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.

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.

 

Slow, slow, quick, quick, slow

Back in the days when I first began dining out with any regularity there were only three choices in most locations; a curry (referred to as an Indian, though most establishments were run by Bangladeshis), a Chinese, or an Italian (usually pizza). Aside from that stereotyping that rendered the extensive cuisines of each country down to a single word, there were other expectations about the people who worked there. The “Indians” would tend to be very formal but keen to share a joke, the Chinese would be ultra efficient with little time wasted between courses, and the Italians would be slow.  

These are sweeping generalisations I know, but that was the typical experience of the time, and in some places I would guess it still holds true. I’ve no idea why the Chinese might work as they did, but of course there was a long history of British control on the Indian subcontinent which still left traces of “master and servant” in the relationships between the two peoples.

As for the Italian approach this is much easier to explain. Eating is such a social event in Italy, and the enjoyment of good food and good wine is further enhanced by good conversation. We Brits may have looked at all the courses on an Italian menu and balked at the volume of food to be eaten if you opted for antipasti, primi piatti, secondi piatti, contorni and dolci (not forgetting the pane too!) but spread out over an entire evening this isn’t so unreasonable. When you’re eating alone as I usually am, it’s a bit harder to justify!

When my children were young we were in Tuscany and drove a few miles to a place that had been recommended to us. Our reservation was early and I think we were the first to arrive, sitting outside in beautiful sunshine. When we left it was pitch black, but the time had flown by, aided by the food, the proprietor’s singing and accordion playing, and conversation boosted by the presence at the next table of the author John Mortimer and his family.

So I was surprised when I had lunch at a newly opened gourmet snack bar in Turin (Lumen) and was told that their goal was to deliver “espresso everything”. Coffee of course, but food and drink delivered on the double too.

What made this all the more surprising is that Turin is the home of Slow Food, a movement that sprang from a protest against opening a MacDonalds at the foot of the Spanish Steps in Rome, and grew into a network across 150 countries that amongst other things promotes local and artisanal foods where the emphasis is on care over speed.  Turin is also the home of Eataly, a restaurant and grocery business that espouses Slow Food and is also developing an international presence.

So what were Lumen thinking about?  For me as a solo eater they nailed it.  The service was flawless and food delicious, but then the wine and the prosciutto had spent some time developing their flavours before they were sliced and poured so swiftly.  Best of both worlds.

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?