And anyone who has once known this land can never be quite free from the nostalgia for it.
(D. H. Lawrence)
Imagine an island in the sun, surrounded by warm, calm, turquoise sea, full of fish; fertile fields of wheat and melons; olive and almond orchards. Is it Paradise? No. The landscape is dominated by a fierce volcano that erupts regularly, hot lava destroying everything in its path; in the cities, organised groups of villains control the residents with fear. But on the slopes of the volcano the soil is rich in potassium and the grapes grow sweetly.
The Sicilian people hold a glass more than half full (literally too). The silhouette of the largest volcano in Europe is looming over the Eastern side of the island, threatening to erupt at any moment, its hot lava and ash ready to bury everything in its path. But despite the destruction it can cause, the islanders regard it as a friend, the giant that makes the soil fertile, the wine sweeter, the almonds bitter, the olives greener. Who wouldn’t try to claim this island for themselves? And so over the centuries, many did, leaving behind a trail of art, architecture, cuisine and customs. To follow this trail is to travel through time.
Syracuse is the greatest Greek city and the most beautiful of them all.
Gods and godesses of Greek mythology chased each other across Sicily and humans built temples to them. Today we can see the temples, if not the gods and heroes, while walking in their footsteps in the poetically named Valley of the Temples near Agrigento. Seven temples are still visible on a 450 hectares on the ridge to the south of the city, standing as testimony to its prosperity. There is often a group of tourists standing in front of the Temple of Concordia, looking up in awe at the Doric columns, overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the structure built more than two thousand years ago. The elegant columnade follows the classic Hellenistic model, the perfect proportions of six columns by 13 and 6.75 metre high. Originally, the architrave would have been painted with bright red, yellow and blue. The temple is wonderfully preserved thanks to some restoration work carried out by the Romans in the first century BC, but mainly to its conversion to a Christian church in the 6th century AD.
The Valley of the Temples is matched in emotional impact only by the Acropolis of Selinunte and the dramatic surrounding landscape, further west along the coast. Among the temples built here in the 6th Century BC, the most impressive, due to its sheer size, is the prosaically named Temple E, another fine example of Doric architecture.
Back on the East coast of the island, we can still hear the echo of Archimedes’ shouts of “Eureka, Eureka” as he runs naked through the streets of Syracuse. And sitting on the stone seat of the theatre, looking towards the stage, we can imagine a tragedy by Aeschylus being played, and maybe even Aeschylus himself peeking out towards the audience, anxiously trying to gauge our reaction to his tragedy.
Climbing onto our time machine, about 100 kilometres inland, we reached the 4th Century AD and the Villa Romana del Casale, near Piazza Armerina. Over 3500 square metres of mosaics, 37 million tiles – the largest collection of Roman mosaics in the world - cover the floor of the villa, depicting humdrum daily activities such as fighting, hunting rhinoceros and discus throwing. A mudslide in the 12th century enabled the miraculous preservation of the mosaics; excavation began in the 1950s and is still continuing. Even more than the Great Hunt mosaics, with its realistic rendition of African animals and their captors, the “Bikini Girls” are much loved by visitors and their guides. In the Chamber of the Ten Maidens, ten young woman wearing bikinis are exercising: dancing, running, weight lifting. A woman in a toga appears to present the winner with a crown – indicating that the girls were participants in a sporting competition.
The identity of the villa’s owner remains a mystery, but we are fortunate that it wasn’t a mega-rich person, or they would have covered the floors with marble, a more up-market material, rather than the mosaics that so enchant us today.
Sicily’s reaches attracted the attention of the Normans (“men from the North” the Vikings colonists founders of Normandy) who, having conquered England, continued towards southern Italy, Sicily and North Africa. King Roger established the capital of his bourgeoning empire in the Muslim city of Palermo. The strength of Roger’s kingdom was in no small way thanks to its ethnic and religious tolerance and the fusion of Arab, Byzantine and Norman culture which characterises the period. This coexistence of different styles is especially evident in the architecture of the North coast, in Palermo, Monreale and Cefalù.
At the centre of the Norman Palace in Palermo, the Palatine Chapel is the royal Chapel of the Norman kings of Sicily – a UNESCO world heritage site and a beautiful example of multi-cultural cooperation. The dazzled visitors struggle to take their eyes off the wooden star-shaped panels of the ceiling, carved and painted by North African craftsmen, to admire the marble candelabra (probably by the Venetian Master of the Putti) before following the Biblical tales told by the magnificent Byzantine mosaics, and admiring the arabesque arches and decorations on the walls.
The same combination of Norman-French, Byzantine and Arab style is to be found on the splendid doorways the Cathedral in Monreale, a few miles from Palermo. The asymmetrical façade, with its pointed arches and coloured marble inlay and the bronze doors by Bonannus of Pisa, do not prepare the visitor for the magnificence inside the cathedral. From the marble floor inlaid with swirling geometrical mosaics to the honeycombed wooden ceiling, the eye is drawn from one column to the next., from one biblical scene to another. Over 6,500 square metre, tiny pieces of brightly coloured glass come together in mosaics depicting saints and kings on a gold background, adorned by gilded motifs and rich decorative patterns.
The Sicilian Baroque
The Baroque is the final stage in all art, when art flaunts and squanders its resources.
(Jorge Luis Borges)
On 11th of January 1693 a powerful earthquake hit Eastern Sicily, causing the destruction of 70 cities and the loss of some 60,000 lives. After this tragic event, the towns went about the business of reconstruction, and architects, some of them trained in Rome, were given the opportunity to build in the style that was fashionable on mainland Italy. They happily embraced some of the Baroque elements – the drama, the use of chiaroscuro, the lavish decoration – and adapted it to the Sicilian taste, landscape and resources. Public edifices, palazzi, churches and cathedrals were built at this time in the style that became known as Sicilian Baroque.
As the sun shines on the island for most of the year, balconies, an element that attaches the outdoor to the building, became a characteristic feature of Sicilian architecture. Intricate wrought iron balustrades replaced the plain balustrades of earlier constructions. The balconies are supported by console brackets adorned with cute putti, or curvaceous naked women, or grotesque masks to ward off evil spirits. Palazzo Judica Caruso in Palazzolo Acreide boasts the longest balcony in the world.
Volcanic lava was often used in building works, due, of course, to its availability in the area surrounding Etna, enabling beautiful decoration of black and grey contrasts. Ornaments are an important aspect of Baroque, and the Sicilian architects used inlaid colour marble, wrought iron, stucco and sculptures; we find mermaids, cherubs, winged horses, lions and trees decorating the interior and exterior of their buildings. The Baroque era in Europe exited with a flourish.
Back to the present
Our time machine came to a halt outside a restaurant in Catania. Sicilian architecture appears to have ignored the 20th century revolution, the way it skipped Renaissance and Rococo. There is a limited number of contemporary buildings on the island. The focus is on continuous discovery and preservation of ancient buildings. And on Pasta con le sarde.