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In the spring of 1282, the preparations which Charles was making for a war with the Emperor of the East caused new taxes to be assessed throughout Sicily. Heavy contributions were levied on the inhabitants of this devoted city, and even on Easter Sunday, while the people were offering their thanksgivings in the different churches, the rapacious agents of the exchequer did not scruple to penetrate into these sacred places, and to drag from the altar those unhappy persons who had not yet been able to pay the taxes. These and similar acts of cruelty, added to the general ill-feeling which was entertained in Sicily against the French, exasperated to the last degree a people, who, although crushed by a despotic foreign dominion, had not yet lost all hope of seeing their country once more independent.
On Tuesday, the 30th of March, two days after Easter, a religious ceremony was to take place at the church of Santo Spirito. The inhabitants of the town, at the appointed time, hastened to the place of worship, and every thing wore an aspect of contentment and happiness. Among the crowd which was going towards the church was a young lady holding the arm of her husband. A Frenchman who was in the press, under the pretence of searching for hidden weapons among the people, met this couple, and offered a gross indignity to the lady. His brutality alarmed her so much, that she fainted, and her husband, pale with rage, exclaimed, "Death, death to the French!" At these words, a young man advanced from the crowd and plunged a knife into the heart of the insolent Frenchman. This deed had a more prompt and powerful effect upon the people than any deliberate act of conspiracy could have produced. It seemed to animate them at once with the same purpose, and the air was filled with cries of "Death, death to the French!" This cry, says an author of the time, resounded through the whole country like the voice of God, and penetrated every heart. The ground was soon covered with victims. The multitude, increasing at every step, searched every part of the town, and every person who could not pronounce the word ciciri without the hissing sound usually given to it by foreigners was immediately put to death. The French, as if they knew they had merited their fate, made no resistance, and were massacred without pity. Neither women nor children were spared.
But the details of the horrors committed during this dreadful night are too revolting to be related; no less than two thousand Frenchmen were slain before morning. Horrible as this indiscriminate butchery seems to our modern notions of justice and humanity, it is hardly to be wondered at, considering the fervid temperament of the Sicilians, and the magnitude of the provocations they had received. Mr. Amari certainly is less inclined to condemn his countrymen for the cruelties committed by them during the Vespers, than to deplore the atrocity of those acts which urged them at last to set aside all the laws of humanity, in order to free themselves from the chains which their oppressors had riveted upon them. Nine of the principal citizens of the town were chosen by the people as their chiefs, amidst cries of Buono stato è libertà, whilst the ancient gonfalon of Palermo was unfurled.
The spirit of rebellion spread like a conflagration throughout the island. Letters were despatched to the inhabitants of Messina, to induce them to imitate the example given by Palermo, and to take arms against the French. In these letters, Charles was termed a Nero and a monster, whilst Messina was represented as the innocent victim of his cruelty. This town soon embraced the cause of the revolution, and from one end of Sicily to the other the French were threatened with total extermination. Charles was at the Papal court when the news of the dreadful massacre of Palermo reached him. Such was his astonishment at the news, that he seemed at first disposed to bow to the stroke as if it were a dispensation of Providence. He was heard to say in prayer," Since it has pleased Thee to change my fortunes, grant that my downfall may not be too rapid." His feelings on the subject, however, soon changed, and he hastened to Naples, where he gave way to the most unbounded passion, and made preparations in great haste to inflict a signal act of vengeance upon the rebellious Sicilians. He resolved to proceed immediately, at the head of large forces, to Sicily, and to storm the city of Messina. On the 25th of July, he arrived before this city, which the inhabitants were prepared to defend with the utmost energy. While the siege was going on, the Sicilians, finding that the republican form of government which they had established was not sufficiently strong to enable them to remain independent, resolved to call
Peter of Aragon to the throne. This prince arrived in Sicily about the end of August, and the appearance of his admiral with a powerful fleet shortly afterwards obliged Charles to raise the siege of Messina.
From this period, nothwithstanding the reiterated efforts of the French to reconquer Sicily, their dominion in this island may be said to have ceased. Mr. Amari, in the work of which we have attempted to give a rapid outline of the most important part, has not terminated his account at the Sicilian Vespers, but has brought down the narrative until the peace signed in 1302, at Callabelletta, between Charles the Second, king of Naples, and Frederic, king of Sicily, that being the first cessation of hostilities since the Vespers. From the title of his work, it is evident that his design was not merely to give an account of the massacre at Palermo.in 1282, but to embrace the whole period of Sicilian history of which this celebrated event was the principal incident.
In the present article, we have endeavoured to present only a brief sketch of that part of the work which gives an account of the Vespers. It seems to us, after an attentive perusal of this account, and of the highly interesting appendix to the work, in which Mr. Amari has minutely examined all the authorities from which he has gathered his materials, that it is impossible not to view this insurrection in the same light as the author has done. If Peter of Aragon and Giovanni da Procida were the real contrivers of the massacre, it is singular that none of the most esteemed historians of the time should have mentioned the fact. Thus, for example, Saba Malaspina, the secretary of Pope Martin the Fourth, in his history, makes no mention of any conspiracy. Yet this author was a Guelf, a friend to the pope and to Charles of Anjou, and the enemy of Peter; he was, moreover, as he says in his Preface, an eyewitness of nearly all the events which he relates. * Is it likely, then, if the Vespers were the result of a conspiracy, that he would not have said so? And Dante, who in the Divina Commedia is considered most exact in all that appertains to Italian history', mentions the Vespers without saying any thing of a plot formed by Giovanni da Procida. But it would be trespassing too far on the indulgence of
* “Nec ambages inserere, aut incredibilia immiscere, sed vera, vel similia ; quæ aut vidi, aut videre potui, vel audivi communibus divulgata sermonibus."
our readers to follow our author in his examination of the comparative value of the different historical accounts of this great event. We recommend the perusal of the work itself to those who may wish to test the accuracy of the story as told by Sismondi, and other late historians.
It should be remarked, that although the Vespers must not be considered as the result of a conspiracy, there is reason to believe that a conspiracy did exist. We have already stated, that Peter of Aragon and Giovanni da Procida formed a plot with some of the Sicilians to restore Constance to the throne of her fathers; that they entered into communication with some Italian noblemen; but that these noblemen would not have been able to overthrow the French government, if the Sicilian people, with that impetuosity and want of prudence which are characteristic of an uneducated multitude, had not undertaken to free themselves from the oppression and tyranny of their rulers. The concerted plan, therefore, remained without effect, until the people, generally more capable of making a revolution than of governing themselves after the revolution is accomplished, were no longer able to resist the attempts of the French to reconquer the country. Pedro was then called to the throne, and the object of the conspiracy finally attained.
The origin of the popular account of the Vespers may be explained without difficulty. The republican government, which was in reality the result of the massacre at Palermo and the insurrection of the Sicilians, lasted so short a time, and the king of Aragon was so soon afterwards called to the throne, that it was very easy to consider the two events as cause and effect, and to believe that the accession of Pedro to the throne of Sicily was the immediate result of the Vespers; yet it was only the effect of the disunion of the people after they had recovered their liberty, and of their manifest unfitness to govern themselves. In consequence of the erroneous account which modern historians have given of this affair, Giovanni da Procida has been chosen as the hero of many a romance and drama, while even the name of the young man who gave the signal for this terrible massacre by striking the Frenchman has not been transmitted to posterity. Such are the caprices of history; the story of the adventurer who sought a refuge at the court of Pedro of Aragon is preserved; the name of him who had the courage to strike the first blow for the liberty of his country has been forgotten.
Looking at the event with the fullest knowledge we can. gain of its causes and consequences, it is natural to ask what the Sicilians gained by this bloody insurrection. Was it any thing more than a mere change of name in those who held the reins of government? At first, it was much more. When
a change of the reigning family appears to be the only result of a successful rebellion, the government which succeeds is not likely, unless deprived of all freedom of action, to fall into the same errors as its predecessor. But a revolutionary government is apt soon to forget the causes of its origin, and the persons to whom it is indebted for its establishment. This was the case with the government of the house of Aragon in Sicily. At first, the Spanish princes introduced many useful reforms into the administration; but these soongave way to new abuses, and the island was again involved in all the evils of misgovernment, which it had sought to avoid by the fearful tragedy of the Sicilian Vespers. The people were oppressed by their new tyrants in the same manner as they had been by the house of Anjou, and to a certain degree by that of the Hohenstauffen.
Posterity, however, may gain much by the remembrance of this event. The history of this period places before the eyes of the present oppressors of Italy a terrible example of the energy displayed in defence of their most sacred rights, by the ancestors of the people whom they now trample upon. Let us hope that the Italians, who are still suffering under the odious yoke of a foreign dominion, may never be tempted to repeat in the streets of Venice or Milan the bloody scenes of the Sicilian Vespers; but rather, when the time is at hand for their deliverance, that Italy may be freed from all foreign rule, without any violent commotion and may once more become what it was in former years, the flourishing abode of commerce, civilization, and the arts.