The Borgo of Marsala
Oh, what tales the sea could tell, of the mighty Phoenician city of Mothia, today only an island of majestic ruins and ancient splendor. The mainland city of Marsala was born from its exiles, in a perfect interlocking of peoples and cultures. Every population that passed through Marsala left something of their unique identity, resulting in a fascinating borgo of infinite enchantment.
The austere Baroque grace of the main church is the vortex of the historical center, with its pale ochre tonalities and tufa stone, where every ancient place has a story to tell, from the museums to the hidden subterranean “ipogei”.
As evening approaches, your explorations have left you tired but still curious, still driven by the joy of discovery. So you head off toward the coast, where the sea is drenched in the luscious reds and vibrant orange hues of sunset, cited by the great Michelangelo Antonioni as “the most beautiful in the world”. And there you stand, in rapturous wonder at such heart-stopping beauty, drinking in the divine masterpiece of the sky, the glory of Marsala.
There is no concrete information about the first human settlements in the area around Marsala, but the oldest historical records available date back to the Lower Paleolithic period.
The only historical certainty regarding the origins of the borgo of Marsala is that the first area to be developed was Mothia, used as a Phoenician trading post in 800 B.C, becoming a Carthaginian colony in 600 B.C., built on what is today the island of San Pantaleo, one of the four in the marshlands of the Stagnone.
Mothia was one of the central trading hubs of Carthage, and grew exponentially with the growth of the city.
It was not long before the little island had to confront Magna Graecia’s growing desire for supremacy in Sicily. Mothia’s number one enemy in this struggle was Dionysius il Vecchio, the Tyrant of Siracuse, who aspired to dominate the entire Sicilian territory. In 397 B.C. his fervent quest led him to destroy Mothia and force its inhabitants onto the mainland. There, on a promontory on the coast, the exiles founded “Lylibeo”, ‘the city that looks to Lybia’, because at that time the entire Mediterranean coast of Africa was considered “Lybia”.
In 264 B.C., when the first Punic War between Carthage and Rome began, the first clashes took place in the waters near Lylibeo, which nevertheless, was able to maintain its autonomy for more than a decade. Only fourteen years after the beginning of the war did the Roman army manage to close in on the city, but the low seabed and the fortifications of the settlement hindered their conquest, and it took them yet another ten years to dominate Marsala.
As a Roman municipality, Lylibeo enjoyed great honor, but the city’s destiny was intrinsically linked to the fate of the Empire, and when it fell, Lylibeo also fell into a period of decline, culminating in the fourth century A.D. when the city was repeatedly invaded and destroyed by marauding tribes of Vandals.
The spring of rebirth came with the arrival of the Arabs, and the city began to flourish under its new Arabic name, “Marsah Alì” (Port of Alì), or “Marsah Allah” (Port of God). During this period, the city was beautified and embellished, and many new buildings were constructed, which unfortunately today are no longer standing. Despite the passing of the centuries, the Arab influence is still felt in Marsala, through various words in dialect and in some of the traditional recipes of the borgo, such as cous cous.
After the Arab period, Marsala fell in step with the rest of Southern Italy’s historical course, and its territory was ruled by the Normans, the Swabians, the Angevins and, unfortunately, the Aragons, who led the city into a new period of decline.
Marsala’s big comeback was launched in the 1700’s, when the Englishman, John Woodhouse, fell in love with the wine produced in the area and began formulating a method to render it marketable. In a short time, Marsala wine was being exported all over the world, which led to a dramatic recovery in the local economy.
On May 11, 1860, Marsala went down in Italian history, as Giuseppe Garibaldi and his army of one thousand men landed at Marsala, with the aim of unifying the entire Italian peninsula under a single king.
Several decades later, in 1943, again on May 11, Marsala was bombed by the Allies in the Second World War. The first page of the New York Times commemorated the tragedy with the headline, “Marsala Wiped Off the Map”.
Today, Marsala still bears the scars of those bombings, but they do not prevent visitors from enjoying the thrilling magic of its fascinating historical center.
Mothia was a glorious ancient city of the Phoenician Empire, destroyed in 397 B.C. by the Tyrant of Syracuse, Dionysius il Vecchio.
In the eleventh century, the Normans donated the island to the Abbey of Santa Maria della Grotta di Marsala, after which the Basilian monks of Palermo settled there, naming the island “San Pantaleo”, after the founder of their monastic order.
Between the 1700’s and the 1800’s, periodic archeological excavations were initiated, but it was only in the beginning of the 1900’s that serious work began, when the island was purchased by Joseph Whitaker, a descendent of John Woodhouse.
In 1906, an excavation campaign began, which brought to light the sanctuary of Cappidduzzu, the necropolis, the House of Mosaics, the barracks, the tophet sanctuary, and the north and south entrances.
The island is immersed in dense Mediterranean shrubs, and today, can only be reached by boat, but until 1971 you could take a horse-drawn cart on a submerged cobblestone road, and you can still see the tips of the stones in the water.
Of all the treasures and artifacts found in Mothia over the centuries, the most intriguing is the statue of “the Youth of Mozia”, found almost by chance in 1979. It is a three dimensional statue a tutto tondo, depicting a fiery youth with a bold stance, and still today remains veiled in mystery. The statue is of Greek origin, as can be determined by the craftsmanship and the young man’s clothing, but what was a Greek statue doing in a Carthaginian province? According to most scholars, the statue was stolen during the assault on the city of Selicunte, which was then part of Magna Graecia. It probably depicts a victorious athlete, whose sculpted, muscular form is clearly defined under the thin fabric of his garment. The excellent craftsmanship and the well-defined details suggest that the statue was made to be exhibited in a place of great importance, probably a public square or a temple.
In order to protect Mothia’s historical and archeological heritage, the ‘Whitaker Foundation’ was established in 1971, and today, the British historian’s house has become a museum displaying all the artifacts found in Mothia and the necropolis near Marsala.
Duomo di Marsala, the Cathedral of Marsala
The Cathedral of Marsala reflects the multi-faceted elegance of its city like a mirror. It was constructed in 1176, after the city had been destroyed by the Barbarian invasions, and was raised to the rank of ‘Arcipretura’ by the Marquis Tutino.
The cathedral was dedicated to St. Thomas Becket, Bishop of Canterbury, who had been sanctified only three years earlier, but was already considered by all as a symbol of freedom, dignity and fidelity, to the church and to Christ.
As often happens, the worship of a saint is linked to a Medieval legend: it is said that one day a ship docked in Marsala to seek harbor from the particularly choppy sea. The ship transported two Corinthian columns that were going to be used in the construction of a church dedicated to St. Thomas Becket. The people of Marsala interpreted this as a divine sign, and decided to use the columns to build a church in Marsala dedicated to the English saint.
This fascinating Medieval legend is intertwined with the history of Joan of England, Queen of Sicily, who built numerous churches in Sicily dedicated to St. Thomas Becket to atone for her father, King Henry II, who was accused of having ordered the assassination of the Bishop of Canterbury.
The Cathedral of Marsala was built over the ruins of an early Christian basilica, and even today has maintained the structure of a basilica. Over the centuries, the many restorations and renovations have changed its appearance numerous times. Today, the main façade opens onto Piazza Venezia, the main public square of Marsala. The façade is distinguished by a refined, austere Baroque style, and is clearly divided in two parts: the lower half is in full Baroque and the upper half, with its bell tower, is in “Barocchetto” style, constructed a century after construction began.
The interior has three naves, delineated by a series of columns, maintaining a typical Norman architectural style. Along the walls of the side aisles there are twelve chapels, embellished with Baroque decorations. In the transept, there is a painting of “La Madonna del Popolo”, done by Domenico Gagini in 1490, and another, representing “La Purificazione della Vergine”, by Antonello Riccio.
There is a beautiful poem dedicated to Marsala’s Cathedral, which ends in the words:
Sei l’alfa e l’omega”.
‘Mother Church, you are the alpha and the omega.’
You are the beginning and the end, the center of everything: this is how much the Cathedral of Marsala means to her people.
On the 11th of May, 1860, Giuseppe Garibaldi and his army of one thousand volunteers landed in Marsala and entered the town by the city gate called “Porta del Mare”. This city gate, along with Porta Nuova, Porta Mazara and Porticella was one of the four entrances to the borgo and is the most noble and elegant, distinguished by the presence of a cupola, a balustrade and graceful columns. Under the cornice there is an inscription entrusting God with the entrance and the exit from the city, and on the balustrade there is a crowned eagle which represents the coat of arms of
the Spanish branch of the Hapsburg dynasty.
After the Unification of Italy, the gate was named after Giuseppe Garibaldi, in memory of his momentous enterprise.
The Archipelago of the Egadi
The Egadi islands are located off the coast of Trapani and Marsala, and have many stories and legends about them. The archipelago is made up of three main islands: Favignana, Levanzo and Marettimo, and two smaller and uninhabited islets: Formica and Maraone.
Legend has it that the Greek god Helios, sent his flock of sheep to graze on the island of Trinacria, to be watched over by his two daughters Fauetusa e Lampatia, born from the union with his wife Nereea. The ancient names of the three Egadi islands are derived from the names of Helios’s daughters and his wife: Auegusa-Fauetusa became Favignana, Pharbantia-Lampatia became-Levanzo,and Hiera-Neera became Marettimo.
Even the little islet of Formica has an interesting story. ‘Formica’ means ‘ant’ in Italian, and legend has it that at one time the island was so infested with ants that they covered every inch of the rocky island.
The Egadi islands are magnificently beautiful, perfect for a peaceful holiday in a soothing natural environment. They are mainly inhabited by fishing communities, and the islands of Favignana and Formica there are installations of “tonnare”, or tuna traps.
The islands in the Egadi archipelago have conserved their unique charm, because they have not been altered or contaminated by the influence of modern civilization.
Her Majesty, Marsala wine
The origins of the production of Marsala wine go back to the most remote antiquity, as demonstrated by the discovery of wine vessels found in Mothia dating back to the fifth and sixth century B.C.
We are not certain which population introduced the cultivation of vineyards to this territory, but the most accredited hypothesis is that it was the Greeks, who then handed down their knowledge to the Romans.
Between the fifteenth and the eleventh century B.C., with the arrival of the Cretans and then the Phoenicians, different varieties of wine began to be produced, but it was the Greeks who introduced the new cultivation and production techniques that made it possible to obtain the aromatic and full bodied wines that would become the direct ancestors of Marsala wine.
The key to the fortunate destiny of this wine arrived by sea, bearing an English name, John Woodhouse, who fell in love with the local wine. The local wine-makers used a production technique called ‘in perpetuum’, a procedure which involved filling the wine-barrels that had almost run out with new wine, thus keeping the levels unaltered. This technique, however, led to a very high gradation that made it difficult to maintain the properties of the wine during transport. To resolve this problem, Woodhouse decided to use alcohol with the exact gradation that would give stability to the product. The experiment succeeded with flying colors, and he began exporting the wine with extraordinary commercial success, soon boasting important clients like Admiral Nelson and his fleet.
Thanks to the proceeds of Marsala wine, John Woodhouse gave the local economy a significant boost, investing in the construction of infrastructures that have enriched the Sicilian village.
Nino de Vita
Nino de Vita was born in Marsala on June 8, 1950. He is currently considered one of the most important voices of contemporary Italian literature.
As a poet, he writes poems in Sicilian dialect, but his work is universal, and touches the soul of everyone who reads him. His verses are both ancient and modern, revolving around the most important themes of human existence, addressed with an honest clarity that leaves no room for rhetorical construction.
Nino de Vita made his debut in 1984, with the collection of poems, “Fosse Chiti”, which is also his best known work.
Besides being a poet, he is also a children’s writer, and has published three illustrated books, released in the period between 2006 and 2011.
In 1996, he was awarded the “Alberto Moravia” award for poetry. He was an intimate friend of the important Sicilian writer, Leonardo Sciascia, and in honor of this friendship he runs the “Fondazione Sciascia”, established in keeping with the writer wishes.
Do you know famous people of this borgo? Contact us!
To sample the delicacies of Marsala’s cuisine, you will need to take an extensive tour of the pastry shops, bakeries and rotisseries throughout the town. There are so many specialties in this borgo, each one is more delicious than the next, that you won’t want to miss a morsel.
Our journey of discovery of the typical cuisine of Marsala begins in the bakeries, where we find the squarato, a traditional bread made with flour, water, salt, yeast and fennel seeds. Before the dough is baked, it is placed in boiling water and scalded (‘‘squarato’-scalded)
In the rotisseries you can taste a delicious version of ‘foccaccia’, stuffed with chicken and meat sauce, an authentic delicacy made exclusively in Marsala. For a quick bite, make sure to try the “panino con le pianelle”: a chickpea fritter sandwich seasoned with salt, pepper and a dash of lemon juice.
Of all the scrumptious traditional desserts in Marsala, the most delicious are the ‘spagnoletta’ and the capidduzzi. The ‘spagnoletta is made with ladyfinger pastries and filled with ricotta cream and chocolate chips. The capidduzzi are half moon biscuits with a sprinkling sugar, cinnamon and a sublime secret ingredient: premium vintage Marsala wine.
Last but not least, we highly recommend the cunzatu bread, a half kilo loaf baked with extra virgin olive oil, tomatoes, anchovies, ‘pecorino’ or ‘primo sale’ cheese, basil and a pinch of salt.
And after your culinary journey in Marsala has served you this bounty of delicacies, we wish you ‘Buon appetito!’