Friday, June 15, 2012

We are Normans, see us build

This is the (small) castle at Acicastello, on the Sicilian coast north of the Roman and Aragonese capital of Catania, from a distance.
A castle on a volcanic spur
This is a model of the castle on display inside the castle.
A modest little castle
This the approach to the castle.
You only get in if I say so
The castle is a case of sheer determination frozen in stone and brick. The contrast, back in Catania, between the finish of the Greek and Roman brick and stone work (even after two millennia) with the much rougher looking medieval brick work built around a millennia later was a bit sad. Until you come to a place such as the castle at Acicastello. Suddenly, the energy and determination of the Normans, who wrested Sicily and Southern Italy from the Rhomanoi (the Eastern or Greek Romans) and the Saracens stands revealed.

The Norman Kingdom of Sicily was a brilliant flowering of art, literature and enquiry. It faltered a bit under their Hohenstaufen successors, though more due to the centralising of Frederick II Stupor Mundi, who the Sicilians call Frederick di Svebia (Federick of Swabia) and make something of a fuss over (because it was the last time Sicily seriously mattered). Frederick himself was a crowned polymath who presided over a brilliant court and who can seem very "modern". He was also an orphaned control freak who left little in the way of positive legacy.

The brilliance of the Norman and Hohenstaufen kingdom came to an end due to the French, in the person of Charles of Anjou. Given Papal dispensation to replace the existing king Manfred, Frederick's illegitimate son, he defeated and killed Manfred in 1266 at the Battle of Benevento. Arrogant and grasping, Charles as King managed to enrage the Sicilians into revolt, the infamous Sicilian Vespers of 1283, which saw every last French person in Sicily slaughtered or driven out. (Though Charles did better than the Revolutionary French in Malta in 1798; it took them less than three months to enrage the Maltese into revolt--the French held out in Valletta, behind the greatest fortifications in Europe, slowly starving and eventually surrendering to the British, a much more attractive option than surrendering to the Maltese.)

After the Sicilian Vespers and subsequent war, Sicily passed into the hands of the Kingdom of Aragon. The first King of Aragon and Sicily was Peter III, who was married to Constance, daughter of Manfred and granddaughter of Frederick. Thereafter, Sicily remained an appendage of first Aragon and then Aragon-Castile (which became Spain) until the C18th. At first, the Kings of Aragon actually preferred to reside in Sicily, but its comparative economic decline (in part a product of control-freak Frederick's suppression of any possibility of merchant power) saw it relegated to rule by viceroys. Though Aragon's experience in such rule was put to good use as a model of governance when the Spanish Empire came to dominate much of the globe.

But the story starts with the sort of thrusting energy that built the small castle on the volcanic spur at Acicastello.

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