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Dr. Dagmar Reichardt

Mapping Sicily
From postcoloniality to neo-metaphorization

Where and how do you map Sicily? For those who think that they readily have a clear picture of the island, most of the time knowing Sicily primarily means looking up Sicily in an atlas. Demarcating or imagining a (foreign) territory in picture form, i.e. on a map, is a process with a long tradition dating back to 1585, when Gerhard Mercator published his extensive Atlas, sive cosmographiae meditationes de fabrica mundi. That procedure constantly pursues the (distant) goal – even when only mentally – of taking hold of a certain area, of occupying it, conquering it, capturing it for oneself, exploiting it and/or to dominate it as well.

Yet Sicily can also look like a woman who becomes an allegory for the Regnum Siciliae. This is the case in a depiction that dates back to 1640. It was drawn up by the renowned Dutch cartographer Johannes Jansson, who publicized the figure that same year in a French compilation of maps bearing the title Le nouveau théâtre du monde ou Nouvel Atlas. Here the land receives a likeness, it's being personified. It not only has outlines, it has an incarnate shape with a three-dimensional effect. I'll return to this body of a woman later on.

So there are two ways of imagining a place on this globe: mathematically-spatially, or three-dimensionally-humanly. I call these principles of human fantasy occupying/power-oriented versus symbolic/metaphoric. I would like to use the example of Sicilian cartography in the following to illustrate how the oppressive status of postcoloniality on the one hand and the opposing tendency towards metaphorization on the other have characterized the image that we associate with Sicily today. This is intended towards answering the question – To what extent can Sicily together with Leonardo Sciascia be regarded as a metaphor for Italy, Europe or even the whole world from a postcolonialistic point of view?


"Eppure da duemila cinquecento anni siamo colonia" (Tomasi di Lampedusa 1996: 170) – "And yet we have been a colony for two thousand, five hundred years" – In Tomasi di Lampedusa's world-famous novel Il Gattopardo, this is how Sicilian nobleman Don Fabrizio Salina sums up the problems Sicily had to face in the course of Italy's unification process around 1860. As a matter of fact, when relying on Tomasi's account one can say that Sicily has been forced to lead an existence as a "colony" for what has meanwhile become 2,600 years, since the post-Hellenistic era began cultivating a postcolonialism avant la lettre. The so-called Continente Sicilia had been colonized by the Greeks since the beginning of the 8th century B.C., and experienced its last foreign invasion in the sense of historic colonialism under the rule of the Spanish Bourbon dynasty during the 19th century. Nonetheless, postcolonialistic discourses on the island's society, politics and culture continue to have an effect to the present day. Viewed from this standpoint one can say that the island is in a permanent state of decolonization, involved in other words with the renunciation of both foreign invaders and external influences on power.

As I have already explained elsewhere (cf. Reichardt 2006), and even though I cannot go into more detail here, due to Sicily's special nature it seems to me to be appropriate in this case to principally refer less to postcolonialism as a topic, and instead to speak rather more of real postcoloniality on the part of Sicily.

History of cartography

Let's move on to the history of cartography, particularly Sicilian cartography: To all intents and purposes, the historic development of the art of map-making is marked by the functional change away from the historically divine Mappae mundi – maps drawn up in monasteries offering orientation in a realm historically mandated by God's saving grace – to the topographic maps of modern times (cf. Schneider 2004). Among other aspects, these have formed the basis for references to science and for using geography as a spatial science. Since then, such things as satellite photos or orientational guides via GPS (Global Positioning System) are being measured in terms of their purported realistic correctness and the degree of their geographic precision.

A clay tablet from Mesopotamia is regarded as one of the oldest maps of the world handed down over the centuries. In the 6th century B.C., Babylonians etched the world into it as a circle with Babylon as its center. Analogously, the drafter of the Ebstorfer World Map dating back to the 13th or 14th century A.D. shifts Jerusalem into the center of his manuscript. In the drafter's view, the Holy City is midpoint for the world, a place where order reigns. Chaos lies in wait at its margins, symbolized by the man-eating Gog and Magog to the north, and by birdmen or humans without ears to the south. Sicily too is clearly recorded (to the southeast in the shape of a heart): In other words, medieval maps had a dogmatic-religious background (representation of the power of the church) or pursued a theological-philosophical finality. Seen in a formal sense, they primarily possessed a mythical, symbolic value. Although Sicily does figure as a bridge between Africa and Italy in such medieval documents, i.e. as a strategic base for Byzantium, the spatial mapping and drawn profile accorded to the isle belong without a doubt in the realm of fantasy (cf. Dufour/La Gumina 1998: 15).

The first printed map of Sicily reiterates a draft of Sicily and Sardinia drawn up by Ptolemy (i.e. the Alexandrinian-Greek geographer Claudius Ptolemaios, approx. 100-180 A.D.), and dates back to 1478. On Sicily that map was considered to be just as much a "bestseller" as the map of Sicily by Sebastian Münster that followed. Münster's map was published in his Cosmographiae Universalis in 1550 (cf. Dufour/La Gumina 1998: 36). In the "Seicento" cartography experiences its Golden Age, a time in which it is increasingly regarded as a science in the spirit of 18th-century enlightenment, especially in England and France: What became particularly well-known were the maps of Sicily by Frenchman Guillaume Delisle, the map by Austrian General Samuel von Schmettau (who submitted a geographically individualized map of Sicily in 1809/10 on the orders of Emperor Karl VI), and the 1823 Map of Sicily by British Royal Navy Captain William Henry Smyth.

What can we deduce?

Cultural representation

As Liliane Dufour (cf. Dufour/La Gumina 1998: 42) concludes in her article from 1998 on the "Imago Siciliae", even today maps represent a never-achievable approximation of the island's reality, and thus an infinite work in progress phenomenon posing a basic postmodern principle par excellence. Even a satellite photo freezes only one of infinitely many potential moments. What is symbolized thereby is the postmodern view oriented on plurality that there is not an absolute reality unto itself, but many realities in their plural instead. So, in the end maps themselves are mostly not any form of text, yet they are a weighty means towards causing the readers to write a text of their own or towards leading them to art. The maps thus take on an ambivalent, hybrid position as hinge or interface between reception and creation. The favorizing of the visual corresponds completely with the thesis of the iconic turn. According to that thesis and pursuant to Horst Bredekamp, that turn marks our Western societies of today as a cultural shift from text to image, and in turn tills a fertile, receptive soil for the map genre (cf. Burda/Maar 2004: 15).

However, no map can make do without text, and maps are frequently the basis for texts: whether literary or academic texts, speeches or political agreements, journalistic or didactic commentaries etc. Our rapid study of the history of Sicilian cartography demonstrates clearly that two moments have made their mark on it: an empirical recording on the one hand, i.e. mapping bound to reality, and the cultural representation of the respectively prevailing view of the world ("Weltbild") on the other. At this point I am going to return to the woman's figure on Jansson's map of Sicily from 1640 which I had mentioned at the beginning. The woman embodies the Regnum Sicilia. Her position as the frame for a cartographic description of Sicily is necessary to ensure completeness with respect to what holds the world and/or Sicily together: She stands for what the cartographer is withholding, does not understand how to say in a different way or simply doesn't know.


In an age of the accomplished territorial mapping of Sicily, the value of the space's cultural representation is meanwhile on the rise: All of the major stages of occidental history are reflected in Sicily's eventful historic past. Often enough, the dynamics of Sicily's own self-determination were representative of leading intellectual events going on in the world. Sciascia's thesis of La Sicilia come metafora (Sciascia 1995) – of a Sicily As metaphor – is to be understood in this sense: Sicily actually is a metaphor for Italy, Europe, yes, even for the whole world. And making that thought comprehensible can hardly be done more impressively and illustratively in any other field than in cartography. In Sicily's history, the figurative power of man's imagination plays a role that marks its culture and forms the basis of science and literature right from the start.

In more recent times, after Sciascia, an increasing interest in a neo-metaphorization has been established, particularly in academic terminology since the 1980s. For instance, iconic articulations can be found in Deleuze and Guattari, who drafted first mental maps using their metaphor of a "carte" (Deleuze/Guattari 1980: 20), or through the cartography in their Mille plateaux (1980). On a theoretical level of reception, Deleuze's und Guattari's metaphorics of the "carte" were developed further into a postcolonialistic concept of mapping the world (by the way, an undefined, non-systematic term to the present day). Among other works, this led to Homi K. Bhabha's Third Space metaphor (Bhabha 1998), as well as to the metaphoric recoding of the motto When margins become the center (Adobati et al. 2001).

Alongside satellite photos, X-rays or a glance into the nano-world through a scanning tunnel microscope (cf. e.g. Burda/Maar 2004: 129 pp. or Harmon 2004: 14 pp.), "personal geographies" (Harmon 2004) and the previously mentioned mental maps – i.e. the representation of space in our imaginary world (the term goes back to Tony Buzan; cf. Buzan 1993) – are increasingly becoming the focus. Among other areas, the link to literature and language is to be mapped in the conceptual pre-drafting of a narrative Histoire before the author's inner eye, or in the reader's imagination that accompanies the reading of a text. As I explained elsewhere, the mental map of sicilianità ('Sicilianness') poses the true main subject matter, especially on the collective level, around which all narrative texts by Sicilian authors and writers revolve (cf. Reichardt 2004).

Without a graphic vividness, language – even literary language – cannot be written or brought to life, let alone grasped in a comprehensible way that is understood or put to gainful use. The development of Sicilian cartography shows in an exemplary manner that, when viewed iconographically, it is just as multilayered as the cultural history of this South European island. It is the mappa, in other words the cartography of cultural influences that Sicily has experienced and put into practice, which makes up this region's authenticity. And in the process it emerged that the power of maps is not least of all an aesthetic power (cf. Knipp 2004).

Works cited

Adobati, Chantal/Aldouri-Lauber, Maria/Hager, Manuela/Hosch, Reinhart (ed.) 2001: Wenn Ränder Mitte werden. Zivilisation, Literatur und Sprache im interkulturellen Kontext. Festschrift für F. Peter Kirsch zum 60. Geburtstag, Wien: WUV Universitätsverlag.

Bhabha, Homi K. 1998 [1994]: The Location of Culture, London/New York: Routledge.

Burda, Hubert/Maar, Christa (ed.) 2004: Iconic Turn. Die neue Macht der Bilder, Köln: DuMont.

Buzan, Tony 1993: The Mind Map Book, London: BBC Books.

Deleuze, Gilles/Guattari, Félix 1980: Mille Plateaux. Capitalisme et schizophrénie, Paris: Minuit.

Dufour, Liliane/La Gumina, Antonio (ed.) 1998: Imago Siciliae. Cartografia storica della Sicilia 1420-1860, introduction by Giuseppe Giarrizzo, Catania: Sanfilippo.

Harmon, Katharine (ed.) 2004: You are here. Personal Geographies and Other Maps of the Imagination, New York: Princeton Architectural Press.

Knipp, Kersten 2004: "Das historische Buch: Macht und Ästhetik der Karten" [review], in: Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 27.10.2004.

Reichardt, Dagmar 2004: "Concetti di sicilianità: Sciascia, Bufalino, Consolo, Camilleri, Freni e Grasso", in: Van der Bossche, Bart/Bastiaensen, Michel/Salvadori Lonergan, Corinna (ed.): Lingue e letterature in contatto. Atti del XV Congresso dell’A.I.P.I. Brunico, 24-27 agosto 2002, vol. 2, Firenze: Cesati, pp. 441-451.

Reichardt, Dagmar 2006: "Italia ibrida. La Sicilia come terzo spazio nel discorso interculturale", in: Van der Bossche, Bart/Bastiaensen, Michel/Salvadori Lonergan, Corinna (ed.): Italia e Europa: dalla cultura nazionale all’interculturalismo. Atti del XVI congresso A.I.P.I. Cracovia, agosto 2004, Firenze: Cesati, [forthcoming].

Sciascia, Leonardo 1995 [1979]: La Sicilia come metafora. Intervista di Marcelle Padovani, Milano: Mondadori.

Schneider, Ute 2004: Die Macht der Karten. Eine Geschichte der Kartographie vom Mittelalter bis heute, Darmstadt: Primus Verlag.

Tomasi di Lampedusa, Giuseppe 1996: Il Gattopardo, in: Opere, introduction by Gocchino Lanza Tomasi, Milano: Mondadori, pp. 19-318.