Our Thing

It would be impossible for me to write about my travels in Sicily without a mention of their most famous export. Or perhaps as we shall see it also falls under the category of import.

I’m talking about the Mafia of course and let me be clear from the outset that this a personal reflection; and there are countless works of fiction and non fiction that will be more informative than these few words.  (It’s been a while since I plugged The Dark Heart of Italy)

I could have passed the two weeks there and returned oblivious to the presence of any rackets. It was certainly no different to any other part of Italy in that respect.  I’d been warned about “car park attendants” in Palermo who loiter in the free car parks demanding money for showing you an empty space (with the implicit threat to your vehicle if you don’t) but on the Sunday I arrived there was no sign.  Perhaps they were in church.  When I left three days later there were two guys who looked very pleased with vacancy I’d created but let’s not assume the worst.   I knew that shops displaying the addiopizzo* sticker in their windows were refusing to pay extortionists, but it was so far off my radar I didn’t even look for them to photograph.

None of which prevented me from visiting the tiny hilltop settlements of Forza D’Agro and Savoca which Coppola chose to represent the town of Corleone in his trilogy (don’t mention the third one) of Godfather films.    And yes I did take a seat outside Bar Vitelli where Michael seeks the hand of Appolonia.

Corleone exists but wasn’t suitably photogenic, and at the time that Mario Puzo wrote the book (1969), didn’t have a strong mafia presence to speak of.  That was to change in the 80’s and 90’s when the Corleone clan were the leading, and arguably most violent group.

All of which creates a dichotomy.  Sicily would like to consign the mafia to history, in much the same way that we in the UK would like to see the end of terrorism in Northern Ireland.  Both have made great progress, but cultures are not easily changed when people have a fondness for their history.  In Belfast the painted kerbstones, bunting and murals remain and continue to be inflammatory.  In Sicily they may eschew the past but then they can’t help but capitalise upon it, and who is to say it cannot rise again?

The political and judicial forces that combined to tackle the mafia have been weakened by the likes of Berlusconi as a way of mitigating his own corruption, and indeed in Blood Rain, Michael Dibdin makes the point that the politicians are now a greater threat.

So it would be easy to see the Mafia purely through the eyes of Hollywood and the pages of crime novels, but let’s just examine two more experiences from my first day in Sicily and my last.  On the former I had some time to kill in Monreale while waiting for the cathedral to open.  It was cold and wet, the latter making taking pictures less attractive than usual.  So I grabbed a slice of sfincione  and made small talk with a man on a street corner despite the limitations of our respective linguistic skills.  On one corner opposite us was the grey concrete of the police headquarters, but it was another corner he wanted me to see where two marble plaques were erected.

Basile was a Carabinieri captain investigating the Mafia who was shot and killed here in 1980.  The murderers fired repeatedly into his back.  He was carrying his four-year old daughter at the time who was luckily unharmed.

The second experience was as I returned to Palermo airport and travelled along the main A29 road where tall obelisks rise above a lay-by on either side of the road at a place called Capaci.

Falcone & Borsellino mural, Palermo. Borsellino was another magistrate killed by Mafia.
Hills above Capaci

Here in 1992 they killed the anti-Mafia magistrate Giuseppe Falcone (after whom the airport is now named).  They did so by planting a 400kg bomb under the road which was triggered remotely from the hillside above the road.

Falcone’s wife and three policemen were not as fortunate as Basile’s daughter and were killed too.  The Mafia toasted the Capaci bombing with champagne.

The hillside now bears a clear message…

… if you have a lens that can pick it out.

*Goodbye Extortion

 

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Rock Follies

Some months ago I wrote a piece about Studley Royal water gardens, and how they were created by John Aislabie when he retired from government in disgrace at the end of the South Sea Bubble Affair.  As Chancellor of the Exchequer he was greatly responsible for the scheme which was intended to refinance public debt but lead to the financial ruin of many and enormous damage to the economy.  (As Britain faces Brexit we have a Chancellor who is luke warm about the process but seems powerless to prevent it – will he suffer a similar fate?)

Perhaps suffer is the wrong word to use in conjunction with Aislabie however because though his mansion no longer survives, it is clear from the expense he incurred developing the gardens at Studley that he was not financially ruined.  What I did not know was how much the reverse was true until I discovered recently that the 18th century leisure park developed by Aislabie and his son was far more extensive.

Continuing the down the watercourse from Fountains is the Seven Bridges Valley, where small stone structures criss-cross the stream running through a steep-sided gorge with more follies along the ridge.  It’s nowhere near as beautiful as Studley (which is perhaps why the National Trust don’t include it) but Aislabie’s guests would enjoy carriage rides across the little bridges as part of the whole experience.

But then I discovered Hackfall Woods, six miles away as the crow flies, but another steep valley populated by small stone structures which was also part of the Aislabie estate.

Arch Brexiter, Jacob Rees-Mogg’s father published a book describing how influential individuals might prosper in a future world of financial chaos, and his son seems bent on bringing that to fruition.  Taking the long view, I can’t help but think that there’s nothing new in this world.

My own financial situation has changed for the worse of late when I was made redundant, but all of these sites had something that is still free to me and is far more beautiful.  The natural world.

I’ve nothing against the stone follies.  I do object to the political ones.  But I managed one of my own.

Studley is a deer park home to three herds; fallow, sika and red deer.  And visiting in the autumn means the deer are in rut.  The stags are pumped with testosterone, and far more aggressive than usual.  Recommendations are that you keep at least 100 metres away.

Walking along the Seven Bridges Valley the air resonated with that growling belch that stags make at this time of year, but I thought they were all up on the ridge above me.  Until I rounded this tree and got a bit of surprise.  I stopped dead and let him move away though I didn’t take my eyes of him for a second.  I was glad of the metal cages that protect some of the trees trunks as I figured they would give me a start if I needed to climb.  Luckily he didn’t see me as a threat.

 

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.

Revisiting the Past

The last morning in Rome of my honeymoon was spent in Santa Maria Maggiore (due to its proximity to our hotel) and then, to kill time until we had to leave, people watching from the steps outside. The memory is one that has long outlasted the marriage, but coincidentally I spent my last morning in Rome on my more recent trip visiting the same church.

Not so convenient this time; an early morning metro across town was needed this time, but soon I was at those steps again. (Along with signage prohibiting their use as seats by those with inclinations similar to mine from all those years ago).

There are so many things I could write about his basilica; from one side it is plainly Romanesque, from the other extravagantly Baroque, the maggiore of the name because it is the largest dedicated to Mary in the city and not because it has the tallest campanile in town, or about the relics and burials beginning with B (The Bethlehem Crib, a Borghese, a Bonaparte, and the sculptor Bernini).

Yet there was something else here that made a greater impression on me.  That Romanesque apse is genuinely Roman for the church was constructed in the 5th century a few decades before the city fell to invaders and the last Western Roman Emperor was deposed (ironically called Romulus Augustulus).

The marble pillars in the church may date back to an earlier basilica but much of the building dates back to this period, including the archway between nave and choir that has become known as the Triumphal Arch.   Much of the church is decorated in mosaic (a good preparation for my Sicilian journey) but here they are particularly important because of the insight they give into Roman life at the time, including wardrobe.  The depictions here are arguably the most accurate views of how the characters from bible stories may have appeared since they were created by the same Romans responsible for the crucifixion.

Of course I’m not really suggesting that they are accurate; look at the seated Mary at the top of the arch and she resembles a Roman empress, and of course four centuries had passed between her life and her depiction here, but it did make me think: “If the artists of the Renaissance supposedly took their inspiration from antiquity and the remains in Rome, why did they persist in dressing their subjects in medieval garb rather than take inspiration from the evidence here?”

All of which just left me time to lap up the baroque elements, jump on my return metro and kill time before leaving the city on some other notable steps when I left the station.

In Piazza di Spagna.

 

Postscript – I almost forgot to mention one other detail that stood out for me.  Amongst the marble popes there was an African face, one carved by Bernini no less.  A reminder that the countries of that continent that were colonised and raided by Europeans were not the savages we have portrayed them as through history.  Antonia Manuele was sent from what is now Angola as an Ambassador to Rome in 1604.  Weakened by a terrible journey he died in the city and was granted his last rights by the Pope himself.  Treated with respect and importance rather than as human cargo as his countrymen would be in the centuries that followed.

Needles and Pins

I can’t recall whether it was on University Challenge or some less august programme, but I recently heard the following question asked:

Where in the world will you find the most Egyptian obelisks outside of Egypt?

The answer came to me immediately (and not entirely because I’ve been playing Assassin’s Creed Origins of late), but because I’ve seen so many.  London has a Cleopatra’s Needle (as do Paris and New York), Catania has its famous lava elephant bearing an example, the Boboli Gardens in Florence, and even Durham University possesses one.  By that count alone I’d have seen almost as many ancient Egyptian tekhenu (the original name, obelisk being a Greek word) outside of the country as Egypt herself possesses.  (Eight remain there).

Cultural imperialism at work.  Absolutely, but starting with the Roman Empire, for Egypt was a province of Rome for six centuries, and as supplier of much of the empire’s grain, arguably the most important.  Invariably Egyptian influences found their way into Rome and continued to do so.  Rome’s Piazza del Popolo features one of the city’s obelisks, but lion fountains rest on pyramidal structures, and sphinx topped walls are also present.

The antique shops feature the products of classicism and Catholicism flanked by more modest stele, and in this case a nice framed print comparing all of Rome’s pointed acquisitions.

All of which raises the argument which in this country gravitates most frequently to The Elgin Marbles; should these artefacts be returned to the country of their origin?  I’m a firm believer that the answer is an emphatic “No”, and for much the same reason that I voted against leaving the European Union.

Conflicts and prejudices are very often driven by a lack of understanding, or beliefs that have distorted truths at their hearts.  The more we know and understand one another the better in my view, and the art and history of different cultures is an important element of this.  Yes you can learn a lot by visiting another country (and I thoroughly enjoy doing so) but my cultural appetite for this was whetted in my teenage years by the British Museum, and though I first visited it to see a temporary exhibit, the permanent collections have had just as much impact on me over the years.  (That exhibit was another Egyptian marvel by the way; the mask and grave goods of Tutankhamen).

So for me Rome should keep her obelisks.  If they make people more curious to learn about Egypt so much the better.  Besides which, the Vatican, the Pantheon and several other sites in the city wouldn’t be the same without them.

And if you think I’ve forgotten the crowning glory of Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers in Piazza Navona, it was a deliberate exclusion.  The wealthier citizens of Rome commissioned a few of their own to be made in Egypt so this, the example atop the Spanish Steps, and the one outside Santa Maria Maggiore aren’t quite the genuine article.  Reproductions have a long history too.

 

The Second Elizabeth.

Portrait of Elizabeth I at Hardwick Hall

For centuries England had been ruled by kings, and then Henry VIII produced two daughters who would each sit on the throne. Mary’s rein was relatively short and largely forgotten by many but for her persecution of religious dissenters. Her sister Elizabeth’s era is legendary by comparison. She was an exceptional woman.  And yet there was another Elizabeth whose life overlapped the Virgin Queen’s and who also exercised a great deal of power.

Bess of Hardwick

Elizabeth Cavendish gained wealth and influence through a series of high-profile husbands becoming the richest woman in the country after her queen.   Amongst her many accomplishments she built is associated with not one, but three great houses.  Her final home, Chatsworth, is perhaps Britain’s best known stately home and continues to be inhabited by the Cavendish family to this day.

Old Hardwick Hall

She is better known as Bess of Hardwick, and it was at Hardwick Hall, in the same county as Chatsworth, that she was born, but there are two Hardwick Halls here.  The original is now an empty shell, but alongside it is the replacement that Bess had built as a more fitting statement of her power.

This is amply demonstrated by the number of windows in the structure, despite glass being an extravagance at the time.  The chimneys are built into internal walls to provide more glazing opportunity so that it was said of Hardwick:

Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall

The title she acquired from her fourth husband (Cavendish was the second) was Countess of Shrewsbury, and the exterior of the building leaves no doubt that this was Elizabeth Shrewsbury’s project.  Look closely at the roofline and the letters ES are far from subtly displayed.

Internally there are the usual furnishings of the period (though understandably of better quality than average) and a great number of tapestries, many of which it is believed she worked on herself.  (Mary, Queen of Scots, was at one time held at Chatsworth under house arrest and the two apparently sewed together.)  Most notable are the “fyve pieces of hangings” representing noble women who Bess perhaps saw as role models.

These are now part of an intricate restoration project which will hopefully see all back on display at Hardwick, though appropriately one of those already there is of Penelope, wife of Ulysses who refused to consider suitors until she had finished her own tapestry (which she unpicked every night until her husbands return, 10 years late, from the Trojan War).

The Cavendish arms feature three stags or bucks heads, and stag references are prominent throughout the building, though when you reach the Great Gallery, the deer are joined by elephants, camels and more in a stunning plaster frieze around the room.  There is little doubt that this was a room designed in hope of a visit from Bess’s namesake given the decoration over the fireplace.  Even the second richest woman in England had her betters!

My Name is Nobody (Enna IV)

And so as the two floats have been escorted to the cathedral with a funeral march and choral accompaniments at 7.00pm we are ready for the procession to begin.
The robes for the oldest confraternity of SS Salvatore bear a red Maltese cross which suggests a link back to the crusades (this being the emblem of the Knights Hospitaler), but the pictures on the exterior walls of their church  suggest their presence much earlier in time.

As rewriting history goes it isn’t subtle.  The other confraternities wear similar garb but in different colour combinations, but they are all united in wearing pointed white hoods that obscure their identities.  (The exceptions being those carrying the burden of the floats who presumably need more ventilation.)

Some see the hoods as reminiscent of the Ku Klux Klan (though there is no known connection) and of course the costumes long predate the Klan’s origins, but perhaps for this reason, all but one of the confraternities have the points of their hoods carefully folded over and held in place with what might be seen as an ersatz crown of thorns reducing the resemblance, though they are still very strange-looking.  Mondassian cybermen sprang to mind.

The true purpose of these hoods was originally to serve as a mark of humiliation for sinners in the early days of the inquisition, although it is also seen as a symbol of mourning, hiding the grief they feel at the death of Jesus.

And so at 7.00 the procession begins, a slow, funeral march from the Cathedral near the top of the hill, down to the cemetery which is nearly 4km away.  Those taking part are almost exclusively male (though the occasional small group of girls get to dress as nuns and walk between the two columns of mysterious figures slowly making their way through the town.

Each group has its own symbol that it parades, though for the confraternity of the Passion, a series of symbols from the crucifixion are individually carried on either side of the procession.  Borne on red velvet cushions they include nails, dice and even a heavily sedated cockerel.

Fascinating stuff, but there’s a problem, for after the brotherhood of the Passion have passed we then have  the brotherhoods of SS. Crocifisso of Pergusa, Maria SS of Valverde, SS. Sacramento, Maria SS of the Grazie, San Giuseppe, Maria SS del Rosario, confraternity Maria SS. Della Visitazione, Sacro Cuore, Spirito Santo, Maria SS Immacolata, Anime Sante del Purgatorio, Maria SS la Nuova and SS. Salvatore. Then clergy with a Cross reliquary containing fragments of the cross and the thorns of Christ under a canopy followed finally by the urn of the Dead Christ, the float bearing the Addolorata and another band as well as local dignitaries.  All in all there are some 3,000 people and it takes some time for them to complete the trip at which point they turn around and return via a different route.

It’s a point I’ll repeat in respect of some of the churches I saw in Sicily, but really sometimes less is more!