The one-armed hero of British naval history died without ever setting foot on his duchy in Sicily. Yet Nelson's Castle and the surrounding estate, on the western slopes of Mount Etna, offer a fascinating insight into Anglo-Sicilian relations and bloody uprisings. As castles go, first impressions are uninspiring; a simple two-storeyed building of solid sand- coloured stone, with no moat, no drawbridge, and no flag. The setting, however, is breathtaking, with snow-tipped, purple-sloped Mount Etna to one side, the Nebrodi mountain range to the other and an uninterrupted view of woods, fields and villages down to the coast at Catania some forty miles below.
You enter Il Castello di Nelson through a massive stone portal. A large black celtic cross on a large pedestal carries the inscription "Heroi Immortali Nili". It's the first of many reminders of the man who once owned the castle and estate, but is at the same time something of a red herring. The reason he became a Sicilian duke had nothing to do with victories on the Nile, at Trafalgar or anywhere else. It was a generous thank-you gift for his involvement in the brutal repression of a revolt against the Spanish Bourbon Kings who once ruled all of southern Italy.
In 1799, inspired by the principles of the French Revolution and fomented by French troops, there was an uprising against Ferdinand IV which forced him and his court to go scurrying to safety in Sicily.
But the new Parthenopean Republic which replaced him had a short life. Nelson, who knew Naples well (not least because of his affair with Emma, Lady Hamilton, wife of the British ambassador there) was called in to assist with the restoration of the monarchy, in an operation that was was criticised at home - Lord Badham described it as "a blot on the honour of England".
In return the thankful royals gave Nelson a title, the Duke of Bronte (the local town) and a 7,000 hectare estate. They also exempted him from taxes.
Busy at sea, Nelson sent a manager to run the estate. But he was extremley proud of Bronte - in letters always signing himself "Nelson & Bronte" - and dreamed of one day living there with Lady Emma and their daughter, Horatia. New research is showing that he took a close interest in the affairs of the estate, even at one point arranging for the latest farming implements to be sent out from England to be used in the fields.
The estate's grounds were ornate but most of the buildings were the remains of a Benedictine monastery. This had been founded in 1173, badly damaged by an earthquake in 1693, and abandoned. Part of the complex dates back even further. Saint Mary of Maniace, a tiny Norman Gothic chapel at the castle entrance, was built to house an icon of the Madonna. It was constructed by Byzantine general Giorgio Maniace, who won a decisive battle here against the Saracens, to give thanks for divine help.
Today these traces of the distant past make for a fascinating visit. But in Nelson's day the rubble of history must have seemed a far-from- fitting residence for an admiral, and now duke.
It was only after his death in 1805 that Nelson's heirs thought about turning the property into a stately residence of sorts. Horatio's niece Charlotte, who married Samuel Hood, viscount of Bridport, was the first. However the long journey, Etna's smoking presence and the tales of peasant uprisings and decapitations some years earlier proved too much for her and she didn't maintain her interest.
Her fears were not unfounded. Bronte, the nearest town, had something of a track record for violent uprisings and the vast lands of a foreign overlord were an obvious target. They were the scene of an uprising in 1860, when a group of liberals encouraged people to rise up against their rulers. Homes and properties were looted and burned and many innocent people killed. When Nelson's heirs and consul raised the alarm, Garibaldi, who wanted British support for his role in attempts to unify Italy, dispatched one of his toughest generals to quell the unrest and hang those held responsible. …