No Sleepy Hollow: Washington Irving in Sicily

Irving Portrait
Washington Irving by John Wesley Jarvis 1809

In celebration of the June 17th hardback release in North America of Sicily: A Literary Guide for Travellers, we are going to follow in the Sicilian footsteps of one of the United States’ best loved early writers, Washington Irving.  The nineteenth century polymath could easily find himself turning his hand to many fields and Irving was no exception; an author of short stories, biographies, essays and histories, he was also a diplomat.  He was given the auspicious name, Washington, in honour of George, the first president of the newly formed country. Both of Irving’s parents were first generation Scottish immigrants.

Irving’s nascent writing career didn’t begin with anything archetypically associated with his works.  The stories, Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow would follow later, as would his histories of Columbus, Granada and the renowned, Tales of the Alhambra.  Letters and journals proved his starting point.  Prompted by a desire to improve his health and escape epidemics breaking out in New York State, Irving went on an extended tour of Europe in 1804, leaving America at the age of 21.  Already bent on a career in the world of letters, he wrote down his fascinating, youthful impressions in a copious journal, which was later turned into the three volume, Notes and Journal of Travel in Europe 1804-1805.

Much to his brothers’ annoyance on receiving letters from their itinerant sibling, Washington hurried through a large swathe of well-travelled Grand Tour Italy and headed for Sicily.  The map included in this article charts his progress; interestingly, from the Aeolians he went through the Straits of Messina, found himself quarantined in that port city and then set out for Syracuse.  Not for him the auspicious welcome of Monte Pellegrino from the sun-drenched deck of his boat moored in Palermo harbour.  The site of the Conca d’Oro would have to wait until the end of his sojourn.  In any case, Washington Irving, an altogether more whimsical writer, left that sort of awe-struck classicalism to the likes of Wolfgang Goethe.

Sicily Map
Washington Irving’s route around Sicily

Despite the hardships any traveller of that era faced – rough roads and dirty inns – he remained remarkably buoyant throughout his travels.  The Notes are full of quirky stories and little asides that both capture the society through which he was moving and the mind of the man who would later become America’s first internationally recognised best-seller.  Illustrative of his style is this initial glimpse of Aeolian shores: ‘Aeolus has certainly given us a most gracious reception into his dominions.  The storms are pent up in their caverns and each unruly wind safe tied up in his respective leather bag, a pleasant breeze only is commissioned to conduct us safely thro his Empire and urge us to our destined port’.  He wasn’t the first or the last to refer to Homer’s Odyssey, but few have done it with such a light touch.

The wind may have calmed upon Irving’s arrival, but Stromboli wasn’t so acquiescent.  Beguiled by the seascape, he was also fascinated by the power of nature: ‘Strombolo just begins to shew his fires.  The explosions are sudden and of short duration with an interval of from ten minutes to a half an hour.  We are yet too distant for them to appear of much magnitude tho the light is very brilliant.’  At this point, he mentions Patrick Brydone, whose own Sicilian tour had swiftly become the travellers’ bible for anyone wishing to scratch the island’s surface.  Indeed, some who followed Brydone, notably Henry Swinburne, argued that the Scot scratched it a little too deeply, complaining that the aristocracy were noticeably more reticent for fear of ending up in print.  Fortunately, Washington didn’t have to face this problem.

His first port of call in Sicily itself was Messina, although as we have intimated, it proved something of a false start due to his vessel being quarantined – a not uncommon practice at the time.  He spent a good few days cooped up on the boat, only being allowed to stretch his legs in the Lazzaretto square.  Lesser travellers would have bemoaned their fate, but the ever-optimistic Irving managed to see the beauty that surrounded him: ‘The evenings are uniformly delightful.  It is really romantic to sit on the deck and watch the gradual departure of day and the slow approach of night.  It realizes the descriptions that poets and writers of romance delight in and this, you know, is one of the countries where they love to place the scene of their fables’.

It wasn’t only the visual sense he delighted in exercising.  From the boat, he was able to capture the sounds of unfolding Sicilian life: the vesper bells wafting across the waves; a gentle chorus from a neighbouring boat; the bellowing voices of the port’s corps of guards and, on one particular evening, the ethereal strains of a Sicilian song echoing on the breeze.  Such sensory overload, however, could not sustain this most positive of travellers indefinitely.  Even Washington was grateful to leave this gilded cage, setting foot in the streets of Messina on January 24th, 1805.  Five days later, he boarded a schooner called the Nautilus bound for Syracuse. The delay in departure was due to a fracas between two English sailors that resulted in one of them being killed.

Sailing passed Etna, his boat crossed the bows of Admiral Nelson’s ship, the Victory, which was apparently in pursuit of the French – although quite possibly on the lookout for Marsala wine.  It took four days to reach his next destination, Syracuse.  The city, at that time, was going through one of its periodic downturns in fortune, and was in complete contrast to the grand sweep of Messina harbour.  As with all travellers steeped in knowledge of the classical past, Syracuse’s reputation preceded it.  Irving, though, was shocked by what he found; not being one to mince his words he remarked that there was, ‘No appearance of trade or industry, no countenance displaying the honest traits of ease and independence – all is servility indigence and discontent’.

Ear of Dionysius
The Ear of Dionysius (Andy/Suzanne)

Perhaps eager to touch the classical past he had read so much about, he soon found himself heading towards the Latomie – the stone quarries used to create much of ancient Syracuse.  He was fascinated by the Ear of Dionysius, the famous incision in the rock wall used by the eponymous leader to imprison his enemies.  On inspection, he noted: ‘The marks of the tools are still perfectly visible on the walls of the cavern…  without any projections or curvatures as in the human ear’.  The ear metaphor, as coined by the artist, Caravaggio, is apt owing to the peculiar acoustics that purportedly enabled the tyrant to eavesdrop on the prisoners.

Washington’s curiosity was such that he returned to the Ear to test the theory for himself.  Along with some of his ship’s crew, carrying equipment used in the rigging, he was lowered into the cave.  Much fun ensued with the firing of pistol shots and the distant whispering of companions in the lower chamber of the recess.  In certain positions, subtly voiced comments could be heard clearly from Irving’s crow’s nest.  From that position, he must have had a spectacular view over the quarry.  His poetic eye fell on the abundance of vegetation which is still evident to anyone who visits today.

The protection of the quarry enables a profusion of typical Mediterranean flora to flourish amongst the antiquities.  Irving describes the, ‘running vines, Indian fig, myrtle etc overhanging the precipices and growing in some places out of the fissures of the stone’.  He was moved to quote a verse from Joseph Addison’s, A Letter from Italy, and who are we to deny life to those very same lines: ‘Here kindly warmth their mounting juice ferments / To nobler tastes and more exalted Scents / E’en the rough rocks with tender myrtle bloom / And trodden weeds send out a rich perfume’.

Back on the Syracusan island of Ortygia, Washington dutifully headed for the main sites, including the dramatic sweep of the Piazza Duomo and the Arethusan fountain.  Not so much a fountain as a small reed-filled pool, Arethusa’s spring belongs to myth and legend.  Our American traveller was much taken with Ovid’s tales of the nymph and her erstwhile suitor, Alpheus, who, when transformed into a river, mingled his waters with Arethusa’s aqueous incarnation.  Irving loved the notion of a subterranean connection between these waters and a similarly named outlet in Greece, particularly those stories of victory cups and victim’s blood disappearing in Olympia and reappearing across the waves in Magna Grecia.

If he lamented the parlous state of Ortygia’s streets, he was even more wistful at the prospect of a young woman becoming a nun when he encountered her in one of the city’s ecclesiastical institutions: ‘In one of them was a young novice that I think the most lovely girl that I have seen in Sicily.  I am told she is absolutely resolved on taking the veil it being a matter of choice with her’.  You can almost hear him sigh with regret at such a loss to the secular world.  Not all the would-be nuns were so set on a vocation, many being married to the church instead of a partner who would expect a considerable dowry, thus being doomed to a life that ‘presents nothing but an anticipation of the same tasteless monotony and gloomy employments’.

His time in Syracuse contained a great deal more than ‘gloomy employments’.  After a masquerade ball and much socialising, he was eventually ready to move on to Catania.  His route took him via the Hybla mountains and the town of Lentini, former home to the medieval poet of sonnet fame, Jacopo.  The small party found the terrain tough going and their arrival was much later than expected.  Fear of bandits was their main preoccupation, but, in reality, they only suffered the bothersome attentions of a shepherd’s dog.  In Lentini, they found a ‘tolerable’ inn and were served some more than acceptable ‘fowls’.  The following day brought their first sight of Catania and its fertile plain.

The city rose before him in the distance, its walls reflected in the gentle embrace of a shimmering bay.  Washington’s eye was inevitably drawn to the brooding backdrop of Mount Etna, ‘its sides streaked with black torrents of lava and its summit presenting a contrast of cheerless winter to the luxurient spring that smiles around its skirts’.

Arriving in Catania itself, he was alive to its bustling atmosphere and noted, not for the first time, that the carriage was the fashion must-have for those wanting to be seen as a sophisticated member of society. From his hotel window, Irving would watch the carriages as they paraded up and down the main street, the occupants nodding to each other as they passed.  He confesses to finding this a rather dull activity, much preferring the idea of wandering the streets on foot ‘where one may meet and talk with ones friends’.

One evening, Washington decided to visit the cathedral dedicated to the town’s patron saint – it was uppermost in his mind as his arrival had coincided with the festival held every year in honour of St Agatha, Catania’s spiritual shield against Etna’s fiery wrath.  He had learnt that an effigy of their Saint was to be carried through the streets and Irving watched the exalting, clamorous crowds, crying out in praise and devotion, as they processed towards the chapel.  Being invited into the sanctum where Agatha had come to rest, our whimsical writer remarks: ‘It is the figure of a good natured little woman and is covered over with precious stones to an immense amount so that we no longer wondered at the care with which it was secured by bolts and bars.’

It is not without a hint of cynicism that he points out the depth of faith the townspeople must have in St Agatha’s protection given she had ‘permitted their city to be repeatedly laid in ruins’.  On quite openly telling a servant that he thought their saint ‘rather careless of her charge when in 1693 she suffered a torrent of lava to overwhelm the largest and finest part of Catania’, he was met with unwavering devotion.  He was told the blame lay at the door of the Catanese populace, for their wickedness and lack of devotion to Agatha, who had ‘determined to give them a lesson’.

Having paid his begrudging respects to the saint, Washington and his little group set out to climb Etna herself; although they had been told it would be impossible to reach the summit, they were keen to climb as far as possible.  Irving noted the uneven terrain, fertile soil, and the unusual sight of trees growing out of the black lava.  Their difficult climb was rewarded with a magnificent view of the plains, sea and villages made from the very lava itself.  Ulysses’ port, Aci Trezza, was also visible, together with the Cyclops’ rocks – the three rocks myth attributes to an angry Cyclops who hurled them into the sea to prevent Ulysses’ ship from escaping.

Calascibetta from Enna (Andy/Suzanne)

Between climbing Etna, hobnobbing with the local gentry, visiting the theatre, seeing the archaeology and rubbing shoulders with a Russian painter, Washington still found time in Catania to cast an appreciative eye over the opposite sex: ‘Women in Catania very lecherous – their intrigues – fond of strangers’.  Sadly he doesn’t elaborate on this cryptic entry, but instead turns his attention to the forthcoming journey across the island.  From the lava city, he headed inland towards Enna and Calascibetta.  His trip was plagued with less than adequate accommodation – vermin, fleas and the kind of peasant cuisine he was clearly unused to.  To top it all, his discomfort was furthered by the perilous paths his horse had to surmount: ‘difficult ascent, winding intricately among the defiles and often along the edges of immense precipices…’.

His mood was often lightened by the occasional vision of pastoral arcadia: a shepherd boy making simple music, olives and almonds in full bloom and ruined castles set amongst the crags.  After another torturous night at Alimena, he was more than happy to see the Tyrrhenian Sea on the horizon and his destination of Termini Imerese.  Sure of his classical knowledge, he mentions this town as the site of ancient Himera, ‘celebrated for its mineral baths which still exist and are in high repute’.  He is right on both counts, although the ancient Greek city of Himera, once famously sacked by the Carthaginians, is actually about 15km from the centre of Termini.  There is a little museum tucked in front of the hillside which overlooks the remaining pillars of the temple.

Villa Palagonia
The Villa Palagonia in Bagheria (Andy/Suzanne)

Once again, Irving was delayed in leaving thanks to yet more socialising with the aristocracy.  He was now in reach of his final destination, Palermo.  Unusually, he gave little attention to the Villa Palagonia in Bagheria except to mention, en passant, the ‘statues of monsters and distorted human figures’.  The Prince, for reasons best known to himself, had decided to create a walled garden adorned with every conceivable gargoyle, chimera and grotesque.   Not for Washington, the visceral dislike shown by Goethe or the pages of explanation from the pen of Brydone.

Always one for a party, the American devotes much more description to the carnival he encountered in Sicily’s capital – ‘Carriages in two lines one each side of the street pass each other and pelt one another with sugar plums…’  Carriages abounded in the city and Irving found little opportunity to use his legs, although, on one occasion, ‘we determined to risk dignity and everything and walk about town’.  He swiftly regretted the decision, finding himself surrounded by beggars and pimps.  His passeggiata did take him to the Marina, his favourite spot in Palermo, where, remarkably, ‘the gentlemen to be sure sometime walk in the morning…’.  In Irving’s day, the Marina was much closer to the sea; it’s only thanks to the Second World War rubble that the shoreline is now so distant.

Palermo from Monte Pellegrino (Andy/Suzanne)

On February 28th, 1805, Washington boarded a vessel bound for Naples.  This cargo ship, loaded with fruit, was no luxury passenger transport.  His feelings of ‘sincerest regret’ on leaving Sicily were somewhat marred by the discovery that he had about as much room as the boxes of citrus.  It was only the kindness shown by the captain that afforded him the use of a hammock, which is where we leave our intrepid American, swinging in his precarious bed, eyes focussed on the swiftly receding Monte Pellegrino.

The Times Literary Supplement had this to say about Sicily: A Literary Guide for Travellers: ‘Andrew and Suzanne Edwards’s volume is more than a simple anthology or compilation. They have structured the book in the form of a circular island tour, more absorbing than dead-pan chronology. Sicily is bound to become battered and dog-eared, blotched with caponata and wine stains. One day a jasmine blossom might fall from its pages, carrying the scent of “painful intensity” so evocatively described in the novels of Dacia Maraini.’

The book is available from bookstores and online retailers.  Click the cover to view on

Sicily: A Literary Guide for Travellers

Andrew and Suzanne Edwards
Andrew and Suzanne Edwards
In addition to freelance writing, Andy and Suzanne both work in education. Andy is also a translator who gets most enjoyment from translating literary works and Suzanne is a lecturer and linguistics graduate. They are frequent visitors to Sicily and have spent a great deal of time exploring its back roads in search of the landscapes that inspired the imaginations of many writers, both Sicilian and from overseas. Literature, art, food and society are their focus and their passion. Sicily has it all. They are the authors of the books - Sicily: A Literary Guide for Travellers, Andalucia: A Literary Guide for Travellers, His Master's Reflection: Travels with John Polidori, Lord Byron's Doctor, Ghosts of the Belle Epoque: The History of the Grand Hotel et des Palmes, Palermo and Down to the Sunless Sea: A Troubled Samuel Taylor Coleridge in the Mediterranean. Andy is the translator of Borges in Sicily and Federico De Roberto's Agony.

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