Sicilian Vespers was a bloody rebellion in Sicily that ended the Angevin Regime in Sicily. It is one of the highest points of Sicilian history and represents the desire of Sicilian populations to be free. The Sicilian Vespers resonance was so powerful it not only ignited wars that lasted almost a hundred years, but it also changed the political order in Italy and has been an inspiration for artists and poets everywhere because of the force and courage the Sicilians demonstrated.
Sicilian Vespers, the century that led to the disaster
Sicilian Vespers were the result of years and years of abuses, high taxes and general discontent. So before we dive deep in this specific part of Sicilian History, I’d like to take you back on a journey through time and portray the political and cultural background where the Sicilian Vespers took place.When in 1198 Frederick II of Swabia came to power and became the King of Sicily, he established his strong influence over the island and on the rest of Italy.
In a couple decades he was able to ascend to the throne of the Holy Roman Empire, of Germany and Italy, making clear to the opponents, especially the Pope, that his reign was strong and powerful. But military power and conquests were not his only strength, with cultural and artistic innovation he wanted to bring together the populations under his regime.
In Sicilian history, Frederick II’s reign was one of the most well administrated and his court was rich and full of different cultures, from the Greek and Latin to the Germanic and Arab: it was thanks to his love for literature and art that the Sicilian School of poets came to be and thanks to his hegemonic desire that many beautiful Sicilian castles were built.
But such a strong figure and united reign were a threat to the Pope, whose aim was to control the peninsula and at the same time “fight the infidel” with the Crusades. Pope Gregory IX excommunicated Frederick II two times and even went as far as to call him the Antichrist. It was probably the first time in Sicilian History that someone had been so unpopular with the Papal State.
One of the main reasons why the Sicilian Vespers took place, is the economical differences between south and north Italy. In the North the cities had already started to develop and had been more and more independent from the Empire’s control while the many maritime cities were strategic points in the Mediterranean trade routes; in the South, instead, the cities were not powerful, nor in an economic nor in a political sense.
So, overall, Northern Italy was economically rich and politically more independent, while the South, probably due to the many years of peace that the Norman and Arabic empire had brought, wasn’t as rich and fervent.
When Frederick II started to impose heavy taxes on the population to support the army and the administration system, Sicilians started to feel the pressure on the economy and the resulting discontent would lead to the break of one of the most incredible revolutions of Sicilian History: the Sicilian Vespers.
Another problem that Frederick had to face was the continuous disapproval of the Papal State, which had a strong influence on the mostly Christian population. Guilty of having established a powerful united reign, Frederick II was excommunicated again by the new Pope Innocent IV in 1245. Rebellions and uprisings broke out everywhere, until, in 1250, he passed away unexpectedly, while the imperial myth continued living with his son, Manfred.
Manfred became King of Sicily and as the father, desired to unify the Kingdom of Sicily with the rest of Italy. But this time, Pope Clement IV, did not lose any time and promptly excommunicated Manfred and declared Charles I of Anjou (King of France’s brother) the new king of Sicily. He proceeded to kill Manfred and all his family, and just like this, the noble dynasty of Swabia disappeared forever from Sicilian History.
Charles I of Anjou, ascended to the throne of Sicily, moved the capital from Palermo to Naples, oppressed Swabia Dynasty’s followers, and increased the taxes. As a matter of fact, to reach such a high position, Charles I of Anjou had to make a pact with the Pope: every year he had to pay a tax thirty times higher than the Swabia rulers ever paid.
And on top of it all, Charles aspired to expand his empire in the Mediterranean, and the taxes that the Sicilians hardly managed to pay, were just the springboard of his ascent to power. So, very soon, the Sicilian population, oppressed and tired, couldn’t take it anymore and finally rebel against the king. The Sicilian Vespers broke out and with unexpected speed Sicilians changed their destiny with their own hands, overthrowing the Angevin Dynasty 16 years after Charles had ascended to the throne.
The vespers rebellion: a milestone of Sicilian History
As it often happens in history, the Sicilian Vespers revolution broke out for a relatively small incident. During the Easter Monday of 1282, in front of the Holy Spirit Church of Palermo, Sicilians were happily celebrating the holiday, when a group of French officials came to search for weapons and, using that pretest, began to harass women.
This was the last straw, the Sicilians, enraged, uprose against the French officials and killed them. When their hands were soaked in blood, and their hearts were roaring for the coveted freedom, the bells rang for the evening prayer service: the Sicilian Vespers had begun. Like fire in a forest, the rebellion spread all Sicily and the persecution of French citizens began.
Sicilians killed more than four thousand French citizens, destroying the French colony and overthrowing the Angevin regime. The success of the revolution, though, is probably due to the fact that it was meticulously planned. The Sicilian Vespers sparked from an incident, sure, but the speed rate at which it spread, most likely means many people were behind it. First in line, Peter III of Aragon, that with his Spanish Army, promptly arrived in Sicily in August and was crowned with the jubilant approval of the people on September 4.
He had conveniently been in Tunis in a crusade against the Muslims, only a couple hundred miles away from the Sicilian coast. With his intervention, the uprising became a true political conflict between the Aragonese and the Angevin dynasties and lasted more than 20 years in what is today called the first War of the Sicilian Vespers.
The Angevin attack started in Messina, where the legend says two women, Dina and Clarenza, managed to protect the city by ringing the bells and alerting the population from the Caperrina hill. A tribute to the two heroines can be found on the Bell tower of Messina.
According to a legend, Dina and Clarenza on the Caperrina hill were helped by a mysterious White Lady, the Virgin Mary, who appeared and rolled out her white cloak on the city walls, thus protecting the wall from the attack.
After this event, exactly where on the Caperrina hill, a white dove indicated with its flying the perimeter where a sanctuary must be built at the behest of the Virgin Mary. So the Sanctuary of Montalto was built in 1286, four years after the outbreak of the Sicilian Vespers, and rebuilt after the earthquake of 1908. Inside it keeps some paintings dating back to 1636, representing the White Lady and the laying of the first stone by Costanza II of Sicily.
The conflict between the two dynasties continued for 20 years and finished with the defeat of the Angevin regime in Sicily and with the Pope approval. In 1302, with the Peace of Caltabellotta, the first War of the Sicilian Vespers finally ended. The agreement set forth the political separation of the Kingdom of Sicily from Naples and the promise to give Sicily back to the Angevin dynasty at Frederick III’s death.
But peace did not last long. In 1313, Frederick III left the reign to his son Peter years before his death, breaking his promise. Again a new War of the Sicilian Vespers arose and continued for years and years. Only in 1372, almost a century after the first rebellion, a new agreement, finally, marked the end of the Wars of the Sicilian Vespers, the Aragon dynasty had won over the Angevin, with Frederick IV as king of Sicily.
The Sicilian Vespers is a milestone of Italian and Sicilian History. It marked the separation of the Kingdom of Sicily from Naples and has always held a deep meaning for Sicilians. It represents the freedom and strength of its population and has touched people outside his time and place.
The Sicilian Vespers have always inspired many artists, poets and musicians. Giuseppe Verdi, with his grand opera “Les vêpres siciliennes”, is able to take us back inside the revolution, thanks to the smart use of tempo, at times empowering at times frightening.
Francesco Hayez, with his three works called “The Sicilian Vespers”, painted in the XIX century, was able to represent the anguish of the battle hundreds years after the revolution. Felicia Hemans in her tragedy “The Vespers of Palermo”, depicting the story of a hero not willing to kill innocent French citizens and at the same time supporting the revolution, gives us a peek of that glorious yet frightening period.
It is truly amazing seeing how a small event can transform in something so big and meaningful. For those of you that have a taste for Sicilian History, we really recommend a tour through the places of the Sicilian Vespers, maybe in Palermo or Messina, to try and catch a glimpse, and imagine how the events took place, maybe identifying yourself with Sicilian heroes striving for freedom.