It is the least celebrated visual perspective of Etna, but certainly one the most beautiful. Because, if a traveller coming to Sicily is looking for the emotion of the direct sight of what is its postcard par excellence, that which from the top of the European highest volcano not always softly draws to the Ionian Sea, between Catania Gulf and Isola Bella in Taormina, whose grandeur may be admired also from Augusta, in those days where the air is clean and not blurred by African sirocco, on the west slope he may be enraptured by a panorama which is less known but exciting as well. Here snow lies longer, here the thick vegetation of woods is suddenly broken by lava flows that, overlapping one another, create fractures within the landscape, so as to remember the supremacy of nature above man.
And here Bronte appears to lie, crouched on a hill that dominates the surrounding valley, as a sentinel that introduces, facing on the right, the majestic standing of the Muntagna (as people from Catania call it), and on the left the chain of Nebrodi, while going down the road from Cesarò to San Fratello and then to the Tyrrhenian Sea, to Sant’Agata di Militello and Capo d’Orlando. And its strategic position reveals one of the innumerable hidden wonders of Sicily: a celebrated sea land that hides inside extraordinary mountain areas, as a shiny treasure which may fascinate ever more only if one wants to discover it.
Bronte has a long history, which stems from the Romans, when it was a military outpost. But its historical importance begins in the eleventh century, when Giorgio Maniace landed in Sicily, sent by the Emperor Michael V as the general of an army of Byzantines, Normans and Lombard, in order to contrast Saracen advance. Giorgio built a little coenobium with a small icon that, as the legend says, Saint Luke the Evangelist was supposed to have painted. And the coenobium by Maniace set off the rocket of our story.
In 1173 Queen Margherita founded a Benedictine Abbey, whose first abbot was the French William of Boris. Since then the abbey started growing up and prospering, thanks to numberless noble donations and the increasing richness of agricultural products; it was equipped with a fortification that then turned into a castle in the mid-fifteenth century: the Castle of Maniace.
Benedictine, Franciscan and Basilian monks alternated in centuries in the leadership of the abbey, until the 3rd September 1799 when Ferdinand Bourbon IV, king of Naples, gave it to Horatio Nelson, who was appointed as Duke of Bronte. The Re Nasone (“King Big-Nose”) bestowed such honour in order to thank the Admiral, head of British Navy, because of his contribution in the victory against the Neapolitan Republic, during the civil war that steeped Naples in blood from 1799 to 1800.
However, history tells an affair different from what it really appeared: the “decisive” intervention by Nelson occurred only after that cardinal Fabrizio Ruffo, heading his army, had already defeated Neapolitan patriots (the French had already left Naples, leading to Rome and then retreating to Piedmont) and was limited to deny the conditions of surrender whom Ruffo was dealing with the insurgent. As a consequence, Nelson handed over king’s revenge the insurgent, among whom there were the great Fabrizio Caracciolo, admiral of the Neapolitan fleet. But this is another story.
Castello di Nelson e Ducea di Maniace
Lord Horation Nelson, I visconte Nelson
Ours goes on with Nelson’s heirs that would lead the duchy till the beginning of the twentieth century, and they were co-protagonist of one of the most controversial and painful bloody facts of the whole Italian Risorgimento: what is known as “Fatti di Bronte” (the massacre of Bronte). It happened that, after Garibaldi landing in Marsala, a group of local patriots that believed in the ideals of Risorgimento rose up, as they thought time was come to have a redistribution of lands, which were still organised in large estates, in order to relieve peasants’ miserable conditions.
But Garibaldi sent his man Nino Bixio (supported by the English duchy) who suppressed the revolt in the blood and killed those who had believed in the same ideals as those sustained by Garibaldi. In the fascist period, Nelson’s heirs were dispossessed of the duchy, which returned to them at the end of the Second World War. Until 1981, when, deprived of all its belongings and furniture, it was definitively bought by the Municipality of Bronte and underwent great restoration works. Today, the century-long history of the Duchy, which was also a history of peasant’s oppression, finds in the land and in its fruit a redemption, thanks to its most precious product, the green gold of Bronte: pistachio.