Sicily… a Literary Guide

In their own words, the literary figures who have defined an island.

Sicily... a Literary Guide

Rising up from the heart of the Mediterranean, Sicily has a rich and ancient history spanning over 2,000 years. A bounty prized by invaders from the Greeks, Romans and Vandals to the Byzantines, Arabs and Normans, Sicily’s violently beautiful landscapes are haunted by a vibrant mix of cultures that has always been fertile ground for the literary and artistic imagination.
To celebrate the forthcoming release of Andrew and Suzanne Edwards’ Sicily: A Literary Guide for Travellers, we’ve assembled an assortment of quotations by some of the writers – from Steinbeck to Cervantes – who have lived on and been influenced by the island’s various locations.
So sit back, relax, and perhaps start planning a holiday.

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa | Palazzo Lanza Tomasi

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1896-1957) did not start writing his classic novel The Leopard (1958) until he had long been resident in Palermo’s eighteenth-century Palazzo Lanza Tomasi at 28 Via Butera. The residence overlooks the Italico Umberto I, which is Palermo’s rather far from the sea seafront promenade. In moments of idleness, he amused himself by watching Palermitan life in all its vitality unfold amongst the Italico’s shadows. If you walk along the Mura Catene today, the wall that once housed the fifteenth-century chains that closed the harbour, there is a good view of the crisply rendered yellow and white plaster of the author’s final home. Bougainvillea and other Mediterranean shrubs spill over the garden wall, softening the lines of this impressive terrace. Next to the palazzo is the former Hotel Trinacria where Lampedusa has the Leopard breathe his last:

Sitting in an arm-chair, his long legs wrapped in a blanket, on the balcony of the Hotel Trinacria, he felt life flowing from him in great pressing waves with a spiritual roar like that of the Rhine Falls. It was noon on a Monday at the end of July, and away in front of him spread the sea of Palermo, compact, oily, inert, improbably motionless, crouching like a dog trying to make itself invisible at his master’s threats.

Guy de Maupassant | The Convento dei Cappuccini

A more macabre destination has been immortalised in print by a morbidly fascinated Guy de Maupassant (1850-1893). The Convento dei Cappuccini in Piazza Cappuccini, an unremarkable monastery from the outside, houses a crypt that brings travellers within touching distance of their own mortality. Today’s visitor is provided with a leaflet that quotes from the Italian poet Ippolito Pindemonte’s Sepulchres (I sepolcri), in which he explains that in these catacombs never have life and death been so united. The truth is that the mummified cadavers are not individually entombed but are simply on display: a ghastly museum of gaping-mouthed citizenry dressed in their Sunday best, crammed in row upon row, floor to ceiling.

The catacombs were originally intended for the Capuchin friars, but the great and good of Palermo also decided that they wanted to follow suit. The dead bodies were dried on racks, where the fluid could drip away, and were then often washed in vinegar to help the mummification; later corpses were actually embalmed. Maupassant details this truly hideous ensemble, being particularly taken aback by the women:

Here are the women, yet more ludicrous than the men, for they have been decked out coquettishly. Their heads face towards you, clasped in lace- and ribbon-trimmed bonnets, a snow-like whiteness around these black, rotten faces, wasted by the strange workings of the earth. The hands, similar to the cut roots of trees, emerge from the sleeves of new robes.

W. B. Yeats | Monreale

One of the more lasting, yet oblique, references to Sicily’s Monreale cathedral can be found in W. B. Yeats’ (1865-1939) poem ‘Sailing to Byzantium’. Yeats accompanied the American poet, Ezra Pound, on a recuperative trip around Sicily in 1924, many references to which are found in the postcards sent home by Dorothy Shakespear, Pound’s wife. Four years later, Yeats published the poem, a paean to an idealised Byzantium in contrast to the decline felt in old age – something with which he was all too familiar. With mortality in mind, his muse faces the magnificent interior of the cathedral:

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake

Lawrence Durrell | Cefalù

It looked like a great whale basking in the blueness – a mythological ruminant of a fish, dreaming of some oceanic Eden, its eyes shut.

Such was Lawrence Durrell’s (1912-1990) first impression of the seaside town Cefalù. After years of indulging his islomania on the Greek islands, the author of the Alexandria Quartet finally got around to discovering Sicily in the 1970s. His whale refers to the bullnosed rock that towers above the town giving a distinctive outline to all postcards sold in the vicinity, and a clue to the origin of Cefalù’s name – kephale comes from the Greek, meaning ‘head’.

Lucio Piccolo | Tyrrhenian Coast

Lucio Piccolo (1901-1969) was the cousin of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa and the first of his extended family to achieve literary fame. Piccolo’s poetry has a distinctly nuance-driven, lyrically cultivated feel, running against the tide of much avant-garde poetry of the time. His verses on the sirocco, the pestilential Arabian wind that occasionally torments the Sicilian summer, are a beautiful example of his work:

And over the mountains, far above horizons
a long strip of saffron:
the Moorish wind-swarm breaks through,
takes the main portals by force
the lookout-turrets on the enamel roofs,
batters facades from the south,
tosses scarlet hangings, blood-red pennants, kites,
opens blue clearings, cupolas, dream-forms,
jolts pergolas, vivid roof-tiles
where spring-water stands in opalescent jars

Cervantes | Messina

In charge of the Christian fleets that went into battle at Lepanto with the Ottoman Turks, on 25 August 1571, Don John, the bastard brother of the Spanish king, Philip II, set foot on Messinese soil among much pomp and celebration, Latin poetry lauding his best attributes and a cannonade of celebratory gunfire. In the crowd was a young man with literary ambition and the immediate future of a soldier’s life: Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra.

Before going out to sea, Cervantes and his friends were huddled onboard incredibly cramped boats, over-stocked with the paraphernalia of war. The intemperate weather would have had a devastating effect on stomachs already tight with the anticipation of coming battle.  Miguel was suffering from fever onboard a galley called the Marquesa. Battle was joined approaching Lepanto, now known by the Greek name Nafpaktos. Cervantes refused to stay below deck, despite his illness, and took full part in the action. Contemporary accounts praise his bravery in the face of incredible carnage. To say he stared death in the face is an understatement and it left an indelible mark. In a poem known as the‘Epistle to Mateo Vazquez’ (‘Epistola a Mateo Vazquez’), he describes the horrors of war:

The cries confused, the horrid dine and dire,
The mortal writhings of the desperate
Who breathed their last ’mid water and ’mid fire,
The deep-drawn sighs, the groanings loud and great
That sped from wounded breasts, in many a throe
Cursing their bitter and detested fate.

Percy Bysshe Shelley & Sam Taylor Coleridge | Fonte Aretusa

The Fonte Aretusa – Arethusan Fountain in Syracuse has legendary origins. Arethusa was a water nymph who enjoyed bathing in the stream of the river god Alpheus. As was the way of things in the ancient world, the god was rather smitten with the young naiad, her nubile limbs gracefully cutting a swathe through his passionate waters.

Not keen to succumb to her insistently aqueous suitor, she ran away and asked Artemis, the protector of women, for help. The solution was to turn Arethusa into a freshwater spring which made its way underground all the way from Olympia to Ortygia, where she surfaced. Undaunted, Alpheus’ current changed direction in order to follow the object of his desire and their waters now mingle in the sacred Ortygian fountain that bears her name. This seems like a plot tailor-made for the Romantic poet and some of England’s finest wordsmiths were, indeed, compelled to turn the legend into verse.

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) wrote a poem entitled ‘Arethusa’ to accompany the play that his wife, Mary Shelley, had created on the former subject. Intended for a younger audience, the poem covers the entire story, finishing with a Syracusan flourish:

And at night they sleep
In the rocking deep
Beneath the Ortygian shore;

Like spirits that lie
In the azure sky,
When they love but live no more.

Shelley’s contemporary and fellow Romantic, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), also dipped his toes in Alpheus’ stream. In one of the most famous opening verses in the English language, Coleridge references the mythic waters: ‘In Xanadu did Kubla Khan/A stately pleasure-dome decree/Where Alph, the sacred river, ran/Through caverns measureless to man . . .’

In a less romantic sidenote, Coleridge also had some lofty opinions on Sicilian governance, developed after his time as an administrator in Malta:

Really you may learn the fundamental principles of political economy in a very compendious way, by taking a short tour through Sicily, and simply reversing in your own mind every law, custom, and ordinance you meet with. I never was in a country in which everything proceeding from man was so exactly wrong.

John Steinbeck | Gela

It was on the beaches from Licata to the town of Gela that the Americans and Canadians landed in World War II. Operation Husky, as it was known, saw the Allies move swiftly inland and was followed by the then war reporter, John Steinbeck (1902-1968). Steinbeck turned to war reporting in 1943 and we know he trailed the invasion all the way to Palermo. His focus on the ordinary individuals involved in the campaign provides a sobering insight into the horrors of war. His experiences were only collated into the book format of Once There Was a War in 1958. One soldier was an individual nicknamed Bugs:

Bugs, when the battle for Gela in Sicily had abated, was poking about among the ruins, when he came upon a mirror – but such a mirror as to amaze him. It had survived bombing and shell fire in some miraculous manner, a matter which created wonder in Bugs [. . .] The whole thing must have weighed about seventy-five pounds, and it was so beautiful that it broke Bugs’ heart. He just couldn’t leave it behind.

Bugs probably fought the toughest war in all Sicily, for he carried the mirror on his back the whole way. When the shell fire was bad, he turned his mirror face down and covered it with dirt. On advances he left it and always came back in the night and got it again, although it entailed marching twice as far as the rest of his outfit.

The heartbreaking end to this story is that, having successfully carried the mirror to Palermo, Buggs was billeted in a tall house with balconies. Hauling the mirror up, he hung it on a nail, only for the plaster to give way and the mirror to come crashing down onto the floor in a thousand pieces. The phlegmatic Bugs simply shrugged his shoulders, deciding that it probably would not have looked right in his flat anyway. ■

Sicily: A Literary Guide for TravellersSicily: A Literary Guide for Travellers is the latest addition to our Literary Guides for Travellers series.
Image courtesy of Russell James Smith.

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