Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

ErN 27- entry June 2008

učík, Verdi, M
ike & Lola,
    the Sicilian Vespers & the Aragonese Crusade

contains audio

I don’t know that Verdi ever heard Julius Fučík’s march, Entrance of the Gladiators. Verdi died in 1901 and Fučík’s piece from 1897 didn’t hit the big-time — or, better, “big top” — until 1902, when it was arranged by Louis-Phillipe Larendeau as Thunder and Blazes, the now iconic circus march, the one that “everyone knows.” Movie-music buffs may recall the 1956 film, Trapeze, where Mike (Burt Lancaster) swings and dangles Lola (Gina Lollobrigida) high above the net to the strains of the lovely trio section of that march.

Mamma mia!...” (gasp! sputter!) says Verdi from somewhere in the great Litigation-Happy Afterlife, “Fučík stole that from the overture to my opera, I Vespri Siciliani!” Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t, but law suits for plagiarism in music have been won on a lot less evidence. (For example, Al Jolson had to shell out $25,000 to Puccini in 1920 because the song Avalon sounded too much like "E lucevan le stelle" from Tosca. It did and still does, but Fučík’s march is even more egregious. (That twenty-five Large was worth about $250,000 (aka Really Large) in today’s money, made more severe because the judgment also included all future royalties from the song!)

Verdi’s opera The Sicilian Vespers is from 1855 and was originally set to a French libretto and then rewritten in Italian. It is about a complex episode in the Italian Middle Ages, one which all Italian school children learn about (and then hurry to forget); it helped shape the kingdom of Naples and produced a secondary event, the Aragonese Crusade, an episode as obscure today as it was violent and useless back then.

The death of Frederick II in 1250 set off a power struggle between his successors of the Hohenstaufen dynasty and the Papacy-backed French house of Anjou—the Angevins— who, after a few decades of warfare, took the kingdom and changed it from the Kingdom of Sicily to the Kingdom of Naples (with the city of Naples as capital). Then, on Easter Monday, 1282, at evening prayers (the vespers), an incident of insult or harassment between a Frenchman (“occupiers” in the minds of many Sicilians still loyal to the Hohenstaufens) and a woman outside the church of the Holy Spirit in Palermo set off a revolt — now called the War of the Sicilian Vespers — that spread and eventually resulted in the Angevin French being driven from Sicily; that power void was filled by the Aragonese dynasty from Catalonia. (See The Crown of Aragon.) Thus, in a few years’ time, the Angevins had managed to take all of southern Italy, including Sicily, from the Hohenstaufens and then lose back all of Sicily.

The French did not lose it lightly. In what must have seemed like a continuation of the decades of war against the Hohenstaufens, the Angevins waged war against the Catalonian encroachers. Their efforts were sanctioned as a “crusade,” by the Pope —thus, the "Aragonese Crusade," described by historian H. J. Chaytor (in A History of Aragon and Catalonia, Methuan Publishing Ltd., London, 1933) as "perhaps the most unjust, unnecessary and calamitous enterprise ever undertaken by the Capetian monarchy." (The Angevins were a “cadet branch”—meaning descendant—of the Capetians.)

The crusade was declared by Pope Martin IV in 1284, against the King of Aragon, Peter III. The war was waged in Catalonia, off the coast and even out in the Atlantic after French forces invaded Catalonia in 1284 to pursue the crusade. It entailed large-scale sacking of villages and slaughtering of villagers, perhaps unnoteworthy (unless you were a village or a villager) in an age known for sacking and slaughtering. The war lasted officially until the Peace of Caltabellotta (near Agrigento on Sicily) in 1302 and changed really nothing. It left the French in charge of the mainland kingdom of Naples, and it left Sicily in the hands of the Aragonese — the way things had been 20 years earlier. If anything, it so weakened the French (their fleet was destroyed in 1285 at the battle of Les Formigues in the Azores) and so strengthened the Aragonese that they were in a position eventually to take over the entire kingdom of Naples, which they did in the mid-1400s.

Anyway, Verdi has a good case if he chooses to pursue it. You be the judge. The first item, below, is the main theme from the overture to Verdi's Sicilian Vespers; the second is an excerpt from Thunder and Blazes by Fučík-Larendeau.

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