When Giuseppe Verdi came to Paris in 1853 to fulfill a commission for the Opéra, one enticement was the opportunity to set a libretto by the renowned Eugène Scribe. Furthermore, he could approve the subject matter from among several proposals. Patriotic Verdi chose the Sicilian Vespers, a ferocious popular uprising in Palermo in 1282.
But Scribe, lazy and avaricious, delivered such a hackneyed tale of thwarted love that the dismayed composer tried to quit. He knew the factual story; a widely read account had been published in Italy a decade earlier. Scribe neither knew nor cared. In fact, unbeknownst to Verdi he recycled a totally unrelated libretto dredged from his files called Le Duc d'Albe, originally intended for Donizetti, who never finished the opera. Scribe just shifted the action from Flanders to Sicily, set it 400 years earlier, inserted some factual characters and tacked on a bunch of killings in Act V. Nevertheless, Verdi wrote such cogent music that the resultant work, Les Vêpres Siciliennes, was greeted rapturously, until sidelined by opposing Italian and French chauvinism. It remains thumpingly good theater.
When challenged about his disregard for reality, Scribe replied, "We hasten to point out that the general massacre known as the Sicilian Vespers never existed."
But it did exist. The Sicilian Vespers ignited an island-wide rebellion that shook history. Memories of the insurgence remained so potent in foreign-controlled 19th-century Italy that censors refused to let the opera be performed there translated as I Vespri Siciliani, no matter how absurdly Scribe had fictionalized events. For six years, until Italian independence, it had titles like Giovanna di Guzman (or di Braganza or di Sicilia), once Batilde di Turenna, with settings as far afield as Portugal.
Why did a medieval insurrection on Sicily have this kind of force 600 years later?
As the 13th century began, the Eastern Empire established in Byzantium by Constantine the Great in A.D. 330 was still the envy of the world, absurdly wealthy, sophisticated‹and smug. Constantinople, not Rome, was the center of theocratic glory; the Byzantine Emperor was venerated by his Greek-speaking subjects as God's very presence on Earth.
Byzantium had split with the Latin Church liturgically, but the festering bitterness was fueled by jealousy. Animosity exploded into assault in 1204, when the knights of the Fourth Crusade diverted from their avowed purpose in the Holy Land and instead attacked and sacked Constantinople. A Latin Empire was instituted but lasted only until 1261, when a Greek regained the weakened throne as Emperor Michael VIII.
In the West, this disorder suited the ambitions of a succession of popes less intent on saving souls than on physically ruling all of Christendom. The sudden vulnerability of Byzantium opened new possibilities. However, blocking papal aspirations was the independent-minded House of Hohenstaufen, the dynasty of Holy Roman Emperors at the time, which had begun asserting hereditary territorial rights even in Italy and Sicily.
Enmity between the Hohenstaufens and the Holy See became so intense that it re-ignited a centuries-old feud between two rival political factions centered in Italy, the Guelphs and the Ghibellines. Although the conflict which originally sparked their mutual hatred had long faded into insignificance, the Guelphs now coalesced around the cause of the popes, the Ghibellines around that of the Holy Roman Emperors. Various cities and principalities, sometimes adjacent ones, were controlled by one or the other, and violence erupted often.
In 1254 premature royal deaths made a two-year-old Hohenstaufen named Conradin heir to the crowns of Sicily, Jerusalem, and the Holy Roman Empire. To the papacy, the inevitable uncertainty surrounding an infant monarch seemed an ideal opportunity to crush the dynasty and secure its own worldly control, beginning with all Italy. However, in a jarring setback, the vacuum was swiftly filled. Conradin's illegitimate older brother Manfred declared himself King of Sicily, the key to supremacy. A member of this family so abominated by the popes still ruling southern Italy was intolerable. Manfred had to be eliminated.
Deposing a Hohenstaufen King of Sicily had been proposed before, only to run into opposition from the most respected monarch of the time, King Louis IX of France, later canonized as St. Louis. He had no love for the Hohenstaufens but thought it impious to interfere with any rightful sovereign. Manfred was different, though, a bastard usurper. When Pope Urban IV urged King Louis to consider his brother, Charles of Anjou, as a justifiable alternative, he acquiesced.
It was a fatefully mistaken choice.
Open warfare flared, and Charles won the two climactic battles. In 1266 Manfred was killed and his armies routed; Charles was crowned King of Sicily. Italian Ghibellines rallied behind Conradin, the last Hohenstaufen, then all of 14 years old, and marched with his German army as it advanced southward. Once again Charles of Anjou and his Angevins triumphed. Conradin was captured and beheaded, perhaps with papal collusion, after the pretense of a trial for treason. The execution was so contrary to customary practice that it shocked European nobility, but Charles was rid of his most dangerous enemy. Hohenstaufen Imperial claims were shattered forever.
Now Charles had to pacify his new realms, which included much of Italy. On the mainland he installed several sympathetic Guelph underlords, but Sicily was a more difficult situation. There his haughty French nobles, ruthlessly enforcing newly repressive policies and heavy taxes, were immediately despised. Sieges, pitched battles and then cruel punishment of rebels finally restored order, but Sicilian bitterness continued boiling just below the surface.
Arrogant Charles took no notice. He quickly amassed further victories until he had become the most powerful monarch in Europe, but wanted more. He thirsted to extend his empire across the entire Mediterranean, climaxing in the reconquest of Constantinople.
This aggressive expansionism was temporarily checked by altered papal policies. Byzantine Emperor Michael VIII, noting the rising threat, had appealed to the Holy See for protection, offering in return the attractive possibility of Union between the split Latin and Greek Churches under Roman supremacy. However, Michael's subjects balked, remembering the barbarities of the Fourth Crusade, and in 1281 Charles engineered the election of a passionately patriotic Frenchman as Pope Martin IV. Revered King Louis, who might have urged restraint, had died. With renewed papal support, all shackles were removed, and Charles readied a massive war fleet in Salerno harbor.
Resentment on Sicily still seethed against this callous, mostly absentee sovereign. But fearing horrendous retribution, Sicilians could not act against Charles without a significant foreign power backing them.
Enter John of Procida. Of the few historical personages named in the opera's libretto, only he played an actual part in the Sicilian Vespers‹and it was key.
He was far from the bloodthirsty rabble-rouser depicted by Scribe, though. A distinguished physician, he had parlayed his superb reputation into a position as advisor to King Peter III of Aragon. There his conspiratorial genius flowered. John's loathing of the French had been hardened by the apparent brutalizing of his wife and rape of his daughter by the knight sent to seize his Sicilian estates. Now he urged his new patron to confront Charles. Peter's Queen was the daughter of deposed King Manfred, so the monarch offered a sympathetic ear.
Legends about John proliferated over time, but what is certain is that he encouraged King Peter's claim to the crown of Sicily and fanned Ghibelline and anti-Anjou feelings elsewhere in Europe. In 1279 he may have visited the island disguised as a Franciscan, fomenting and planning rebellion. Most important, he convinced nervous Byzantine Emperor Michael to finance a pro-Aragon revolt on Sicily as the surest way to forestall Charles. The battle armada would soon sail east if not halted.
The emotional, political, and organizational tinder was thus all aligned on Easter Sunday 1282, needing only a spark. It came in Palermo, as celebratory Sicilian crowds awaiting vesper services outside the Church of the Holy Spirit were joined by unwelcome and unruly Angevin revelers. When a French sergeant grabbed the wife of a Sicilian, he was immediately killed. His troops drew swords, and the crowd rose in rage, slaughtering every soldier present as church bells rang. Sicilians then stormed through the city yelling "Moranu il Franchkisi" (in local dialect, "death to the French"), massacring every Frenchman they found, lay or cleric. There was no refuge, not for nuns, not even for local women who had married Angevins.
The furious insurgence called the Sicilian Vespers spread across the island. In August 1282, the army of Peter of Aragon landed on Sicily, where the populace acclaimed him King even as fighting with Charles' forces continued.
The war between Aragon and Anjou spilled onto the continent. The Pope degraded the old ideal of Holy War into a holy mess by proclaiming any conflict with the excommunicated King Peter to be a Crusade. Charles, losing ground, tried a bizarre back door: he challenged his enemy to a revival of the one-on-one "Trial by Combat," which chivalrous Peter accepted. Preparations actually began, but the Church opposed any path to judgment outside its own jurisdiction, and the idea collapsed.
Although Anjou power remained strong on the mainland, Sicily's geographic location made it strategically crucial and its monarchy proportionally prestigious. There Charles lost battle after battle to Peter. He died in 1285, never understanding what his haughtiness and obtuse tyranny had cost both him and the Church.
Sicilians, resisting ecclesiastical and military pressure to submit again to Angevin rule, fought on with pride and ferocity for 20 more years, even after John of Procida himself deserted them and reconciled with Rome in 1298. Finally, in 1302, the island was granted independence under benevolent Aragonese rule. It was a lesson in self-determination Sicilians never forgot.
Charles' warships never embarked for Constantinople, but the bloody Sicilian Vespers marked the end of more than just his campaign for domination of the entire Mediterranean world. Overreaching popes had committed themselves to supporting Charles as the self-proclaimed superior prince selected by God to conquer all Christendom, and in the end he did the Church more damage than the Hohenstaufens had. His brutal governing style and conceited ambitions goaded people into a revolt that ultimately thwarted the medieval papacy's quest for secular power, destroying forever their dream of a Universal Christian Empire under its dominion.
Even more, defiant seeds were planted by the Sicilian Vespers that eventually led to the Reformation, the rise of nation-states, even the American and French Revolutions. As late as Verdi's time, this popular rebellion against foreign control paved the way for Garibaldi's success on Sicily, which was the practical beginning of Italian autonomy.
Career-long, Nabucco through Aida, Giuseppe Verdi understood that human beings caught up in the sweep of history made for compelling drama. In those passions he found the emotional truth behind Eugène Scribe's fabricated fluff‹and turned dross into operatic gold.