Monday, November 28, 2011

Sicily and England: A Relationship Forged In Time

 London's Big Ben
 I am writing to you from The Langham Hotel at Oxford Circle, London, an elegant Victorian-era hotel dating back to mid 1800s and a time of great splendor in London.  My husband and I find ourselves in London for work reasons and to visit my stepson Matthew Volkov, an economics and philosophy double major, who is spending his semester abroad studying ancient Greek and other intriguing subjects.  Matthew's  mastery of the city's historical sites, neighborhood pubs, and ethnic restaurants has made this visit especially enjoyable for us. 

Entrance to the Langham Hotel
 From a purely Sicilian perspective, many of my compatriots and I feel a special kinship to the British. In many Sicilian towns you will see streets with exotic names like Woodhouse, Ingham and Whitaker, memorializing important Britons who made lasting contributions to Sicily, including the discovery and promotion of our trademark wine, Marsala.

Sicily's importance in the Mediterranean dates back not only to ancient explorers and sea-farers, but to  modern ones as well. In the late 1700s, John Woodhouse, a clothing merchant from Liverpool, arrived in Sicily and noticed that Sicilians produced a wine that he felt could be exported to England less expensively than the popular Madeira wine from Spain. He helped spur the wine industry by investing in it and experimenting with local wine makers to produce a fortified wine and transport casks that could withstand the long journey to England.

Woodhouse's entrepreneurial spirit helped build the city of Marsala by providing infrastructure such as docks and paved streets. 
Lord Nelson,Trafalgar Square
At about the same time, a merchant from Yorkshire named Benjamin Ingham, a wool merchant, was so enchanted with the island he stayed and became a wine producer as well.  Marsala wine today is a major export of Sicily and an important Sicilian brand.  

 Perhaps the most illustrious Brit to influence Sicily is Lord Horatio Nelson, commander of the British Navy. Lord Nelson defended the Bourbon king, Ferdinand I and his wife Marie Caroline, (sister of Marie Antoinette) of the court of Naples, against French invasion.

King Ferdinand I
Following the  French revolution, Napoleon made his way to Naples to overthrow the Kingdom of the two Sicilies. The Neopolitan people too,  wanted to free themselves of the Bourbon rule. Lord Nelson personally escorted the Bourbon monarchs to safety in Sicily and held off the French invaders for a couple of years.

Napoleon eventually did take control of Naples and installed his brother Joseph to rule it. He had designs on Sicily primarily because of Sicily's abundant sulfur mines. Sulphur at that time was used as medicine,and  for the production of gunpowder, among other things.  At King Ferdinand's request, Lord Nelson brought 18,000 British troops to Sicily to defend the island  and the monarchy against Napoleon and the French. The  British occupation of Sicily created an economic boon and was enthusiastically received by locals.
Whitaker's bird collection
In western Sicily, a name that is as noted and revered today as it was in the 1800's, is that of the Whitaker family.  Joseph Whitaker was a well known ornithologist of his time, and later an anthropologist and wine producer, who died in 1936. The Whitakers were a wealthy merchant family from Yorkshire who came to Sicily, much like John Woodhouse, and helped develop the wine industry in Marsala in the early 1800s. 

The Youth of Motya
Although based in Palermo, Joseph --or Giuseppe-- Whitaker  inherited the family's vineyards in Marsala and its charming mid-19th century estate on the island of Motya, which now houses a small but extraordinary museum.

The Museum is home, among other things, to the recently discovered statue "The Youth of Motya" an atypical Hellenistic "puer" statue which has rocked the world of art and archeology by its unusual features and mysterious provenance. The statue has taken several international tours to museums around the world with great acclaim. The Whittaker Museum of Motya itself was recently renovated by award winning architect Antonino Parrinello of Studio Technico Architettitrapani, who is also handling renovations for our family home in Marsala.

An ornithologist by training, Whitaker was known for his work on the birds of Tunisia, but he had a great interest in archeology as well and authored a book on the archeology of Motya. Upon the death of his last remaining daughter Norina, the Whitaker Foundation was established and today is responsible  for funding important archaeological studies that are being conducted on the island of Motya, aimed at uncovering the mysteries of its early Phoenician and Greek  inhabitants.

With my stepson Matthew
So as my husband and stepson and I sit in Matthew's favorite neighborhood pub in London and sip our ale, we raise our glass to the Brits and their special Sicilian connection!

Ciao a presto!

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