Desire to travel ? A column from Sicily will only make matters worse

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The invention of Sicily. By Jamie Mackay. Back; 304 pages; $ 24.95 and £ 16.99

SICILY BEGUILLES. It offers coves with crystal clear waters; the Greek temples, like those of Agrigento and Segesta, which are among the best preserved in the Mediterranean; a Roman amphitheater in Taormina still used for its original dramatic purpose; grandiose baroque palace; lively street markets; some of the best food in Italy; a growing range of fine wines at reasonable prices; and a cathedral in Palermo which is a riot of eclecticism. Etna, one spring morning, still covered with snow and spitting smoke, is one of the most beautiful sites in Europe.

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The ancient Greeks regarded Sicily as rich and fertile, but “dangerous and unpredictable”. For Jamie Mackay, author of this brief and eventful history of the island, their perception reflects a double vision of Sicily which will be expressed in different forms until today. In Mr. Mackay’s account, a tipping point came at the dawn of the 14th century after several hundred years of relatively enlightened rule by the Byzantine Greeks, Arabs and Normans. The uprising known as the Sicilian Vespers sparked a war that led to the expulsion of French rulers from the island. But it is only too characteristic of Sicily’s bad luck that this popular victory ultimately had such dismal effects.

Sovereignty over an ethnically and religiously diverse island passed, via the rulers of Aragon and Catalonia, to those of a newly unified Spain, obsessed with denominational uniformity and, by implication, racial purity. Sicily became a peripheral territory in an empire that fostered traditional social arrangements and a deeply conservative form of Catholicism. For nearly 400 years, notes Mackay, Sicily was ruled by an urban elite in Palermo. “After Vespers, however, power gradually moved away from these individuals and passed into the hands of rural landowners and church authorities.”

A strand of popular heterodoxy has endured, half-surfacing as superstition, the secret cult of polytheistic deities and even the practice of magic. But one of the results of the incorporation of Sicily into the Spanish Empire was that it was hardly affected by Renaissance humanism. However, his belonging to the empire sheltered him from the worst effects of the decline in Mediterranean trade caused by the colonization of the Americas. And, after Sicily became part of the Kingdom of Naples, it got a whiff of the Enlightenment, thanks to the Bourbon monarch who would become Charles III of Spain. A second apparent liberation, by Giuseppe Garibaldi and a small army of Italian nationalists, turned sour again: Italy’s new Piedmont rulers marred the peace that followed, and Sicily’s fledgling Mafia exploited the chaos.

Mr. Mackay is at his best as he weaves concise descriptions of customs, social changes, legends and cultural glories through this tumultuous tale. Artistically, Sicily’s historical relationship with mainland Italy bears a certain similarity to that of Ireland with Great Britain: an island with a disproportionate middle class, sandwiched between a vast uneducated peasantry and a landed aristocracy. largely indifferent to culture, which nevertheless produced a series of literary works, artistic and musical giants. Vincenzo Bellini, Giovanni Verga, Luigi Pirandello, Leonardo Sciascia, Renato Guttuso, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa and, more recently, Andrea Camilleri, were all Sicilians.

The perpetrator is at its worst when he does not verify his facts and does not verify his assertions. For example, he seems to regard the legendary date of the founding of Rome as historically reliable and describes the Benedictines and Jesuits as “sects”. These are unfortunate missteps in a pleasant gallop through a history and a place that are in turn bewitching and disturbing. â– 

Correction: The original version of this article said that the author of “The Invention of Sicily” had wrongly identified Oscar Luigi Scalfaro as a former Prime Minister of Italy. This reference was removed on July 9 to reflect the fact that the error was removed from the final version of the book.

This article appeared in the Books and Arts section of the print edition under the title “Under the Volcano”

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