The popular vision of Sicily is that of an island which has been oppressed and exploited for centuries by foreign invaders. This vision is widely accepted internationally and by Sicilians among whom, according to the Sicilian historian Francesco Renda, “it is as common as the air they breathe”. Yet even a brief study of the island’s history will show that this vision is far from the whole truth. The reality was much more uneven, with high and low points of civilisation, while for long periods the island led a prosperous existence. At different times, Syracuse and Palermo were among the leading cities in the Mediterranean, each with a flourishing economy and culture to match. So how did this gloomy vision get a hold?
It can be traced back to the work of a Dominican friar named Tommaso Fazello whose history of Sicily, the first to be printed, appeared in Palermo in 1558. Combining a study of the geography, archaeology and history of the island, it was the result of over twenty years’ research and exploration. Nothing as comprehensive had been attempted before and the first print-run sold out rapidly. It was a work of prime importance which earned Fazello the title of the father of Sicilian history. Along with its many insights, however, the work also contained serious mis-judgements. As his editors acknowledged in 1830: “Fazello was held in such high regard that later writers and historians took his text as gospel, accepting his views as standard. This became a major obstacle to progress in the interpretation of our history”.
Fazello was born in 1498 in Sciacca, a small town and fishing port on Sicily’s southern coast, located some sixty-seven kilometres west of Agrigento. Known for its thermal baths, in antiquity Sciacca was called Thermae. The Fazello family was well-established in the town and Tommaso received a good education during which he learned Greek and Latin. At the age of nineteen he moved to Palermo where, after being ordained into the Dominican order, he became a teacher of theology and philosophy. During a visit to Rome he became friends with the bishop of Nocera, Paolo Giovio, who was interested in Sicily. At the time a colony of Spain, the island was governed to serve Spanish interests. Sicily’s past glories were being ignored with ancient Greek monuments dismantled to build coastal defences. Giovio encouraged Fazello to write a history of the island to preserve its heritage and to tell the stories of its ancient cities which had long since disappeared.
In 1535 the Emperor Charles V, King of Spain and Sicily, made a visit to Sicily. In the same year Fazello began to study the history of the island, searching for old manuscripts and immersing himself in the works of the ancient writers. He complemented his desk research with field trips to identify and explore the ancient sites, completing four tours of the island including a climb up Mount Etna. While he is recorded as travelling alone by mule, he was offered hospitality by the Dominican monasteries, and was thus able to draw upon local knowledge. There is no evidence to support the theory that Charles V commissioned the work. According to a note in the 1830 edition, Fazello received no payment from the Spanish or the Sicilian authorities. It was all done in the public interest.
Fazello’s work was written in Latin, entitled De Rebus Siculis Decades Duae, which translates as The History of Sicily in Two Deca, a deca being a set of ten books. The first deca is concerned with descriptions of Sicily, its cities and their ancient monuments. It is written in the form of a tour of the island, starting at Messina and proceeding in a clockwise direction. In the introduction, Fazello dedicates his work to the Emperor Charles V, updated later to Philip II. A list of some 150 historians and writers is provided as sources. The list is comprehensive on antiquity, containing most of the names we are familiar with today, but weaker on the Middle Ages. Under Spanish rule Sicily was largely isolated from its neighbours with a limited interchange of information. The second deca contains the history of Sicily in narrative form from pre-historic times up to Fazello’s day. The 1830 edition, which contains the Italian translation by Remigio Fiorentino, includes an introduction, notes and corrections by the editors. The full work, which runs to over 1600 pages, is available today in reprinted versions.
While Fazello represented the powerful form of Catholicism imposed from Spain, through the different orders of the church backed by the Inquisition, he had no particular axe to grind and did not seek to influence anyone in power. His work was an attempt at an objective presentation of the facts as he saw them. It was an extraordinary feat, representing a vast collection of data on the ancient sites, which anticipated the work of the nineteenth century archaeologists. Fazello’s method was to study the ancient texts and to search for the sites described. He did not carry out excavations but relied upon finding the remains of buildings hidden in the countryside. He described his discovery of Selinus (Selinunte), the ancient Greek city, as follows. According to local tradition, the site of Selinus lay below the port-city of Mazara. To verify this claim, Fazello visited Mazara to examine the ancient walls and to gather local opinion. He found no evidence of Greek buildings. Two years later he gained access to the book of Diodorus (Book XIII) which recounts the capture of Selinus by the Carthaginians in 409 BC. Diodorus states that the Carthaginians landed at Lilybaeum (Marsala) and then crossed the Mazara river, taking a fort that stood on its banks. They proceeded to put Selinus under siege. This led Fazello to examine a stretch of land facing the sea, some thirty kilometres east of Mazara. Here, hidden beneath undergrowth and half- submerged in the marshes, he found sections of Doric columns and large blocks of stone. Coins bearing the word Selinontion (of the Selinuntians) confirmed the city’s identity. Fazello went on to discover Heraclea Minoa, an outpost of Selinus, and Akrai, an outpost of Syracuse, at Palazzolo Acreide.
The site of ancient Akragas (Agrigento) held a particular fascination for Fazello. Here he found piles of old stone, the remains of the Greek city, strewn around the hillside. He left his comment as follows: “I have often been to see the site. Looking at the great spectacle, I am amazed not only by the magnificence of the monuments but also by the passage of time and by the swings of fortune that led to the ruin of everything…I spare a thought for the talents and the culture of the men who created it.” He identified the remains of eight temples, including the Temple of Zeus, the largest Doric temple ever built. Close to one temple he found a marble plaque referring in Latin to Concordia, the Roman goddess of harmony. Although there was no known connection, the temple took on the name Concordia. He also discovered the foundations of a large theatre located near the church of San Nicolò. These foundations, which eluded archaeologists in the 1920s, were rediscovered in 2016 near the church, as indicated by Fazello. It turned out to be a theatre from the Hellenistic period built in a semi-circle facing the sea.
The second deca consists of a narrative history of the island from mythical times to the 1550s. It is written in a style similar to that used by the medieval chroniclers and contains little analysis. Despite the contrasts between eras, Greek, Roman, Byzantine etc, Fazello does not draw conclusions or stand back to put them into context. Instead he presents a catalogue of events together with the exploits of Sicily’s rulers. While due praise is given to the achievements of the Greeks and the Normans, the lasting impression is that of an island that has suffered centuries of invasion and oppression.
Initially Fazello’s vision was limited to historians with a special interest in Sicily. Later it spread to a wider audience when it was taken up by Sicilian writers such as Lampedusa and Sciascia. In his novel, The Leopard, Lampedusa portrays the prince explaining in detail his view of Sicily as a permanent colony. The popularity of the novel, with its international readership, saw to it that this vision became widely known. Sicilians liked it for it laid the blame for the island’s ills squarely upon foreigners, absolving themselves of responsibility. Internationally, Lampedusa’s view spread further through quotations from his novel which appeared in the works of historians such as Denis Mack Smith and John Julius Norwich.
Fazello is to be applauded for his first deca, described as a time-machine which transports us back to Sicily in the 1550s. His observations remain of interest to archaeologists and art historians. The second deca, however, is to be treated with caution. At best it represents half- truths, at worst it obscures the island’s greatest achievements. The gloomy picture that emerges bears little resemblance to the island’s dynamic history which was characterised by dramatic fluctuations in fortune. As Renda concluded: “The rejection of Fazello’s theory, although it inspired some of Sicily’s finest literature, must be categorically stated. What one is rejecting is his narrow vision of Sicily’s history”.