Sicily between history and legend

No other region in italy is as mysterious as Sicily is: a bright popular tradition has made of this island a limitless source for writers, poets and ballad singers, conveying through the centuries myths and legends who actually are on the border between reality and fantasy.


One among the most famous legends in Sicily is the one regarding the demons of the Zisa (arab word meaning “The Splendid”), summer resort of the Norman kings and one of the most mysterious monuments of Palermo: the legend has its roots in a fresco painting situated in the Fountain Room, in which are painted several little demons, that the popular tradition wants to be guardians of a treasure hidden inside the Castle.

sicily - palermo - zisa
The Zisa, summer resort of the Norman kings in Palermo.

The treasure would have arrived in Palermo together with two young lovers, Azel Comel and El-Aziz, who would have relied on the demons to protect the treasure, before they tragically died inside the palace. Deceiving he who looks at them, in order to avoid to be counted, the demons protect the spell keeping safe the treasure.

sicily - zisa - demons
The Zisa, the fountain room.

It is even said that on the day of the Annunziata on March 25, looking at the demons, it seems that they move the tail and toss the mouth.  Throughout the centuries the legend of the demons of the Zisa has so deeply rooted in the heart of the Palermitans to influence their language: when you are in a controversial situation where the accounts do not return, the Palermitans are usually used to say: “E chi su, li diavoli di la Zisa?” (And what are these…? The demons of the Zisa?)

palermo - zisa - demons
The demons of the Zisa


In the surroundings of Palermo, going up to the center of the village of Carini, you will find a medieval castle of the 11th century, theater of a fascinating and mysterious legend. It is reported that in the mid-16th century the Baron of Trabia and Count of Mussomeli had not had until then male heirs, and had married his eldest daughter Laura Lanza, just fourteen years old, to Don Vincenzo La Grua-Talamanca, son of the Baron Of Carini.

carini castle sicily
Carini castle, the inner courtyard.

After the wedding on December 21, 1543 in Palermo, the two moved to the castle of Carini, where they lived during the following twenty years, and where Baroness Laura gave birth to eight children. Unsatisfied with her father’s combined marriage, the Baroness interwoven a clandestine relationship with his cousin, known as Ludovico Vernagallo, until his father, having surprised them together, killed them, creating one of the most beloved legends of ballad singers ‘era.

carini - castle - interiors
Carini castle, interiors.

According to the legend, the Baroness, surprised in the night by the killers her father paid and struck down to death, had taken her hand to her chest, where she received the mortal wound, and, falling, she left the imprint of her bloody hand on the wall. Always according to the legend, despite the imprint of the bloody hand was canceled to conceal the murder, and the baron resumed with Ninfa Ruiz, the imprint renewed cyclically in the following years, appearing mysteriously at night as a perpetual testimony of the alleged offense.

Carini castle. The bloody imprint left on the wall by the Baroness the night she was murdered.

In 1975, RAI Radiotelevisione Italiana made a 4-episode TV serial with enormous success with Ugo Pagliai, Janet Agren and Adolfo Celi, bringing to the popular attention the legend of the Baroness of Carini, whose dramatic story was sung by Gigi Proietti in the title-track of the script.


In recent years, the inhabitants of the Capo district, one of the most traditional markets in Palermo, have brought popular attention to a new mysterious “apparition” in the city. It seems that in the darkness of the night, looking up at the bell tower of the Mercede Church, the figure of a nun with his hands clasped appears, recalling crowds of unbelieving citizens in the face of this night mystery.

palermo - sicilia - chiesa della meecede
Palermo, the church of the Mercede in the Capo district.

A new legend, the one of the Phantom of the Nun, “U fantasma ‘ra muonaca”, as the Sicilian say, seemed to have monopolized the attention of the Palermitans in the last years, until a sudden change of the lighting took away the ghost… was that a “sacred” optical illusion? We still don’t know! the Cape residents in the meantime pray for the “muonaca” (the nun) to come back to visit their district…

fantasma - palermo - ilcapo
The bell tower of the church of the Mercede, clearly visible is the praying phantom.


Walking along the eastern slope of Mount Etna along the provincial road leading to Linguaglossa, in the territory of San’Alfio, you come across one of the most majestic trees in Europe, the “one Hundred Horses Chestnut Tree”. Botanists all over the world failed to accurately pinpoint the tree, but it is commonly known that the chestnut tree has two to four thousand years, thus confirming it among the oldest trees in Europe and the largest in Italy. The legend that gives the name to the tree wants a queen, during a hunting trip, to be surprised by a thunderstorm along with his follow-up of a hundred knights right in the vicinity of the tree, and found shelter together with them under the branches of the gigantic chestnut tree.

chestnut tree - sant'alfio - catania
Sant’Alfio, Catania, the huge chestnut tre.

Since the storm did not stop, it is said that the queen spent the night under the chestnut leaves, lascivious she granted one or more lovers among her hundred knights. We don’t know who this queen may be; for some it is Giovanna d’Aragona; for others Empress Isabella of England, Frederick II’s third wife; for others it is Giovanna I d’Angiò, one of Protagonists of the insurrection of the 15th century Sicilian Vespers. In any case, regardless of the sexual appetites of the mysterious queen, the chestnut, with its 22 meters high, and so many of the circumference, was declared by the UNESCO “Peace Memorial Messiah”: whoever is passing by Sant’Alfio can not fail to visit what can be considered a true wonder of nature, the multi-billionth Hundred Horses Chestnut Tree!

chestnut tree - sicily - catania
It is said that this chestnut tree sheltered more than a hundred knights and their horses during a terrific storm.


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