Sicily is both a bridge between Europe and Africa and a platform between the eastern and the western Mediterranean. Once it was at the center of the world. Different peoples succeeded on another unceasingly: mythical peoples and historical peoples, one after another, one on the top of the other. The Greeks landed near Taormina in the beginning of the 734 BC ‘summer. For Sicily this was a fundamental experience, the beginning of its true history. The very name that the greeks gave Sicily and southern Italy – Magna Graecia- indicates that for the Greeks Sicily was not just a mere colonial adventure, but a destiny. Greek became the language par excellence of Sicily, and historians, poets and philosophers wrote in it. The Greeks founded several cities, especially along the coast. Some of them, like Syracuse, Catania, Taormina, Gela and Agrigento, still exist. In these cities, the Greeks built many monuments, including those theatres and temples that are the most precious cultural heritage of old Sicily. The wonderful Valle dei Templi in Agrigento, Selinunte’s temples, the theatres of Siracusa, Taormina and Tindari, these buildings defy the centuries; Empedocle was right when he wrote about these peoples that they “live in insouciance of mores as if they were going to die the day after and build as if they were never going to die”. Thanks to this conception of the world, the temples are still there and they still amaze visitors’ minds as they did before.
After being conquered by the Vandals and Ostrogoths, and reconquered by the Byzantines, Sicily became a “land of Islam”. However, although the Muslim governed Sicily for almost 250 years, almost nothing is extant of their material culture. Everything Muslim in Sicily dates from the Norman age. It was thanks to the Normans that Sicily became catholic in religion, neo-latin in language and European in culture. Thanks to the patronage of Roger II, Palermo welcomes the most significant astronomers, geographers, mathematicians, philosophers and artists of XII th century. At all events, it was only in the Norman age that Muslim craftsmen, either local or coming from Persia, Mesopotamia, Syria and Egypt, succeeded in producing works destined to be handed down to us, in a wonderful synthesis between Europe, Asia and Africa.
It’s just Norman kings’ political skill which melt the different cultures present in the island: Norman, Greek, Muslim and Jewish. Palermo, Monreale, Cefalù with their cathedrals and churches have unique witnesses in their beauty and meaning. Indeed, Norman kings, and until 1713 the kings and viceroys of Sicily that followed, also enjoyed the privilege of being at the head of the Church, because it was God which conferred political power without any papacy mediation. Thus, the immense building activity of the Norman monarchy was both a religious and political instrument. Then, Sicily was dominated by the Angevins, against whom the Sicilians rebelled in the Sicilian Vespers and following by the Aragonese and by the Spanish until 1713.
Because of the earthquake in 1693, eastern Sicily was destroyed and as the Baroque style was predominant, cities were rebuilt in this style, giving us some wonderful examples in the cities of Noto, Modica, Ragusa, Scicli. Commitments were mainly Church and aristocracy. There are countless religious buildings built by the Theatines, the Dominicans, the Franciscans and the Jesuits. Not only churches, but also monastic buildings, sanctuaries, oratories and chapels. However, there are also examples of secular buildings, like the mansions and villas of aristocracy. In both eastern and western Sicily, in small towns and big cities, as in Palermo, which, in the 17th and 18th century became a true workshop of baroque art.