For a Few Shoulders More (Enna III)

The church of Santissimo Salvatore can trace its origins to 1261 (though it’s been rebuilt since then) and so its lack of size is compensated for by being one of the town’s oldest and most important churches, and in so far as many christians see the church as being the people who attend rather than the structure itself then this is certainly true, for on that Good Friday then numbers gathering in those white and yellow robes were considerable.  But then they needed to be.

Before we get to the ground level activities it’s worth noting that despite its size, the coffered ceiling is worth of comparison with that of the nearby Duomo, but you’ll have to wait to see what I mean.

Let’s go back further in time.  Sicily plays host to so much Greek mythology (Etna as Polyphemus the Cyclops, the treacherous Straits of Messina with their natural whirlpool equate to Scylla and Charybdis) and in particular the story of Demeter and Persephone, for it was from near to Enna that Hades burst out from the underworld on his chariot to abduct the beautiful Persephone, daughter of Demeter, the Goddess of Agriculture.  I’m sure you know the rest of the story which gave rise to the changing seasons.  Consequently spring was always celebrated here even before Easter supplanted earlier festivals.

The establishment of SS Salvatore coincides roughly with a period of Spanish control over the island and if you’ve seen the episode of Civilisations in which Mary Beard follows the procession of the “crying” Madonna of Macarena you’ll know what’s coming in Enna IV.

At the heart of that are two statues of Christ and the Virgin Mary born by the confraternities of Salvatore and Addolorata respectively.  (The weeping mother mourns her child who will bring salvation – Demeter & Persephone anyone?)

And now the need for all those men becomes apparent; they will carry the wooden corpse of Christ in his glass coffin (Urn) in the long procession to come with the load being spread across dozens of shoulders to lessen its impact.  Just one problem.  Getting the elongated structure out of the church which is hemmed in by narrow alleys and high walls.

The answer is to break it into three sections, walk these out to one of the longer “straights”, place the urn section on trestles and lock the extension arms back into place.  Easier said than done, but after a couple of false starts enough force is applied to lock the three into one and the procession begins… and then stops.  A corner on the route is too tight to turn conventionally so instead, rocking from side to side as the men keep step, the entire structure stops while individually the men turn about under their load, effectively putting the whole thing into reverse.

It’s something to behold, but it’s just the beginning…


A Fistful of Colours (Enna II)

The reason for so many to be here became apparent only gradually.  The carriage of garment bags and trundling of cases laid a trail that many would follow; though most were deterred by iron gates and returned to the duomo for easier prey.

The patient, and the knowledgable knew better.

Soon creatures of varying plumage emerged from bars, caffés and alleyways.  Many began to gather by the cathedral; consolation then for those who had given up on the main event.

The “man with no name” knew better, passing the time by smoking his last cigarette down to his tattooed fingers.  There’d be time for more tobacco later.  It wouldn’t be long now.

And then an act of athleticism heralded progress.  The gates were open and those who had kept faith surged forward to join the faithful in the tiny church of Santissimo Salvatore, a church founded in the 13th century, along with the rituals that were to follow.

The narrow streets of Enna were to be thronged with a procession of mysteriously robed representatives of a number of different churches, but two of those churches had a far more significant part to play.  My insider, Angelo, had told me to visit SS Salvatore first, and then if it was possible to head as quickly as possible to the Church of the Addolorata.  What was significant about these two?  Part III reveals all.

The Good, The Bad, and The Not So Ugly (Enna I)

It’s shortly after lunchtime in a Sicilian hill town when the predators begin to gather in the otherwise empty streets.

A stiff breeze blows eddies of dust and detritus into neat circular deposits.  A soundtrack by Morricone is required.

The common lizard that hurries in and out of the cracks in the pock-marked wall of the cathedral need have no fear however, even though many of the hunters will be focusing their intention here.  For now though the man with no name rests before the action begins.  Van Cleef strolls nonchalantly.

A smaller group breaks off, largely unnoticed by the majority and makes for richer pickings.  I am one of them, and find myself with serious company.  Some hunt in packs, whilst others operate alone but with more fearsome weaponry than I might muster.  Hired guns among them.

Some adopt a sniper’s eyrie, effective but inflexible for moving prey; others shoot from the hip.

They have come from far and wide in search of rare quarry, but what would bring so many together here?  On a Friday in March?  Though it was my birthday, this wasn’t a photographer’s party.

It was a very different celebration, but one whose nature I won’t reveal.

At least not just yet.

Three Out of Four Ain’t Bad

In its original definition the word “quarter” refers to a fourth part of a whole, though I’m not sure of the origins of phrases such as “servants’ quarters” where the term refers to rooms allocated to a specific group.  Surely this was never so rigidly allocated as to refer to 25% of the original property?

When it comes to defining areas of a town I’d always assumed that quarter (as in New Orleans’ French Quarter) did derive from being roughly of that proportion, though this is belied by the fact that Birmingham apparently has seven!  In my Italian lessons, the word is  quartiere and simply means neighbourhood, so Rome has a Jewish quarter, and Naples a Spanish quarter, but in Palermo at least, the term is refreshingly accurate.

The intersection of Via Maqueda and Corso Vittorio Emanuele creates a square in the city, called Piazza Vigliena, though it is more widely known as Quattro Canti (Four Corners).  The streets that create it embody Sicilian history in themselves (Maqueda is a Spanish name, but with Arab origins, and Vittorio Emanuele was of course the first king of a united Italy), but the four buildings between those streets add more.  The largely identical structures feature fountains of the four seasons, statues of the four Spanish Kings of Sicily, and the four patron saints of the city.  Of the latter, two have connections to Tunisia.  Behind each lies a defined “quarter” of the city, and though formally known as Albergheria, Seralcadio, La Loggia and Mandamento Tribunali, many visitors to Palermo know them by different names.  The first three are defined for many by the markets within them; Ballarò, Capo, Vucciria and the last is now called Kalsa, from its original Arab name  Al-Khalesa.

It may seem strange that the Arab quarter lacks a market, and historically it had several, but this was the area of Palermo that suffered most from Allied bombs in WWII.  Left derelict for decades it is only now seeing regeneration.

Of the three markets that remain, La Vucciria (possibly a corruption of butchery or voices; either would work) was once the pearl, and given greater prominence by the famous painting of that name by Renato Guttuso, though most agree that it no longer lives up to that billing.  Here I’d expected to be steeling myself to try a Sicilian street food staple called Pani ca’ Meusa (effectively a spleen sandwich) but disappointingly didn’t find a vendor (not too disappointingly if I’m honest!).

Capo was all that I’d expect from an Italian market; an abundance of the freshest produce with huge variety and colourful presentation.   Whether due to seasonality or local taste I’m not sure, but there was a greater emphasis on artichokes than I’d noticed elsewhere.  All the same it was very the sort of place I’d happily shop.

It’s not a Sicilian market without artichokes

And so to Ballarò.  Here the spirit of Al-Khalesa survives.  Alongside the expected fruit, vegetables, meat and fish you find spice stalls whose aroma signposts their presence before your eyes, freshly boiled potatoes steaming in huge pots, and around the fringes many of the city’s immigrants spread their wares on the pavement reminding me of scenes from my time in Africa.

Welcome to Ballarò, Palermo’s souk.



Let’s Talk

When I was driving in Sicily I opted for listening to podcasts rather than music as I found them less distracting at those times when the challenges of navigating an unfamiliar vehicle, on the opposite side of the road to the UK and with handbrake and gears similarly on the right rather than the left. One of the items that I enjoyed was called Double Talk and celebrated the value of dialogue in a world where we increasingly live in the echo chambers of social media choices that reflect our existing views rather than engaging with those who have different perspectives.

I know from my own work that I’m most effective as a trainer when my approach is discursive rather than a lecture, and this programme drew on perspectives from those involved in philosophy, the law, music and other backgrounds to demonstrate how new thinking is created by the push and pull of two-way conversation.  I’m as guilty as anyone of the one-way “push” approach; this blog, my Instagram account and my ViewBug gallery all share my view of the world, and rarely does this lead to any interaction beyond the self-gratification of looking for “likes” or similar.  My blog entries rarely attract comment or debate.
Historically if I was running a training course, the breaks would see a rush of people leave the room to attend to their caffeine or nicotine addictions, but now more often than not they stay put, reach for their phones and enter browse mode.
I suspect that Sicily (and perhaps Italy more broadly) could be bucking that trend.  I’ve never been so aware of people actually talking to each other.

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In every town or village I’d encounter groups of old men in serious conversation on benches in parks and piazzas.  Perhaps it’s the weather in the UK that discourages this but I’ve never seen so many men in conversation.
There are road users aplenty who flout any laws relating to mobile use, and yes I see drivers on their mobiles in the UK but never as frequently as in Italy, where the many moped users are often seen steering one-handed, their mobile clutched tightly in the other.

The great thing was that the Sicilians were all talking; even when putting their phones to use, they were vocal, allowing their feelings to be heard in ways for which no end of emojis can compensate.

Well nearly all.

Oversimplifying over Sicily

As I’m about to add Sicily to the Italian posts that I share here I felt that I should begin with some historical context; though if I’m to do so without this becoming the longest post I’ve ever submitted I’ll need to keep the brush strokes very broad; and so I welcome corrections and elaborations from more knowledgeable sources to this, or any of my Sicilian posts.

You see so much of the architecture, food and culture that I’ll be including are influenced by the waves of invaders that have occupied the island (welcome or not) that if I’m not to repeat myself constantly, it will be useful to have this post as a reference point.

Part of the challenge comes if you google “Sicilian History Timeline” and look at the image options; there’s the Mafia timeline, the Medieval timeline, even the Norman Succession timeline.  The island’s position in the Mediterranean, within easy reach of the Italian peninsula and the shores of North Africa made it an attractive option for settlers from both directions, but its strategic position for controlling shipping moving between east and west meant that others wanted control too.

So here’s a potted guide:

Prehistorically the land was home to at least three tribes; the Siculi (from which the island’s name originates) were probably Italianate, the Sicani (who may have been Iberian) and the Elymians (possibly from lands bordering the Aegean).  Enter the Phoenicians from North Africa or the Middle East (their range was extensive) in the 11th Century BC to establish settlements in the west of Sicily around Palermo.

300 years later the Greeks took a liking to the south and east and established Siracusa, which became the most populous city in the Greek world.  Unsurprisingly there was conflict with the Phoenicians which distracted both groups, thereby allowing the entrance of the third-party in the 3rd century BC when Rome intervened in what became the first Punic war.

Bar a very brief period following a revolt on the island Sicily remained part of Rome, though there was little attempt to impose their culture so the island remained largely Greek.  Christianity was established, and two saints of the Catholic Church, Agatha and Lucia were martyred here (in Catania and Syracuse respectively).

Rome falls and Sicily does too in the 5th Century when power struggles between Vandals, Goths, and the Byzantines (what had been the Eastern Roman Empire) with the latter being dominant for another 200 years or so, until an unfortunate series of events in 826, when the commander of the Byzantine fleet in Sicily forced a nun to marry him.  Forced to flee to North Africa he persuaded a muslim force to support him in attacking the island which they eventually conquered, though it took nearly another century!  The arabs brought their religion (though christianity was not opposed), citrus fruits and pistachios, and durum wheat, essential to pasta.
Are you keeping up with all of these invasions?  Well here comes another…

Vikings!  And then Normans, though the distinction between the two is not as clear-cut as you may imagine.  Although Normandy is in modern-day France, the name indicates that it was settled by Northmen, and so Norman mercenaries fought with their Scandinavian brethren.  Consequently at roughly the same time as William the Conqueror was landing in England, another Norman, Roger Hauteville became the first King of Sicily (though as his father, also Roger, was the first Count of Sicily, the first king is confusingly known as Roger II).

When the Norman line died out the Germans stepped in and under Frederick II (Holy Roman Emperor) the last of the muslims were expelled.  More wars saw French rule re-established and a period of independence for the island but from the 15th century the Kings of Spain imposed their authority, appointing a series of viceroys, though of course this was a period when much of Europe was controlled by the Hapsburgs so there was some Austro-Hungarian influence in there too perhaps.


Change of ownership, change of use!

All seem settled until Napoleon invaded, but there was then a period of British influence after his defeat until the Bourbon Royal Family reestablished the Kingdom of The Two Sicilies (including Naples) in 1816 which just about sees us through to Italian unification and Garibaldi later that century.

And the Mafia… well that’s a whole other story.