Sicilian Authors -- Considering that Italian literature was founded at the court of Frederick II in Palermo, it comes as no surprise that Sicily has produced brilliant writers whose works have become world-renowned classics. Oddly enough, there would be a very long gap between the poems and sonnets composed by the court minstrels Ciullo d'Alcamo and Jacopo da Lentini and the next wave of writers, but Sicily made up for it.
One of the great writers of Italian fiction, Giovanni Verga (1840-1922) was from Catania. His works depicting the Sicily of his life and times are among the most important of the Realist movement, and his verses relay the story with a stark, frank poignancy. He published his Little Novels of Sicily in 1886, and his I Malavoglia (House by the Medlar Tree) was part of a trilogy dedicated to the vinti, the defeated, a common theme in his works. The Cavalleria Rusticana, one of the most popular operas in the world, is based on one of his stories. Like Verga, fellow Catania-area born Luigi Capuana (1839-1915) was also deeply influenced by French realism. Federico De Roberto (1861-1927) wrote the compelling I Vicerè (The Viceroys), a novel about a rich and powerful Sicilian family during the time of Italian unification.
In the last century the Nobel Prize was awarded twice to two of Sicily's sons -- Luigi Pirandello (1867-1936), from Agrigento, and Salvatore Quasimodo, from Modica. The outstanding playwright and dramatist Pirandello is considered the forerunner of the Theatre of the Absurd for his interpretations of human nature and genuine mistrust of what would seem to be the truth. His masterpiece, Six Characters in Search of an Author, is a poignant tragicomedy that questions the relationship between reality and fantasy. Il Fu Mattia Pascal (The Late Mattia Pascal) is a humorous novel with bizarre twists about escape from a stifling life. It can be emphatically said that reading Pirandello is compulsory for understanding what makes Sicily tick.
Poet Salvatore Quasimodo (1901-68) is considered one of the greatest Italian lyrical writers of the last century but, unlike Pirandello whose stories were deeply rooted in his home territory, his writing was not greatly influenced by his homeland; his works were more inspired by his repugnance of the war (he was an outspoken anti-Fascist). His most famous poems are And It's Suddenly Evening and Day After Day; his works gave way to the movement known as Hermeticism. His brother-in-law, Elio Vittorini (1908-66), from Syracuse, wrote the brilliant Conversazioni in Sicilia (Conversations in Sicily) in which he denounced Fascism. The first U.S. edition was prefaced by Ernest Hemingway, who had a great influence on Vittorini's writing style.
Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1896-1957) was a descendant of nobility and a dilettante writer, yet his only novel, Il Gattopardo (The Leopard) -- published posthumously in 1958 -- has been acclaimed as one of the great novels of its time. It traces the decline and fall of the House of Salina, a family of Sicilian aristocrats during the tumultuous time of Italy's Unification in 1860, which mirrored the fate of di Lampedusa's own ancestors. The words uttered by Prince Fabrizio Salina in the novel ("change everything so as to not change anything") would become an eerie omen about the state of Sicily today.
Leonardo Sciascia, (1921-89), from Racalmuto, was a keen observer of postwar Sicily in a period of political upheaval. Mafia domination and the role of Mafia in politics are themes reflected in his works. His outspoken positions on certain issues often made him unpopular, yet Gore Vidal heralded him as the vigil of the Sicily of the times. The Wine Dark Sea, a collection of short stories, explores "the Sicilian mind," as well as Mafia culture. The book presents a history of the island as it travels over the centuries.
Two authors who are still producing works today and who draw inspiration from their home territory are Giuseppe Consolo, who published the Sorriso di un Marinaio Ignoto (Smiles from an Unknown Seaman) and Andrea Camilleri, who still pens the widely-successful Inspector Montalbano series based on the character of police commissioner Salvatore Montalbano.
History -- The Kingdom In The Sun, by John Julius Norwich, is a formidable book that explains and explores how the Normans conquered Sicily and how they were able to maintain the delicate balance among the existing inhabitants on the island while creating the most important cultural center in the Western world.
Arabs and Normans in Sicily and the South of Italy, by Adele Cilento, is a coffee-table book of 275 full-color glossy pictures. It is the best-illustrated account of the architecture, tapestries, manuscripts, paintings, and relics of the culture created in Sicily under both Arab and Norman rule. With the coming of the Normans, the artistic legacy of the Byzantine world was fused with Christian motifs.
The Kingdom of Sicily, 1100-1250: A Literary History, by Karla Mallette, is for serious readers who want an insight into medieval life on the island. The book deals with the complex nature of Sicily as a cultural crossroads between East and West, Islam and Christianity. The literary production of the island is surveyed in Arabic, Latin, Greek, and Romance dialects.
Fiction & Memoir -- Sicily: Where Love Is, by Gerry Battista, captures a closely-knit family and their friends. The lives and adventures of several generations of the Salerno family, strong on family ties and cultural values, are beautifully portrayed. You are transported to Sicily when reading this book.
A House in Sicily, by Daphne Phelps with Denis Mack Smith, is a captivating memoir, recounting how Phelps inherited "the most beautiful house in Sicily." Arriving in Taormina with little money, she planned to sell the house but fell in love with Taormina, and began receiving guests, including illustrious ones such as Tennessee Williams and Bertrand Russell.
Casa Nostra: A Home in Sicily, by Caroline Seller Manzo, does for Sicily what Frances Mayes did for Tuscany in another memoir. Food, family, and culture -- even culture shock -- are captured in this English woman's tale of her unpredictable adventures when she set out to renovate a villa. The unique beauty and history of western Sicily are also captured in this tale.
War Novels -- The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy (1943-44), by Rick Atkinson, is a riveting story of the U.S. Army's campaign to capture Sicily in World War II. This is a warts-and-all detailed story of the Sicilian campaign, focusing on the major personalities (and sometimes the minor players) as well as the flaws and successes of the battle.
A Bell for Adano, by John Hersey, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning World War II novel set in the fictitious Sicilian town of Adano (which was really Licata, where Allied forces landed in 1943). The story tells the tale of an Italian-American army major who wins over the trust and respect of the locals when he helps find a way to replace the 700-year-old town-hall bell that was melted down by the Fascists to make ammunition.
Cinema Paradiso brought a 1989 Oscar to Giuseppe Tornatore for this romantic tale of growing up in a remote Sicilian village. A filmmaker returns to his Sicilian hometown for the first time in 3 decades and takes a look back at his life. That life included time spent helping the projectionist at the local movie house.
Giuseppe Toratore followed Cinema Paradiso in 1995 with L'Uomo Delle Stelle (The Star Maker), which was the story of a Roman con man who arrives in Sicily posing as a talent scout. He journeys with his camera to poor villages in 1950s Sicily, promising stardom for a fee to the gullible islanders. Tornatore would make two more films about Sicily: Malena in 2000, about a young boy's infatuation with a war widow who happens to be the most beautiful woman in town, coveted by men and viciously envied by their women; and Baaria in 2009, an epic recounting the postwar history of his hometown of Bagheria.
Stromboli (1949), shot on one of the Aeolian Islands, was a failure at the box office, although it received worldwide publicity. Later generations have appreciated it more than those who first saw it. Ingrid Bergman was the star, Roberto Rossellini the director. The couple's "illicit" affair virtually destroyed the married Bergman's career (at least temporarily), and she was even denounced in the U.S. Senate. (In my view, Rossellini and Bergman should have been denounced for this movie, not their love affair.)
Politics and crime are bedfellows in Francesco Rosi's neorealist drama Salvatore Giuliano (1962). The body of Giuliano, one of Italy's most "beloved" gangsters, was found on July 5, 1950, in Castelvetrano in Sicily. His body was punctured with bullet holes. Rosi paints a vivid portrait of this legendary bandit.
Il Gattopardo (The Leopard) was Luchino Visconti's 1968 film version of the celebrated Giuseppe di Lampedusa novel set in the revolutionary Sicily of the mid-1800s. A lush drama with a memorable ballroom scene, the film is a perfect evocation of a lost world. The masterpiece traces the decline and fall of the House of Salina, starring Burt Lancaster as a Sicilian prince trying to preserve his fading aristocratic way of life.
Visconti in 1948 also used Sicily as a backdrop for La Terra Trema (The Earth Trembles), an adaptation of Verga's novel Malavoglia. This story of a fisherman failed at the box office upon its release but came to be viewed as a classic of the neorealism movement.
Playing a Sicilian aristocrat, Marcello Mastroianni starred in Pietor Germi's 1961 comedy Divorzio all'italiana (Divorce, Italian Style). Facing a midlife crisis, Mastroianni wants a divorce when it was not legal in Italy. He finds his wife (played by Daniela Rocca) annoying, and he devises a scheme to make it appear that she is unfaithful and then to kill her.
In 2002 Marco Tullio Giordana's I Cento Passi (The 100 Steps) received wide critical acclaim. Documenting the life of anti-Mafia activist Peppino Impastato, he recounts the story of the 100 steps that separated Impastato's house from the home of the Mafioso who had him brutally killed. In 2013, a dark comedy about the mafia debuted to great aclaim: The Mafia Kills Only in Summer. It's a Wes Anderson-esque type comedy that's visually stunning, and quirky in its storytelling.
Fans of Call Me By Your Name will want to see the equally enrapturing, earlier film from director Luca Guadagnino. A Bigger Splash (2015) is about a pop star's vacation on Pantelleria and it highlight's the island's beauty spots.
As the crossroads of the Mediterranean, Sicily has had a wide range of music, from à capella devotional songs to the vibrant jazz scene of today. Over the years the island has been a cultural melting pot of music, beginning with the Greeks, and going on to the Normans, French, Spanish, and even Arabs from the Maghreb.
As the "granary of Italy," Sicily is home to harvest songs and work songs. Sicily's flute music (friscaletto), accompanied by a schiacciapensieri (Jew's harp), has deep roots on island, with Carmelo Salemi the best-known performer of these traditional sounds. Another notable folk singer was Rosa Balistreri, who sung of the hardships of life in a ripping, moving voice accompanied by a lone guitar, which has influenced a generation of artists. Many festivals are held in her name throughout the island, as are folk-song contests.
Catania, with its splendid Teatro Massimo Bellini, built in 1890, is the hometown of the great Vincenzo Bellini (1801-35), who regrettably lived a very short life. The young composer still remains "the favorite son" of Catania.
A popular musician, Franco Battiato, fused rock 'n' roll with traditional and classical influences. His masterpiece, released in 1979, was called L'era del cinghiale bianco. Catania is still the musical capital of the island; many contemporary Italian chart-toppers and internationally appreciated artists like Carmen Consoli and Mario Biondi are from here.
Messina's male choirs enjoy island renown, and Giancarlo Parisi is known for his traditional Sicilian music. In 1975, Luciano Maio founded the band Taberna Mylaensis, and recovered much traditional Sicilian music before it died out -- folk songs, folkloric dance music, provincial ballads, romantic poetry, and instrumental songs played on traditional instruments.
Alan Lomax, an American musicologist, made many recordings of traditional island music in the 20th century, including epic storytelling, religious music, dance music, and lullabies.
Recorded in 1954, the album Sicily (Rounder Records) is a digitally remastered selection of mostly unreleased music from Lomax's sweeping Columbia World Library of Folk and Primitive Music project. Lomax was fortunate enough to record this music in preindustrial Italy, and he was able to capture on record every sound, from the plaintive a cappella chorus of female almond sorters to a frenzied tarantella. He even managed to capture the sounds of a ciaramedda a paru (twin-chanter bagpipe). Yes, the bagpipe is not just confined to Scotland, and you'll see the odd bagpipe player or two roaming the streets at Christmastime, playing the classic traditional carols.
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