30 March 2016

The Sicilian Vespers

How the French lost control of the island they were ruling

Painting of the Sicilian Vespers by Domenico Morelli
Women fleeing from the violent uprising
known as the Sicilian Vespers, as depicted
by the artist Domenico Morelli
As the citizens of Palermo walked to vespers - evening prayers - in the church of Santo Spirito on this day in 1282, a French soldier grossly insulted a pretty young Sicilian woman.

The girl’s enraged fiancĂ© immediately drew his dagger and stabbed the soldier through the heart.

The violence was contagious and the local people exploded in fury against the French occupying forces. More than 200 French soldiers were killed at the outset and the violence spread to other parts of Sicily the next day resulting in a full-scale rebellion against French rule.

This bloody event, which led to Charles of Anjou losing control of Sicily, became known in history as the Sicilian Vespers.

King Charles was detested for his cold-blooded cruelty and his officials had made the lives of the ordinary Sicilians miserable.

After he was overthrown, Sicily enjoyed almost a century of independence.

There have been different versions given of the events that led to the rebellion against the French and it is not known exactly how the uprising started.

But to many Italians the story of the Sicilian Vespers has always been inspirational and Guiseppe Verdi even created an opera about it in 1855.

The 12th century Chiesa dello Spirito Santo in Palermo
(Photo: Enzian44 CC BY-SA 3.0)
Travel tip:

The 12th century Church of the Holy Spirit (Chiesa dello Spirito Santo), where the violence known as the Sicilian Vespers exploded, used to be in a park outside the city walls but it is now part of the Sant’Orsola cemetery in Palermo.

Travel tip:

The Teatro Regio in Parma was the setting in 1855 for the premiere of Verdi’s five-act opera, I Vespri Siciliani, which was loosely based on the story of the Sicilian Vespers. The theatre had been built with a 1,400 seat auditorium and inaugurated in 1829. It now honours Verdi, who was born at nearby Busseto, with a festival every October. 

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