The oranges of the island are like blazing fire among the emerald boughs,
And the lemons are like the pale faces of lovers who have spent the night crying.
Two widely quoted lines from an obscure poet. If you can name the island this quote refers to, I’m impressed. If you can also name the poet, you know far too much about literature and history – would you be interested in writing a guest post for me?
As for the rest of you, the hoi polloi, the mere mortals 🙂 reading this:
The island is Sicily and the poet’s name is Abd ar-Rahman da Trapani – and no, I’ve never heard of him either. He was an Arab poet in the court of Roger II in the 12th century and he’s so obscure that you can only find a couple of lines on Wikipedia on him and those couple of lines are in Italian. As for his poetry, you positively can’t find it anywhere. I nicked the quote from the current exhibition of the British Museum on Sicily.
Sun, Sea… Sicily
In addition to its blazing oranges and pale lemons, its blazing sun and the not-so-pale sea, Sicily is of course famous for – you tell me. Three things Sicily is famous for? Quick… but no referring to Google, please!
For myself, I came up with the mafia, the volcano Etna and the ruins of the Greek temple at Taormina. (If the temple strikes you as oddly un-famous, I have to explain that it is the subject of a rather striking Hungarian painting.) On another day, I might, conceivably, have remembered the Allied landing in World War II or the First Punic War. Now I don’t know what answers you people came up with but I bet mafia was included in every single one of them…
Well, you can forget the mafia for the moment.
Sicily: Minus the Mafia
Right. So I might not manage to come up with quotes of obscure 12th-century Arab poets without the help of the British Museum but I most certainly don’t need them to tell me that Sicily has had a pretty lively history…
A history that includes pretty much every nation that ever graced the Mediterranean seaboard: from the Ancient Greeks to the Spanish, from the Phoenicians to the Arabs.
The Ancient Greeks loved the island: Sicily can thank them for grapes and olives and a lot of Greek ruins. Syracuse, the home town of Archimedes, was once a major power in the Mediterranean and some of the best preserved Ancient Greek temples are found in Sicily – not in Greece. The town of Agrigento on the south coast is famous for the Valle dei Templi, the Valley of Temples – in Ancient Greek times the town was called Akragas and the Temple of Concordia is something I will have to see before I die.
Actually, it wasn’t just the Ancient Greeks. Everybody in antiquity loved the island: the Greeks, the Romans and the Carthaginians fought repeated wars over Sicily (the last Punic war famously culminating in the total destruction of Carthage). Sicily in turn served as the bread basket of Athens and of Rome both. And after the Romans came the Byzantine empire, the Arabs, the Spaniards…
But in between – and I did have to go to the British Museum exhibition to find this out – Sicily was also for a while ruled by the Normans, who conquered it at about the same time they conquered England. But while the Normans in England have, at least to Anglo-Saxonists (J.R.R. Tolkien and my husband), a somewhat tarnished reputation, the ones in Sicily have done quite spectacularly well in contrast: I take my hat off to them.
And this is where we return to Roger II of Sicily, the employer of our obscure poet, Abd ar-Rahman da Trapani.
Ruggero II di Sicilia (as the Italians style him) was the son of one of the original conquerors and one of the most important kings of his time who “made Sicily the leading maritime power in the Mediterranean” in the twelfth century. He ruled over a magnificent court in Palermo – a court that welcomed learned men of all creeds and races. In modern parlance, Roger II’s Sicily was a truly multicultural place.
The Cappella Palatina, at Palermo, the most wonderful of Roger’s churches, with Norman doors, Saracenic arches, Byzantine dome, and roof adorned with Arabic scripts, is perhaps the most striking product of the brilliant and mixed civilization over which the grandson of the Norman Trancred ruled. (Encyclopeadia Britannica 1911)
Sicily: Culture and Conquest
I’ve never been to Sicily and I didn’t think I particularly wanted to go there either. Only three months ago my sister suggested that instead meeting up in Venice, we go to Sicily – a sacrilegious notion which I nipped firmly in the bud. It’s true that I’m reading a travel book on Sicily at the moment but to be entirely honest about it, in actual fact I’m reading an Ernle Bradford book which just happens to be about his time sailing round Sicily. But two weeks ago I went to the British Museum to see Sicily: Culture and Conquest, and came out with Sicily, my new holiday destination. And I’m not the only one who reacted this way: the art critic reviewing the exhibition in The Daily Telegraph came exactly to the same conclusion.
If you have no idea where to have your holidays this summer, go to Sicily. If you can’t go to Sicily come to London and go to Sicily: Culture and Conquest in the British Museum instead.
(Written in response to the Everyday Inspiration prompt: Start with a Quote.)