Sicily, Island of Beauty and Conflict

Reflections on its History and Culture

This book vividly portrays the diversity of Sicily’s history and culture. In it, key events, places and artists are highlighted in wide-ranging articles presented in four parts: History, Cities, Ancient Sites and Artists. A rich tapestry emerges of an island that has experienced dramatic changes of fortune while becoming a melting-pot of cultural influences from the eastern Mediterranean, North Africa and mainland Italy. Commentary on the monuments and works of art, to be seen today, links Sicily past and present.

With this book, follow the stories of Dionysius’ castle, the foundation of the cathedral at Monreale, the Sicilian poets who invented the sonnet and the British merchants who made Marsala wine an international brand. Tour the big cities of Catania and Messina, the resorts of Taormina and Cefalù, and the baroque hilltowns of eastern Sicily. Explore the ancient sites, among them Segesta, Selinunte and Agrigento. Witness the originality of the island’s culture through the profiles of eight artists, sculptors and architects from the Renaissance to the twentieth century including Antonello da Messina, Giacomo Serpotta and Renato Guttuso, as well as Caravaggio, who left some of his last masterpieces on the island.      

 This book complements the author’s previous work on Syracuse and Palermo, filling in gaps in the island’s story, to form a comprehensive trilogy on Sicily.



See extract below; the full review is available to The Times subscribers at:

Land of marsala, mafia and Montalbano

This guide to Sicily captures the island’s tumultuous history, says Jenny Coad

In his book, Sicily, Island of Beauty and Conflict, Jeremy Dummett took me back to my childhood holidays with archaeologist parents who favoured dusty ruins over powdery sand. “Can we go to the beach yet? Is it time for an ice cream?” we would wail. When the author writes about Selinunte, the extraordinary ruined ancient Greek city on the south-west coast, I can see my sister wilting under a Doric column, waiting for our swim reward.

Dummett is a historian and this is his third book about the island off Italy’s toe; he evidently loves the place and has researched it in detail. Split into four parts – history, cities, ancient sites and artists – this latest is more a reference book than something that you would curl up to read. It would be useful to dip in as you might into a travel guide to learn more about, say, Agrigento, which at its peak had 200,000 inhabitants until it was sacked by the Carthaginians in 406 BC.

Then there’s Pantàlica, inhabited for about 600 years between 1250 BC and 650 BC, in mountainous remoteness northwest of Syracuse. Known as the “city of the dead”, it features an enormous cliffside graveyard of about 5,000 tombs, “each with a gaping hole like an open window” cut into the rock.

Visit Palermo and you will notice the Arab influence in the distinctive red domes on the Chiesa Capitolare di San Cataldo and in the narrow souk-like street markets. The Arabs ruled from 831 to 1061 – when the Normans invaded – and north African ingredients still flavour the cooking. According to Dummett, the Arabs introduced aubergine (try the caponata) lemons and sugar cane and started farming almonds seriously (the frosty marzipan-like granita is an acquired taste).

The British came for the marsala wine. Benjamin Ingham arrived, aged 22, in 1806 and, by the time of his death in 1861, had through the marsala trade, become the richest man in Sicily. He expanded his business interests from marsala to olive oil, textiles and sulphur. Known for his “fiery temper”, he loved Palermo’s social scene and moved in the same circles as the Italian elite. You can stay in the home that the Inghams built with their wealth – the Grand Hotel et des Palmes, one of the city’s finest lodgings.

Culture-seekers will find Dummett’s section on artists useful. At the end of each chapter he gives details of where to find their works. Caravaggio, one of Italy’s most darkly intriguing characters, spent a year in Sicily after escaping imprisonment in Malta in 1608. He produced three paintings, including the Burial of Santa Lucia, which hangs in the Chiesa di Santa Lucia alla Badia in Syracuse. Dummett also leaves us with the tantalising prospect that Caravaggio’s violent behaviour (he stalked the streets, sworded-up and looking for brawls) might have been the result of lead poisoning. If you want dark intrigue at its most grisly, the catacombs in Palermo deliver that thrillingly.

Dummett recommends, and I would agree, climbing Mount Etna. As you near the top, it becomes more and more eerie and desolate, with crosses like way markers at the end of historic lava flows. Hadrian, Seneca, Goethe and Gladstone made it up there; in 2017 a BBC crew were chased down the slope by an eruption.

These days, people come to Sicily to follow in the footsteps of Inspector Montalbano to Punta Secca and Scicli in the south. You can, Dummett says, even stay in the inspector’s apartment, which off-duty is a B&B. As reported by the Times, Sicily is offering financial incentives, including subsidising airfares and hotel stays, to encourage tourists back. Like Dummett, I would need little encouragement to return.


Sicily, Island of Beauty and Conflict is available from all good bookshops.  You can buy it online from the publisher, Bloomsbury, from Waterstones and from Amazon.

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