But even in normal times, books open a window onto worlds we cannot reach by other means: alien planets, magical lands that never existed, the past of every country on earth. Through books we can travel to Jonathan Swift’s Lilliput, Louisa May Alcott’s New England, the French or Russian revolutions, Arthur C. Clarke’s future.
So today I offer a literary journey to the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. It’s 1799, and Ignazio Florio awakens to an earthquake in progress: “The earthquake is a hiss that starts in the sea and wedges itself into the night. It swells, grows, then becomes a roar that tears through the silence.”
The members of Ignazio’s family survive, although their house is badly damaged. He and his brother Paolo decide to move to Palermo and establish a spice business. A journey across the sea in a small boat, and the deed is done. They reach the city that will shelter them through competition and disease, war and change, for generations.
And why spices? I’ll let Stefania Auci, author of The Florios of Sicily—an international bestseller beautifully translated by Katherine Gregor and available in English from HarperVia as of this week—answer that question.
Cinnamon, pepper, cumin, aniseed, coriander, saffron, sumac, cassia …
No, spices aren’t just for cooking. They’re medicines, they’re cosmetics, they’re poisons and memories of faraway lands few people have seen.
Before reaching a sales counter, a cinnamon stick or a ginger root has to go through dozens of hands, travel on the back of a mule or a camel in long caravans, cross the ocean, and reach European ports.
So the spices themselves are on a journey, a fragrant and evocative voyage from their home in the East Indies to their eventual destination, where they convey a sensory aura of distant places to those who encounter them.
The Florios start with spices, but they don’t end with them. Each of the book’s seven parts charts one stage in their developing enterprise: Spices, Silk, Bark, Sulfur, Lace, Tuna, Sand. The whole becomes a family saga, as Paolo and Ignazio yield the stage to their children and grandchildren. Meanwhile, the world around them is changing as well. Napoleon seeks to conquer Europe. Giuseppe Garibaldi aims to unify the disparate Italian states into a single kingdom, a goal that requires him to subdue Sicily and Naples.
Amid political, economic, and personal turmoil, the Florios press on. So while we’re all locked away at home, take a literary journey to nineteenth-century Sicily. You may find that life looks a whole lot brighter when you’re done.
Image: Giuseppe Garibaldi Entering Palermo (1860), public domain via Wikimedia Commons.