By virtue of both size and location, Sicily is the pre-eminent island in the Mediterranean. It is the largest, and it is also close to the sea’s centre, a stepping stone between Europe and Africa and a refuge between the Levant and the Atlantic.
The result is that throughout history Sicily has been viewed as a fortuitous landfall by migrating peoples and a prized possession by ambitious adventurers and expansionist princes. And as the Mediterranean has been catalyst and disseminator of a greater variety of civilizations than any other of the world’s seas, the island has acquired an exceptionally rich encrustation of art, architecture and archaeological remains.
For the Phoenicians, Sicily was an irresistible objective in the extension of their trading empire in the central Mediterranean, and from the eighth century bc exchanges of population took place between bases in the western and northern part of the island and Carthage. From about the same period Greeks from various points of origin in the Hellenic world established themselves in the east of the island and along the south coast. Competition for territory and trading rights between Phoenicians and Greeks, as well as cultural and commercial exchanges, took place for centuries until finally the Romans drove the Phoenicians off the island in the course of the Punic Wars in the late third century bc. The remnants of remarkable Doric temples, as well as military fortifications, built by the Greek colonists survive in Selinunte, Agrigento and Syracuse, including in the two last places buildings which are extraordinarily intact.
Great wealth accrued under Roman rule when the island was clothed in fields of corn, and endless oak forests and abundant fauna provided sport for grandees and emperors. One of them has bequeathed to us on the floor of his luxurious villa the most splendid Roman mosaics to have survived. Overrun by Germanic barbarians in the fifth century, Sicily was wrested back for the twilight of classical civilization by the Byzantines, but at the cost of military campaigns which devastated the island.
Byzantine rule was in turn supplanted from the ninth century by Muslim Arabs, and a period of prosperity and advanced civilization ensued. Two hundred years later Arab rule was swept aside by conquering Normans, who, by succumbing to the luxuriant sophistication of their predecessors, distanced themselves as far as is imaginable from their rugged northern roots. The unique artistic blend of this golden age survives in the Romanesque churches with details of Norman, Saracenic, Levantine and classical origin. Byzantine mosaicists were much employed. The wealth and power of Sicily began to wane again from the later Middle Ages as a succession of German, French and Spanish dynasties exploited the island with colonial disregard for long-term interests, but pockets of wealth and creativity remained as Gothic and Renaissance masterpieces demonstrate. Artistically, however, a final flourish was reached in the Age of Baroque which saw the erection of churches and palaces as splendid and exuberant as anywhere in Europe.
The raw beauty of the landscape changes continually across the island. The Sicilians can be as welcoming as Italians anywhere, but the island continues to retain its enigmas, and differences with the mainland sometimes seem profound.
Palermo. March/November: fly at c. 9.00am from London City, via Milan or Rome, to Palermo (Alitalia). April: fly at c. 11.15am from London City, via Milan to Palermo (Alitalia). September/October: fly at c. 2.45pm from London Gatwick to Catania, and drive across the island to Palermo (British Airways). The largest and by far the most interesting city on the island, Palermo has been capital of Sicily from the period of Saracenic occupation in the 9th century. It reached a peak under the Normans and again during the Age of Baroque. First of six nights in Palermo.
Palermo. Morning walk through the old centre includes a visit to several oratories and outstanding Norman buildings including La Martorana with fine mosaics. Drinks at a private palace, by special arrangement. In the afternoon see the collection of pictures in the 15th-century Palazzo Abatellis.
Monreale, Cefalù. Monreale dominates a verdant valley southwest of Palermo, and its cathedral is one of the finest Norman churches with the largest scheme of mosaic decoration to survive from the Middle Ages. Cefalù, a charming coastal town, has a massive Norman cathedral with outstanding mosaics and an art gallery with a painting by Antonello da Messina.
Segesta, Selinunte. With its magnificently sited temple and theatre, Segesta is one of the most evocative of Greek sites. Selinunte, founded c. 650 bc, is a vast archaeological site, renowned for its picturesque temples and acropolis.
Agrigento. A full day in Agrigento to see the ‘Valley of the Temples’, one of the finest of all ancient Greek sites with the virtually complete Temple of Concord, other ruins and a good museum.
Palermo. S. Giovanni degli Eremiti is a Norman church with five cupolas and a charming garden. The cathedral, a building of many periods, has grand royal and imperial tombs. Free afternoon. Private visit to the Palatine Chapel, in the 12th-century Palace of the Normans.
Palermo, Piazza Armerina. In Palermo visit Castello della Zisa, an Arab-Norman Palace. Drive through the interior of Sicily. At Piazza Armerina are the remains of one of the most sumptuous villas of the late-Roman Empire, whose floor mosaics comprise the most vital and colourful manifestation of Roman figurative art in Europe. Continue across the island for the first of four nights in Taormina.
Taormina. Visit the famed Roman theatre, with spectacular views over the sea to Calabria and inland to Mount Etna, an active volcano. The rest of the day is free: one of the earliest and still one of the most attractive of Mediterranean resorts, Taormina has an area of secluded beaches joined by cable car to the delightful hilltop town.
Messina, Reggio di Calabria. Drive north to Messina to see the art gallery with paintings by Caravaggio and Antonello da Messina. Cross by ferry to Reggio di Calabria on the mainland of Italy, and see the Riace Bronzes – over-life-size male nudes associated with Phidias and Polyclitus, among the finest Greek sculpture to survive.
Catania. Along the coast from Taormina, Catania has a fine Baroque centre. Here there are special visits to a private palazzo and a Byzantine chapel, where there is a light lunch. See also the cathedral and the Roman Theatre, where Alkibiades addressed the men of Catania to incite them to win the cause of Athens.
Syracuse. Founded as a Greek colony in 733 bc, Syracuse became the most important city of Magna Græcia. Afternoon walk on the island of Ortygia, the picturesque and densely built original centre of Syracuse, and see the Caravaggio painting in the church of Sta. Lucia alla Badia. First of two nights in Syracuse.
Noto, Syracuse. Rebuilt after an earthquake in 1693, Noto is one of the loveliest and most homogenous Baroque towns in Italy. Visit the 5th-century bc Greek theatre in Syracuse, the largest of its type to survive, as well as the stone quarries and the Roman amphitheatre. There is also time to visit the excellent museum of antiquities in Syracuse.
Syracuse. Fly from Catania, arriving London Gatwick at c. 11.00pm (September/October), or via Milan or Rome, arriving London Heathrow at c. 6.00pm (March/April/November).
Dr Luca Leoncini
Art historian specialising in 15th-century Italian painting. His first degree and PhD were from Rome University followed by research at the Warburg Institute in London. He has published articles on the classical tradition in Italian art of the 15th century and contributed to the Macmillan Dictionary of Art. He has also written on Mantegna and Renaissance drawings.
Architectural historian and a specialist in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. He lectures for Oxford University’s Department of Continuing Education and is Honorary Secretary of the British Archaeological Association, for whom he has edited collections of essays on mediaeval Anjou, King’s Lynn and the Fens, Cloisters, and Romanesque and the Mediterranean.
Dr Ffiona Gilmore Eaves
Read Archaeology at Cambridge followed by a PhD from Nottingham on the early church at Porec. She has lectured for the WEA, for whom she founded and managed a study tours section, and for various extra-mural departments. She is the co-author of Retrieving the Record: A Century of Archaeology at Porec published by the University of Zagreb.
Art historian, lecturer and writer. As well as being a specialist in 19th-century British art, he has a deep interest in Sicily, its architecture and political and social history. A graduate of the Courtauld Institute, he has organised various exhibitions including Pre-Raphaelite Vision: Truth to Nature (Tate Britain 2004) and John Ruskin: Artist & Observer at the National Gallery of Canada and Scottish National Portrait Gallery (2014). His interest in John Ruskin led to our tour Ruskin’s Venice.
Dr Philippa Joseph
Author, lecturer and researcher. For 20 years she published journals and books on behalf of societies including the Association of Art Historians, The Historical Association, and Society for Renaissance Studies. She is now an independent lecturer and researcher, reviews editor for History Today, and sits on the publishing board of the Institute of Historical Research, London. Her PhD concentrated on architectural and cultural exchange between Seville and Renaissance Italy, but her current research looks more broadly at late mediaeval and early modern societies in Andalucía and Sicily where Christian, Jewish, and Muslim cultures flourished, each building on a Classical past.
Price – per person (2017)
September & October
Two sharing: £4,360 or £4,150 without flights. Single occupancy: £4,950 or £4,740 without flights.
Two sharing: £4,230 or £4,040 without flights. Single occupancy: £4,770 or £4,580 without flights.
Price – per person (2018)
March, April, September & October
Two sharing: £4,470 or £4,250 without flights. Single occupancy: £5,080 or £4,860 without flights.
November (exclusively for solo travellers)
£4,640 or £4,470 without flights.
Flights (economy class, Airbus A32S, Embraer 90, Embraer 7S) with Alitalia (Mar./Apr./Nov.) or with British Airways (Sep./Oct.); travel by private coach throughout; hotel accommodation as described below; breakfasts; 5 lunches (including one picnic) and 7 dinners with wine, water, coffee; all admissions; all tips; all taxes; the services of the lecturer and tour manager.
Grand Hotel Piazza Borsa, Palermo: a centrally located 4-star hotel housed in an assortment of historical buildings. Hotel Villa Belvedere, Taormina: a charming 4-star family-run hotel in the old town, with its own garden (rooms vary in size and outlook). Des Etrangers Hotel, Syracuse: an elegant 5-star hotel on the island of Ortygia. All rooms have sea views. Single rooms are doubles for sole use throughout.
This tour involves a lot of walking, some of it over rough ground at archaeological sites and cobbled or uneven paving in town centres. Fitness and sure-footedness are essential. There are also some long coach journeys. Average distance by coach per day: 73 miles.
We opt to travel to and from Sicily with Alitalia in March, April and November because the only direct flights to the island in this period are with low-cost airlines, with whom it is not currently viable for us to make a group booking. British Airways only flies directly from London Gatwick to Catania from late April to October (these flights are also subject to confirmation).
Between 10 and 22 participants.
Before booking, please refer to the FCO website to ensure you are happy with the travel advice for the destination(s) you are visiting: www.fco.gov.uk.
'A superb introduction to Sicily. Very well thought out.'
'Overall a well-balanced mix which brought together the disparate strands of history and art of Sicily. I especially liked the fact that most days had a particular theme.'
'So many unexpected treasures - that's what makes a Martin Randall holiday so special.'
'I was delighted and uplifted by the places I saw: a perfectly chosen mix.'
'Excellent, very well thought out, a rich combination of the obvious places where people would want to go, combined with the unexpected.'
'The quality of the hotels was excellent, we enjoyed delicious food and wine and the variety and interest in the places we visited would not have been possible if we'd arranged the tour ourselves. The guides enabled us to learn a great deal which would otherwise have passed us by.'
'The lecturer was brilliant and a gifted teacher. The depth of his knowledge on every aspect of the tour was extremely impressive, and he was always willing to answer all the questions and interact with us all. He was also a delightful person, with a dry sense of humour and a lot of fun.'
'The quality of the planning, the lecturer and the size of the group provided an excellent tour that would be hard to match.'