Sicily, an island of secrets
A statue of the Madonna is carried around the Sicilian city of Modica on Easter Sunday. (Andrew Montgomery)
In Sicily, time has stood still like nowhere else. So many places in the world now somehow look the same, but here even the people haven’t been regularised as they have been elsewhere. Stop at Palermo’s main food market, the Mercato della Vucciria, one morning and you might see an elegant, aristocratic queen of a man in his seventies talking to a chap with a face like a prune about the price of anchovies. The market of Vucciria is just the same as it was when Renato Guttuso did his wonderful painting of it in the 1970s – the same intrigues, the same vibrant street culture, the same street cries. The stallholders are still screaming about how good their tomatoes are that day or, triumphantly: ‘We caught swordfish!’ It’s an incredibly noisy place – in the Sicilian dialect, the market town’s name translates as ‘voices’ or ‘hubbub’.
What’s for sale is whatever is good to eat that day; all fresh, seasonal stuff from around the island. Fish, for example, are displayed in rigor mortis – all curled up, not lying flat on the slab – to demonstrate that they’ve just been caught. When I was there last, I bought mulberries the size of bumblebees and great punnets of wild mushrooms for just a few quid. Cedro is a local citrus fruit that looks like a giant lemon. I used to see them in Italian still-life paintings and think, ‘Wow, lemons were bigger in the olden days,’ before I realised they were something different. Like a lemon with comparatively less of the juicy bit, the cedro is nine-tenths pith, but the pith is soft, slightly spongy and delicious. You won’t find green beans flown in from Kenya at the Mercato della Vucciria – all the produce sold here is from here. Of course this is the way we all used to eat, but in Sicily the tradition has remained.
Sicily is a taste of ‘old Italy’, but the reasons why it is so unchanged are actually quite sinister and dark. It’s to do with a history of extreme poverty and the stranglehold of the Mafia. Sicily’s deep sense of separatism has its legacy in the Spanish invasion of the island in the late 14th century. During its heyday, the Spanish empire sucked the island dry – people were treated as serfs and retreated inland to form their own, separate society. By the 19th century, this vagabond culture was completely entrenched, with the whole of Sicily being ruled by these nameless, shadowy figures who became the Mafia.
The Mafia is the idea of the family turned into an alternative political system. The notion that your family is what you cleave to – rather than the state – is an ancient one in Sicily because, traditionally, the island has been ruled by outsiders. More than anything else, what draws me to Sicily is the sense that it’s not really part of Italy or indeed anywhere else – it’s a place that represents all of culture. It has been affected by Africa, very strongly by the Arab world, the Normans, the Romans and the Greeks. Wherever you go in Sicily you’re reminded of the central truth of human civilisation, which is that there’s no such thing as national identity; the Sicilian approach is just not to have one. This is apparent in the island’s food. A fantastic dish like pasta con le sarde – pasta with sardines and raisins – has its roots in the Arab invasion, with a sweet and sour taste that you will find nowhere else in Italy.
Sicily’s capital Palermo is a layer cake, each tier representing a different outside influence. Walking its streets is like travelling through time. The Cappella Palatina, or Palatine Chapel, is an extraordinary blend of Norman, Byzantine and Arab art, and a few streets away is the castle of La Zisa, built for a Norman king by Arab craftsmen. The post office is one of my favourite buildings – a huge, white, Neoclassical fascist temple, now a monument to Mussolini’s failed experiment to destroy the Mafia’s power and popularity. Veering off behind it in every direction is a honeycomb of tiny little streets – so narrow that it would be pointless trying to squeeze through in any vehicle larger than a three-wheeler – each with lines of washing hanging all along them. Sicily has not traditionally been a rich place and the modest homes in Palermo partly explain why the city isn’t like any other. It’s like a house with lots of different rooms, and the streets are the room that everybody shares.