives, wine, wood, nuts, fruit, vegetables, cattle and game.

But we shouldn't imagine this kind of agriculture as today, i.e. as a family business. The land was in the hands of a few aristocratic families. The actual agricultural work was done by the landless. These aristocratic families also had a great influence on religious and legal matters.

The Greeks brought Sicily a first heyday, but also often wars - both wars among themselves, as well as wars with external powers that had an eye on Sicily. In the end they got caught between the millstones of two great powers, the Romans from what is now Italy and the Carthaginians from what is now North Africa.

The Romans called the Carthaginians "Punians" and the historians therefore called the devastating wars between the two "Punic Wars". In the end, the Romans won. They incorporated Sicily as the first Roman province.


215 BC Chr. - 831

If you take a tour of today's Sicily, you will come across buildings of the ancient Greeks everywhere. The Romans, on the other hand, seem just a luxury villa, the famous Villa Romana del Casale to have left behind. It is known for its beautifully preserved mosaics and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. All fashion-conscious readers have surely come across one of the many mosaics: it shows girls in bikini. So they are not a modern invention either.

If you are on holiday near Palermo, you don't necessarily have to make the long way to the Villa Romana del Casale to get a taste of Roman history. In fact, there are also the remains of two Roman villas with well-preserved mosaics in the middle of Palermo. You can't keep up with the size of the Villa Romana del Casale, but it's not always the size that counts.

The two Roman villas are located in the beautiful palm park Villa Bonanno opposite the Palazzo dei Normanni.

The particularly beautiful mosaics are of course not exposed to wind and weather. You can admire these in the Museo Archeologico Regionale.

What is probably (in the truest sense of the word) the most incisive legacy of the ancient Romans cannot be seen. That sounds paradoxical, but it is actually like this: it is the missing forest. The resource wood was in great demand during the Punic Wars and the subject of reforestation was not yet known at the time. Unfortunately, this also applies to the successors of the Romans and not only to Sicily, but to the history of the entire Mediterranean region.

Fortunately, the situation has now turned for the better. Today Sicily is considered the greenest Mediterranean region and offers large contiguous and protected forest areas. The Nebroden and the Madonie are particularly well-known. The Bosco della Ficuzza and the Pizzo Cane reserve, Pizzo Trigna e Grotta Mazzamuto, for example, are less well-known and therefore almost unspoiled by tourism.

The low presence of Roman buildings in Sicily is also no coincidence. 500 years of Greek culture could not be wiped away so easily. Nor was it the aim of the Romans at all. They essentially viewed Sicily as their breadbasket.

The local administration therefore mostly remained in the old hands. The same was true of the structure of land ownership: it continued to belong to a few aristocratic families. Only the “legal status” of the farm workers changed: they were now slaves. The Romans also had no problems with the gods of the Greeks. Even the “official religious language” remained Greek (the secular language naturally became Latin).

Only after about 500 years of Roman rule did a major cultural change take place. Christianity spread very quickly and became the state religion in 380. In 391 the old gods were even banned. The hallmark of the spread of Christianity are the catacombs throughout Sicily.

The structure of the property also changed quickly. Many Sicilian landowners donated their goods to the church. This is how the so-called "Patrimonium Petri" came about. In Sicily, the church quickly became the largest landowner. We shall soon see that this strongly influenced the further course of the history of Sicily.

The decline of the Roman Empire began parallel to the rise of Christianity. The year 390 marks the beginning of a series of looting of Rome ("Sacco di Roma"). The best known is probably that of the Goth Alaric. In 395 the Roman Empire was divided into a western and an eastern half. The following video tells the full story of this division:

The western empire is falling apart, while the Byzantine Empire is developing from the eastern half. Its capital was Constantinople, today's Istanbul. There, with the Orthodox Churches, a new trend in Christianity developed.

After the partition, Sicily initially remained under Western Roman influence, but fell to the Byzantine Empire in 535. This closed the circle of the ancient history of Sicily, because now the Greek culture and language came back to Sicily - albeit in a new guise. Not the old gods came back, of course. They were replaced by the Orthodox churches. You can admire the orthodox influence on Sicily's history e.g. in the cathedral of Cefalù.

Meanwhile, further south, another monotheistic religion had formed - Islam. With him began a heyday of Arab culture. Like the Greeks before, and especially the Romans, the Arabs also relied on aggressive expansion.

Similar to the Punic Wars, Sicily was once again caught between the millstones of two great powers. The Arabs pushed north and the Byzantine Empire viewed Sicily as a Christian Orthodox bulwark against Islam.

So Sicily was ravaged by heavy wars after a long period of peace. From them the Arabs emerged victorious. Sicily became an emirate, an Arab province.


831 – 1071

If you take a stroll through the old town of Palermo, you will come across Arabic-style buildings again and again. A well-known example of this are the churches San Cataldo and San Giovanni degli Eremiti with their red domes.

But also in the country one finds references to the Arab history of Sicily again and again. In Cefalà Diana you can admire the only surviving Arab bathhouse in Sicily.

Like the ancient Greeks, the Arabs viewed themselves as settlers. Not only did they conquer Sicily, but they also brought some interesting things with them. The most visible signs to tourists are those carved in stone.

Much more important for Sicily were other souvenirs that we consider typically Sicilian today. These include citrus fruits in particular, but also date palms, sugar (cane), almonds and marzipan. The cultivation of the crops, which were new to Sicily, required sophisticated irrigation technology. They too brought the Arabs to Sicily.

So the Arabs are also responsible for the perforation of the Palermo underground. Here they built the so-called Kanat (also Qanat), a technology thousands of years old with which desert peoples transported fresh water from the mountains into the deserts. This video shows that Kanats are still used in Iran today:

The Arabs also knew how to use the water for cooling. This is a good example of this Castello della Zisa in Palermo. The Zisa was built under the Normans, i.e. the successors of the Arabs, but the builders were the latter.

The roof of the Zisa is a huge cistern from which the water is directed through the building in the most sophisticated ways. The running water not only served the physical, but also the aesthetic well-being. Clever positioning of the windows resulted in a fantastic play of light for the time.

It is no wonder that the Arab influence is still particularly noticeable in Palermo today. While the main focus of Greek and Roman rule was in eastern Sicily, it shifted to the west under the Arabs. Palermo experienced a particular boom and was already developing into a large city with international flair.

The great cultural influence of the Arabs can still be seen today in the language. A few hundred words or names of Arabic origin are still used in Sicily today. A typical example of this is "Marsala", a city near Trapani. The meaning of this name is “Port of Allah”.

Pope Nicholas II (1058-1061) had two reasons to shake the Arab occupation of Sicily. On the one hand, it annoyed him to no end that a powerful rival religion had spread on the southern flank of his sphere of influence. on the other hand, he had lost all of his Sicilian goods at the same time.

The Pope considered all of Sicily to be ecclesiastical property. The legal basis on which he relied has not been proven. Historians suspect that he was referring to donations from earlier Roman emperors.

The "Constantinian Donation" became particularly well known. She goes on the "parade" of Emperor Konstantin the Elder. Size from Rome back to Constantinople. Allegedly he gave the Pope, who stayed in Rome, large parts of central Italy and the islands. This is how the Vatican State came into being.

Although critical minds were able to prove as early as the 15th century that the Constantine donation was a forgery, the Vatican State was not reduced to the areas of Rome that are still known today in 1871. The trigger for this was the formation of the Italian national state, which saw Rome as the natural capital.

In any case, Pope Nicholas II wanted his (alleged) property back. He hired a Norman mercenary army to do this. He promised his leader, Roger Guiscard, Sicily as a fief, if he succeeded in driving the Arabs out of Sicily and not admitting the Byzantines again.

Indeed, the Norman mercenaries succeeded in both. In 1071 Sicily was completely occupied by them.


1071 – 1194

If you drive through Sicily, you will come across buildings of Norman origin almost everywhere. In Palermo there is e.g. the famous Palazzo dei Normanni. Today it is the seat of the Sicilian Parliament. In fact, the current building combines many, not just Norman styles. It is still called the "Norman Palace", as the Norman kings had their seat here.

In the country, especially near the coast, you will often come across Norman defense towers. For example, there is the particularly well-preserved Torre Normanna at the eastern entrance to Altavilla Milicia:

Every now and then, you'll also see living memories of the Norman phase of history, namely fair-skinned and red-haired Sicilians. They are not emigrants from Northern Europe, but actually descendants of Normans. As the name suggests, they too came from Northern Europe. Peoples from northern France and England whose ancestors were Vikings are commonly referred to as Normans.

Roger Guiscard, hired by the Pope, and his brother Robert were sons of a ruler in northern France who had received no inheritance. So they had to earn their money with work, and the two of them found the craft of war particularly easy.

They did not do the same, however, for "fun". Nor did they want to be martyred in order to get to some paradise. And they actually had nothing against Arabs either - on the contrary, as we shall see later. The Normans just wanted to take prey, and Pope Nicholas II gave them an excellent opportunity to do so.

With Sicily, the Normans had got a particularly large, fertile and culturally rich chunk. Added to this was the dignity of the aristocrat. Roger Guiscard became Roger I of Sicily. From his successor Roger II, the Norman rulers even received the title "King of Sicily".

The Normans were smart enough not to slaughter Arab civilians or willfully destroy the existing buildings and infrastructure. On the contrary, they expanded what they found and even hired Arab builders. The best-known example of this that can still be admired today is La Zisa. This summer residence was commissioned by the Norman Wilhelm I. The technology of the building is of Arab origin.

The architecture in Sicily thus remained strongly influenced by Arabs, while the cultural area of ​​Sicily quickly became European-Christian again. The official language changed from Arabic to Latin, because in the end the impetus for the reconquest came from the Pope in Rome.

With this return to the European culture came the medieval feudal system. to Sicily: owner the land was the Pope. He loaned it to the Norman King, who in turn would normally have loaned it out.In fact, the Normans preferred to get involved in agriculture and trade themselves. It was work, but it also made money. The Sicilian Normans thus became the richest Normans in Europe.

The Norman model of success, however, had a decisive disadvantage. It was based on the absolute power of kings and "sparking" themselves into local affairs. Roger I and II in particular were real super talents in this regard - their successors, however, less so. One thread after the other slipped from them and so Sicily stumbled more and more through contemporary history.

Fortunately, in 1194, Heinrich VI (a son of Friedrich I. Barbarossa) from Staufer found a better ruler. Sicily now fell to a Swabian noble family, fortunately without any bloodshed.

However, this was less due to the humane attitude of Henry VI (he was even considered particularly cruel), but to a clever marriage diplomacy: Barbarossa had married his son Heinrich VI to Constanze of Sicily. And she in turn - as the story goes - was a daughter of the Norman Rogers II.

Inset: feudalism and feudalism

From antiquity to 1812, the land in Sicily belonged to the respective king or pope. This divided the land and "lent" (hence the word "fief") the parts to the high nobility, typically as thanks for military service. The fiefdom was mostly for life, was inheritable and could be lent to the lower nobility. At the bottom of the chain stood the landless peasants. However, they were not fief takers, but rather serfs of the nobles. This video gives you an impression of the life of the "farmers and noblemen":

The feudal lords not only had power of disposal over the land, but also over the jurisdiction in the area of ​​their fief. One can vividly imagine that the rule of law was not followed here. “Right” was just a chain of arbitrary acts that differed from fiefdom to fiefdom.

In 1812 the feudal system was abolished. In fact, only the formal status of the nobles changed. They went from tenants to owners. As before, Sicilian society was characterized by a small class of super-rich landowners who had the land and an army of landless farmers at their disposal. This only changed decisively with two land reforms in the 20th century.


1194 – 1266

The history of Sicily is strongly linked to the buildings of the respective epoch. No wonder: you can see and touch them. At first glance, there is little or nothing in this regard for the Staufer phase. This is simply because the differences between Norman and Hohenstaufen monuments are only visible to experts. The Hohenstaufen were also in Sicily for just over 70 years. In everyday life, therefore, there is often no distinction between Normans and Staufers.

The fact that the Hohenstaufen nevertheless had a great influence on the history of Sicily is due to an outstanding person - Frederick II. You can visit his sarcophagus in the cathedral of Palermo. When Friedrich found his final resting place there, the cathedral was brand new. The Normans rebuilt it shortly before the end of their rule after it had been badly damaged by an earthquake. Over the following centuries, the cathedral was rebuilt again and again. You will therefore find a wild mix of styles during your visit.

Frederick II was given a place of honor in the cathedral because he was born with the same talent as the Norman Roger II - the absolute will to power. He even messed with the Pope (who considered himself the owner of Sicily) by making himself Emperor of Sicily and claiming to have received this kingdom from God himself. He simply didn't care that the Pope excommunicated him.

Like the Norman Roger II before, the Staufer Friedrich II stands for strict centralization. However, this did not only have disadvantages. He also ensured a standardization of dimensions and a standardization of the legal system.

In other respects, however, Frederick II differed more than clearly from his Norman predecessors: he was exceptionally well educated. He was anything but a professional idiot. On the contrary, his interests spanned the entire humanities and natural sciences. He dedicated his own work to his favorite animal, the falcon. This resulted in the first European book on falconry.

The following video gives an excellent and entertaining overview of the story of Friedrich II:

However, Frederick II should have dealt a little more with the history of Sicily. Perhaps then he would have seen that what had made him strong was at the same time the decisive weak point of his rule - the centralization of power aimed at him with a hard hand. And so it happened as it had to: After the death of Friedrich II, almost everything that he had built fell apart.

The Pope had, of course, waited for this very moment to take Sicily back. This time he engaged the son of the French King Louis VIII - Karl von Anjou. This quickly prevailed and was named King of Sicily in gratitude.

The Anjou and the Sicilian Vespers

1266 – 1282

The Anjou ruled Sicily even shorter than the Hohenstaufen. In fact, their reign began and ended with Charles of Anjou. They did not leave any architectural monuments. The Anjou stand for a central event in the history of Sicily and this event is closely linked to a monument. It is the Chiesa dello Spirito Santo in the great cemetery Cimitero di Sant’Orsola. Even if you are not that interested in monuments, the cemetery is definitely worth a visit. After the visit one is almost inclined to speak of the most beautiful part of Palermo.

When you have arrived at the Chiesa dello Spirito Santo, imagine a large group of Palermitans who want to take part in the service on Easter Monday, March 31, 1282. They are joined by a group of French soldiers. The occupiers were hated by the population for their cruel booty. They had also made an enemy of the old Sicilian aristocracy of Staufer origin: many lands were taken from them and given to French generals as thanks for their military service.

On Easter Monday in front of the Chiesa dello Spirito Santo, the atmosphere was very tense from the start. Suddenly Sergeant Drouet started molesting a woman. He must search them for weapons. However, the husband saw it very differently and killed Drouet. His comrades tried to intervene, of course, but were also killed by the now completely angry churchgoers.

Now there was no stopping it. A bloody popular uprising broke out. He stopped at nothing that seemed French - even children and Sicilians who were supposedly pregnant by the French were killed. Thousands of people died in Palermo alone on this one Easter Monday. The uprising quickly spread to neighboring cities such as Corleone and shortly afterwards to all of Sicily. Charles of Anjou completely underestimated the speed and aggressiveness of this uprising.

Nor was he likely to consider how many enemies he had made among the old Sicilian aristocrats. For them this uprising was a unique chance to get their lands back. So they put themselves at the head of the uprising, which was very quickly organized. The result: within a few weeks there were no more French people in Sicily. With their disappearance, the Pope also lost his influence in Sicily.

The uprising is as Sicilian Vespers entered the history not only of Sicily, but all of Italy. He is to this day the Symbol of the struggle against foreign occupiers. In fact, the Sicilian Vespers has a bitter aftertaste. On the one hand, there is extreme violence. What is going on today would probably be called ethnic cleansing.

And then the Sicilian Vespers uncovered a central weak point in Sicily. When a popular uprising successfully comes to an end, as is well known, the question "how to proceed?" The Sicilian elite had no “in-house” answer to this. No wonder, since the Normans and Hohenstaufen had governed extremely centralistically and did not allow local self-government. So where would the practice of governing come from?

The Sicilian aristocracy was used to aligning itself like a compass needle with the respective ruler coming from outside. So at the end of the Sicilian Vespers they could not think of anything better than to ask a foreign ruler (!) To take over rule in Sicily. The choice fell on the Spaniard Peter of Aragón. The reason: he married a granddaughter of Friedrich II and would therefore be a legitimate successor to the Normans or Staufer.

In this way, Spanish rule in Sicily began for almost 600 years, only interrupted by a few short phases.

Inset: the flag of Sicily

The Sicilian flag was first used in connection with the Sicilian Vespers. It combines the colors of the two most important cities in Sicily at the time. Palermo was (and is still today) the capital and therefore particularly important for trade, administration and foreign relations. It is represented by the red half of the flag.

The yellow half stands for Corleone. Why Corleone? After all, the city stands for a rather inglorious side of Sicily - the mafia. But that gab existed in 1282, i.e. not at all at the time of the Sicilian Vespers. At that time Corleone was the center of Sicilian agriculture, the most important industry in Sicily. Corleone was seen as the “inner capital”, so to speak, and thus as a counterpart to Palermo. No wonder, then, that the Sicilian Vespers spread rapidly from Palermo to Corleone.

The figure in the middle of the flag is a triskele, i.e. a symmetrical figure consisting of three parts. It is a cross-cultural symbol, the original meaning of which is unknown. The special Sicilian shape shows the head of Medusa. She was the beautiful daughter of a Greek couple of sea gods. Out of jealousy, Athena transformed Medusa into a monster with snake hairs, at the sight of which every viewer turned to stone.

In order to get rid of Medusa entirely, Athene instigated Perseus to cut off her head. He not only succeeded in this, but he used the severed head as a protective shield: show it once and the enemy will turn to stone.

On the Sicilian flag, the snakes became ears of corn, probably to symbolize the agricultural roots of Sicily. The wings on Medusa's head can also be seen in other depictions. Perhaps she “inherited” them from Perseus.

But these are all speculations, in the end. What the artists actually thought remains in the dark. What is clear, however, is that they have given the Sicilian flag an interesting, unmistakable appearance.

Spaniards (Aragon, Habsburg, Bourbon)

1282 – 1860 (with innterruptions)

As a tourist, a very special intersection is definitely on your agenda in Palermo. The four old quarters of Palermo meet in it and therefore it is called Quattro Canti (four corners). The Quattro Canti is the intersection of Via Toldeo (today Corso or Via Vittorio Emanuele) and Via Maqueda. Today you can still admire many baroque buildings from Spanish times along these two streets. This so-called Sicilian Baroque is the main Spanish contribution to the culture of Sicily.

The Quattro Canti offers an additional special feature: the facades of the houses at the four corners were not left to chance, but coordinated with one another. Each of the four lower floors is adorned with a fountain, a Spanish king carved in stone stands on the middle floor and the patron saint of the respective district hovers above everything on the upper floor.

So while the baroque buildings have been preserved, one thing has changed dramatically since the times of the Spaniards - traffic. Where once there was plenty of space for pedestrians and a few horse-drawn carriages, today many pedestrians meet. Cars, vans and buses on top of each other. It is therefore advisable to visit the Quattro Canti outside of rush hour. The ideal time is a sunny Sunday morning.

There are no particular Spanish contributions to Sicilian culture from the period before and after the Baroque. This fits in with the widespread opinion that the Spaniards only sucked Sicily away. But as we have already seen, the old (pre-French) Sicilian aristocracy actually invited the Spaniards after the Sicilian Vespers as a protective power.

In the course of time it turned out that the Spaniards hardly interfered in the internal affairs of the aristocrats. The Spaniards also showed their limited interest in Sicily when, from the beginning of the 15th century, they no longer called the respective ruler "king" but "viceroy". Apparently, like the Romans, the Spaniards viewed Sicily as a province and a military outpost.

With the weakening of the ruler, the aristocrats were strengthened. For example, they tore those resources that the Norman kings still managed directly under the nail. They were even allowed to found entire localities. A well-known example of this is Piana degli Albanesi.

In “their” villages, the often uneducated feudal lords were also allowed to pronounce “justice” - up to the death penalty. Even if one should be careful with comparisons in the details, one can draw a wide arc from here to the second half of the 20th century. Actual rule had only passed from the aristocrats to the mafiosi. They too spoke “right” in Sicilian villages and towns - up to and including the death penalty.

How well the Sicilian aristocracy had come to terms with the Spanish "occupiers" was evident in the 19th century during the Risorgimento, i.e. the establishment of the Italian national state, during which Sicily was "liberated" in 1860. After a very short time, many Sicilians wanted the Spaniards back. At that time, however, the latter were far too weak to be reconquered.

The final phase of Spanish rule heralded three interruptions:

  • From 1713 to 1720 Sicily was ruled by King Viktor Amadeus, Duke of Savoy-Piedmont. He tried to tackle the backwardness of Sicily with reforms, but was powerless against the old aristocracy.
  • From 1720 to 1734 the Austrian Emperor Karl VI tried the same. He too failed. In his time, however, the first detailed modern collection of maps of Sicily was created. You can still buy them today [3].
  • From 1806 to 1815 Sicily was under British occupation. The British successfully beat Napoleon in this way. They too quickly noticed the backwardness of Sicily. And they actually managed to implement some reforms. The most symbolic is certainly the abolition of feudalism in 1812.

Inset: Land ownership from the 18th century.

Until the abolition of feudalism and the implementation of various land reforms, the distribution of property in Sicily was comparable to that in the rest of Europe: Few aristocratic families owned a large part of the land as fiefs and many landless, poor farmers cultivated their fields.

In Sicily, a special Sicilian variety, described below, was added from the 18th century. It is so special that it even became the starting point for a world-famous novel or film: The Leopard. Historians also assume that this peculiarity gave rise to an equally special class of society: the mafia.

With the money that the Sicilian aristocrats made with their agricultural property, they built large city villas in Palermo. Two of these villas play a special role in the film "The Leopard" - the entrance scene in the Villa Boscogrande and the big ball in Palazzo Gangi-Valguarnera. In the latter, Visconti shot the famous, by today's standards a bit too "epic" ball scene:

Such balls were really very popular at the time. Understandably, they're also a lot more fun than managing a good. That was therefore left to more and more administrators - the so-called Gabelloti. These were often former farmers who had made a name for themselves as leaders of “protection troops”.

The Gabelloti leased the property and leased parts of it to individual farmers. They were thus a new layer in the feudal pyramid. Leaving aside the basic problems of feudalism, this particular Sicilian construction had two major design flaws.

The first was the brevity of the leases of only 3 to 6 years. If you have such a short perspective, you cannot practice sustainable agriculture. He is forced to think only about his short-term profit.So agriculture in Sicily did not develop any further. But that of other countries did that very well and slowly but surely the competitiveness of Sicilian argar products declined.

The second design flaw concerned the fork loti itself. With them a new, quite affluent middle class developed. A protagonist of this new shift is Calogero Sedara, the mayor of the summer residence of the aristocratic family Salina in “Leopard”. At first glance that doesn't sound bad at all - it sounds like the beginning of the end of feudalism.

The Gabelottis, however, had little to do with the middle class in Northern Europe, which rebelled against the aristocracy (keyword “French Revolution” or “1848”). They were intelligent but at the same time crude and uneducated, and purely for their own benefit. And they soon formed a powerful network on which the aristocrats relied more and more. It is precisely at this point that historians suspect the beginning of the Mafia.

End of feudalism


A touristic round tour through Palermo will most likely also lead you to the imposing Norman Palace. Its architecture is a mish-mash of many centuries of Sicilian history, including a Norman part. The name comes from the fact that the Norman kings had their seat here. Today the Norman Palace is the seat of the Sicilian Parliament.

The first tentative step towards democracy was initiated during the British occupation from 1806 to 1815. The real motivation for the occupation was to prevent Napoleon from occupying Sicily. However, the chief of the British occupation forces was Lord William Bentinck a staunch liberal. He therefore campaigned for free trade, religious tolerance, the abolition of slavery and torture and of course for parliamentarism and the separation of powers - all unheard of things from a Sicilian point of view.

But Lord Bentinck was a very persistent and assertive man. He actually succeeded in at least formally torturing, abolishing private courts and extra-parliamentary taxation and introducing the separation of powers. When the Spanish monarchy took over the helm again in 1816, little was left of these reforms.

However, there was one thing they could not turn back - old-fashioned feudalism. The Sicilian parliament abolished it in 1812. Many interested observers of Sicilian history would have thought this decision to be impossible. But if you look at what the “abolition of feudalism” really meant, the decision of the Sicilian parliament is not surprising.

Let us recall briefly what feudalism means in Sicily: Pope Nicholas II (1058 - 1061) had made Sicily the property of the Vatican through a simple forgery and thanked the Norman Roger Guiscard and his own for the expulsion of the Arab occupiers "Granted" to successors as a kingdom. They in turn lent parts of the country to the aristocracy. This fiefdom passed on, but it was ultimately not the aristocrats owner of the land they sat on.

And that's exactly what changed in 1812. The aristocrats became too Owners and the king (or viceroy) received taxes instead of the previous "loan fees". In fact, nothing had changed: Very few still owned a lot and hundreds of thousands of landless farmers lived on the subsistence level. This actually only changed with the land reform after World War II.

No wonder, then, that after the British withdrawal, the Spanish occupiers had no problem with the formal abolition of feudalism. They had enough other problems too. Spain was no longer a world power like it was in the 16th and 17th centuries. On the contrary - in the 19th century strong internal conflicts up to civil wars shook the country.

Other nation states did not form until the 19th century. These include Germany and Italy, where this process is called "Risorgimento" (resurrection) to this day. The driving force behind it was the only independent part of Italy, the Kingdom of Sardinia-Piedmont. The capital of the emerging nation-state of Italy was Turin at that time.

One of the protagonists of the Risorgimento was the professional revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi. He landed on May 11, 1860 with a good 1000 volunteers in Sicily. This action, which at first glance seems insane, has gone down in Sicilian history as the “Spedizione dei Mille”. In fact, this wild bunch managed to end the Spanish occupation of Sicily.



Palermo Cathedral is one of the city's most popular attractions. No wonder, as it is an imposing building with an eventful history. If you stand in the large square in front of the cathedral and turn your head to the right, you will see a large white building and to the left of it a large ocher-colored building. It is that Convitto Nazionale from Palermo:

"Convitto" means boarding school and the special form of the "national boarding school" is an achievement of the Risorgimento. “Risorgimento” is the name given to the “resurgence” of the Italian nation state in the 19th century.

The convitti were set up in various larger cities for children from the rural area. This was sorely needed. In 1861, shortly after the liberation of Sicily, the illiteracy rate here was 90% (for comparison: in Sweden it was only 10% at that time).

The backwardness of Sicily was of course also known to the promoters of the Risorgimento in the much more developed Turin. For this reason, some of them did not even have Sicily as a candidate for acceptance into the new Italy. But Giuseppe Garibaldi, the aforementioned professional revolutionary, simply created facts with his “Spedizione dei Mille”. He became a national hero and the "Spedizione dei Mille" too the Symbol of the Risorgimento.

Despite the weakness of the Spanish occupiers, it was surprising, to say the least, that Garibaldi's wild gang of 1,000 men could bring the regular troops of a former great power to their knees. In fact, however, the Spanish troops no longer had many of the villages in Sicily under control. There were peasant uprisings there, which were by no means patriotic (most of the peasants had never heard the word "Italy" and none of them could speak Italian), but arose out of poverty and oppression.

The Garibaldi troops were therefore initially only one of many insurgent groups from the Spanish point of view (see section Brigantism). This underestimation of Garibaldi, arguably the most experienced and skilful guerrilla leader of his time, was fatal for the Spaniards. Garibaldi had enough time to increase his troop enormously. He simply promised land as a reward for joining his troops and thus triggered a real peasants' war.

Garibaldi had the brief war under good control, but not at all afterwards. The Sicilians had hoped for more autonomy and justice, but what did Garibaldi and the troops and administrators from Turin bring? The attempt to modernize based on the northern Italian model.

So the old Spanish system was destroyed and the “new system” was not accepted. Riots and land occupations flared up again and the well-known armed gangs got involved in the whole chaos. Within a very short time, many Sicilians perceived the Piedmontese as occupiers and wanted the Spaniards back. In return, the Piedmontese were appalled by the backwardness of Sicily and were surprised that “landscapes in bloom” did not come quickly.

As the skeptics of an "annexation" of Sicily had already suspected, the Risorgimento went completely wrong. The illiteracy rate can again serve as an indicator of how badly it went wrong: In 1951 (!) In Sicily it was still a frightening 25%. And even today, in 2011, the economic and cultural difference between northern Italy and Sicily is glaring. This is grist to the mill of the right-wing populist Lega Nord, which simply argues as follows:

“For over 100 years, the majority of taxes have been earned by us in the north and consumed by those in the south. It didn't help. Now they should get by themselves down there. "

In doing so, she overlooks the fact that Sicily has developed extremely positively over the past 30 years. At this point there are only two examples mentioned:

  • In 2007, around 70 people were murdered in Sicily, which has a population of 5 million. About 17% of this was due to the Mafia. In Finland, also with a population of 5 million, over 100 people died a violent death [4]. The capital of Sicily, Palermo, is now safer than many large cities in northern Italy.
  • While tourism is suffering in the classic holiday areas of northern Italy, it is growing significantly in Sicily. This is particularly true in the area around Trapani, which has established itself as a main base for low-cost airlines.

These and other positive developments naturally take a lot longer than the length of a legislative period. It's more about generations here. As I said, those who lived at the beginning of the Risorgimento were quickly disappointed. Many gave up hope of recovery at home and emigrated.

Waves of emigration

before 1914 and after 1945

The small Sicilian town of Cefalà Diana is known for the only surviving Arab bathhouse in all of Sicily. This bathhouse is a little outside the town and so only a few visitors come directly to Cefalà Diana. That's a shame, because you would come across two unusual monuments here. Where there are heroic “war memorials” in other localities, there is one in Cefalà Diana that shows the horrors of war.

The second monument is dedicated to the subject of immigration. It shows a young family that is leaving their home forever. It is obvious that they do this by no means voluntarily:

What the monument in Cefalà Diana does not show is the extent of the problem. The first wave of emigration in the years before the First World War drove around 1.5 million Sicilians, particularly to North America, but also to South America and Australia. For comparison: the population of Sicily today is approx. 5 million.

The second major wave of emigration after the Second World War led a million Sicilians to northern Europe by around the mid-1970s. The registration office of Cefalà Diana recorded 1,191 inhabitants in 1951 and only 863 in 1971. Some of these so-called "guest workers" are drawn back to their old homeland in old age. So don't be surprised if you are spoken to in German by older Sicilians every now and then.

The main reason for these waves of emigration is an old Sicilian theme: on the one hand, the land was in the hands of a few aristocrats, on the other hand there was an army of landless peasants living on the poverty line. The illiteracy rates shown in the Risorgimento section are a clear indicator of the consequences.

As bitter as emigration was for those affected, it had some positive effects for those who stayed at home:

  • The drastic bloodletting resulted in a labor shortage. This in turn forced reforms in backward agriculture.