A Glimpse of the Underworld

Perched on a one of the numerous hilltops of central Sicily sits the unremarkable town of Aidone. It’s people go about their daily work, or strike up conversations in the main piazza just as they would in any other Italian town.

If you’re in the mood for a climb to one of the highest points you’ll find a small church and the remains of a former Capuchin monastery. The buildings now house a small archaeological museum that contains a number of artefacts from the earliest occupants of the island; prehistoric through to the classical era. Most originate from excavations at the nearby site of Morgantina, and though there are some beautiful pieces this was not a collection to rival the Vatican or the British Museum.

And yet there was something remarkable in Aidone, remarkable enough that I travelled out of my way to make sure I didn’t miss it. But before I reveal what that was I need to tell a different story.

Sicily played a very important part in the world of the Ancient Greeks, not simply because Syracusa was on a par with Athens in 5th Century BCE Greece, but because it was home to several key myths and legends which are familiar to us today. The rocks off the coast of Acitrezza were believed to have been hurled there by the cyclops Polyphemus in his attempts to sink the fleeing Odysseus. (Of course when there’s a volcano nearby there might be another explanation!)

Then there are the notorious Straits of Messina that separate the island from the Italian mainland. Many ships have been lost here in the dangerous waters, though of course that is down to the descendants of Poseidon, Scylla and Charybdis, who sat on the rocks on either side of the channel ready to devour both sailors and their vessels.

The nymph Arethusa turned herself into a stream to escape the passions of the river god Alpheus, and trickled underground, only to emerge safely as a spring on Ortygia, and provide water for the people of Syracusa.

There are more examples, but for Aidone the most resonant is the tale of Demeter and her daughter Persephone who was stolen away into the underworld by Hades.  (One of several entrances to hell is on the island). As goddess of the harvest, Demeter’s mourning for her lost daughter had a devastating effect on crops.  To end the devastation, Zeus negotiated a compromise whereby Persephone (or Kore as she is known to some) was returned to her mother for six months of every year, thus explaining the impact on crops of the changing seasons.

In a strange reversal, some underworld figures of the 20th century (tomb robbers) unearthed a statue at Morgantina from the 5th century, believed to be either Demeter or Persephone (I’ll always prefer that to Kore thanks to Wishbone Ash!).  For the sum of $18million it was bought by the Getty in LA, but the mourning of the Sicilians (where there had been a cult worshipping Demeter & Persephone) eventually saw her returned home where she brings economic rather than agricultural blessings.

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History Repeats Itself

In the aftermath of the Notre Dame fire, the world can consider itself fortunate that this magnificent building was not completely destroyed, whilst interesting questions are being asked about any restoration work.  Should it replace the spire as it was, or opt for a modern replacement given that the spire itself wasn’t original?  Or how about trying to restore the building to its medieval look before the spire was built in the 19th Century? There are valid arguments for each.  Macron has promised something better in its place, an easy promise for a politician with a short tenure compare to the time it will take to complete such work.

What is interesting is that the building was never intended to become so significant; its contents, or more specifically one relic was to have been the focus of the religious tourist trade to the city.  Notre Dame was begun in 1160 and was mostly complete a century later,  yet when Louis IX bought the Crown of Thorns in 1238,  he placed it in the nearby royal chapel of Sainte-Chapelle (another exquisite gothic structure).  The Crown remained there, until the French Revolution when it was moved to Notre Dame.  Those who believe in the veracity of such relics will be relieved that it survived the blaze, and yet most will be more concerned about the damage to the church.

A few decades later (though details are sketchy as to its origins) another artefact linked to the crucifixion took up residence in Turin, again in premises owned by royalty.   You may not have realised that the “real” crown of thorns was in Paris, but I’ll be bet you know where the Turin Shroud is!  The medieval city (and the church) made sure of that by incorporating it into all sorts of imagery, even though it had been challenged as a fake as early as 1390.  Carbon dating also places its origins in this period!

Still, why spoil a good story.  We may be more aware than ever of how fake news is spread but the phenomenon is not new.  Turin continued to trade on the relic, and in the 17th Century a special chapel was built to house it under the direction of Camillo-Guarino Guarini, an architect and mathematician of the region.   That mathematical brain was given free rein here as he incorporated all manner of geometric shapes into his design. The chapel interior, and particularly that of the dome is far more spectacular than a piece of stained fabric, though it has yet to overshadow its relic’s reputation in the way that Notre Dame does the crown.

And then in 1997 it caught fire.  Like the crown, the shroud was rescued, firefighters using sledgehammers to break the display and bullet proof glass that contained the cloth.  The shroud was safe, Guarini’s masterpiece was not.  The floor of the chapel was a metre deep in marble fragments and molten bronze.

The restoration of Notre Dame is expected to run to billions and Macron is predicting it will take 5 years.  Il Cappella della Sacra Sindone cost only €30million but required the reopening of an old quarry to match the black marble, the construction of an oil-rig-like scaffold inside it, and took 21 years.  The altar remains untouched; some parts charred, others burned away completely but the rest is magnificent.

I’m sure Notre Dame will bask in the sun once more.  If we’re patient.

A Site for Sore Eyes (Pt II)

The second location from the UNESCO seven that I want to write about didn’t move me to tears, but probably only because it followed so soon after the Cathedral of Monreale.  All the same it is an absolutely astonishing space.  I use the word space because it’s part of a building rather than the structure itself,  and I’ve already introduced you to the Palazzo dei Normanni.  Palermo’s royal palace naturally has a private chapel where the kings, viceroys and their families could worship.

Roger II of Sicily commissioned the construction two years after he became the island’s first king (I know, the name is confusing in that respect).  Eight years later in 1140 the structure was complete, though the mosaics that decorate it weren’t finished for a number of year after that.  Hardly surprising when you see the complexity and beauty of some of  the designs (those completed in the later decades of the project were probably local rather than Byzantine in their construction and are poorer quality).

Here though it wasn’t the mosaic artistry that caused my astonishment.  Like Monreale there are a number of architectural styles at play here; the doorway is typically Norman  and there are other Romanesque features to be seen.  The Byzantine influence is seen not just in the exquisite mosaics and the dominant image of Christ Pantocrator.  

The archways in the aisles are Arabic but rest on classical columns.

The feature that I found so fascinating was purely Arab.  The Muqarnas.

No, I didn’t know either, but it refers to a type of vaulting, though that hardly does justice to a work of wizardry in mathematics, art and architecture.   Known to some as “honeycomb vaulting” or “stalactite vaulting” the muqarnas is a method of transitioning different levels of a building’s ceiling, by encrusting them in a three-dimensional pattern that in some ways works like the jumbled patterns of a “dazzle ship”.   The style originated in the Middle East a couple of centuries before the chapel was built, though sadly one of the earliest and best stone examples is believed to have been destroyed by ISIS.   In an ingenious blending mosaic 8-pointed stars, that are Muslim in design, are grouped in sets of four to create a Christian cross.

Again I was hampered by low light and the difficulties of trying to capture images with a zoom lens but no tripod, but I was determined to see more of the detailed script and illustrations that adorned the ceiling.   Michelangelo is famed for the decoration of a chapel ceiling in Rome.  Sadly the artists responsible for the Palatine Chapel in Palermo did not achieve such fame, though in my book they would have been worthy.

As our world seems to grow ever more intolerant we see that almost 1000 years ago things were very different.  A commemorative plaque just outside the chapel records in Greek, Arabic and Latin the building of a clock in 1142.  Collaboration beats conflict any time.

So look closely at the muqarnas where Christian figures are surrounded by Arabic script, and hope that that spirit can be rediscovered.

A Site for Sore Eyes? (Pt I)

When I think of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, I tend to think of a single location such as Palace Green in Durham, where both Castle and Cathedral are found, or Studley Royal in Yorkshire, where John Aislabie added his estate and water gardens to the existing ruins of Fountains Abbey.  In Sicily though, I found the word “site” stretched to breaking point, for here UNESCO have granted World Heritage status, to what they call

Arab-Norman Palermo and the Cathedral Churches of Cefalú and Monreale

That trips off the tongue doesn’t it?  What’s more the description that might suggest three locations actually relates to nine; for the elements located in Palermo include the cathedral, three other churches, a pair of palaces… and a bridge!  Furthermore, though Monreale is contained within the urban sprawl of Palermo it is a separate town,  and Cefalù is over 60km away as the crow flies.

So what were UNESCO thinking?  Well this scattering of locations are united by unique evidence of intercultural cooperation, describe by UNESCO as:

…the fruitful coexistence of people of different origins and religions (Muslim, Byzantine, Latin, Jewish, Lombard and French).

If you’ve read my previous posts from Sicily, then this multiculturalism will come as no surprise, but what surprised me was the impact that some of these structures (I didn’t visit all nine) had on me, and two in particular.

Bay of Palermo viewed from Monreale

From my brief visit to a cold and grey Cefalù I headed straight to Monreale where heavy rain and the fact that the Cathedral was closed made me question the value of a visit.  I persevered, killing time with a quick lunch and a when the rain stopped, a walk around the wet streets nearby (rarely great conditions for photography).  As I wandered I caught glimpses of a style I was to become familiar with on my travels around the island but I had no idea what was in store.

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When the doors opened once more people materialised from all directions, and with good reason.  I was immediately reminded of Howard Carter’s words on entering the Tomb of Tutankhamun; everywhere the glint of gold.  Not the gilt statuary and picture frames that you might expect in a catholic cathedral; here it was in mosaic and roof timbers, pictorial and abstract, above you and below.  With too many people around to deploy a tripod, and works too delicate to even consider a flash,  I wedged myself between pillars and into corners in an attempt to get the stability to produce decent pictures.  These don’t even begin to do justice to a building whose beauty literally brought tears to my eyes.  The nave shone with the Byzantine and the Muslim (those geometric patterns produced by a religion that shuns figurative representation), but beyond the altar the style changed.

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Here Baroque chapels revel in marble craftsmanship that anywhere else would be with a visit in themselves but of course the return journey to the exit doors was by way of that magnificent nave that would form my abiding memory.

Time to dry my eyes and return to the real world.

 

A Palermo Puzzle

Just a short distance from Quattro Canti in the centre of Palermo is Piazza Pretoria, a name that conjures visions of grandeur (the Praetorian Guard were the elite Roman soldiers who were bodyguards to the emperors).  Here the name derives from the 15th century Palazzo Pretoria (also know as the Palace of Eagles) which forms one side of the square.  The building is home to the city’s mayor, and yet despite its importance, is ignored by the majority of visitors to the square.  Piazza Pretoria has another name.  The Square of Shame.

Now there are two reasons for the description.  The first refers to that civic resident and a history of corrupt politics within the city (seemingly predating the mafia), but the second refers to the strange fountain that dominates the square, though this has also been seen as a tangible representation of the other.  This is all the more credible since the Senate of Palermo made the decision to buy and install the fountain here.  And the fountain’s contribution to the city’s shame?  Its nude statuary.

Now this might seem a little odd.  Why should Palermo be any different to the numerous other Italian cities that boast similar artworks and similarly disreputable politics, but here the island’s history of colonisation must be considered too.  Sicily was ruled by Spain for much of its history, and the Spanish Inquisition enforced their laws here.

The strange thing is that the fountain should never have been here (and not all of it is).  It was originally designed by Francesco Camilliani for a garden in Florence, four hundred miles away.  Here, in the 16th century there was already a strong Spanish influence through Don Pedro Álvarez de Toledo, second cousin of Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain Charles V.  Don Pedro’s daughter was the wife of Cosimo de Medici, Duke of Tuscany.  One of his sons commissioned the work by Camilliani, but despite the family connections Don Luigi had a lot of debts, which is how the work originally described by Vasari as unparalleled in Florence, and perhaps in all of Italy came to be sold to Palermo.  The viceroy at the time was one of Don Luigi’s brothers, perhaps the beginning of the associations with corruption.

And so in Tuscany the work was disassembled into over six hundred pieces, though in the transfer some were lost (probably retained by Don Luigi) and others were damaged so Palermo acquired an incomplete jigsaw; embarrassing when they had demolished a number of buildings in the city to make room for it.  The answer was to employ Camilliani’s son to redesign it.

We shall never know what it looked like originally, but now it is a strange mix of deities, grotesques and animals, but one that draws a lot of tourists, and though the politicians of the day seek to discourage people from sitting on the structure and making it into a Sicilian Spanish Steps, it’s a losing battle.

Between 1998 and 2003 the whole fountain was restored.  I wonder how much of the money allocated went astray?  After all, it seems to be a tradition.

 

 

Vanity Project

I tried to avoid the obvious locations when I last visited Rome; what would I gain from seeing the Coliseum once more, or ambling through the Forum and Imperial ruins for the third time in my life? There were two particular exceptions to this; the Musei Vaticani was one, for how could a few hours possibly reveal all of the wonders there?  St Peter’s Basilica was the other.  Despite my atheism the Catholic Church had got my attention.  The museum contents are of course full of what were once private collections of the popes, but from its design and construction throughout the 16th Century the church was a very public display; a display of wealth, power, and influence.  Remember that the popes of this period had a powerful military at their disposal too. Which is why many of the great artists of the period were called upon to design and build what would be the world’s largest church on the supposed site of St Peter’s burial.  (Incidentally this doesn’t make it the most important; Rome’s cathedral is actually the older Archbasilica of St John Lateran which is a few kilometres away from the Vatican.)  Michelangelo contributed a design for the church, and in particular its famous dome that dominates the city and his Pietá sculpture.
Pieta, Michelangelo
Bernini of course gave us the great welcoming arms of the colonnade that encircles St Peter’s Square and the magnificent bronze baldacchino at the heart of the church.  The Chair of St Peter, a wooden relic thought to have been the saint’s seat as the first bishop of the city, is encased in another of his confections. Bramante, Raphael, Giacomo della Porta, Sangallo and more worked on designs during the century and the great facade was added by Carlo Madermo.  Then there are the numerous artisans who added the polychromatic marble, the dramatic and imposing statuary and the gilt ceiling details. Now if you look carefully at the last image in the gallery above you’ll see two separate pieces of symbolism.  The keys in the lower half are of course associated with St Peter who holds the keys to the kingdom of heaven.  The upper symbol is a peculiar piece of headgear worn by popes for centuries and is usually combined with the keys as an overall symbol of the papacy.  This headgear or papal tiara is properly known as the triregnum, comprising as it does of three crowns.  Three!  Though there are multiple crowns in the Queen’s jewels neither she nor any of there predecessors would wear them all at once.  Combined with the keys there is an underlying threat that you’d better comply with the authority of the Pope. There was little chance you might forget it either… Some years ago I undertook a development project in a Tanzanian village called Mahida.  The poverty was striking, and the two main features in the village, the school and the community centre, both benefitted from some repair work that we undertook.  In a clearing just outside the village centre was another structure.  Bigger, sturdier, unimaginatively designed, and completely at odds with the surroundings.  It was a catholic church.
Welcome to the jungle
Postscript:  the header image in this piece isn’t St Peter, it’s St Paul.  My own piece of vanity.

Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji

…was my favourite artistic experience of my recent trip to Rome, where a Hokusai exhibit was consigned to the basement gallery of the Ara Pacis museum.  Apologies if you’ve arrived here expecting some new insights into Japanese woodblock printing; I chose the title because I was constantly reminded of the collection as I drove around Sicily, where the white triangular cone of an active volcano dominates the landscape in a similar way.  Fuji may be about 12% taller, but both are classified as “ultras”, prominent peaks that stand alone and dominate the surrounding landscape.

This isn’t immediately apparent from the Palermo side of the island, where mountains encircle the city and the Madonie range provides a further barrier to the east, but once you venture into the interior it’s surprisingly easy to spot the cone, particularly when the winter’s snows remain on the summit.  Consequently I expected to easily exceed Hokusai in capturing different evocations.

Unsurprisingly both of the volcanoes have their places in mythology; Fuji in Shinto legends and Etna in Greek, where Hephaestus, blacksmith to the gods, had a workshop beneath the peak (despite other stories that detail how Zeus imprisoned a monster in the same location) and Polyphemus the cyclops lived on its slopes.  Perhaps less well-known is that Etna has another name (Mongibeddu in Sicilian, Mongibello in Italian) which links it to Arthurian legend (Mongibel being home to Morgan le Fay).  What was the legendary English King doing in Sicily????  They’ll be carting St George off to Genoa next!

But back to my journey.  As I travelled further east, so it became easier to spot the peak, though not so to photograph it since in the towns it would be screened by buildings and in the open spaces in between there were few places to stop along the road.
It’s an impressive sight from wherever you view it, but I think burdening you with 36 views might be a little too much…

Postscript.  Seems I’m not alone in being moved by Hokusai, so in fairness to Van Gogh…