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Sicily's Historian Interviewed
by Olivia Howard

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Read more...The Kingdom of Sicily. The first "complete" history of the King­dom of Sicily over its complex seven-­century history is much more than an account of kings, barons, taxes and wars. Here is the very human story of a nation and its people. In this long-­awaited volume, one of Sicily's fore­most historians explains how we are all Sicilians, and why it matters. (440 pages on acid-free paper, ebook available) Read more.

Read more...The Peoples of Sicily: A Multi­cultural Legacy. Full of Greeks, Arabs, Normans, Germans and Jews, the most signif­icant general history of Sicily ever pub­lished is about much more than an island in the sun. Can the eclectic medieval experience of the world's most conquered island be a lesson for our times? Find out as you meet the peoples! (368 pages on acid-free paper, ebook available) Read more.

Read more...Sicilian Gene­alo­gy & Heraldry. The only book ever pub­lished about Sicilian family history re­search is now available from Amazon and other vendors. Histori­ography, folk customs, religious practices, research strategies, records to consult. A definitive guide to Sicilian genealogy and a Sicilian identity. (300 pages on acid-free paper, ebook available soon) Read more.

Read more...Women of Sicily: Saints, Queens & Rebels. Meet a time­less sister­hood of pious Roman maidens, stead­fast Sicilian queens, and a Jewish mother who faced the horrors of the Inquisi­tion. Find an island's feminine soul in the first book about Sicily's historical women written in English by a Sicilian woman in Sicily. (224 pages on acid-free paper, ebook available) Read more.

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An Afternoon with Lou Mendola
Some authors make you ponder history. Then there are those who make you stand up and cheer.

The young crowd seems restless. Perhaps somebody was expecting a lecture hall. The spacious conference room is a cavernous baroque salon in what used to be an aristocratic home. This sombre winter afternoon – there's snow atop some of the mountains overlooking the city – finds a group of around seventy students from an American university at the Centrale Palace Hotel in the historic centre of Palermo. The students are a diverse group, from every continent.

The murmuring ceases as The Historian arrives at the podium. He is of indeterminate middle age, not young but not too old. The man some have compared to Indiana Jones or, more recently, Dan Brown's Robert Langdon, wears a brown tweed jacket and a light blue shirt that seems to match his eyes, but no tie. His hair matchs the colour of the jacket, with just a few strands of grey. As he begins to speak in a clear, distinct American accent devoid of any trace of regional character, an unforeseen silence falls upon the room.

And so it begins, something of a cross between a lecture and a revival session, as if a professor and a preacher were possessed of the same personality at the same time. The tempo and tone are deliberate but not too studied and certainly not condescending.

"Ladies and gentlemen," intones The Historian, "I come to you today as a messenger. I bring you news of a new paradigm for the study of history, a history that involves the ancestors of every one of us, a history we share."

An idle boast? A hook to entice the audience? The "unifying history" line all over again? Today's topic is Sicilian history, yet some of the students in the large room trace their roots to China, India and parts of Africa. Now a few of them cast tentative glances around the room.

"Something as relevant in our century as it was seven centuries ago," The Historian continues, not guided by notes. He talks about a genetic connection to roots in Turkey eleven thousand years ago, and the Phoenicians eight thousand years later. He explains how paper making came from China via the Arabs, mentioning in passing that a Palermo archive boasts what may be Europe's oldest surviving paper document. He recounts the story of Hindi-Arabic numerals being introduced to Europe through Sicily and Spain.

There seems to be a place for everybody in Sicily's multifarious history, from a medieval King of Norway to a daughter of Henry II of England. Maybe it's just my own impression, but the questions that follow seem far more thoughtful than what one usually hears following such a talk.

But then, this was no usual talk. Glancing about the room, I see a Chinese woman clutching the book The Peoples of Sicily as if it were a baby, while a young Pakistani man mulls over the index. A Scandinavian girl wants to know more about Harald Sigurdsson's adventures in Sicily.

The lecture, if we can call it that, is followed by drinks and an informal book signing. It doesn't end here. Our encounter continues in an impromptu second part, an after-party. About twenty students come with us.

Along the winding, sloping streets a few steps from the hotel is a hotchpotch of buildings built upon ancient walls. Some resemble what one might expect in Jerusalem, others are Baroque churches and palazzi like those in Rome and Madrid. And then there are those distinctive Norman-Arab churches that look like mosques.

A girl comments that the streets are gritty, dirty. "Dirtier than New York," she says. But The Historian loves it. He points to a Phoenician wall overlooking what was once a bank of the Kemonia River, where a battle was fought during the Punic Wars. "Ignore the trash. That wall hasn't been cleaned in three thousand years. If this place didn't exist," he explains, "we'd have to invent it!"

He takes us to Ballarò, a teeming street market that began its life as a souk when Sicily was ruled by Fatimids. Today, in a return to its medieval roots, it is chock full of shops and stalls run by Asians and Africans. By now it's nearly six o'clock and dark.

At first glance, Louis Mendola seems an unlikely multiculturalist, and perhaps an equally unlikely Sicilian. Here, in this land of Versace, Armani and red wine, he dresses like an Anglo-American, refers frequently to London and New York, and hardly ever touches alcohol. A fairly serious weight lifter, he looks more Mittel-European than Middle Mediterranean, but during this, my first visit to Sicily, I have seen more blue-eyed Italians than ever. Whatever one's impression of him, it's clear he isn't your average bloke.

In preparation for this interview, in attempting to determine just who is writing Sicilian history today, I found professors in Britain – mostly men – and Sicilian émigrés in America. The former were "foreign" scholars reluctant to criticise Sicily or Sicilians; among the latter were "native" apologists keen on convincing us that the Sicilians are perpetual victims but the power of the Mafia is on the wane. None of them spoke or wrote with Mr Mendola's courage or charisma.

Later, back at the hotel, while the day's professors and students go off in search of dinner, I have a chance to ask him a few questions over drinks. This is a rare concession. Sicily's most popular historian, whose work has been read by millions, is a notorious recluse who refuses even to be photographed, paradoxical considering that he's a gifted speaker and not unattractive.

I ask him about this contradiction.

"I'd say that 'recluse' is a strong word. Nobody ever accused me of being shy. Anyway, it's because I want my work to get the attention. It's not about me as a person. It shouldn't be. I never wanted to be famous, and I sure as hell don't want to see a bio page about me on Wikipedia. I like my privacy. I hate what in Italian is called protagonismo, wanting to be at the centre of attention. With all the reality shows and talent shows and everything else we're force fed every day, we see too much of that garbage already – often, in my opinion, from people who really don't deserve the fame. One of the reasons I put off writing my books for years, even though my files were full of enough research material and notes for six or seven original books, was because I didn't want to be a public figure."

That's an interesting angle. What changed your mind?

"Well, apart from my publisher – and just about everybody else – cajoling me for years, whenever you're published for the general market you come under attack from all quarters, even some you didn't know existed. Scrutiny is one thing. I'm talking about hate mail and public criticism of you that goes way beyond the work. The ad hominen attacks that don't end even after you're dead. Okay, so it's part of the game. Hey, I understand, I get it. But social science makes you a target if your work deals with the reader's identity. So you have to kind of make peace with that whole reality. Look at Dan Brown. He talks about it, and he tries to keep a fairly low profile considering how famous he is."

Curious that you mention him. A few people, including a friend in London, have compared you to the hero, the symbologist, in Brown's novels. To be honest, it's something that occurred to me as well, because heraldry involves that kind of thing and you're a leading heraldist. Your agent favours the Indiana Jones comparison, which I understand was first made by an American writer. Has it been that colourful?

(At this Mendola laughs for the first time since I met him earlier today.)

"Fortunately not. But there was the time in Ethiopia, outside Addis Ababa, that I was almost shot at. Soldiers were pointing rifles at me, and they'd already unclicked the safeties. That's a whole other conversation, though. I will say that I wasn't carrying a pistol, or even a whip."

But you've fired guns?

"Never at a person!"

Come, now. You were raised in America, weren't you? It's a gun culture. When was the first time you shot a gun?

"Is this really relevant to anything?"

It could be a clue to the way you think. Answer the question. This is an interview, not a chat show.

"Okay . . . Hunting for pheasant with my grandfather and his dogs. He had some land in upstate New York, in some hills overlooking a lake . . ."

Catskills?

"Finger Lakes."

Upmarket. How old were you?

"I must have been around . . . ten. But I haven't gone hunting since I was maybe twenty."

A lethal decade, then. So much for guns. What were you doing in Ethiopia?

"Representing an exiled grandson of Haile Selassie at the last emperor's funeral, which was about twenty-five years late, back in 2000. At the time, I was working with a foundation that sponsored study abroad for Ethiopian students, mostly in the United States."

Mightn't I ask, is Ethiopia important in your multicultural view of history?

"Relevant, yes, but not by any means unique. It's one of those places in Africa, as well as Asia, that forms a kind of crossroads of cultures. But I don't like to consider my perspective multicultural in some esoteric way. It's not. As I see it, the history of some countries and regions is multicultural by its nature."

Like Sicily?

"Like Sicily until the middle of the thirteenth century."

But that seems to be coming back.

"A little. We just saw some of it in Ballarò."

In The Peoples of Sicily you mention several mentors as being multiculturalists.

"Models more than mentors. I didn't meet most of them until my late twenties. But I had read some of Steven Runciman's books long before I met him. His Sicilian Vespers is a classic."

A lovely gentleman by all accounts. You characterise him as a multiculturalist. Was he?

"Absolutely. But to the extent that he identified himself at all, because he was reluctant to talk about himself, so did he. He just didn't use that term. Neither did Cyril Toumanoff."

Who counted Bill Clinton as one of his students at Georgetown.

"An interesting figure – Toumanoff, that is. As a boy he saw the Russian Revolution. I like to recognise those influences. They were great historians, and each one was a great inspiration. The new book does a much better job of it."

The Kingdom of Sicily?

"Yes."

Just looking at the acknowledgements in The Kingdom of Sicily, your background speaks for itself. These are some fascinating connections.

"The kind of people who can have a great impact on your life. Some of them were witnesses to great events in history. Not only Toumanoff and Fairbanks but Charles Mowbray and Achille Di Lorenzo."

And Cardinal Jacques Martin, one of the men closest to Pope John Paul II.

"Yes. Cardinal Martin was a good man. A lot of men in the Curia get a bad rap these days because of the scandals, but I knew some good people there. I'm sorry that most of them are no longer among us."

Did you ever meet Pope John Paul II?

"No, but one time I sat in on one of those weekly audiences they used to have in Vatican City. I was leaving Cardinal Martin's residence on the edge of the Vatican Gardens and he gave me a pass. It was pure chance. I hadn't planned on attending."

What about Pope Benedict?

"I met him back in the nineties when he was Cardinal Ratzinger. Socially. It was nothing official or work-related. We had drinks together in Martin's drawing room one afternoon during the week. It was usually armagnac for Martin and me. I don't remember what Ratzinger drank. Cardinal Stickler was also there. The reason I remember it so vividly is because it was just me with three cardinals, and of course Martin's sister, a charming lady."

What language did you speak with them?

"Italian. Martin could speak German and five or six other languages. Stickler and Ratzinger had lived in Rome for years. Their Italian was perfect. Better than my German, that's for sure."

Do you remember what you spoke about?

"No. I probably didn't do too much talking. But these guys were all theological conservatives who didn't spend much time outside Europe. Well, Martin sometimes travelled with the Pope, but it was always official stuff. A common thread running through my conversations with Vatican bishops, even people like Karel Kasteel, was that they were curious about life 'on the ground' in America, the view of a layman as opposed to the American clergy they met in Rome. As I see it, that says something about their response to problems that emanated from the United States. Back in those days the only American cardinal in Rome was William Wakefield Baum, who I only spoke to once, on the phone, for about five minutes – I had a copy of the Vatican telephone listings but you could get almost anybody in Vatican City through the switchboard."

They seemed out of touch?

"That was my general impression. Out of touch with ordinary people, I guess you could say. I'd invite Martin to lunch and he'd insist on leaving Vatican City only with a car and driver, which he'd have to reserve hours in advance. Prince Toumanoff, who had lived in the United States for his entire teaching career, never tasted fast food until I took him to McDonalds at the Piazza di Spagna, near the Spanish Steps. It was right down the street from the Palazzo di Malta, where he lived."

Did he enjoy it?

"Yes. Or so he said. He ate it, but we never went back. His 'go-to' restaurant was a little place on Via delle Carrozze, near the rear entrance of Palazzo di Malta that led to his apartment upstairs."

What's it like to research in the Vatican Archive?

"Apart from the annoying seminarians, I'd say the most unusual thing, or at least a detail I've never seen referred to publicly – so your article may be the first to make it known – is what I call 'the bunker.' It's a depository area in a basement that could probably survive a nuclear attack. Not that anybody actually says that. This was back around 1992. Some American archives and libraries have similar things, and I'm sure the Chinese and Russians do. You Brits, too. Nobody talks about it very much. But the collections themselves are the important thing, especially for medieval records."

You had special access?

"Unrestricted. I could consult any document stored in any section of the archive, from any period. But I would have to request it from one of the catalogues."

So a "fifty-year rule" was in place?

"At the time, something similar to that. I don't remember if it was a formal policy or not."

They trusted you. As an insider?

"I think I see what you're getting at. Let's put it this way. I wasn't researching a Pope's relationship with the Nazi regime. My focus was the Middle Ages and the nobility. Your question kind of makes me wonder – are you one of those Howards?"

Which would make me a Recusant?

"Something like that. Your accent is kind of country posh."

There is a distant relationship, yes. Your family was part of the Sicilian aristocracy?

"My girlfriend says I'm a rogue."

(Now it's the interviewer's turn to laugh.)

But a civilised one that doesn't shoot pheasant anymore. More than most mainstream historians, you talk about historiography and revisionism. In your books, I should say. You didn't dwell on it this afternoon.

"It's one of those things that's unavoidable here in Italy, and it keeps a lot of people ignorant, which is very sad. Most Italian high schools cut off the study of history around 1920, although they're beginning to extend it, so you meet a forty year-old woman who knows virtually nothing about Fascism. If you want an Italian historian educated in this country to stumble, just ask her a simple question about Italian war reparations paid out after 1948, and which countries Italy paid. Earlier I spoke about Ethiopia. Italy was defeated there twice, in 1896 and again in 1941, yet most Italians know virtually nothing about either episode, the more recent of which stigmatised the country as the first ever recognised for committing crimes against humanity. Not a very pretty distinction. Speaking of Ethiopia, most Ethiopians are at least reasonably proficient in English. Most Italians are not. That's another example of the misdirected focus in education in this country, and it keeps most Italians behind their peers in France and Germany. Here in Sicily twenty-five is a magic number. By percentage, that's the unemployment rate and also what in Britain is called the 'school-leaving' rate."

Those are sobering statistics. Frightening, actually. The lack of English is something I've always noticed in Italy compared to Greece and Spain. But what about historical viewpoints more generally?

"Well, unfortunately, there have always been ulterior motives, agendas, in the teaching and writing of history, wherever you are. No society is without blame. Italy just happens to be an extreme case. But at the end of the day people educated in Italian schools are far less than one percent of the world's population, and for the most part they don't speak English, so they aren't too relevant globally as opinion leaders – Oriana Fallaci was the exception that proves the rule. The point is that until the sixties many populations and developments were presented negatively, often without justification, not only in Italy but in the United States, where the depiction of the native peoples is a good example. Just watch any John Wayne movie made before around 1965 – the westerns. The Indians are hardly ever depicted in a flattering way."

Your point being that history is written by the victors?

"Exactly. More precisely, by whoever ends up with the literary advantage. The Vandals and Goths, who get relatively sympathetic treatment from me, actually defeated the Romans in the Western Empire, but because their written language was minimal, and because Roman culture survived – at Constantinople and also as the Catholic Church – the Germanic side of the story wasn't really told very objectively, when it was told at all. Now there's a movement afoot to relegate the Germania of Tacitus, which Hitler thought was so important to German identity, to secondary status, but what will take its place? What had the Germans, Slavs and Celts written up to that point?"

Revisionism again?

"After a fashion. Corrective revisionism, the kind that sets the record straight, if you will, is usually a good thing. Jacqueline Alio, my co-author on Peoples, is a great fan of Anna Comnena –"

The first woman to write a history.

"At least the first one we know of, and the point is that history shouldn't be one-sided, at least not if we can avoid it."

I love the clarity of your writing style.

"Thanks. The idea is that the general reader should be able to appreciate the information. For the most part, I presume that the reader knows little or nothing about Sicily. We – Jackie Alio and I – can never presume that knowledge because, realistically, it just isn't the case for the typical reader. Why should it be? The reason the reader buys the book is to learn. That's why so much of Jackie's book on Sicilian women is dedicated to background."

I learned so much reading The Peoples of Sicily. There are fresh facts on every page, and it's not as if you usually find these things all together in one book. Can you give me an example of an out-of-the-way source? Something obscure?

"There are quite a few, and quite a few good historians publishing them, including some very good specialists in Britain."

Something you discovered in your own researches, then.

"Well, a good example of this is what is probably the first Jewish family in Europe ennobled by virtue of holding feudal property. This was a few decades before the mass conversions of 1493, so the Late Middle Ages."

I recall that bit, but also something about the Gospels in Arabic and the conversions of the Muslims.

"Yes. Back in 2007, the British Library held an absolutely amazing exhibit of Jewish, Christian and Muslim items called Sacred, and apart from things like a page from the Codex Sinaiticus, there was a Sicilian manuscript of the New Testament in Arabic, something I had never actually seen before. It says a lot about the nature, the mechanism, of the conversions beginning in the twelfth century."

Let's discuss phylogeography for a moment. Your books are the first histories of Sicily to mention the genetic record.

"An important point because in Sicily the haplogroups we can identify today were inherited from all the civilisations that came here."

That seems like a Rosetta Stone.

"That's a good analogy. DNA is a confirmation of the written record. I compare it to genetics complementing the fossil record of speciation, which, like history's documentary record, will always be useful but incomplete."

What interested you in genetics?

"Apart from a general curiosity, it was probably the genealogical aspect of it. The lineages. At least in a few lines, like the patrilineal, which is how Europeans inherit surnames and identify families."

And nobody wrote about it before in the context of a broad history of Sicily.

"Well, to be fair to other authors, not much was known, not in the specifics, the haplogroup distribution, until the last ten years or so. In fact, our books, mine and Jackie Alio's Women of Sicily, really couldn't have been written until the last few years in the form they've taken."

That's exciting.

"It is, and I'd rather be ahead of the curve than behind it. But it's not about me. I want the reader to be satisfied, to read something that he or she hasn't read somewhere else."

But you're also a traditionalist, aren't you? I see that you like to quote Cicero.

"Yes. 'He who does not learn what happened before his birth will always be a child.' That's one of my favourites. But I'm not a conformist across the board. Truth be told, I have less use for Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas."

Two saints.

"After the fact. Nobody is canonised during his own lifetime. Whatever we think of their ideas, though, I like to believe that their philosophies stand on their own, regardless of their being saints."

Religion is a big part of Sicilian history, of any history, one supposes. Do you have religious views?

"I try to keep that out of my work. I don't think a particular religious view comes through in what I write. And I think teachers should keep it out of the classroom unless they're teaching in religious schools, and maybe even then, but I'm a great advocate of the study of comparative religions. Faith traditions are part of history and culture. It's ridiculous to avoid the subject, even if you're an atheist. I will say that I believe in a factual, scientific approach to history, without the mysticism. History is interesting enough without the embellishments. Let's leave that to the novelists."

That makes sense. But have your religious views evolved over time?

"Have we even established that I have any?"

How old are you?

"Where did that come from, Olivia?"

Let's move on. What was your reaction when you first heard that your book about a successful multicultural society was being used in high schools in America?

"I was pleasantly surprised. But it's great, the idea that we can get young people to think about these things in a serious way."

That brings us full circle. You seem to view medieval Sicily, with its diversity of cultures and faiths, as something instructive.

"Absolutely. We should learn from the past, and Sicily's is a good point of reference."

Would you like to elaborate?

"Not too much. I believe that the precise lessons should be left to the reader. It isn't my role to think for anybody. People should read the book and come to their own conclusions. That's how it works."

Fair enough. But isn't there an "edge" to some of your work? The genealogy book seemed rather direct –

"But that's an instruction manual. A guide. It isn't a history. The bluntness was intentional. That's the idea, to jolt the reader out of his stupor."

What kind of feedback has there been on that one?

"Positive. Ecstatic is a better word. Amazon can't keep them on the shelves, or wherever they keep them. At one point it was back-ordered for a month. It's gone to – I think – a fourth or fifth printing. Which convinces me that it fills a void. That doesn't happen too much in publishing anymore. Nobody had ever written a book like that in English that dealt with a specific region of Italy. It'll be interesting to see if somebody does one for Tuscany or Piedmont."

As a genealogist, you've sometimes been called in to investigate claims to titles of nobility.

"Yes but, frankly, I don't have much time for that. I used to do it back in the day, when Prince Toumanoff would have me double-check genealogies presented by Italians to the Order of Malta. Based on his experience over the years, he didn't trust most genealogists. I'm sorry to say that his suspicion was sometimes justified, and not only in Italy."

These were lineages spanning a few centuries?

"Yes. At least three hundred years before the birth of the postulant, so typically the seventeenth century. Some of the pedigrees were much older than that."

Was this 'secret' research?

"Almost. The genealogists whose work I was checking weren't supposed to know who I was. But if I visited a parish archive in Basilicata or Calabria six months or a year after the primary researcher had been there, it was possible that the pastor might mention my name to the first researcher, and that wasn't going to win me any popularity contest. To avoid that, I didn't usually mention the name of the family I was researching, or that I was working for the Order of Malta. Even some people in the Order didn't know who I was, but they knew that somebody was checking this information and – in some cases – killing petitions."

Both books are on sale exclusively at Amazon?

"No. They're at Barnes and Noble in the United States, Fishpond in Australia . . . even in Japan."

And in book shops?

"Yes, a lot of bricks-and-mortar book stores. The other day somebody emailed me that they bought Peoples at a Daunt's in London. And I think it's also stocked at Idlewild's in New York. Both of those are independent stores. The internet isn't the only place to buy a book."

We spoke about the internet earlier, during our walk around the city. Some parts of your books were first published online.

"Yes, but not in anything approaching the form they assumed in the books."

And a few chapters on specialised topics had been published as papers in academic journals, mostly in Britain.

"Some of the more arcane studies, yes. Nothing that would make much of a difference in anybody's life."

Fair enough, but what's your opinion of online publishing, given that you've done so much of it?

"Well, it has to be said that I've never published original research online. That would be suicidal because other people could re-publish it as their own. Some of my work has made its way to Wikipedia, but it was put there by people who had read my articles in historical journals, and that's okay. The ideal academic model, in fact. But it's nice to get credit once in a while. Most of my research reported on the internet is listed without my name."

So if I search with Louis Mendola Wikipedia I may find historical facts you unearthed. An academic paper, perhaps?

"You'd probably find something. That stuff – search results I mean – changes minute by minute, just like the Amazon book rankings. It's not like I google my name or the titles of my books every day. I'm really not too preoccupied with that . . . Look, my point is that no author can rely entirely on the internet, where a site disappears and your work vanishes with it. Let's be realistic. We still need libraries."

Clearly, you have reservations about online publishing. You don't even have a Facebook page.

"My publisher put up a Facebook page for me but it was empty last time I checked. I'm not exactly in love with social media."

What kind of email or online comments do you get on the books?

"All kinds. Mostly good."

And on the online articles?

"Generally positive."

You go by Luigi here in Italy. Does that ever create confusion about authorship?

"No. That isn't usually a problem. Luigi is convenient socially because most Italians have a hard time pronouncing Louis. Also, there are other guys around the world with my name."

You're becoming known as an unofficial spokesman for the Sicilian identity.

"I hope not. I've never tried to be that. It's something I avoid. But I'm consulted about it because – like it or not – genealogy touches the issue of ancestral identity. I'm just an observer. This island, with three thousand years of written history, doesn't need me or anybody else to speak on its behalf."

I imagine that questions of Sicilian identity touch descendants around the world, as with any other ethnic group, the Irish, for example.

"It's very similar. There are more people who self-identify as Sicilians, or Sicilian descendants, outside Italy than there are here in Italy. The difference is that the ancestral language, the language of the records, is not English, so Irish genealogy is easier for the typical American than Italian research. You could make a case – the Irish in Ireland do – that the so-called 'diaspora' is nothing like the people you find in the mother country. I generally agree with that, and I've seen it in Ireland as well as Italy. Another difference is that most Irish in, let's say, 1860, were literate. Most Italians were not. Not only Sicilians but Tuscans and Piedmontese."

You do postulate a certain historical view of Sicily, don't you?

"Only that the past should be presented accurately. But it's not just about the Middle Ages. It's in the genealogy book too. It also comes through in my published work concerning the unification movement, the Bourbons, the Savoys, and of course Fascism and the war it brought about. We saw part of the result in Ballarò, the bombed-out buildings."

Before flying down here, I spoke to people in Britain and Canada about internationally-known historians in Sicily. Yours was the name that kept coming up. Inevitably. One academic actually referred to you as 'our man in Sicily' as if you were a de facto representative of the Anglo-American establishment here.

"It so happens that most of the better historians educated here in Sicily can barely speak English. It's sad but true. You mention Canada. Jackie Alio was recently interviewed by CBC Radio for a two-part programme dealing with multiculturalism under Frederick II, along with Karla Malette and David Abulafia – an American and a Brit. Jackie is certainly as competent as any medievalist working here in Sicily today. She's the real deal. And her English is spoken with a native speaker's accent and fluency. On top of that, she has a beautiful voice and she's a fantastic writer. She knows how to express herself."

And she brought a feminine side to The Peoples of Sicily, didn't she?

"Her collaboration was key. It wouldn't have been the same book without her input. And in Women of Sicily her perspective on the queens of Sicily is very human. I'm particularly partial to her chapter on the last Queen of the Two Sicilies."

What's your connection with the Bourbons of Naples?

"Same as almost everybody else south of Rome. My ancestors were their subjects until 1860."

Personally. Today.

"I met Carlo de Bourbon in New York back around, I think, eighty-nine. He was here in Palermo recently but we only spoke for a few minutes – it was at a formal dinner for a charitable organisation. I knew Prince Giovanni and Princess Urraca. As a child, Urraca knew Queen Maria Sophia, the widow of King Francis II, so she was a living link to the last Queen of the Two Sicilies. That was the official name of the Kingdom of Naples and Sicily from 1816 to 1861. Maria Sophia died in exile in Germany in 1925. Hardly any Italians know that. Urraca was the one who gave the family archive, the papers of Francis II, to Italy after the war. By then it was the Savoys who were in exile."

You began writing about the Two Sicilies dynasty twenty years ago?

"Even earlier. Starting in the mid-eighties, when hardly anybody else was doing it. Some of those articles have ended up around the internet, not always under my name."

Has your work been plagiarised as well as cited?

"Yes. I've seen a certain amount of that. Not as much as you might expect, though. Probably no more than the work of other historians."

How do you find it?

"Well, an example of an esoteric search phrase is Romanesque Gothic that we use to describe a type of ecclesiastical architecture. Jackie and I didn't exactly invent it but nobody else uses it very much. It might be considered a 'secret' description. There's still some of that in this field."

So historical research does have its cloak-and-dagger element?

"A little bit."

Like a Dan Brown novel?

"Without the car chases . . ."

About the Author: Olivia Howard divides her time between Toronto and her native London.


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