The Egadi Islands: From Cave Drawings to the Florio Fortune

Off the northwestern tip of Sicily, the Egadi Islands (Levanzo, Favignana and Marittimo) are largely undeveloped and naturally beautiful. When I visited, I discovered history I couldn’t have dreamed up.

The first, Levanzo is mostly a protected nature park with this one small picturesque village, Cala Dogana, tucked in a cove.
Its peacefulness belies the fact that it was the scene of a critical naval battle in 241 BC in the First Punic War between the Carthaginians and the Romans. The Roman fleet got intelligence that the Carthaginians were coming and lay in wait in this quiet bay: their sails filled with a strong offshore wind but their ships tethered by anchors. When the Carthaginians appeared, the Romans sliced their anchor lines, entered the battle at top speed, and largely destroyed the enemy fleet. In the ensuing treaty, Sicily was signed over to the Romans. Written records of the battle were corroborated when modern archaeologists found the Roman anchors, still lined up in a neat formation under these waters.

On the other side of the island is the “Cave of the Genovese“, which contains Paleolithic etchings from 10,000 years ago and Neo-Enolithic paintings from 5,000 years ago. I was especially fascinated by the paintings of tuna (see more below on Favignana) and dolphins. They are the oldest known representations of marine life in Europe. Since no photos are allowed, I copied this one from the website.
Levanzo cave copy

To visit, call ahead to reserve, charter a boat, and then, hike from this bay about 45 minutes up a path to get to the mouth of the cave. IMG_1187_2

The second island, Favignana, is larger, flatter and more developed because it was the site of the Florio family’s tuna netting, processing and canning facility: the Tonnara of Favignana. The tonnara operated until 2006 when it closed primarily because there are no longer enough tuna in the Mediterranean.

The tonnara’s ancient way of fishing was devised by the Arabs. Stone blocks were dropped into the sea to hold a spiral formation of nets. As the tuna passed by in migration, a small portion, fewer than 5%, would swim into the wide entry point and find themselves directed further and further into the center. On the day of harvest, the fishermen would go out in these long wooden row boats…

…and pull the nets in rhythmically while they sang at the direction of the “Rais”, arabic word for leader. This historical footage shows how.

Favignana was a “company town” in the sense that the tonnara employed nearly all the residents, men and women, full-time, all year and provided care for young children not in school. (The Florio family bought all the Egadi Islands outright in 1876). This courtyard is immediately inside the front gate.

During the tuna processing time, women worked canning (Favignana was the first place in Europe to use canning technology) while the men were cutting and processing the fish. In the winter, it was time for cutting tufo stone blocks and preparing the nets.

The museum at the tonnara contains archaeological artifacts from the sea like amphorae used for transporting oil and wine…

…as well as the oldest bottle of wine in the world, dating back to ancient times.

And the hull of an ancient ship reconstructed in the area where tuna were once unloaded from the boats.

It is hard to describe the wealth of the Florio family in the mid to late nineteenth century. Vincenzo and Ignazio Florio were comparable to the likes of Rockefeller, Morgan, Carnegie, Gould, Mellon etc in America, but in Sicily and even Italy at the time, they had no peers. Two Florio brothers had arrived in Palermo as blacksmiths in 1800 and by the next generation, the family (originally from Calabria) had an international trading company with some vertical integration (like marsala wine–see Donna Franca post— and tuna). They had villas wherever they had business. This one on Favignana is now the town hall.

At the end of the nineteenth century, the Florios overreached getting involved in a speculative financial deal just as an economic crisis hit Sicily. Instead of declaring bankruptcy and holding onto their personal wealth, they sold all of their assets and became penniless. Their fall paralleled the beginning of economic problems that have plagued Sicily and southern Italy ever since.

I toured the island by bicycle to see where the tufo rock was quarried annually to make stone blocks for holding down the tonnara nets.

I passed stunning beaches with practically no one on them..

…and miles of hand made muri a [glossary_exclude] secco[/glossary_exclude], stone walls made in the traditional way without cement.

Favignana is about ten miles off Trapani and can be reached by ferry. I wasn’t able to visit the furthest of the Egadi Islands, Marittima.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Tags: Donna Franca Floria, Egad Islands, Favignana, Florio, Punic War, tonnara, Tuna
Previous Post Next Post