As well as an abundance of spell-binding natural beauty, the island of Sicily is a fantastic destination for visitors looking to absorb a little art and culture on their travels. An Aladdin’s cave of shining art and architectural treasures, Sicily displays the mark of a number of fascinating cultures that have thrived on the island over the last 3,000 years.
From Ancient Greek temples to the mosaics and mansions of the mighty Roman Empire; from Byzantine churches to Norman cathedrals; from Moorish fortresses to Baroque town centres – Sicilian culture is an open book filled with a vibrant and colourful historical legacy that entices visitors to the present day.
The island has acted as a unique bridge between the continents, a point at which North Africa and Europe converge. The multicultural nature of Sicily has seen a diversity of religions, including Muslims, Christians, Jews and Roman Catholics, living side by side throughout history - a melting pot which has had a fascinating effect on the art and architecture of the country.
Picturesque Taormina, perched on the craggy coastline of the Ionian Sea, has been a favourite holiday destination since the 19th century when it rose to fame as a popular town amongst the nobility.
The awe-inspiring Greco-Roman amphitheatre is one of the key architectural highlights of Sicily. Constructed by the Ancient Greeks and restructured centuries later by the Romans for bloody gladiatorial fights, the broken wall adds to the splendour of the scene by revealing a breath-taking view of Mount Etna, the tallest, active volcano in Europe, and the glittering sea below.
The Greco-Roman theatre of Taormina still hosts performances throughout the summer months and is one of the best preserved and atmospheric amphitheatres in the world.
Further highlights from the Ancient world can be seen at Agrigento, in the Valley of the Temples as well as the ruins of Selinunte, Syracuse and the magnificent Doric temple at Segesta. The Romans may not have left as much of a legacy, but the Villa Romana at Casale hosts the richest and most complex collection of Roman mosaics that can be found anywhere in the world.
Visit the archaeological museums of Sicily to discover more of the ancient world, with artefacts such as ceramics, sculptures, bronzes and architectural tools to explore.
Sicilian art blossomed under Norman rule, where architects from different cultures were employed to construct beautiful palaces, churches, cathedrals and private homes throughout the island’s main cities. The Byzantine and Arab architects developed a unique blend of architectural styles that exists only in Sicily and has since been dubbed ‘Sicilian Romanesque’.
Some of the most impressive examples of Norman architecture in Sicily can be found in Palermo, Monreale and Cefalu, where magnificent cathedrals topped with domed roofs and decorated with glittering mosaics still stand to this day.
The grand Palazzo dei Normanni (Norman palace) in Palermo represents an example of the decadent and sumptuous style the Normans favoured. The centrepiece of this architectural wonder is the Cappella Palatina (Palatine Chapel) with its golden tinted interior and walls depicting scenes from the Old Testament.
The influence of the Arabian town planners can also be felt whilst wandering the winding alleys of the old town centres, such as those of Palermo or Trapani.
Although no traces can be found of the more than 100 mosques that existed in the city of Palermo, at the time, it was the capital of the Kalbiti emirate’s caliphate. During this period, Palermo prospered thanks to the superior achievements of Arabian civilization in the fields of science, mathematics, philosophy, architecture and agrarian techniques that spread through Europe from Sicily.
Furhter influence can be found in names such as Marsalla, derived from the Arabian expression Marsa Allah (harbour of God), and Mazara del Vallo, the biggest fishing port in Italy and the only European town with a Kashba, an Arabian dealers’ quarter.
The island still functions as a bridge between the continents, with almost two thirds of its foreign trade dealt with nations of North Africa.
Another distinctive architectural style prevalent throughout Sicily is the Baroque influence, particularly in the south-east regions. Modica, Ragusa and Noto are wonderful Sicilian Baroque towns to visit; when Noto was rebuilt following a destructive earthquake in 1693, 23 churches, 15 palaces and 19 monasteries were built, all in the Baroque style.
These magnificent younger cities of the 17th and 18th centuries reflect the distinctive sense of pleasure and art of Sicilian nobility, often realized on the backs of the population.
The simple people however, were also developing their own art still evident in everyday life. In example, the artfully designed donkey carriages, a diverse production of ceramics, colourful costumes of traditional fairs and the rich and vibrant processions and festivals on church holidays.
The vibrant Sicilian culture and traditions isn’t just represented in the buildings and ruins of the island, it is entrenched in the hearts of the people, and nowhere is this more evident than at the various festivals and celebrations that take place throughout the year. The different towns and villages throw parties to celebrate their patron saints – the streets come alive with processions, music, dancing and revelry whilst fireworks light up the night skies.
Visit Palermo in July when Santa Rosalia is honoured to experience this sort of event on a grand scale or explore Sicily at Easter for carnivals and celebrations throughout the country – the procession at Trapani where wooden sculptures are paraded through the town, is a particularly popular event.
As well as religious occasions, many of the smaller villages put on delightful food and wine festivals known as sagre, often in celebration of a key agricultural product, such as the artichokes of Cerda or the cous cous of San Vito Lo Capo. One of Sicily’s longest running festival is held in Vizzini near Syracuse and celebrates the local ricotta and other cheeses of the region.
There is also the option to attend one of Sicily’s more unusual cultural events such as the jousting of Piazza Armerina, the carnival of Acireale or the Infiorata of Noto, where artists create colourful street mosaics out of flower petals.
Performances in Sicily
Sicily is just the place for those that enjoy taking in a show. The Teatro Massimo of Palermo and the Teatro Massimo Bellini of Catania play host to world renowned opera seasons, whilst the Teatrino del Canto Popolare Ditirammu brings charming Sicilian folk performances to life.
Alternatively, step back in time at the annual Greek Theatre Festival of Syracuse, where the ancient ruins provide an atmospheric setting to enjoy a variety of classical tragedies and comedies. Or visit Taormina for the WOMAD festival and a range of other performances held at the Greco-Roman amphitheatre – with its panoramic views and breath-taking ambience, this is a setting that’s hard to beat.