We’ve mentioned in other articles on this site, the relationship between Sicily and the author of Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes, but what about the real wandering knights of Castilla-La Mancha and Andalucía; did any of them pound the dusty roads of medieval Sicily? Undoubtedly, many must have made the journey in the Middle Ages, owing to the island’s links to Castile’s neighbouring Kingdom of Aragon, yet few left any impression for posterity. The exception is Pedro Tafur (his name is commonly contracted to Pero), a member of the gentry from Cordoba in southern Spain. Precise dates don’t exist, but historians think he was born around 1410, towards the end of the medieval period.
Between 1435 and 1439 he travelled across Europe and the Middle East, later compiling his impressions into a book entitled, in that very long-winded style of the period, Andanças e viajes de Pero Tafur por diversas partes del mundo avidos (often shortened to the Adventures and Travels). For a text written so long ago, it is surprisingly readable, painting a vivid portrait of conflicting religious difference, disease, courtly manners and early ethnography. It is worth reading just for his descriptions of the Italian peninsula and Constantinople before the fall of the Eastern Roman Empire, but we want to concentrate on his vision of Sicily.
Based on the approximate date of his birth, Tafur set out on his travels when he was 25, in a period when the Renaissance was still a slow-forming dream, when printed texts were unheard of and death was just around the corner for every citizen of Europe, be they of peasant stock or noble lineage. Pero’s own connections made things possible; he is thought to have grown up in the house of Luis de Guzmán, master of the Order of Calatrava, whose links with the King of Castile must have provided our young traveller with a raft of introductory letters. These letters, his adaptability and private means took him on a loop through Northern Italy, Rome, Greece, the Holy Land, Egypt, Constantinople, the German states, the Low Countries, Poland, Austria and back through Italy to Sicily.
Tafur made his way to Sicily from the Pugliese port of Brindisi; inevitably, he mentions the legends that surround the Straits of Messina, before putting into harbour there. Pero’s journeys are freely available from the Internet Archive (https://archive.org/), in both the wonderful medieval Spanish and in Routledge’s 1926 translation, quoted here regarding sirens and mermaids: ‘They say, also, that there is a species of fish in these parts, formed like a woman from the waist upwards, and below like a fish…, they know that a great storm is brewing, and they show themselves on the face of the waters, singing a song. They say that to hear it is certain death.’
Our intrepid Spaniard escaped the mermaid’s clutches, and like many before and after, was awed by Messina’s natural harbour. Interestingly, he notes a Greek monastery at the opposing end of the port to the dockyards, where you now find the remains of the Fort of San Salvatore, named after the monastery, which was destroyed in the 16th century. He may not have been a renaissance man, but he was clearly aware of Sicily’s position in the already large canon of classical literature, referencing Messina’s place in texts written about the Punic Wars. His only lament about the place was its depopulation, detracting from its status as a great city.
From Messina, he proceeded to Patti, where he caught his first glimpse of the Aeolians: ‘… there in front is the island of Vulcano, which, they say, is one of the three mouths of Hell, because it throws up smoke continually, with noise of thunder, and large quantities of scoria, which latter are so light that they float on water’. Putting in at Lipari, he then sailed the Tyrrhenian coast until Monte Pellegrino hoved into view.
Despite admiring the wide spaces and groves by the mountain, now crushed by the modern-day sack of Palermo, Pero equated the size of the city to that of Seville, suspecting its increase in population might have something to do with the King of Aragon making war on Naples. He also made the pilgrimage out of town to Monreale, describing the cathedral as having ‘the finest mosaics of any I have seen in Latin countries.’ Tafur knew that Palermo’s wealth lay in its trade and that it had earned its position as the principal city of a ‘great country’. It’s a pity that subsequent viceroys didn’t heed his words. His final observation, before heading for Trapani, was to tell us about the remarkable sugar canes in the area.
In Trapani, two things took his attention: the coral fishing and the location of the fishery, found off the coast from a building he calls the Columbaria tower, which must be related to the Isola Colombaia, now joined to the mainland by a causeway. Looming over the town is Monte Erice, that home of myth and legend which he refers to as Monte Trapani, ‘where lies the body of Anchises, father of Aeneas.’ Trapani is now connected to Erice via a cable car; it would have been a different story in Pero’s day. In fact, the stone erected in commemoration of Anchises is on the headland of Pizzolungo, North West of the town of Erice.
Leaving Trapani, Tafur touched base with Agrigento and then moved on to Çaragoça, at which point we thought he had missed a chunk of his journey and returned to Spain, i.e. Zaragoza, but no!! During the Aragonese period, Siracusa was known as Zaragoza de Sicilia, with a spelling reflecting the linguistic habits of its rulers. A quick check of websites in the now regional language of Aragonés threw up some interesting references to the town, not least of which were to the partially castilianised Book of Emperors, a chronicle reflecting Roman and Byzantine history between 711 and 1118, when the ‘l’emperador no havía manera de socorrer Çaragoça. Non dubdando que fues presa de los enemigos, envió una armada en sucurso de los çaragoçanos, la qual armada valía poco…’ (the emperor had no way of helping Siracusa. Not doubting that it was falling prey to the enemy, he sent a fleet to aid the Syracusans, which was worth little…).
Pero reached Siracusa in far less troubled times and found a ‘pleasant city, belonging to the Queen of Aragon, sister of King Juan, our Master’. Cities belong to nobody except the inhabitants who walk their streets, but clearly our chronicler was reflecting his époque, with an attitude that, to a lesser or greater extent, has carried on to this day. Although he could have sailed from Ortygia, Tafur actually left Sicily from Catania; his parting shot, as with so many travellers in years to come, was a glance in the direction of Etna, the mountain he correctly calls Mongibel, ‘la terçera boca del Ynfierno’ (the third mouth of Hell).
Andrew and Suzanne are the authors of Sicily: A Literary Guide for Travellers. Click the cover to view on Amazon (available across Europe and the US). Click here to follow their further literary adventures on Facebook.