The rugged mountains lifting into the vaporous cloud cap that repeated their tumultuous form on the aerial plane looked familiar enough—sky islands, we call them in the American Southwest.  Only these were real islands, rising from blue sea rather than sere desert floor, and the clouds surmounting them were more than atmospheric; they were Homeric.  If Icarus had made it as far as Sicily from Crete before his unscheduled descent into the Icarian Sea, then this is how the island would have appeared to him from the air.  By some miracle of physics, the intense Brownian motion produced by a few score of Sicilian schoolchildren returning home from spring break in Paris failed to melt the wings of the Aero Meridiana jet, and we landed toward the knife-blade Egadi Islands—on schedule at Aeroporto Falcone Borsellino, named for two of the Mafia’s more prominent contemporary victims and engineered on a land spit hard between a limestone cliff and the Mediterranean Sea that offers the only flat piece of ground surrounding the ancient insular capital city of Palermo.

The island of Sicily has always been a place seemingly divided in equal parts between light and dark, on account not of geography only but also of its stature, lasting many centuries, as the center of civilization and the epicenter of Globalpolitik: quite literally, the most important place in the world.  Sicily’s significance resulted largely from two factors: its strategic location between the Italian peninsular boot and Cap Bon, at the narrow waist of the central Mediterranean where the European and African continents nearly meet; and the island’s climate, soil, and topography, which allowed it to operate for hundreds of years as the granary of Europe.  Of course, it is impossible for the center of the world, wherever it may happen to be at a given time, to escape that combination of brilliant light and stygian dark that is the world’s most abiding and inescapable condition; and so it has been with Sicily.  Since 1700 B.C., Sicels, Phoenicians, Greeks, Vandals, Ostrogoths, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Swabians, Angevins, Aragonese, Bourbons, and Italian nationalists have succeeded, overlapped, and intermingled with one another, at times more or less peaceably, often bloodily.  Dynasties, usually proceeded by their outlying adventurers, have contended with one another, either with the blessing and support of the pope, or against them; finally, there is the Mafia.  Sicily, in other words, is and always has been a worldly place.  Worldliness, however, has its many intriguing, delightful, and comfortable aspects.  And it is true, finally, that worldliness raised to a certain power achieves unworldliness by merging itself at the highest level of history, which, so far from being time-bound, is really timeless.  And it is precisely here that the secret of Sicily, in all its covered intensity, rests.

The Grand Hôtel et des Palmes, on Via Roma near the English Church, is a distinctly Old World establishment, centrally located in a neighborhood of lion-colored façades, wrought-iron balconies, and French windows tight-shuttered against the sun behind huge rusty palm trees.  Formerly the Palazzo Ingham where Richard Wagner composed Parsifal, the hotel is all marble floors and mahogany staircases, crimson carpet and golden drapes, 19th-century architecture and opulent modern fittings.  Maureen and I dined that evening, together with Tom and Gail Fleming, Andrei Navrozov, and a few other early arrivals for The Rockford Institute’s international convivium, at Mare Azzuro, a waterfront restaurant specializing in raw fish and shellfish.  I no longer recall the Italian names of the various sea creatures, most of them indigenous to the Mediterranean, which we were served; as Shaw said of Wagner’s music, however, the food was better than it sounds.  In fact, it was superb, and so were the young, smooth, light Sicilian wines that accompanied the meal.  The Mare Azzuro, though in décor resembling a clambake house in Seabright, New Jersey, while comparing pricewise with Manhattan’s Oyster Bar, is a favorite of Andrei and sophisticated Palermitans, several of whom, being friends of the Flemings, joined us for supper.  They had little or no English, and, though Maureen and I were no better in the Italian department, somehow everyone managed to make himself understood.  Alfredo Gior-dano, who speaks no English at all, is the business manager for the Teatro Massimo in Palermo, where Verdi’s Falstaff premiered.  He mentioned, in the course of the evening, that his daughter was making her debut that night as Nanetta, in La Scala’s production of the same opera.  Two mornings later, I spotted a notice in the local paper of the Scala performance, in which the critic had kind words for a bright new soprano named Laura Gior-dano.

Next day, while the group went out to look at the beautiful Byzantine-style church of “the Admiral,” otherwise known at La Martorana, we inspected the Duomo, as well as the Palazzo dei Normanni, where Frederick II maintained the most splendid court in all of Europe before his death in 1250, and the Palazzo Sclafani; and then Maureen and I went together in search of Chiesa dei Vespri, or Santo Spirito, the late-12th-century church where the uprising of the Sicilians against the French occupiers commenced on Easter Monday 1282.  I Vespri Siciliani (the Sicilian Vespers), as the rebellion is known, is among the most significant events in the history of Sicily and a major element in the mythology of Italian nationalism.  Verdi wrote an opera of the same name around the subject, and that is something in a culture that understands its music as intensely as its history and frequently conflates the two.  (In 1946, when Sicily demanded her independence from the mainland, an enormous crowd marched in Palermo, bellowing “Suoni la tromba,” or “Sound the trumpet”—the stirring bass-baritone duet from Bellini’s opera I Puritani—from tens of thousands of throats.  Vincenzo Bellini, called by Wagner “the gentle Sicilian,” was a native of Catania.)  Santo Spirito was founded in 1173 by Walter, Archbishop of Palermo.  In the late 13th century, the building stood without the city wall; even today, most maps of Palermo indicate its location by an arrow pointing past the printed boundary into blank space.

Navigating by the guidebook, we discovered the church at last after a walk of an hour and a half from the hotel.  Chiesa dei Vespri, they say, has been carefully restored to its original grimness.  I believe it.  The church is surrounded by the Cimitero Sant’ Orsola, an extensive marble necropolis planted to dark-looking juniper and cypress trees and decorated with statuary, framed portraits, fake flowers, and guttering prayer candles.  Amidst all this, Santo Spirito stands yet: An edifice of decaying brick decorated by bands of volcanic stone, arches, and a few latticework windows, not much bigger than a large barn, with simple wooden doors painted a faded barn red, in color it is slightly lighter than dried blood.  A lowering sky and craggy black cliffs in the distance accentuated the sense of gloom, and even of menace; certainly, it was not difficult to imagine the scene that occurred here on a spring evening, 722 years ago, when Sicilian marketgoers, enraged by the spectacle of a French officer making free with a young Sicilian wife, stabbed M. Drouet and his men to death and then, as church bells throughout Palermo tolled vespers, went on to massacre more than 2,000 French and French sympathizers overnight, hacking monks to death and ripping unborn children from the bellies of their mothers.  The church was locked; we could not view it from inside.  On the way out of the cemetery, Maureen and I passed what looked to be an entire village of Gambinos—at peace, we hoped, beneath and behind the proliferating mementi vitae placed by relatives and friends.

From Palermo, we traveled inland by bus to the cathedral of Monreale, William II’s great masterpiece overlooking the Conca d’Oro, begun in 1174 and, without doubt, one of the architectural marvels of the Middle Ages.  A mountain pass above Monreale makes it possible to bypass the coastal road from Palermo and descend to Castellammare del Golfo through the rugged Sicilian hills, deforested after nearly 4,000 years of human habitation but grassy green in early May and scattered with wildflowers: the famous scarlet Sicilian poppy, yellow daisy, and what I took to be a local version of blue larkspur.  Red, yellow, blue; blood, gold, faith—the primary colors representing the primary, historical things.  (Verdi worked them all into the overture he composed for his Vespri.)  And below and beyond these, the towering purple headlands scarved with cloud, the bay stretching back in progressive shades of aquamarine to the wine-blue sea, and—nearly at our feet, it seemed—the terra-cotta town surrounded by greening vineyards and the twisted, sea-gray olive trees converging upon each other in ordered rows in the moist maritime sunlight.

Segeste, Mozia, Selinunte . . . Phoenicians, Trojans, Greeks, Romans . . . ruins, excavations, reconstructions . . . wars, earthquakes, time itself . . . Sicily has the finest and most complete temples outside of mainland Greece.  “What is the matter with human beings?” my wife wondered aloud.  “There was room for all these different civilizations.  Couldn’t they find anything better to do than fight one another?  Why can’t people ever be satisfied with where they are, and what they have?”

Henry Adams thought that history was essentially meaningless, and that it is dishonest for a teacher of history (such as himself) to present it otherwise.  Until a few hundred years ago, history was essentially the record of personal, tribal, and, finally, national ambition.  (What is the “meaning” of King Roger of Aragon taking Sicily from Charles of Anjou, who had occupied the island?  Of Charles fighting to get it back in his possession?  Of the Pope siding with Charles rather than with Roger?)  The ancient warfare of city-states was succeeded by dynastic warfare and wars fought by adventurers; these, in turn, were followed by the age of religious war and, finally, by that of ideological rivalry.  (What is the “meaning” of Europe turned upside down in the name of liberty, equality, and fraternity?  Of perpetual war for perpetual peace in the name of international socialism or global secular-democratic capitalism?)  What meaning history does have was introduced—or revealed, or clarified—in the birth of God Made Man, 2,000 years ago.  Is that unimaginably stupendous event enough to give meaning to all of history?  Was it meant to?  The distinction here is essentially Augustinian, that between the City of God and the City of Man.  Obviously, the significance of the first is transcendent.  But what of the City of Man?  If it signifies anything at all, is that significance relational to the first, or independent of it?  Does black mean anything beyond any comparison with white, or white with black?  Or good with evil?  Or the supernatural with the natural?

Agrigento, on Sicily’s southern coast, was the Greeks’ Akragas, the Romans’ Agrigentum.  In legend founded by Daedalus, this great city of the ancient world likely originated as a colony sent out from Gela around 580 B.C.  The Carthaginians burned the city in 406 B.C., only to have it retaken from them and rebuilt by Timoleon in 340 B.C.  In 261 B.C., the Romans took possession of Akragas, and once more in 210 B.C., from which time on they held the city until the collapse of the empire.  Agrigentum fell to the Saracens in A.D. 827, and, in 1087, was delivered by Roger, the Norman count.

Across the bay from our hotel in the neighboring town of San Leone, the lights of Agrigento burned along the crest of the narrow ridge on which the modern as well as the ancient city is built; in the Valley of the Temples below, Herakles, Concord, Hera, and Zeus, illuminated by floodlights, stood forward like hoary tragedians, taking their bow.  In the knowledge that the world is not divided between good and evil, light and dark, meaning and unmeaning, Augustine fought the heresy called Manichaeism.  From long before that heresy existed, and ever since then, the Island of the Sicels has been fighting it, too.