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.

Site for Sore Eyes (Pt III)

The third and final jaw dropping moment I experienced in Sicilian churches was not in one of the UNESCO World Heritage Site listed buildings; it was the Jesuit Church of the Gesú in Palermo. This is not Arab Norman (hence its exclusion from the list), and being constructed during the 17th and 18th centuries is very much of the baroque, but it is an astonishing building all the same.

But I won’t be sharing it with you.

The church is an extravagance of multi-coloured marble bas-reliefs that demand your attention. Unfortunately the church authorities demand that you take no pictures (and even had a young lady hiding behind pillars to catch any who would transgress) so all I can recommend is that you look here, or better still go and see them for yourself.

I’m assuming the decision to prevent photography is based on revenue.  (There were no worshippers present to disturb, and being flashless and running on silent mode I’m discrete anyway).  By keeping control of imagery the church can presumably sell postcards and other publications, but I do wonder at the logic.  I didn’t buy anything, but if asked to pay a photographer’s fee (as I’ve done in cathedrals such as Ely or Bologna) I’d be happy to do so.

Instead I will share a little about Santa Caterina; a church with some similarities (though built before the Church of Gesú) but which left me feeling a sense of distaste rather than wonderment.  Appropriate that it should therefore form one side of the “Square of Shame” that I wrote about recently.

Before I entered the body of the church to view the multi-coloured marble there I took a short tour of the rest of the complex; a female Dominican monastery where I and another visitor were accompanied by both a tour guide and a security guard!  Perhaps understandable had we been granted private access to the contents of the cathedral treasury, but here we were taken to rooms where the emphasis was on frugality, so what was being guarded, and from whom?  The last sister left about 5 years ago I believe.

At the heart of complex is a cloister with a beautiful fountain, which we were able to view from the balcony of one of the monastic cells and here was quite a contrast.  Plain rooms with a bed, a tiny wardrobe, a desk and a small cross overlooking the majolica and greenery outside…. but only if you were of a wealthier background and could fund the room with a view.  On the opposite side of the corridor the walls adjoined the streets outside and so no balconies here in case there should be any contact with outsiders.  Unsurprisingly the desks bore bibles, but also knotted cords with which the occupant could beat herself.  I’m sure I spotted a cilice in one room.

The indignities that these women faced were made clear one more as our tour took us to the room where they sang as part of the church choir.  Raised high above the nave of the church they were effectively caged; able to look down on the congregation but unable to interact in any way.  The male voices in the choir were at the opposite end of the church so no chance of fraternisation there either.

Many think of baroque magnificence when Santa Catarina is mentioned, but despite the polychromatic decoration it reminded me more of a prison, where there was one remaining piece of inhumanity.   Just to the right of the altar there is an opening in the marble with a rotating wooden platform within.  Here the unmarried mothers of the city would place their child and then see it disappear as the platform turned and the baby was taken into the monastery.  No one was telling what happened next.

Kings, Viceroys… and a Count

I mentioned some of the different ethnicities that have ruled and influenced Sicily through out its history in an earlier post but it’s worth adding a little more as context for this piece, though volumes could be (and have been) written about European royalty during the middle ages.  Suffice to say that borders were fluid, wars were common and religious schism added to the mix.

Inner Courtyard, Palazzo dei Normanni

Palermo’s Royal Palace is more generally known as Palazzo dei Normanni, the Palace of the Normans, and Roger I, Count of Sicily and father of Sicily’s first King Roger II, was a Norman, which nowadays we think of as meaning he was French, though of course of Norse origins (Norman/Norseman).  Let’s not quibble too much though; they were of the house of Hauteville which sounds distinctly French.  Meanwhile the Holy Roman Empire was ruled by a German (House Hofenstaufer), Frederik I, known as Barbarossa.

When Roger’s daughter Constance married Barbarossa’s son Henry VI, their son Frederik II became a German King of Sicily.  His lineage died out, but this was the period when the House of Habsburg (Austrian) was beginning its domination of Europe.  (Is this starting to sound like George RR  Martin yet?)  Over time the Habsburgs coalesced into two branches, Austrian and Spanish, and the successive rulers of Sicily being related to the Spanish branch inevitably lead to a period of Spanish rule via a series of Viceroys.

The Viceroy Room

I’ll save the jewel of the Palace for a post of its own, but even so you can see a whole range of influences beyond the medieval walls.

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When Italian unification took place it was under the House of Savoy, ostensibly Italian, but with origins in Saxony and a base of operations that straddled the Alps in France, Switzerland and Italy.

All of this plays a part if you should happen to visit the palazzo of Conte (Count) Federico in Palermo.  (Yes, despite being a republic, Italy still has nobility).  Your guide for such a visit is Federico himself, who despite the name retains distinctly German genes and is fluent in multiple languages.

That coat of arms could only be Germanic too!

His palace is well hidden at the corner of a typically Sicilian alleyway, but for the car that sits beyond the open gates; a vintage racing car that Federico’s father once raced in (his mother was an international sports star too).

Step past this into the courtyard and the history lesson begins; the Count’s home was once a defensive tower on the perimeter wall defending Palermo, and his ancestors were rewarded for their role in the city’s defence by being granted residence here.  In time the bay that the wall ran alongside was filled in and the city expanded beyond the original boundary so that now the tower is located in the centre of Palermo.

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Federico is a fantastic host pointing out the historic elements of his home and how they tell the story of the city (including a visit by Garibaldi to his kitchen).   Perhaps though the most telling artefact on display here amongst a story full of Europeans is a set of ceramic items that date back to the earliest occupation of Federico’s family’s tower.  In contrast with the rest of the story, these are distinctly Arabic.  It’s worth comparing the decoration to the Bayeux Tapestry since that depicts the same Normans who ousted the Arabs.  Who do you think showed the greater artistry?

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.

 

 

Baytown

On the day that Bernardo Bertolucci died, one of the articles I read contrasted his and Marlon Brando’s behaviour on the set of the notorious Last Tango in Paris, with a present day pairing of comparable stature; Paul Thomas Anderson and Daniel Day-Lewis.  Coincidence of course, but I’d spent a gloomy morning in Robin Hood’s Bay on the Yorkshire coast, where the Victoria Hotel is the setting for the protagonists meeting in Phantom Thread, ostensibly Day-Lewis final film and one written and directed by PTA.

For a film set in the world of 1950’s Haute Couture, the choice of North Yorkshire for the designer’s “place in the country” seemed a strange one (300 miles away?) but perhaps Anderson’s location scouts were concerned with the look rather than the practicality.  I’m pretty sure the film doesn’t say where this location is supposed to be, other than on some wild and windswept coast.  It certainly lived up to the billing when I was there.

Now despite the name, Robin Hood’s Bay has no proven links to Robin Hood.  (How could it when there’s no evidence that he actually existed?)  The locals make little or no reference to archer of Sherwood and in fact refer to the town simply as Baytown or Bay despite the fact that Robin Hood has been part of the name for seven centuries!

There’s been human activity here since the bronze age, but the activities that made the town were nautical; fishing and smuggling, the latter benefitting from that remote location.   In fact this tiny place was economically more important than Whitby in the 17th century.  Perhaps though I should say tiny places, for RHB is a town in two halves; one down by the sea and sheltering behind a solid sea wall, the other atop the cliffs, windswept but safe from stormy seas.

Interestingly the two halves have different personalities.  Originally the lower town was home to the fishermen and smugglers; small houses, stacked tightly on the steep contours either side of the beck that bisects Baytown.  This creates a network of narrow alleyways that were perfect for hiding from excise men or press gangs.  The town’s own website claims that “a bolt of silk could pass from the bottom of the village to the top without leaving the houses”.

In contrast, those who lived on the cliff tops were the sea captains and ship owners.  Men of greater wealth and influence whose houses were larger and spread further apart, but nowadays there has been something of an economic inversion.  Robin Hood’s Bay is now a tourist trap; the smaller dwellings are mostly holiday cottages and second homes, whereas the upper town, being more remote from the beach is less attractive B&B territory, with cafés and bistros.  And that hotel.

 

 

 

All Greek to Me

Of the various places that I stayed on my tour of Sicily it would be fair to say that Siracusa was my favourite.  It had an unfair advantage in providing me some of the best weather of my trip but there were far more reasons that the temperature for my response to the city.  Perhaps my view will change when the motoring fine that I incurred catches up with me!*

Whereas Palermo wore its Arabic history proudly, Siracusa, on the opposite side of the island, was colonised by Greeks at the same point in history.  There have been many other cultures present in the city since then, but for me the Greek influence was the one that I remember most strongly.

There are plenty of rival distractions from other points in history and I’ll begin with these.  At the very tip of the island of Ortygia, which was the heart of the original city, stands the Swabian fortress of Castello Maniace, built by Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor in the 13th Century, yet the name is derived from George Maniakes, a Greek general who had taken the city on behalf of the Byzantine empire two centuries earlier.  Ok, so not an ancient Greek, but a Greek nonetheless and he built a fort here first!

A little further from the coast is the Piazza Duomo, a sumptuous open space with classical Italian architecture, a cathedral with a magnificent baroque facade, and a nearby church that features a Caravaggio painting The Burial of St Lucy, who was martyred in the city.  What could be more Italian?   Well Santa Lucia’s mother was called Eutychia, a Greek name, and though her father was Roman, this is no clue to his geographical origins.  Even so Lucy was half-Greek.

Then there’s that cathedral, which features frescoes that would not be out-of-place in Rome itself, but the body of the church feels different somehow.  Perhaps it’s the muted lighting you might think, but no. Take a walk around the side and you see an interesting feature in its construction; fluted columns.  This was the Temple of Athena in the 5th Century BC, the period when Athens was at the height of her powers, and yet Siracusa, which was allied to Sparta, was equal in size.

Perhaps a trip to the archaeological park where a great cave once held prisoners and was named The Ear of Dionysus  by that man Caravaggio, because of the acoustic phenomenon that allowed guards stationed above to hear every word spoken in the cavern.  Except that it’s not a natural cave.  It was quarried out as a water storage facility in Classical times.  Ah, but perhaps the Romans did this, after all there is a Roman amphitheatre on the same site?  Sadly one dwarfed by the Greek theatre that is also here, and which remains in use to this day.

 

But above all there is one man responsible for my seeing this as a Greek city, a man who pioneered mathematics, invented war machines to destroy invading shipping, and designed a water pump for large vessels whose design is still used in irrigation systems.  You probably know him more for his bath however.

Archimedes of Syracuse.

*It seems to be recent trend in Italy to create camera controlled pedestrian areas and I’ve no problem with that, but the SatNav companies haven’t caught up.  If you’re planning to drive around the country then Google Italian Motoring Fines and be afraid!