top of page

Sicily: Island of Art 

Sicily is dotted with a rich array of art and architecture, primarily due to its strategic location and rich history. The island's archaeological sites offer a rich insight into its ancient past, with some of the most striking examples being the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento and the Temple of Zeus in Syracuse. The Baroque architecture, which was introduced by the Spanish in the 16th and 17th centuries, also dominates the island. Catania, Palermo, Noto, and Ragusa boast some of the finest examples of Baroque architecture, with theatrical facades and a stark contrast of light and dark colors.

In addition to ancient temples and Baroque palaces, the Byzantine period also left an imprint in the artistic landscape of Sicily. One of the most striking examples is the Cappella Palatina, located within the Palazzo dei Normanni in Palermo. The chapel boasts exquisite mosaics, intricate carvings, and a range of Islamic and Byzantine motifs. The Norman-Arab architecture also has a presence in Sicily, with the Zisa and Norman Palace showcasing a blend of Moorish and medieval motifs. Overall, Sicily's diverse range of art and architecture offers a snapshot of its complex history and serves as a cultural testament to the island's cultural richness.

Let's survey some architectural examples and an artifact from around the island...

Milazzo Castle: Surviving Through The Ages

The fortified citadel, known as "Castello di Milazzo", was built on Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Muslim, and Spanish settlements and is the largest castle in Sicily and covering almost 14,000 square meters. It is also the most important historical monument in the area and an impressive site in position and stature, while perfectly illustrating the last thousand years of Sicilian history.

Castello di Milazzo is located on the top of a hill overlooking the city of Milazzo in Sicily, Italy. This castle and adjoining structures, along with the land it sits upon itself has a very storied history. It is an archaeological site that has spanned many eras and has been subjected to many different ruling nations, just like the beautiful island of Sicily.  Around the waters surrounding the cliffs, archaeologists have found shipwrecks dating back to the earliest of ship faring times. It was during these times without the advent of lighthouses that the site was a most dangerous place to approach in the night, adding to the strength of its location. These wrecks also show us the amount of history connected to the area, which is astounding.

The castle is surrounded by the ocean on 3 sides, which is interestingly a great analogy for the island of Sicily itself, as it is locally known as a land being surrounded by "the three seas". The cultural symbol of Sicily is in fact Medusa with 3 legs extruding from her head, which represents the three seas. 

This particular site was first fortified all the way back in the Neolithic era near the very end of the stone age nearly 12,000 years ago. Its location and geographical traits have always made it an ideal spot for fortification. The first intricate fortifications were built around 4000 BC. 

Over the centuries we can see the ancient Greeks, who modified it into an acropolis. In ancient Greece, an acropolis was a settlement or 'a citadel, built upon an area of elevated ground—frequently a hill with precipitous sides, chosen for purposes of defense.' (1) 

Later in the world of antiquity, the site of Castello di Milazzo was enlarged into a fortified military camp, known as 'Castrum' in Latin, by the Romans and then the Byzantines. After the dark ages and fall of the Roman empire, the Arabs eventually came along and 'built a castle, which was further modified and enlarged during the Medieval and Early Modern periods.' (2) 

The castle was in Habsburg hands for the first half of the 18th century, before being taken over by the Bourbons. They controlled the castle until losing Milazzo to Giuseppe Garibaldi in the year 1860. Then the castle was subsequently converted into a prison in 1880, and underwent a number of alterations.

Even though this fortified citadel was built on Greek, Roman, Byzantine and Muslim settlements the first documents date back to the Norman era (11th-12th century AD).

In the 13th century, King Frederick II of Swabia took care of the defensive structures of the island of Sicily and entrusted Richard da Lentini with the task of expanding the fortification of the Milazzo Castle which became a fortified citadel.

In the second half of the 14th century, Sicily became part of the Kingdom of Aragon, at the behest of Alfonso the Magnanim the castle was modernized. Ferdinand the King of Spain then built the "Aragonese town wall" encompassing the medieval structures.
In 1525, during the Empire of Charles V of Spain, under the Viceroy Ettore Pignatelli, work began on the construction of the Spanish Belt that enclosed the medieval village, civil and religious buildings, military structures. Spaces for stables and warehouses were built within the new walls; there were also numerous water cisterns distributed throughout the large territory. Archive documents inform us that at the end of the sixteenth century there were 1200 civilian inhabitants with a slow movement out of the walls towards the lower part, towards the sea.

 In 1608 the construction of the Old Cathedral began inside the fortification.
In 1718/19 with a great siege on the fortified city, Spain loses the island of Sicily that becomes part of the Austrian kingdom.

From 1734 to 1860 Sicily is part of the Bourbon kingdom with capital Naples (Crown Bourbon of Spain).
The Citadel was no stranger to the Liberal/Republican revolt movements of 1820 and 1848.

After the creation of the Kingdom of  Italy in 1880, the Castle, losing its military function, was converted into a men's prison. 'The prison then closed in 1959 and the castle remained abandoned for a couple of decades.  The structures are still in good condition and open to the public now.

All in all this impressive site and has passed ownership from Antiquity with Phonetician, Greek, Roman rule to Arab, Norman, and Swabian rule to Aragonese and Spanish rule to finally the Bourbons. The castle we see today was erected as a result of the strategic importance in 'the Milazzo peninsula, which commands the Gulf of Patti, the body of water that separates Sicily from the Aeolian Islands.' (3) To this day, commands one of Sicily's most important natural harbors.

1. Acropolis - Wikipedia.

2. Castello di Milazzo - The World of Castles.
3. Castello di Milazzo - Wikipedia.

The Taormina Theatre 

Why would the ancient Greeks build such a place upon such a dangerous environment? Why would the Romans continue to as well right under the nose of an active and volatile volcano?  Perhaps it was simply too beautiful a spot not to...

The Greek theatre of Taormina, was born to accommodate dramatic performances and musicals, then it transformed during the Roman period to make room for games and gladiatorial battles. During this time, there was an expansion to the orchestra section, which in the Greek period designed for musicians, was adapted to be a new functional arena for brutal sport.

What was the purpose of the Greco-Roman amphitheaters?

Ancient Roman amphitheaters were large public venues, they were of a circular or oval design and had seating tiers around the perimeter. The height of the Classical Greek age (480 BC – 323 BC) pre-dates the Roman Empire by a number of centuries. Within the timeline of Ancient Greece, emerging around 800 BC to its subjection to the Roman Empire in 146 BC, saw fundamentally different uses for amphitheatres in general. The biggest difference? The Greeks used them for dramatic plays and the Romans used them primarily for major events such as gladiator combats, chariot races, venationes (animal hunts), and executions.

Initial ideology behind Amphitheaters 

The old Greek Theatres are irrevocably important from an anthropology viewpoint because the idea of Theater became significant to general Greek culture when it became an integral part of festivals honoring the gods. The Greek empire was far-reaching, and as a result, the concept was spread throughout much of the world, along with the mythological tales that many plays were based upon. Culture was more easily spread with the advent of massive structures where audiences could indulge in the art of militaristic Rome, games of violence for entertainment.


If it is true that "the utmost pleasure of travelling is attained when movement in space is united with movement in time," then a trip to the extraordinary world of Naxos Taormina Archaeological Park is a perfect journey. We might start by asking ourselves why, in 734 BC, the first Greek colonists, having the whole Ionian coast at their disposal, should have selected precisely that point, on that small lava peninsula, the final outcropping of the majestic volcano, to found the first colony, Naxos. But Count Otto von Geleng would immediately provide his answer, and on arriving at Giardini, in the course of his stay in Taormina, in the early days of February 1863, he called it "the island in the sky," an authentic "region of the soul." To convey his happiness at having found such a paradise, he sent his watercolors to Berlin, where they were not well received. "Is there really," asked the critics, "a place where trees in blossom frame the snowy volcano, or are those paintings merely the fruit of the imagination of a young romantic artist?" This is the same wonder that still today amazes and bewitches the visitor to the Park, as happened to Frances Elliot, who, after her tor in 1879 and 1880, exclaimed: "The memory of what I saw during the journey by rail from Messina to Taormina makes me melancholy. Now I understand why the gods loved Sicily so profoundly."

The ancient theatre is without question the most important feature for sight-seers in Taormina, also because of its very fortunate natural setting, with a splendid view toward the Calabrian coast, the Ionian coast of Sicily and the spectacular cone of Etna. (1)


The theatre is divided into several parts: The Scene, the Orchestra, the Cavea, the Portici, and the Access Stairs. The Greek Theatre of Taormina is the second-largest theater of Sicily, after the one in Syracuse, it is also the world's best known and most admired.  The construction of the amphitheater starts by the Greeks around the third century. BC, at the time of Hiero II. To allow the construction was necessary to remove manually from the mountain over 100,000 cubic meters of rock. The plant was later renovated and expanded by the Romans, who inserted columns, statues, and ingenious covers. (2) 

In modern times

Since the 1950s the theatre has hosted various forms of entertainment such as plays, concerts, award ceremonies of, symphonies, operas and ballet performances. 


1. Greek Theatre of Taormina - Sicily -

2. Greek Theatre of Taormina - Sicily -


Milazzo Castle


Teatro Antico di Taormina

The Cloak of King Roger of Sicily

A masterpiece made in the hizanat at-tiraz, a laboratory that was located next to the Royal Palace. The Fatimid inscription in kufic characters found on the edge of the cloak indicates exactly the city of the realization: Palermo. This cloak together with other precious clothes were taken away from the royal treasure by the new king of the Romans and of Sicily Henry VI Hohenstaufen (Swabian), husband of Costanza d'Altavilla and father of Federico II after that in 1194 he received as dowry of his wife Costanza the Norman kingdom. All the treasure was brought from Sicily to Germany and since then it is still kept there in Vienna in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Shatzkammer.

The cloak is an embroidery masterpiece in silk, gold, pearls, precious and semiprecious stones. It has a semicircular shape 345 cm long and 146 cm high and is adorned with a thin palm tree which symbolizes the tree of life which divides the cloak into two equal parts in which there are a lion and a camel. The lions have a straight head, an arched chest and a moving tail triumphantly on a camel with bridles and gualdrappas that characterize a domesticated animal. The embroideries are in gold thread on chermés red silk and a double row of small river pearls follow the contours of the figures and some parts of the internal design. The mustache and claws had to be embroidered in dark silk, now lost. The front edge is embroidered with strings of pearls that frame palmettes and diamond shapes in gold and enamel, one has a rabbit.
The decoration is an ancient oriental motif particularly loved and widespread in Palermo: it is found in the mosaic of the floor and ceiling of the Palatine Chapel, in the mosaics of the Zisa, the Martorana and in the Roger Room of the Royal Palace. The lion is a symbol of power that is found in the past up to the ruins of Persepolis and in Sumerian art but the lion that overpowers the camel is really rare, what is the symbolic meaning? If the camel represents the Arabs of Sicily, it could be the recognition of power relations in a non-violent way. When the Normans conquered Sicily they obtained political power but the value of the culture and science of the Arabs was not affected and their religion tolerated. But the meaning could be cosmic: the medallions and rosettes embroidered on the joints and muzzle of the lions correspond roughly to the positions of the stars in the zodiacal sign of the lion on a celestial globe made around 1225 in Egypt and kept in the Capodimonte Museum in Naples. These decorations are found on silks made in Syria, Iran and Iraq to testify that the symbolism of the zodiac is a further oriental tradition absorbed by western culture and used for the cloaks of kings.
A round stud in gold and enamel set between precious stones and filigree is sewn over the head of the lions of Ruggero's cloak. Each stud is decorated with two overlapping squares to form an eight-pointed star that encloses a sun. It is a "cosmogram", a much loved decoration in Coptic textile art. The intertwining of the squares is a symbol of the cosmos and to the relationship of the world with the divine, this decorative theme is repeated in the wooden ceiling of the Palatine Chapel in Palermo. The gold and enamel elements were probably made by goldsmiths from Byzantium and in 1980 the names of the embroiderers were found written in Arabic on a strip of linen under the embroidered scapulars: Marzuq, Ali, Mahmud under the guidance of Damyan. 

Fodera Originale, Palermo XII sec..jpg

Zoom in of lining of Cloak
(Credit: Funci, 2021)

It is the oldest lining and applied along the inner edge in order to be visible when, walking, the cloak opens. Made of silk in bright colors, red, green, blue, lilac yellow ocher, white and black. The decorations have different themes "tree of life", "dragons", "birds". In the published image, stylized trees are seen from whose branches come the heads of dragons that have pointed ears and show their tongues. Under each tree to the right and left there are human figures with long dresses and beside the heads fantastic birds and bizarre rabbits.

Fodera Italiana, XIV secolo.jpg

The second is of a zoom of cloak of material Italian manufacture from the second half of the 14th century, red with flowers 
(Credit: Funci, 2021)

The second is of Italian manufacture from the second half of the 14th century, red with flowers.

Fodera Vicino Oriente, XII secolo.jpg

The third lining is green, coming from the Near East, from the 12th century. It is a silk with iridescent colors, some parts are in gray and light brown. The decorations are vegetal with lotus flowers 
(Credit: Funci, 2021)


The Cloak of King Roger of Sicily

bottom of page