Allan Langdale is an art historian and lecturer, who earned his doctorate degree from the University of California at Santa Barbara. His specialties include Italian Renaissance art and architecture, medieval art, and Byzantine art. His recent publications include the definitive guidebook to the art and archaeology of northern Cyprus and the travelogue, Palermo: Travels in the City of Happiness (2015).
I first went to Sicily when I was 21, in 1982. I found it to be an inspiring land of myth and romance. The wonders of Sicily are virtually indescribable; the best preserved Greek temples in the world, some older than the Parthenon in Athens, are found in Sicily. The most spectacular Roman mosaics are also found there, in situ at a sprawling 4th-century villa at Piazza Armerina. Greco-Roman theaters, and even an amphitheater, can also be found on the Mediterranean’s largest island, in the town of Syracusa, once one of the richest cities of Graecia Magna (‘Greater Greece’). Sicily’s cultural sites are matched by its geological wonders, notably in the imposing and highly active volcanoes of Mount Etna and Stromboli, both stops on our upcoming circumnavigation.
Many visitors to Sicily, however, don’t spend much time in Palermo, one of the most under-rated cities in the Mediterranean and one of my favorite places. The city developed a bad reputation in the 1980s and early 90s, due to the mafia wars that took place there. But in recent decades Palermo has undergone what has today become known as the Primavera de Palermo, ‘The Palermo Spring.’ The city has shrugged off its shady past and emerged from its chrysalis as one of the Mediterranean’s true butterflies. Two years ago I began writing a travel book on Sicily and began the first chapter with Palermo. Within a week, I realized this remarkable city deserved a volume entirely of its own. Eventually, I wrote a book called Palermo: Travels in the City of Happiness (2015), which was a celebration of the fascinating history, art, and architecture of this ancient town. I wanted to counter the city’s edgy reputation with a happier and more up-to-date vision. In the 15th century Palermo used to be known as la felice, ‘the happy.’ It was time to resurrect that once again accurate designation.
Palermo has a thousand marvels, some well-known and others tucked away in secret places. The city’s greatest age was the early 12th century when a Norman king named Roger II, instigated an age of prosperity and stunning multicultural artistic and architectural achievements, including the Martorana and the Palatine Chapel, small churches completely covered in their interiors in Byzantine-style mosaics. In Palermo’s outskirts the great cathedral of Monreale, an edifice constructed by Roger’s grandson, William II, counts as one of Europe’s finest exemplars of the age. Here, too, vast golden mosaic programs decorate the church’s cavernous interior, while the cloister has the best collection of medieval sculptured capitals in all of Europe.
The art of Palermo during this time reflected a wonderful hybrid nature: the Norman conquerors were French Catholics, but they had seized an island that had been under Muslim control for 300 years, and which still had a sizable population of Byzantine (Orthodox) Greeks from centuries before when the island had been under the sway of the Byzantine Empire. Thus a marvelous cultural and artistic hybrid—a mixture of Medieval French, Muslim, and Byzantine—enjoyed a brief but spectacular flowering on Sicily with Palermo as its capital.
Sicily was later under the control of Spain and the city offers travelers myriad baroque masterpieces in architecture, sculpture, and painting. Palermo had yet another golden age around 1900, when it was known as ‘The Little Capital of Art Nouveau,’ after Paris and Vienna. The exemplary works of one of Italy’s greatest architects, the Palermitan native Ernesto Basile, stand out in various pockets of the city. Perhaps surprisingly, even Palermo’s Fascist-era architecture stands out as exemplary. Not all of it was sternly austere; some of the best Fascist architecture in Italy can be found in Palermo. The city’s markets are wonderful as well, though even I will admit that the fish market in Catania—also on our Sicily itinerary—may get the top spot in that category.
The Circumnavigation of Sicily is my favorite of all the great cultural trips Zegrahm offers. The focus on a single place gives the tour a thematic cohesion I love. One comes away with a real sense of having delved deeply into the history, geography, art, and culture of a specific, fascinating region, for centuries at the very heart of the Mediterranean, a primary crucible of western civilization: Sicily.