This is going to be a long one, because I’m bubbling over with enthusiasm. I’ve just returned from a marvellous week in Sicily with my parents, who had very kindly taken pity on me and invited me to join them on Voyages Jules Verne’s ‘Treasures of Sicily’ tour. This post therefore has two parts: the first focuses on Sicily itself and the places we visited, while the second part focuses on my experience of travelling with an organised group.
When I first visited Florence, Venice and Rome, I’d already read a lot about the cities, their art and history. Sicily, like Naples, was more of a mystery. My limited knowledge came from three sources: Lampedusa’s Leopard, with its evocative picture of the Palermitan aristocracy in decline; John Julius Norwich’s study of the Normans in Sicily, The Kingdom in the Sun (which I admire, but have read only in part); and the recent exhibition at Dulwich of Van Dyck in Sicily. This provided a rough framework, but what I have discovered over the last week is a bewitching island which really is a palimpsest of history. Greek ruins, Roman villas and Norman mosaics sit alongside Baroque churches, 19th-century avenues and bustling modern ports and markets. Everything is overshadowed by the primal power of Etna, Europe’s largest active volcano, which the Sicilians refer to with fierce pride as ‘la donna Etna’, scornfully dismissing any comparison with ‘that little hill near Naples’.
It is a country of contrasts: the black basalt of Catania set against the white limestone of Syracuse; the fertile coastal regions, lush with oleander, bougainvillea, caper bushes and palm trees, contrasting with the interior, which teems with orange and lemon groves and vast wheat fields, giving way in turn to barren, mountainous scrubland, peppered with olive trees and villages nestling on crags beneath dilapidated fortresses. The lamplit elegance of an after-dinner stroll along the Corso Umberto in Taormina is starkly different from the shabby, uninviting estates sprawling on the outskirts of Palermo. This is a place whose wealth is in its past, not its present: the modern Sicilians feel abandoned by a government which prioritises the demands of the industrialised North against the desperate people of the so-called Mezzogiorno, where unemployment is currently at 30%. And yet they treasure their separateness – their island identity – resisting plans to build a bridge across the Straits of Messina, which would once and for all make Sicily merely a suburb of Italy.
We’ve done so much in the last week: we’ve visited Giardini Naxos, Taormina, Syracuse, Piazza Armerina, Agrigento, Palermo, Cefalu and Monreale. In fact, it’s been so busy that I could do with another holiday to recover from it. Here are the six things I enjoyed the most (I couldn’t quite get it down to five), which I would thoroughly recommend to anyone else travelling to Sicily:
THE PALATINE CHAPEL IN THE PALAZZO DEI NORMANNI, PALERMO
For me, this was the highlight of the holiday and a serious contender for the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. Yes, the mosaic cycle at Monreale is larger, but we saw this first and so it had the benefit of surprise. There is also something very powerful about having so much packed into a relatively small space: when I entered through the little door from the courtyard, I was completely stupefied. It was a feeling of such intensity that I’ve only felt it twice before: once in the Lower Church at Assisi, before Cimabue’s Madonna, and once in S. Vitale in Ravenna – yet neither of those occasions affected me as powerfully as this.
Every surface of this relatively small chapel is exquisitely decorated. The floor swirls with cosmati-work and circles of porphyry; the lower parts of the nave walls are clad with geometrical marble patterns incorporating the Star of David and Arabic designs; the upper parts of these walls are covered with mosaics showing the Acts of Sts Peter and Paul. Above the arches of the aisles, the undersides of which show portraits of saints in roundels, are two registers of mosaic, the upper showing the Creation and the lower showing scenes from the Old Testament. The transept arch shows the Annunciation and beyond is the apse, with the Madonna flanked by saints, and Christ Pantocrator above, with his right hand extended in the Greek form of blessing.
The ceilings of the aisles are made from strips of beautifully-painted wood; the main ceiling is a staggering labyrinth of painted, coffered wood by Arabic craftsmen, which puts the vaults of King’s College Cambridge to shame. Everywhere there is mosaic, marble intarsia and porphyry, the physical expression of horror vacui transformed into searingly beautiful architecture.
A SICILIAN PUPPET SHOW
This wasn’t a planned part of the holiday, but when our guide discovered that the vast majority of people were keen to see a performance, he arranged a private show at the Ippogrifo Puppet Theatre owned by Nino Cuticchio, at Vicolo Ragusi no. 6 (not far from the Quattro Canti). It’s about as far as one can get from the English Punch and Judy: the Sicilian puppet shows, which began in the early 19th century, focus on tales of Charlemagne and his paladins and full cycles of the stories can last almost a year, with episodes performed every night. The puppeteers used to be itinerant players, and Signor Cuticchio himself was born on the road as his family travelled the towns and villages of Sicily.
The show was performed in Italian (we were given sheets summarising the action beforehand) and lasted about an hour, with two puppeteers taking all the parts and Signor Cuticchio providing all the voices, while a young assistant played the barrel organ to provide music. We saw one of the most famous parts of the cycle, described on our summary as The Great Duel Between Orlando and Rinaldo for the Beautiful Angelica’s Love. It was great fun. The puppets are only about 60 cm high and yet the men have such skill with them, that they swagger around the stage, strike attitudes, draw and sheathe their swords and fight dramatic battles. I was amazed at the violence of the show – but of course these are stories for adults, not only for children: heads were struck off, bodies cloven in two and towards the end the pile of slaughtered Saracens resembled the closing scenes of a Jacobean tragedy. There was a serpent, wonderful demons and devils and even a horse for Rinaldo to ride. Night and sunrise were suggested by a moon and sun floating across the backdrop.
It was all so beautifully done, with great humour and gusto. I think I speak for everyone when I say that we thoroughly enjoyed it. And yet there was a bittersweet air to it: this art form is already struggling to survive, against the lure of TV and cinema, and it’s in danger of dying out. It’s already something requested more by tourists than by the Sicilians themselves – which is such a shame.
THE ORATORIO DI SANTA CITA, PALERMO
Now, I have to mention this because we went there at my request. Two of my colleagues, on hearing that I was going to Sicily, said, ‘You mustn’t miss Santa Cita!’ and, since it was a small chapel and not likely to take up much time, I asked Voyages Jules Verne if the local guides might be able to fit it into our Palermo itinerary. And they did, bless them. As it happened, our tour focused on Sicily’s Classical remains and its medieval mosaics (which I was very happy about) and so Santa Cita provided a balancing dose of the Sicilian Baroque.
This tiny oratory, which housed a confraternity dedicated to the Madonna of the Rosary, was decorated between 1685 and 1690 by Giacomo Serpotta, one of Palermo’s foremost stuccatori. Every wall is a dizzying tumble of acanthus leaves, putti, angels and allegorical figures, surrounding little scenes of the Mysteries of the Rosary (the Joyful Mysteries on the left, facing the altar; the Sorrowful on the right; the Glorious behind you on the entrance wall). These teatrini or little theatres show figures sculpted in the round and highlighted with touches of gold leaf, while above each scene three putti adopt poses which summarise or comment on the events happening beneath them. Opposite the altar, the entire entrance wall gives the impression of having been draped with a huge curtain, on which the Glorious Mysteries appear alongside a scene of the Battle of Lepanto, the naval victory against the Turks in 1571 which was won in the name of the Madonna of the Rosary. Above the entrance door Serpotta includes a little plaque showing a serpent, which was his playful signature: in dialect, ‘Serpotta’ means ‘little snake’.
Apart from the touches of gold I mentioned, and one touch of black on the plaque with the serpent, the decoration is all in white. This means that, despite the elaboration, the effect is strangely soothing. You can see the wealth of detail and the monumentality of the sculpture in the photograph above. Now consider that every single part of Serpotta’s decoration is made in stucco – essentially, plaster. His skill is astonishing – as is the fact that so fragile a monument has survived intact.
THE DUOMO, SYRACUSE
It was our Syracusan guide who used the word ‘palimpsest’ (which I borrowed above) to describe Sicily’s history, with reference to this remarkable building. The exterior of Syracuse’s Duomo is a Baroque confection of blindingly white marble, like a particularly over-the-top wedding cake. Yet the interior is very different.
This is the only Greek temple in the world which is still in use: above you can see a photograph taken from the centre of the church, looking out to one of the aisles. The fluted columns along the outside of the building are those of the Temple of Athena’s portico, dating from the 5th century BC, all still intact but with the gaps between them walled in by the Byzantines in the 7th century. The arches between nave and aisles have been carved out of the original wall of the temple’s naos – the house of the goddess (you can see the same arches carved into the naos wall at the Temple of Concordia at Agrigento, which was also converted for use as a Christian church, though it has long since been restored to its original form). This building has been, in turn, a Greek temple of Athena, a Roman temple of Minerva, a Byzantine church, an Arab mosque, and once again a Christian church.
The statues you can just see in the above photograph are from the workshop of the ubiquitous Sicilian Renaissance family of sculptors, the Gagini; a side chapel is frescoed in a Mannerist style by Agostino Scilla; the altar of the cathedral is Baroque; the bronze lamps hanging from the arches are ‘Liberty-style’; the choir 20th-century. Every fascinating aspect of Sicilian history is here, adapted for new functions but still visible, like the strata of an archaeological dig laid open to the eye.
VILLA ROMANA DEL CASALE, PIAZZA ARMERINA
If even one of the mosaics from this stupendous hunting lodge had turned up in England, it’d be the archaeological find of the century. Here there are 3,500 square metres, dating from the 3rd or 4th century AD. It’s still not exactly clear who built the villa: some scholars believe it belonged to Maximianus Herculius, who ruled as co-emperor with Diocletian, while others think it’s more likely to have been built by a wealthy local landowner.
Some of the glorious mosaics show scenes from the myths, such as Odysseus offering wine to Polyphemus (the Sicilians believe that the Cyclops lived on Mount Etna), or the Labours of Hercules. The vast majority, however, show scenes that would have been appropriate for the villa’s function: roundels with animals’ heads pave the peristyle, while a long corridor along the eastern side of the villa shows exotic beasts being loaded onto ships in Africa and Asia and transported to Ostia for the games. Here there are representations of elephants, rhinoceroses, ostriches, gazelles and even a wild boar or warthog. In one of the living rooms there’s a vast mosaic showing young men hunting around the villa, which begins with a propitiatory sacrifice to Diana and finishes with a grand outdoor feast underneath a scarlet canopy. And then there are mythological or allegorical scenes: amorini fishing; the Four Seasons; the well-known erotic scene (which now seems rather tame).
But perhaps the most famous mosaics at the Villa are those which give us an insight into aspects of everyday life. My personal favourite was the scene shown above, in a little vestibule beside the baths complex, which shows the mistress of the house taking her two children to bathe, accompanied by two servants carrying ointments and a chest of fresh clothing. The odd black curlicues at their feet signify shadows. But much better-known than this charming scene is the mosaic which the guides universally seem to know as ‘the Bikini Girls’. Ten girls, wearing the Roman equivalents of bikinis, are showing taking part in some form of athletic competition: two are running; one lifts weights; another prepares to hurl the discus; and two play a game which looks suspiciously like beach volleyball. On the lower part of the mosaic, the victor is being crowned while last year’s winner gives up her garland. Was this some kind of festival in honour of Diana? The guidebook suggests that the room may have been the gym for the daughters of the house, but then, why the presentation ceremony beneath? Intriguing. Answers on a postcard, please.
CLIMBING MOUNT ETNA
It had to be done, of course: Etna is more than twice the height of Ben Nevis, the tallest peak in Great Britain. We were taken up to 2,000 metres by our bus and then those who wished could continue by cable car to 2,500 metres and from there by four-wheel-drive up to almost 3,000 metres. From the place where the four-wheel-drive stops, you can walk with a guide around one of the craters near to the summit where, as you can see above, steam billows constantly out of a vent and, if you knock away the surface, you find hollows of black and red earth which are hot enough to warm your hands against the knifing wind.
Up here it is always cold, even when it’s almost 30°C down at sea level. On the day we went, it was cloudy too and billows of mist poured over the ridge as we clambered back to the car. It’s like being on another world. At first glimpse, all is grey and featureless – a lunar landscape – but then you spot the red streaks of iron and the white of sulphur in the earth. Pumice and basalt litter the wayside and underfoot it’s like walking on scree or soft, black sand. Plumes of steam rise from the earth and cloud covers everything beyond the immediate vicinity, which emphasises your isolation from civilisation. Here you’re acutely conscious of the power of nature.
Of course, vulcanologists can now predict eruptions in time to move people to safety; and it is possible to regulate the lava flows to some extent, using explosions to divert them into safe channels; but I still don’t think it is possible to truly control Etna in any shape or form. It’s a thrilling, alien and sobering place to be.
THE JULES VERNE TOUR
And so to the tour itself. Of course I’d been excited at the prospect of finally seeing the wonderful places I had read about, but I must be frank and admit that the prospect of touring the island by coach had filled me with dread. I’m very much a do-it-yourself kind of girl, and my Italian holidays are generally home-made affairs involving Easyjet, cheap pensioni and travel by train. This was a very different kettle of fish, with visits arranged with military precision and very little leeway for independent sightseeing.
On the one hand, I chafed at being marshalled around, especially because there was no time left to visit the Museo Archaeologico in Syracuse or the Galleria Regionale in Palermo. It was also a shame that on our particular tour the visits to Erice and Selinunte were cancelled a couple of weeks before our departure, which was never really explained. However, on the other hand it was perfectly clear why our trips were so regimented: there was an awful lot to get through, and looking back now I can’t help but be impressed at the amount we fitted into the five days of active sightseeing. It would have been virtually impossible to see as much as we did, if I’d put the holiday together by myself; and besides, getting around Sicily by public transport is a bit of a pain. For this first taster of la vita siciliana it was a definite bonus to be taken here and there and deposited right at the door of wherever we were going.
The whole experience of travelling with a group was new to me. At almost all the hotels we had to sit on tables designated for our tour and so we became used to breakfasting and dining together. The experience reminded me a little of the Pensione Bertolini in A Room with a View. Of course, the success of a trip like this depends very heavily on one’s fellow travellers and we were tremendously lucky because our group contained a number of knowledgeable and erudite people. The three of us spent most of our time with two couples of retired teachers, who between them covered Classics, geography, English literature and modern languages. Dinner conversation was an absolute dream, taking in Classical myths, Shakespeare’s plays, Anna Karenina, Thomas More and Poggio Bracciolini’s rediscovery of Lucretius’ De rerum natura. It felt just like being back at Oxford. And virtually everywhere we went, one or another of our friends was able to add some extra insights to those offered by our official guides. We even co-opted our Classicist to guide us around the archaeological park at Giardini Naxos on our final morning, when we were finally granted some free time before our afternoon departure.
Speaking of personalities, I’d be remiss if I neglected to mention our guide: the excellent Francesco Canfora of Egmont Viaggi, accompanied by our steadfast driver Carmelo. The first thing you would notice about Francesco is his exuberance – he greeted us each morning with an effervescent cry of, “Buongiorno miei tesori!”, which became a catchphrase of the holiday – but he was also very organised and incorporated our requests about the puppet show and Santa Cita. Throughout the trip, he was keen to give us an insight not only into the rich history of his island but also what it’s like to live in Sicily now. Without such splendid people, it would have been a vastly inferior experience.
I shall be writing reviews of the hotels we visited on my Tripadvisor account, so if you’d like to find out about some good places to stay in Sicily (and one place to certainly avoid), do take a peek. Plus, you can see the Sicilian section of my library here on LibraryThing. Do feel free to recommend other books on Sicily: fiction, cookery, art, history; I’ll be glad of all kinds of suggestions!
All photographs courtesy of my parents, so please do respect copyright and ask me if you would like to use any of them.