Horatio Nelson, scourge of the French, hero of the nation, Duke of Bronte, pistachio farmer. Ok, I exaggerate a little. Nelson had been awarded the title of the Duke of Bronte, the house, land and the vassalage of the peasants living on it, by a grateful King Ferdinand of Bourbon, after the admiral had deployed the power of the British fleet to help restore the king to his throne, that of Sicily and Southern Italy. Ferdinand was neither a good king nor a nice man and I’m not sure that this was Nelson’s the finest hour.
He behaved with unusual brutality to Caracciola, the leader of the short-lived Parthenopean Republic, neither allowing him a fair trial, nor to be shot, as requested. He was hanged within 24 hours of the verdict by Ferdinand’s minions. Nelson went on to hang a number of other supporters of the republic.
Although he signed himself Nelson Bronte, he never visited his Sicilian retreat which is about 8m from the town of Bronte, itself. It was inherited by Charlotte, a niece who married Alexander, Viscount Bridport. The Bridport family continued to live there until 1982, when they sold the house and the state to the Commune of Bronte. Astonishingly, the vassalage of the local peasantry remained, a mediaeval survival, until the agricultural reforms of the 1950s.
Over the years the Bridports turned the property into a curious hybrid – the exterior of handsome Sicilian country house with the interior of an English country house, with English lawns divided up by box hedges in the French style outside – which has been lovingly restored.
The phrase ‘lovingly restored’ is something of a cliché, but it seemed apt as I wandered through the rooms that looked out on a long, rectangular courtyard in one direction, and over the garden of lawns and box hedges on the other. It might not be Blenheim, but I imagine it was a damn sight easier to live in.
Each of the rooms was given a distinctly ornate Sicilian accent by the floor tiles that had been made at Caltagirone. Aside from that all the furniture, paintings and pictures, knickknacks, bits and bobs were those you would expect to find in an English country house of the 18th and 19th centuries, a bit stuffy, a bit predictable, very, well, English. Even the wall papers were of the period and had the right feel to them. The only tiny detail I could find with which to take issue was the curtains. The materials were correct, but they should have been interlined, rather than simply left as a single layer. The bathrooms were unusually large for the period, too.
It was like wandering through a vaguely familiar family house. It was if members of the family had just popped to change for dinner or something. I wouldn’t have been the least surprised to have seen copies of The Field or Country Life on a table or a labrador lying in front of the fire. There was even Virginia Creeper covering most of the courtyard-side wall of the house.
At one end of the courtyard was what’s left of the Benedictine Abbazia Maniace, a delightful Gothic-Norman church, rather austere, but made beautiful by its proportions and the light streaming through the windows. The nave soars upwards on pillars of dark, volcanic stone to a magnificent hammer-bean roof. The side naves were almost equally high. One one wall hung a fine Byzantine icon, purportedly painted by St Luke. I wasn’t aware of his artistic talent hitherto. The simplicity and spirituality of the building and the icon were rather an odds with a life-sized statue or an anguished-looking Jesus in questionable taste inside a kind of presentation case of hideous kitsch.
Note. Of course, Nelson had another, less trumpeted, effect on Sicilian history, the part that he played in the creation of the Marsala trade. After the Battle of the Nile in 1798 the admiral ordered up several hogsheads of the fortified wine from his friend, John Woodhouse of Marsala. This gave the officers and men of the British fleet such a taste for the drink, that it became the tipple of choice of the British upper classes, and fortunes were made.
There was a decanter and two glasses that belonged to Nelson. I wondered if he had ever drunk Marsala out of them. Our excellent guide could not say.