Writing about Sicily - by Julian Treuherz

In this blog, author of 'Art and Architecture of Sicily' Julian Treuherz reflects on the background to his new book – publishing on 31st May! 

Pictured: Temple C, on the acropolis of the city of Selinunte, c.550 bce. Photo: Peter de Figueiredo, © Peter de Figueiredo.

‘You’ve got to have a point of view’: these were the words of Nikos Stangos, the legendary editor at Thames and Hudson, responding to the initial manuscript of my book on Victorian Painting, when he sent it back to me asking me to rewrite it. I felt crushed. But it was a valuable lesson. History (and art history) is not a record of what happened, it is a record of someone’s interpretation of what happened. Writing from a clear standpoint also makes for a book that readers find easier to understand. So when I undertook to write about the art and architecture of Sicily, a complex subject if ever there was one, I had to decide where I stood. 

Pictured: 'La Vucciria' by Renato Guttuso, 1974. Photo: Melo Minnella. 

The book was the idea of my partner Peter de Figueiredo, who took the architectural photographs for the book. Neither of us had any knowledge of or connection with Sicily when we first went there on holiday in the 1990s, but as art and architectural historians, we were both captivated by the artistic riches of the island, a product of the succession of different peoples who came to Sicily as settlers, conquerors and short-term visitors – Greeks, Romans, Phoenicians, Arabs, Normans, Germans, Spaniards, Austrians, North Italians. We were also attracted by the climate and the food. Wherever we went, on every street corner was a stall piled high with fresh seasonal fruit and vegetables, and going round the fish markets of Catania or Trapani was like taking part in a theatrical performance. The intensity of the market experience is summed up by Renato Guttuso’s painting of Palermo’s Vucciria market, reproduced in the book.

On our first visit to Sicily the hotels we stayed in were distinctly seedy; Palermo after dark was sinister, with very few places to eat, and to get into some of the churches you had to ring on the bell of a nearby house to find someone with a key (the enterprising Mayor of Palermo Leoluca Orlando changed all that: now the city welcomes tourists and most of the important churches are open regular hours). In some museums we were the only visitors, and were accompanied by a caretaker who would hustle us round, turning the lights on and off for us in each gallery. At Noto, one of the Baroque towns rebuilt after the 1693 earthquake, the cathedral was in a state of collapse, and there were only a handful of other tourists (it is now part of a World Heritage site, the cathedral has been restored, and in the summer you can hardly move for sightseers). Driving through the countryside on our first visit to Sicily, I remember being struck by the many decaying houses in orange groves or vineyards, prompting fantasies of buying one and doing it up.  After returning for several years in succession, we took the plunge and bought a house - not the crumbling ruin of my dreams, but a more practical house, modern, but built in traditional style with pantiled roofs, a courtyard with a pizza oven, and a small garden with olive and fruit trees, which we have extended, creating a sustainable Mediterranean garden. The house is outside Trapani, on the west of the island, in a peaceful location overlooking vineyards and olive groves.

Pictured: Noto rebuilt. S. Nicolò, the Chiesa Madre (now the cathedral), is flanked by palaces for the aristocracy, mostly in the Baroque style, but with some Neo-classical buildings such as the Palazzo Trigona, now the Bishop’s Palace (on the right). Photo: Peter de Figueiredo, © Peter de Figueiredo.

From this base, we visited archaeological sites, museums, palaces and churches all over the island. What was particularly fascinating was the layering of different cultures, and the way they intermingled, subtly affecting each other in different ways at different times. At Syracuse, we were astonished to see the cathedral, a Baroque facade with Doric columns from the Greek temple originally occupying the site embedded into its side walls. The chapels and cathedrals of the Norman rulers of Sicily enthralled us with their juxtapositions of Byzantine-style mosaics, Arabic decorations and French structural features. We explored the dazzling church interiors of Palermo, extravagantly covered with intricate designs inlaid in multicoloured marbles; and we admired the fountains – the Pretoria fountain, originally designed for a Florentine garden, bought second-hand and transformed for its new home in Palermo; and the fountains of Messina, masterworks of flowing, watery imagery by Giovanni Montorsoli, Michelangelo’s favourite assistant. Messina is also home to two dramatic late paintings by Caravaggio (there is another at Syracuse); in these, his final works, Caravaggio responded powerfully to the Sicilians’ highly emotional approach to religion.  

Pictured: 1) Syracuse Cathedral, showing columns from the second Temple of Athene, c.480 bce. 2) Cappella Palatina, Palermo. The mosaics in the dome and apse, completed by 1143, are Byzantine in style and iconography, with inscriptions in Greek. Photos: Peter de Figueiredo, © Peter de Figueiredo.

For years, people thought of Sicily as an artistic backwater and Sicilian art as essentially derivative – a hotch-potch of foreign imports imposed on local culture, a point of view encapsulated in a passage from Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s incomparable novel The Leopard, where the ageing prince Don Fabrizio, the Leopard of the title (Burt Lancaster in the film version), lamented what he saw as the burden of all the cultures which had been brought into Sicily: ‘For over twenty-five centuries we’ve been bearing the weight of superb and heterogeneous civilizations, all from outside, none made by ourselves, none that we could call our own.’ For me, it is exactly this mixture of foreign influences and the ways in which they have been absorbed and reworked by locals that gives Sicilian art its original and unique qualities. This is my point of view: a challenge to The Leopard’s lament.

Pictured: 1) 'Abigail Calms David’s Anger', marmi tramischi from the apse of the Casa Professa. 2) Marmi tramischi designed by Antonio Grano in the sanctuary of the Casa Professa. Photos: Peter de Figueiredo, © Peter de Figueiredo.

Of course, I am not the first to portray Sicilian art in this way. In recent decades, writers on different aspects of Sicilian art have stressed innovation, from the first spiral staircase in the world (in a temple at Selinunte) to the pioneering Stile Liberty (Art Nouveau) designs of Ernesto Basile. Yet until now no-one has stood back and surveyed the whole field from prehistory until the end of the last century. Granted, Sicily has not been equally creative throughout its history; it was often a late adopter of new styles and it was at times provincial and conservative. But it also gave rise to some of the most exciting works of art of their day, which I hope will receive greater recognition from readers of my book.

Julian Treuherz, 2023

Pictured: Villa Valguarnera, Bagheria, by T.M. Napoli, begun in 1712. Photo: Peter de Figueiredo, © Peter de Figueiredo.


Find out more about the book, and pre-order HERE.