Book: The Invention of Sicily

Author: Jamie Mackay

Review by: John Mulholland, longtime manufacturing executive

John M. Mulholland

Many people reading this review will have already visited Italy, often many times. Leaving aside the romantic destinations to the south of Naples near the Amalfi coast, most such trips take place in the north of the country, Rome and above. This is a terrible injustice to the “boot” of Italy and Sicily which offer myriad delights of history, art, literature, panoramic views, cuisine and more. Unfortunately, the poor economic performance of southern Italy compared to the north, and the omnipresent Mafia with its affiliates, have dulled the tourist’s desire to explore this part of the Bel Paese. This is a pity, as anyone reading Jamie Mackay’s The Invention of Sicily will soon discover. 

There is no doubt that Florence and Tuscany are the fulcrums of modern Italy’s history, culture and heritage. After all, Michelangelo, Da Vinci and Dante did not come from Sicily. Yet, if one turns back the clock to the 13th century, we discover that the original heart of Italian creativity was found in Sicily. 

This extremely well-researched book from Mackay, a permanent resident of Florence, leads the reader from the island’s historical roots as a Greek colony, its transformation into a Roman province, followed by its conquest by the Arabs, French (Normans) and Spanish, and its eventual integration into the modern state of Italy in 1861.  

The arrival in Sicily of representatives* of the Abbasid Caliphate based in Baghdad in the ninth century foretold a period of scientific, commercial, architectural, artistic and intellectual growth. The Arab conquest took a century to slowly push out the Byzantines. However, this was usually done through pacific means of conquest in contrast to conquest by war. Christians and Jews were pleased to serve a ruler who made no demands to convert to Islam, yet also allowed them to attain high positions in the Islamic government.  

By any measure Sicily reached its zenith with the Norman conquest in the 12th century. The Norman King, Roger I, was an amazingly enlightened ruler who spoke several languages including Arabic. His goal was to have the disparate parts of Sicilian society live in peace and harmony and, amazingly, he succeeded. This relative (it wasn’t all smooth sailing) period of peace, security and tolerance lasted until the death of Emperor Frederick in 1251. There followed 200 years of instability, but Sicily lived on as a society marked by religious tolerance and respect for education. 

Not many realize that the so-called “Sicilian School” of literature and poetry, written in a form of proto-Italian, pre-dated Dante’s Divina Commedia by 50 years and had significant influence on Dante’s works. That is, until Ferdinand and Isabella came to power in Spain in 1491 and destroyed a similarly productive society left by the Arabs in Spain. 

By this time Sicily had fallen under the Spaniards who sought power through a warrior society maintained through taxation with no concern for learning in any form. The Jews were expelled, schools closed, books burned, agriculture destroyed and the Inquisition was imposed. It took Spain until the death of Franco to start to recover. Sicily underwent a similar convulsion and evolution. Mackay describes this parabola in painful, yet instructive, detail.

As mentioned above, Sicily hosts a countless number of both historical and modern attractions. The Economist magazine recent report on Italy cited numerous reasons to believe that Sicily has turned the corner and may, in time, rightly lay claim to its heritage as being the “Jewel of the Mediterranean.”  For anyone who loves Italy, as most of us do, this book goes far in enlightening us as to both Sicily’s past glory and potential future.

*These envoys were Aghalabids from the region surrounding modern Tunis.

Editor’s notes: Global Atlanta will receive a 10 percent commission on any purchase of this book through the links on this page. 

Each year, Global Atlanta asks influential readers and community leaders to review the most impactful book they read during the course of the year. This endeavor has continued annually since 2010.

See last year’s full list of books on BookShop here, and all 2021 reader picks here.

All books were chosen and reviews written independently, with only mild editing from our staff.