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  • The salts-pans area in Nubia, Trapani
    The salt pan area in Nubia, Trapani
  • Citrons and tangerins at the market in Catania
    Citrons and tangerins at the market in Catania
  • A corner of the 18th century village of Marzamemi, Syracuse
    A corner of the 18th century village of Marzamemi, Syracuse
  • The stunning Scala dei Turchi near Realmonte, Agrigento
    The stunning Scala dei Turchi near Realmonte, Agrigento
  • A colorful wall again in Marzamemi, Syracuse
    A colorful wall again in Marzamemi, Syracuse
  • Local folklore in the Medieval town of Gangi, Madonie area
    Local folklore in the Medieval town of Gangi, Madonie area

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From the Spanish domination to nowadays


In 1503 Sicily became a Spanish viceroyalty: this was the moment of the rise of Spain under the Catholic kings; it was the age of the great geographic and scientific discoveries and it was the periode when Turkey set out on its conquest of the West.

In this new political and military balance Sicily came to assume an extremely important strategic position and was considered an advanced outpost in the defence against Ottoman aggression.
Spanish Sicily in the 17th c. suffered a period of economic decline, as repeated famines depopulated the countryside and hunger swept the great cities.

The Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 conceded Sicily to the Duke of Savoy, Victor Amadeus II. But the Treaty of The Hague in 1720, desired by the Austrians and the English, gave the island to Charles VI of Austria. After the Savoys, the Austrians continued to impoverish Sicily with an excessive fiscal system which made people regret the Spaniards.

In the 1735 the island passed to the Bourbons of Naples who annexed it to the Neapolitan realm. During this change Palermo became the capital of the island. Towards the close of the 18th c., the socio-economic structure still hinged on domination by the aristocracy.

In the years that followed, Sicilians were divided into a small minority of conspirators against the Bourbons seeking proselytes amongst the peasants, and a dissatisfied majority either indifferent or determined to form part of Italy, convinced that the island’s problems had to be faced in a much wider context than within that of the now stagnant Bourbonic regime.

Garibaldi‘s expedition in 1860, with the landing at Marsala, the victory at Calatafimi, the entry into Palermo and the sub-sequent liberation of the whole island, was a magic moment for the hopes and expectations of the Sicilians. The so-called “hero of two worlds” disembarked in Marsala on 11th May 1860 with just 1,000 men in tow (hence the expression Grazie Mille). Not a shot was fired, for Garibaldi had been extremely cunning. Arriving in Sicilian waters, Garibaldi moored his two ships off the island of Favignana and waited. When the two French frigates stationed in the port at Marsala went out on reconnaissance, Garibaldi slipped in behind them and docked next to two British Navy ships and a British wine merchant’s cutter.
On re-entry to the port, the French were unable to fire upon Garibaldi for fear of hitting the British ships and causing a serious diplomatic incident. In the meantime, Garibaldi and the “red-shirts”, as his men were known, stocked up on the town’s golden nectar before continuing their rapid march across Sicily.
Passing through Salemi, where Garibaldi proclaimed a united Italy, their first real battle came four days later with a famous victory over the 3,000-strong French garrison at Calatafimi. The invading “army” swelled in ranks as thousands of Sicilians jumped at the chance to join their liberator and hero.
On 27th May they arrived at Palermo, where fierce fighting broke out. The city’s inhabitants rose against their French oppressors and much of Palermo was reduced to rubble.
Help was at hand, however, from the seemingly ubiquitous British Navy, which intervened and called for an armistice. The Bourbon forces surrendered the city and left to regroup further to the east and on the Italian mainland.
Within six weeks the whole of Sicily had been “liberated” except for the citadel of Messina. This too, however, was soon to fall and Garibaldi and his makeshift army marched on Rome.

Garibaldi’s dictatorship, his reforms and the annexation brought Sicily within the ambit of the unity of Italy. But the discontent was continued to be felt by Sicilians of all classes, in a moment of deep moral and economic crisis and between 1871 and 1914 more than a million of Sicilians left the island for good toward the United States and South American countries.

During WWII, Sicily was the first part of Europe to be reclaimed by the Allied forces.
After driving the German and Italian forces out of North Africa, the British commanders saw Sicily as the next natural step. The Americans preferred a direct attack on Germany through France but agreed that an advance on Sicily might help Russia by forcing Germany to redeploy its forces. At the same time, Sicily would be a significant strategic base for any future invasion of Italy (though this was not foreseen in the immediate future). The invasion of Sicily would also serve as a kind of training exercise for the future D-Day invasion in Normandy.
On the night of 9th July Operation Husky got underway. The Americans landed on the beaches of the Gulf of Gela, while the British and Canadian forces landed at the south-eastern tip of Sicily, around Pachino, and in the Gulf of Noto.
High winds made landings extremely difficult especially for the paratroop regiments who were dropped in to create a little confusion before the amphibian invasion. British, Commonwealth and Canadian troops moved north-west across the Iblei mountains, and north where they captured Siracusa with very little difficulty.
The Americans, meanwhile, came up against greater resistance as they were met by one of the two German battalions on the island. After securing their beachheads, however, they headed westward towards Agrigento and then across the centre to Palermo.
There was some confusion after the successful landing as to who would be doing what. Plans had been laid for the initial attack, but beyond that the rest of the campaign was somewhat improvised. The ground forces commander, General Sir Harold Alexander, and the commander of the American forces, General Patton, seemed to distrust each other and the latter began to disobey the former, eager to demonstrate the superiority of the American army.
Patton marched his men to Palermo despite being instructed to head further west. Sicily’s capital fell easily, however, and almost immediately the stunning news that Mussolini and his government had been overthrown. With Italian forces in disarray both armies marched on Messina. For Patton, arriving there first was a matter of personal and national pride, as we can see from a letter he wrote to General Middleton: “this is a horse race in which the prestige of the US Army is at stake……..we must take Messina before the British. Please use your best efforts to facilitate the success of our race.”
The British and Canadians faced the difficult task of getting around Catania and Mount Etna where the last remaining German forces had dug in deep. Patton duly won his race, arriving in Messina on 17th August, some 38 days after the start of the invasion. By this time, however, over 100,000 German and Italian troops, and a great amount of military equipment had been successfully transferred to the mainland, a fact that meant the fight up the Italian peninsula would be considerably more difficult than hoped for.
2,721 British Commonwealth troops, 2,237 Americans and 562 Canadians died taking Sicily in what as the largest amphibian operation of the entire war. Many of the dead were buried in War Cemeteries in Syracuse and Agira. Some 29,000 Axis soldiers also lost their lives.
Once Sicily was under Allied control, the decision was taken to continue the invasion up through the Italian mainland in what would be a long, bloody struggle.
Much has been written about the Mafia‘s involvement in the Allied invasion of Sicily. Folkloristic tales of Lucky Luciano being parachuted in to smooth the Americans’ path are certainly exaggerated, but it would seem that the Mafia, glad to be rid of their Fascist oppressors, were far from resistant to the US forces. Fascinating accounts of the mutual back-scratching between the Americans and the Dons can be read in Matt Dickie’s “Cosa Nostra” and Norman Lewis’… After the Second World War, which left scars in the island that are still visible today, and after the proclamation of the Italian Republic, Sicily saw in 1947 the fulfiment of its aspirations of independence with the concession of regional autonomy on the basis of a special Statute, which has succeeded in balancing the values of the unity with those of an autonomous government.

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