There are countless books about Sicily or that reference Sicily in one way or another. In world history, religious history, culinary history, art history, and mythology, one can see that Sicily has been influential or influenced much over time. The list I give you contains books that I have read, enjoyed, learned from, admired or investigated. Some are important, some fascinating and some poignant or entertaining. The richness and complexity of Sicily is evident in all of it. It is a list I will enjoy updating periodically.
NB: With few exceptions, food and cookbooks are not included here. The list is too deliciously long…
The Land, The History, The People
A House in Sicily
This is the true story of a British woman who inherited a house near Taormina, hosted a bevy of writers and artists from both Europe and America and developed a deep love for Sicily and its people. She is witty and warm. It is a lesson for living happily in a foreign land.
Arabs and Normans in Sicily and the South of Italy
Adele Cilento and Alessandro Vanoli, translated by Brian Eskenazi
This beautiful book is rich in color as well as academic authorship. It looks into the period of history that is perhaps Sicily’s richest, a ‘ golden age' of multiculturalism, tolerance, and innovation that occurred on the island and the south of Italy. So much of what we know as ‘Sicilian' stems from this time period, and its importance led UNESCO to award its presence in Palermo protection. Flipping through the hundreds of photos in these pages is transporting.
Behind Closed Doors
These recently discovered stories saved Messina from obscurity. She documents the struggle of early 20th century women in Sicily, both from tradition and especially from mass emigration. She talks about the conflict between holding onto beloved tradition and a desire to be independent.
Bitter Almonds, Recollections and Recipes from a Sicilian Girlhood
Mary Taylor Simeti and Maria Grammatico
How is it possible that hardship, poverty, and meager ingredients produced some of the most delectable sweets in Sicily? Grammatico was raised in an orphanage with religious women, working at countless tasks. She mastered the art of baking and learned frugality like none we know today. Mary Taylor Simeti captures every nuance, from Maria’s heart to her intonation, in this biography cum cookbook that will make you want to grab the nearest almond pastry. It is a poignant, witty and brow-raising story. A trip to Erice will bring you to her deservedly famous shop, Maria Grammatico's, and you will not be sorry.
Bitter Victory, The Battle for Sicily 1943
A thorough, almost epic, investigation about “Operation Husky,” examining both British and American points of view under Generals Montgomery and Patton. The title references the lost opportunity to stop the Axis as they retreated from Sicily which would have changed history
The Day of the Battle: The War in Sicily & Italy 1943-1944
Considered one of the best books on the subject of the Italian campaigns written by Atkinson, Pulitzer Prize winning and brilliant military authority. His descriptions jump off the page and tell the story in brutal honesty with details about the military and personal aspects of war. The campaigns in the Mediterranean Theater often go overlooked because of Normandy, but these were important battles, with important Generals and decisions that did change and could have further changed history. Visit the Museo Storico dello Sbarco in Catania.
Excellent Cadavers: The Mafia and the death of the First Italian Republic
Fascinating account of the Sicilian Mafia, corruption in Italy and the events that led up to the assassination of top anti-Mafia prosecutors Falcone and Borselino. Available in film, too.
Exciting Food For Southern Types
This slim volume is an excerpt from the definitive Italian cookbook, Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well. Self-published in 1891, post-Unification, he was the first to include recipes from all over Italy. Artusi writes with chatty banter. His commentary is often funny and as relevant today as it was then. He starts off by saying “Cooking is a troublesome sprite”… and goes on to say “Cheer up, if you eat these cookies you will never die, or you will live as long as Methuselah…”
This travel narrative and social commentary is about many aspects of life in Sicily. Lewis compares his memories of Sicily from WWII to the present day, noting changes in both the cities and culture. He describes landscapes and small towns, and encourages visits to experience the island with his vibrant and evocative writing style. Lewis balances his enthusiasm for the positive with a constant eye to the negative and how much mafia presence has affected the island.
Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe
Possibly the person most quoted when Sicily is referenced, and yet Sicily occupied only 6 weeks of Goethe’s Italian exploration in 1787, or, the equivalent of one long chapter in the book. The journals he kept and letters he wrote were the basis for this book. Right from the beginning, when he talks about being seasick and only able to take bread and red wine, one is captivated by his descriptive, immediate, and humorous writing.
La Cucina Siciliana di Gangivecchio
Wanda and Giovanna Tornabene
This is an autobiographical work in addition to a cookbook. The former Benedictine Abbey, where the Tornabene’s live and cook, brings history and interest to the wonderful recipes. And, when touring Sicily, one can still visit.
Language and Travel Guide to Sicily
Giovanna Bellia La Marca
A culinary writer and instructor from Ragusa gives us this good introductory guide to the major sights in Sicily and the Sicilian language. Included are recommendations for hotels and restaurants. Language CDs also included.
Mattanza: The Ancient Sicilian Ritual of Bluefin Tuna Fishing
A mattanza, in Italian, is a slaughter. Theresa Maggio relates the fascinating story of the ancient springtime slaughter of the highly prized Bluefin tuna. Maggio weaves her own tale of discovery and even love into this elegant description of the hard lives of Sicilian fishermen who chase the Bluefin and re-enact a hunt that extends far back in history and whose rituals, including that ceremonial massacre, have gone essentially unchanged for thousands of years. Although the subject, at first glance, seemed unappealing, I thoroughly enjoyed this read.
On Persephone’s Island
Mary Taylor Simeti
A detailed portrait of Sicily by an American writer who married a Sicilian and settled there in 1962. Wonderfully descriptive of rural life and local festivals all focused around the seasons. A very good introduction to the rhythms of Sicily and that which propels it ever forward, no matter the obstacle.
This is a small, entertaining volume of observations - Palermo and the Palermitani; their lifestyle, politics and secrets.
Palermo, City of Kings: The Heart of Sicily
This is Dummett’s second book after Syracuse: City of Legends. I like Dummett’s writing style, both easy and erudite. This is an historical overview and guide book of Palermo, unique and full of interesting information relating to particular sites. The maps are helpful, too.
Palmento: A Sicilian Wine Odyssey
A thoroughly enjoyable read by a travel writer who investigates the history of wine, wine production today and the many colorful characters it includes. Camuto’s descriptions are utterly delightful. It is a trip around the island not to be taken without a glass of red at your side.
Pomp and Sustenance
Mary Taylor Simeti
Devoted to Sicilian traditions and customs in food, this in-depth and well-researched work is much more than a cookbook. It’s also sadly hard to find now.
Seeking Sicily: A Cultural Journey Through Myth and Reality
Like many before him, this travel writer fell in love with Sicily. Despite his non-Sicilian heritage, he repeatedly hits the nail on the head in this recent contribution to the library about Sicily. His observations and insights are terrific.
Sicilian Food and Wine: The Cognoscente’s Guide
by Francesca Lombardo and Jackie Alio
Written by two friends from Palermo who are extremely knowledgeable about Sicily and things Sicilian, this is a great addition to the bookshelf. Between them, Francesca and Jackie are (at least), historian, guide, sommelier, author (see Jackie’s two other books on the list), and lecturer in several languages. This book highlights the complex food and wine scene in Sicily. Food and wine is as popular a reason to visit Sicily as the historic and natural reasons, but everything in Sicily is so intertwined and complex that one can almost never view any of it independently. This is a resource book for anyone wanting both the general understanding of the food, wine, and culture, as well as the specific. It is a take along book with maps and glossaries, or just a good one to consult at home.
Sicilian Genealogy and Heraldry
A comprehensive and sometimes technical look at family research and post 1500 history in Sicily. Based on years of research and experience, this book can help anyone initiating a search while it educates about life in the period that picks up where his and Jackie Alio’s earlier book, The Peoples of Sicily left off.
This travel memoir uncovers the past and observes the present. It opens the reader’s eyes to the beauty of the rugged landscape and the Sicilian people. A lovely read.
Sicily’s Rebellion against King Charles: John of Procida. The Story if the Sicilian Vespers
Translation and commentary by Louis Mendola
The first English translation of the manuscript that tells the story of the War of the Vespers, begun in Palermo in 1282. Written by John Procida in Middle Sicilian around 1290, it is also the earliest narrative prose written in an Italian language. It is a milestone in the study of Medieval European literature. The chronicle is in both English and its original language with a glossary, index, commentary, and suggested readings.
Guy De Maupassant
A 19th century travel perspective from one of the many great writers who spent time in Sicily and were inspired to write about it. A great writer in a great land; what more needs to be said? It is not a hefty book and well worth the time for the skillful and romantic articulation.
Sicily, A Cultural History
An English professor of Italian, Farrell explores Sicily from many angles. He talks about festivals and religion, history and literature, the Baroque, Classical, and Greek. An interesting organization of such a complex history.
Sicily: A Literary Guide for Travellers
Andrew and Suzanne Edwards
My love of quotes made me excited for this book, a compilation and exploration of thought and writing by literati from the Greek age to the 20th Century, all of whom were so affected by visions of Sicily, that they committed their impressions to paper.
Sicily: An Illustrated History
Joseph F. Privitera
Privatera has written much about Sicily and much for the curious traveler to enjoy. His topics are often scholarly but easy to read, as in the case of this compact volume. His book entitled Sicilian: The Oldest Romance Language is very interesting.
Sicily: An Island at the Crossroads of History
John Julius Norwich
Erudite and a lover of Sicily, Norwich is a British diplomat, historian, and bestselling author. In this book, he revisits the often told fascinating history of Sicily. Norwich is so familiar with the many facets of the island to have real opinions and biases of his own. He tells the story with intimacy of facts and biographical intrigue, and that he exalts Roger II is fine with me.
Sicily: Three Thousand Years of Human History
In a conversational tone, this book describes the most conquered spot in the world and how historical events have created a dense, rich and unique culture.
Syracuse, City of Legends: A Glory of Sicily
This is a colorful investigation of the enormously rich history of Siracusa and its historical inhabitants, the city Cicero called "the greatest Greek city and the most beautiful of them all." Included is some information for tourists.
The Golden Honeycomb
(Out of print but available used)
The story centers around the search for a, perhaps, legendary golden honeycomb offered by Daedalus to Aphrodite in gratitude for his escape from King Minos of Crete. A poetic, romantic and sometimes scholarly, history of Sicily, written as he travels from place to place in search of the truth. An extremely useful read to help pick apart the layered history visible in churches and cathedrals as well as at the sites of the very well preserved ruins. Very enjoyable.
The Heart and the Island: A Critical Study of Sicilian American Literature
This is an important and very interesting book, a first for this subject. It investigates the Sicilian essence, communicated brilliantly through Sicilian literature, and how it changed, when it migrated to this country. Chiara studies a host of Sicilian-American authors, some of whom are on this list, who have incorporated their immigrant status, and experiences on this side of the ocean, into the wealth of their writing. She discusses the similarities and differences of the voices themselves and how they reflect back to Sicily. She helps the reader to understand the Sicilian essence both here and there, and for Sicilian-Americans, perhaps, a way to understand themselves..
The Kingdom of Sicily 1130-1860
This interesting read takes off into detail where Lou’s earlier book, The Peoples of Sicily leaves off. Although some of the material in The Kingdom of Sicily had been earlier included in The Peoples of Sicily, and also incorporated from The Women of Sicily, Jackie Alio’s book also published by Trinacria Press, the details are so complex that one book alone could never spell it all out. In spite of the level of detail and the meticulous research, Lou lays it out in a straightforward, easy to read manner. If you want the next level of understanding of Sicilian history, you will enjoy this.
The Lady of the Wheel
Angelo F. Coniglio
This short work of fiction rooted in history tells of the poverty in and around Racalmuto in the late 1800's, at a time when men and children worked in the mines. It is affecting and very interesting. Angelo is fascinated with genealogy and his studies are evident in his writing.
The Peoples of Sicily
Louis Mendola and Jackie Alio
This book is packed with information about Sicily, its history, culture, traditions, and legacies. It is comprehensive and scholarly, yet accessible. Well written by two authoritative voices.
The Stone Boudoir: In search of the hidden villages of Sicily
A captivating personal journey through towns and settlements. Maggio’s portrait of Sicilians is insightful and full of intimacy and warmth. Her descriptions of festivities and traditions, scenery and beauty are evocative and compelling.
The World of Sicilian Wine
Bill Nesto and Frances Di Savino
A very comprehensive look at the roller coaster history of wine in Sicily and how it has evolved to play an important role on the worldwide wine stage. A very interesting read for historians in general.
Women of Sicily: Saints, Queens, and Rebels
Jackie is a wealth of knowledge about Sicilian history. Here, she uses that knowledge to introduce us to 17 courageous women, who despite their gender, had an impact on events over the course of Sicily's complex history. A rare examination of women in a place traditionally dominated by males. Included is also a brief overview of history and chronology.
To see all of this history, tradition and culture placed in fictional context, you might want to read:
I Beati Paoli
An historian, journalist and novelist, Natoli chronicled the history of Sicilian people, their conditions and circumstances. He has been compared to Victor Hugo in style. The Beati Paoli was a secret sect that defended the poor and revolted against the church in medieval Sicily. These were originally penned under his pseudonym, William Galt in 1909.
Beautiful Angiola, The Great Treasury of Sicilian Folk and Fairy Tales
Laura Gonzenbach, Translated by Jack Zipes
In the 1800s, this author went from town to town, from peasant to peasant, to gather a compendium of Sicilian folk stories. She died young, and her penned notes were mostly lost in Messina’s major earthquake. Zipes discovered the almost-forgotten stories and put together this wonderful collection in English.
Cavalleria Rusticana and Other Stories
Little Novels of Sicily (translated by DH Lawrence)
Giovanni Verga, (1840-1922)
A member of the Realism school, Verga wrote novels, short stories and plays. He wasn’t appreciated much until after his death and is now considered one of the greats of Italian writing. Wonderful stories.
Conversations in Sicily
Elio Vittorini (1908-1966)
Neo-realist in style, noted as a great novel of Italian anti-fascism, and said to be like Picasso’s Guernica, the books turns amusing when the protagonist returns to Sicily to rediscover his roots and life’s values.
The Dangerously Truthful Diary of a Sicilian Housewife
Veronica Di Grigoli
Veronica is gifted with keen observational skills, insight, and the dry wit of her English background. In this hilarious story of what it is like to be married to a Sicilian and live in a small town in Sicily, she manages to capture the particularities of the characters that surround her, the mannerisms, the things that are part of accepted daily life, and see the humorous, even sometimes ridiculous, side of them. She does this with obvious love and affection, all of which endears the reader to her. Veronica writes a blog under the same name and both are really fun reads.
Eleven Short Stories
Luigi Pirandello, (1867-1936)
Pirandello wrote novels, short stories, plays and even poetry, and won the 1934 Nobel Prize for Literature. He was a very important innovator in modern drama after writing “Six Characters in Search of an Author”
The Hunger Saint
Olivia Kate Cerrone
The subject of the toil and hardship once suffered in the Sicilian sulphur mines is a very tough one, and reviews for this new novella say she describes the grit stunningly. She has researched the subject very thoroughly and spoke about it with great eloquence in an interview in which I participated. The life of a Sicilian miner’s family and the plight of the children in the mines are stories that need to be recorded and told. A passionate and serious writer, I am happy to share Olivia’s important addition to the canon of works about Sicily. Available from Bordighera Press.
Theocritus, Oxford World Classics
The father of pastoral poetry, often called “Sicilian” or “Siracusan” poetry, was a native of Siracusa, born in the 3rd century BC. He greatly influenced followers such as Virgil with his bucolic descriptions of life set in Sicily and Southern Italy. Reading the short poems gives real insight to life in a different time, the importance of Gods and Goddesses and nature. Even today they conjure up visions of a profusion of flowers and shepherds walking under the strong sun and azure blue sky.
Inspector Montalbano Series
Andrea Camilleri, (1925 - )
The Inspector Montalbano Series is hugely popular in Italy and has been adapted for both TV and film. The many, many stories take place in Sicily, although Camilleri is not Sicilian. They are fun mysteries, revolving around a modern day, Sicilian, Sherlock Holmes. Locations are all around Sicily with the fictional character residing near Marina di Ragusa.
The King of Love and Other Fairy Tales
Giuseppe Pitre, Edited and Translated by Marina Cocuzza and Lorna Watson
Pitrè, a contemporary of Giovanni Verga, was a doctor, folklorist, and great writer. His 300 tales are mostly situated in the west, since Gonzenbach had covered the east, and are all written in dialect. This volume is dual-language Sicilian/English and represents just a small part of his collection, recognized as very important by many including Italo Calvino.
Midnight in Sicily
This is an enthralling book about Sicily, with a vivid picture of Palermo. Robb discusses its undercurrents, beauty, culture and psychology while including food, politics and history.
So much of touring in Sicily references mythology. This volume, published in the ‘40s, covers a lot of territory with an index of stories.
Written in 800 B.C. this classic Greek tale explores the cunning abilities of Odysseus to overcome the limits of his human strength in the many tests that befall him on his epic journey. Many of the stories are set in Sicily, including the famous story of Polyphemus in which Odysseus and his men escaped the grips of Polyphemus by attaching themselves to the underbelly of his sheep. Polyphemus threw rocks at them which now jut out of the sea on the east coast’s Riviera dei Ciclopi. The story of Scylla and Charybdis associated with the Straights of Messina, is another example of how Odysseus used his wits to overcome his mortal weakness.
The Selected Writings of Salvatore Quasimodo (poetry)
Salvatore Quasimodo, (1901-1968)
Quasimodo was an Italian author and poet, from Messina and Modica, where you can visit his home. In 1959 he won the Nobel Prize for Literature for his lyrical poetry.
Luigi Capuana (1839-1915), Bi-lingual Edition translated by Santi V. Buscemi
Capuana was born in the Catania area of Sicily in 1839. Together with his friend Giovanni Verga the Verismo school, the Italian realist or naturalist school of literature was founded. He later influenced younger writers like Pirandello, from Agrigento. Although he wrote many novels, he is also known for his tales filled with rich characters.
Sometimes The Soul: Two Novellas of Sicily
What Makes A Child Lucky
Gioia Timpanelli (1952- )
Gioia is one of the founders of the worldwide revival of storytelling and she is a master. Her writing has immediacy and intimacy. Charming and poignantly lovely stories.
Sometimes The Soul: Two Novellas of Sicily
What Makes A Child Lucky
Trinàcria: A Tale of Bourbon Sicily
Anthony Di Renzo
This is a new novel based on a composite of early 19th century historical truths. Di Renzo, a professor, writes with wit and an easy manner, keeping the reader interested in the next page, learning more and more about Sicily and the sometimes unpleasant hidden truths.
Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1896-1957)
The quintessential story of a Sicilian prince and his family during the days of transition into a unified Italy. A classic by all standards, this Sicilian writer described the Garibaldi’s influence and the Risorgimento so eloquently and very poignantly. The book is a much richer experience than the movie!
The Wine-Dark Sea
The Day of the Owl
To Each His Own
Leonardo Sciascia, (1921-1989)
Sciascia is one of the most important modern Italian writers. He speaks objectively and politically in his writing. Born 1921 in Racalmuto, near Agrigento, he served as a Member of Parliament and the City Council of Palermo. He was quite prolific. These are in English and well worth the read.
Words Are Like Stones
Carlo Levi (1902-1975)
By the author of Christ Stopped at Eboli and with equally fine tuned observations of the land of Sicily, often with a sense of humor. Traditions, nature, struggles and ambitions are themes illuminated by Levi.
There are many guidebooks and it seems everyone has their favorite. I prefer:
The Rough Guide to Sicily with its balance of good information and recommendations
The Blue Guide is good if you want a little more detailed information and fewer recommendations
Cadogan Guides are similar in information and recommendation but guide you to some sights and activities lesser known or off the beaten path.
Cicerone - Walking in Sicily – If you want to see Sicily on foot, here are step-by-step instructions.
Touring Club Italiano, Sicilia, is the best map for driving. All the maps name the larger roads but not the regional or provincial ones. For all road names, check Google Maps.