The Spanish Inquisition in Sicily

Sat in a comfortable Victorian drawing room, Graham Chapman from Monty Python turns to the lady of the manor and says “I didn’t expect a kind of Spanish Inquisition”.  The doors fly open and in rushes Michael Palin in full ecclesiastical regalia: “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.  Our chief weapon is surprise, surprise and fear, fear and surprise, our two weapons are fear and surprise, and ruthless efficiency, our three weapons are….”  And so it goes!!  The sketch, turning from menace to farce is, arguably, a ripe metaphor for this nefarious institution.  In fact, rather than surprise, the Inquisition had a sad inevitability about its workings, especially under the ruthless aegis of the Spanish religious authorities.

Auto da fé
Auto da fé by Francesco Rizi

When referring to the Tribunal of the Holy Office in relation to Sicily, we firstly need to make a distinction between the Papal Inquisition and the Spanish Inquisition.  Prior to the latter part of the fifteenth century, the island was still under the nominal spiritual guidance of the Papal variant, a virtually dormant organisation most famous for its Dominican led involvement in the persecution of the Cathars in south western France.  It was the Spanish Reconquista of the Iberian Peninsula from the Moors that led the Catholic Monarchs to set up their own, in an attempt to stamp orthodoxy and temporal power on their realm.

Those unfamiliar with Sicilian history may be wondering what the Spanish have to do with the island authorities.  The key lies in the term “realm”, as Sicily was part of the Kingdom of Aragon when the Inquisition was constituted in that part of Spain.  Firm steps to extend the reach of the organisation were taken in 1487, when the infamous Torquemada appointed Fray Antonio de la Peña as the Sicilian chief.  His first auto da fé, the notorious penitential proceeding against supposed heretics, took place in the same year: it ended in the burning of a female refugee from Zaragoza.

Spanish rule continued over the centuries, during which time the Holy Office continued to coerce and menace the inhabitants.  As the years passed, the influence of the inquisitors began to wane.   After losing Sicily in the Treaty of Utrecht, the Spanish Bourbons seized the chance to regain the island, placing Carlos V in control in 1734.  He abdicated his Italian possessions in 1759 in order to succeed to the Spanish throne, confusingly becoming Carlos III of Spain.  He named his son Ferdinando III as replacement.  It fell to Ferdinando to issue the edict that finally suppressed the Inquisition, citing the lack of a legitimate legal process as the anachronistic reason for its downfall.  Three “witches” remained in the infamous jail, the Palazzo Steri.

Between its inception and extinction, the Tribunal del Santo Oficio de la Inquisición was responsible for atrocities and much misguided justice.  The most interesting way of analysing its impact in Sicily is to focus on particular cases, themes or incidents, some of which are listed in Henry Lea’s still excellent book published in 1908: The Inquisition in the Spanish Dependencies.  The most nauseating mass expulsion mirrored events in Spain, namely the diktat requiring the forcible removal of the Jews and the confiscation of their possessions and property.  Jews in Palermo even complained that they weren’t left enough money to pay for their onward journeys.  Lea clearly states that special officials were appointed to search body cavities for hidden jewels being desperately smuggled from the island.

Saint Dominic and an auto da fé
Saint Dominic presiding over an auto da fé by Pedro Berruguete

The repression in Sicily was even worse than Spain, with a measly three months set as a deadline, a time span only extended after much petitioning.  The solitary alternative was enforced conversion and a partial confiscation of goods, a fatal compromise that many accepted.  The conversos were to become easy targets for future suspicion and appropriation.  Even the privilege of being baptised carried a financial charge.

It seems that corruption was endemic within the ranks of Inquisition officials, a fact that caused much consternation amongst the people.  Lea cites the notorious case of Miguel Cervera in 1514.  He was appointed Inquisitor General with strict instructions to rein in any nepotistic appointments and to limit impingements on secular power, an edict that quickly got ignored.  Things came to a head when the populace in Palermo revolted against the hated Viceroy, Moncada.  Cervera only just managed to flee to the harbour and board a ship for Messina.  The main accusation levelled by the crowd was one of avarice, that he was a ‘hunter of money, not of heretics’.

In this instance, the religious and civil authorities were tarred with the same brush; it wasn’t always the case.  The Spanish word fuero denotes many things, a set of regional laws applicable to an autonomous region, a legal code, a compilation of codified judicial practices or a set of privileges afforded to a particular group.  The latter applied to the Inquisition and came as a shock to the Sicilian people, especially when malpractice inevitably fell outside the scope of any legal recourse.  Its employees avoided taxes, import duties and any interference from civil law makers, a constant source of friction between the organisation and the secular government.

There is more than one instance of an inquisitor taking a “present” in order to free a prisoner from a lesser sentence.  Remembering our sketch at the beginning, all this would be laughable if it hadn’t had such serious consequences for so many people.  Henry Lea goes on to note that in 1652, they punished 207 people in public autos da fé, more than was actually customary in Spain at the time.  The list of offences included blasphemy, bigamy and sorcery, with no doubt a smattering of protestant heresy and recalcitrant Judaism.  The clerics didn’t carry out their own punishments, despite the antagonism between the institution and other forms of governance.  To quote the horrible term used, the supposedly guilty were ‘relaxed to the secular arm’.  In other words, someone else did the dirty work.

Occasionally, the captives struck back.  The Inquisitor General, Juan López de Cisneros, was mortally wounded by Fra Diego La Mattina.  The true story is brilliantly recounted by Leonardo Sciascia in his work, Morte dell’inquisitore (Death of an Inquisitor).  La Mattina had already been an escapee and was seemingly a very strong individual, breaking his manacles to attack Cisneros.  Sciascia really did his homework, looking thorough the archives for references to the case.  The best place for historical material, even concerning Sicily, is the Archivo de Simancas in the Spanish province of Valladolid.

Palazzo Steri
The Palazzo Steri by Bernhard J Scheuvens

For a sombre reminder of those imprisoned by the Holy Office, pay a visit to the Palazzo Steri, sometimes known as the Chiaramonte after the original owners.  It is located in Palermo’s Piazza Marina, just off Corso Vittorio Emanuele.  Now part of the university buildings, you can still visit the dungeons daubed with the graffiti of the desperate inhabitants.  Originally uncovered by the ethnologist, Giuseppe Pitre in 1907, sometimes with his bare hands, the drawings and text are a poignant reminder of suffering.  Further recent restoration has revealed even more, particularly relating to those women accused of witchcraft.

One drawing shows an auto da fé, with a monk ringing a death knell on a bell.  There are crucified Christ images, haloed saints, pictures of torture and the satirical depiction of an inquisitor riding a defecating horse.  The words vary from poetry and invocation to description and prayer.  There is even one religious verse written in English.  The words speak for themselves, the last hopes of those fearful of the flames awaiting them.

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. 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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  1. I always love a Monty Python reference 😉
    This is such a dark and violent period of Sicilian history. I was fascinated to read the inquisition lasted so much longer in Sicily than it did in Spain, I guess Sicilian’s got a taste for blood. I’ve always thought this period would make a great source for a historical novel in the vain of Eco’s ‘Name of the Rose.’ Thanks so much for reminding me of this history.

  2. You’ve done it again! Great piece, especially since I did the tour over the winter. I would only add that last week I went to Raculmuto, the land of Fra’ Diego La Matina. You’ll note in Sciacia’s book he writes about Luigi Natoli’s “romanzo” of La Matina, of which I am now reading.

  3. Just reread and American tome on the Mafia. He relates elements of the culture of “omerta” and ” respect” to the islanders response to the Inquisition and its depredations. Interesting.

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