Sicily evokes the worst and the best in Man: the brutality of the mafia and the beauty of its art and landscapes. The corruption of its governments through the centuries, the gentleness and dignity of its people. To travel to Sicily is like taking a world tour around the human condition.
In many ways that's what the first two books in my New Adult series, THE PHOENIX HERITAGE is all about. It's a coming of age story together with a family saga spanning 900 years of Sicilian History.
It is a travel novel that makes you discover a Sicily you didn't know existed.
When the protagonist, Tony Bellomo, a gifted American video game creator, goes to Sicily looking for his family roots (his deceased father is a Sicilian aristocrat), he first visits the Museo Bellomo in Ortigia (that's the old town of Syracuse founded by the Ancient Greeks). Here it is:
A forbidding medieval fortress, right in the middle of the old town! The museum was the home of the Bellomo family for centuries before it was turned into a city museum around 1914. Alas, the museum held no family mementoes for Tony and, disappointed, he wanders down an old narrow street like this one:
Rounding a corner, he discovers an intriguing building, blue and white (this also exists - but it is in Ragusa, an hour away from Ortigia...Ah, call it creative license, but this is the place that actually inspired me to write THE PHOENIX HERITAGE when I first saw it some 15 years ago):
On the frontispiece, you can read the name of the building:
"Circolo di Conversazione" - the Conversation Club: in the 19th Century, every important town in Sicily had such a club, patterned after the men's clubs in Britain (the Sicilians have always followed British fashion in so many ways, including in viewing themselves as islanders, and calling the rest of Italy "il continente", the continent).
Here's the lion head that inspired the book cover for my original publication (back in 2011) when the series was still called Fear of the Past:
And here's the book cover:
Pretty close, right? I love that hieratic, menacing look, the past can be an unbearable burden...When Tony walks in the Circolo, he finds the ghosts of all his ancestors milling about, waiting for Judgment Day. To while away the time, they re-enact for each other the high points in their lives in a small theatre - and, mind you, the real Circolo has something quite close to a theatre room, here it is:
You'll find all that red velvet, gilded mirrors and chandeliers in the first book of the Phoenix Heritage series: Flying in the Past. You'll also find real historical characters, like Ferdinand I, King of Two Sicilies (he preferred to live in Naples but ran away to Sicily when the Napoleonic armies, headed by Murat, invaded - he was helped in his escape by Admiral Nelson):
And here's his wife, Queen Maria Carolina (she's the sister of Marie Antoinette, Queen of France) with whom he has a memorable clash. The two just didn't get along, although she gave him 18 children - but she ran the Kingdom in his stead, something he didn't appreciate:
This is an official portrait by their favorite painter Angelica Kauffmann (actually both paintings are by this very talented woman). Unfortunately, neither portrait is realistic: both Ferdinand and Maria Carolina were incredibly ugly. He had a huge nose - he was known as "Re Nasone" (King Big Nose) and she was incredibly Teutonic and harsh. Here is a later portrait of her that was undoubtedly closer to the model:
A tough lady! When she spoke in her raucous voice, it sounded like she had a potato in her mouth - at least, that's what the Neapolitans said of her and the King had a habit of chasing pretty women and leaving his wife to go hunting days on end. Who can blame him?
He fell in love with the beautiful Duchess of Floridia and later married her as soon as Maria Carolina died (creating a scandal at court). Here she is, in 1814, just after marrying the King:
She looks beautiful, doesn't she, considering that she's 43 years old in that picture (the King was 64). The King went crazy for her: he had a fantastic villa built for her, the Villa Floridiana, overlooking Naples and he stocked the park with lions and tigers and imported from Australia the first kangaroos that were ever seen in Europe. Here's the Villa Floridiana:
The Duchess, before marrying the King, had, it seems, many affairs, including a secret English lover - Francis Leckie, an adventurer who settled in Sicily in the 1800s. Okay, I made that one up for the novel. We do know however that they were neighbors. Leckie had set up a modern farm at Tremilia not far from the Duchess' properties around Floridia, a small rural town founded by a Bonanno (an ancestor of the Duchess - and that's how I got a lot of the historical information, through the Bonanno family archives).There is no proof but they could easily have met...
Things become complicated when Tony discovers he shares with Francis Leckie both his looks and his emotions - no doubt the result of a quirky genetic inheritance. When Tony meets the Duchess in the Circolo, she mistakes him for her secret lover and Tony finds himself unaccountably attracted to her...Can he outgrow this impossible love and escape the deadly grip of the Circolo?
But the Duchess of Floridia is not the only beautiful woman haunting the Circolo. There's also the Countess of Castiglione, known as the Divine Countess, a spy at the service of Cavour who became the mistress of Napoleon III and helped obtain France's support for Cavour's policies to unify Italy:
This is a famous photograph made by Pierson, the Countess' favorite photographer in Paris. He took hundreds of photos of her over a period of 30 years in all manner of dresses and also...undressed. Her naked legs were a matter of scandal...Why is she in the Circolo? Because there was a rumour that she was the granddaughter of the Duchess of Floridia. What is her role in the novel? Spoiler alert, I won't tell you!
You've guessed, the plot involves many more people and periods of History before Tony finally gets hold of himself and starts living his own life. As one reviewer put it: " a rogues' gallery of heroes and sinners"... In the third book of the series, Out of the Ashes, Tony has left the past behind him and works as an assistant in the IT Department of Catania University.
Catania University? You probably think of it as an ancient, venerable institution and you'd be right. It was founded in the 15th century and boasts some beautiful buildings in the centre of the old town:
But on the outskirts of town, it's very modern. Here is the Department of Physics and Astronomy:
Surprisingly modern for Sicily, isn't it? But Catania is known as the "Silicon Valley" of Italy. It's in just such a building that Tony works on a new social media network. With the help of students, he creates the "Chat Club" that soon becomes wildly successful but, alas, it also attracts the appetites of both the Russian and Sicilian mafia. The woman he loves is kidnapped...How can he save her and his creation, the Chat Club?
Want more pictures related to the book? Go take a look at my board on Pinterest where I pinned many more pictures than I can show here: click here. I find Pinterest hugely fun, you should join it!
And why don't you plan a vacation to Sicily and prepare for it reading THE PHOENIX HERITAGE? You'll know more about Sicily than your tour guide! Or if you can't go to Sicily, dream about it reading the novel...
English: Flag of the Sicilian Region (Photo credit: Wikipedia)