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!

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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

 

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.

 

Lacking Inspiration

I’ve been less than kind about my home town of Sunderland’s attempts at public art and architecture, though the posts were so long ago that I feel safe in raising the issue again, because the town’s decision makers just keep doing it again.

The Millennium may seem a long time ago now, but it was a time when many cities around the UK marked the occasion with new constructions, and many, perhaps seeing it as a metaphor for the passage from one period of time to another, chose to build bridges.  London has its famous crossing between Tate Modern and St Paul’s, Glasgow built the Clyde Arc and the Tyne was crossed once more by structure known to many as the Eye.

None of them were actually open on 1st January 2000, and in fact they all needed extra work to stabilise or protect from shipping but each has become a landmark.

The Eye “winking”

Sunderland opted to join this bandwagon by announcing an international design competition in 2005, which among the entrant included one from Frank Gehry, whose buildings around the world are icons of design (Guggenheim Bilbao, Prague’s Dancing House, Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture) to the extent that there is a phenomenon of economic regeneration that such buildings produce called the Bilbao Effect.

Tees Infinity Bridge

I’ve no idea what his entry was like, but he didn’t win.  Instead a design from Spence Associates was chosen.  I’m not really up on who the power players are in the world of architecture apart from a few (Rogers, Foster, Lloyd-Wright, Hadid, Piano and of course Gehry) but I’d never heard of Stephen Spence.  He played a part in the design of the Tees Infinity Bridge (another in the spate of white bridges) though his input was bitterly disputed by a partner firm at the time.  I suspect Gehry’s design was too radical (missing the point Sunderland).

Even the Spence option scared them, so they commissioned a design for a cheap and basic option, then sat on their hands for three years before inviting the public to choose between the two.   Spence won and the council backed the extra expense on the grounds that an ambitious design would attract more business to the area.  Years of failing to secure funding and willing contractors followed and it seems the council lost their nerve again.  In 2013 they dropped the Spence design.

Five years later they have a bridge; The Northern Spire.  The council website makes no mention of the designer.  It’s the tallest structure in the North East of England (size isn’t everything guys) but that’s about all that can be said for it.  I don’t see people flocking to the city because of it and bringing that regeneration.  Perhaps voting Remain to protect their biggest employer (Nissan) might have been smarter.

Funnily enough, just upstream from the bridge is a reminder that big ideas involving concrete aren’t always money spinners.  Slowly (very slowly) decaying on the riverside is a concrete boat.  Yes, a boat made from concrete.  It never caught on.

Excursion to Vigàta

I’ve referred in earlier Italian posts to my enjoyment of Michael Dibdin’s Aurelio Zen detective novels, which through locating the protagonist in a different city for each story combine whodunnit, travelogue and social commentary.  In Blood Rain, Zen is posted to Catania in Sicily, where the rivalries of different crime families and darker political forces combine to tragic effect.
But there is a more famous and far less peripatetic crime fighter to be found in Sicily.  Inspector Montalbano has so far featured in 25 novels, spawning two TV series along the way (Young Montalbano is a prequel), and all based in the little town of Vigàta and the larger conurbation of Montelusa.
You’d be hard pressed to find them on a map for each is as fictional as the police officer himself, yet they are very much based on real places.

Montalbano’s creator, Andrea Camilleri, was born in Porto Empedocle in the Province of Agrigento (Empedocles was a Greek philosopher born in what is now Agrigento) and these are Vigàta and Montelusa respectively.   For a few years Porto Empedocle even changed its name to Porto Empedocle Vigàta before the decision was overturned.  There are a couple of pleasant streets in town (and some locations which are clearly mirrored in the books) but the area is dominated by the port and some derelict industrial areas in its vicinity.

Which is perhaps why those television series gave both the locations and characters a makeover.  The slim, mustachioed detective with his full head of hair is portrayed in a statue on the main street of Porto Empedocle, but you would never associate the figure with the man we see on screen.  Salvo Montalbano’s screen persona is provided by the squat, bald and usually clean-shaven Luca Zingaretti, and the action moved to the more photogenic Province of Ragusa.  Muddying the waters further, the taller Michele Rondino plays the younger version with a mop of curly hair and stubbly beard.
It matters little, for the gently comedic tales that Camilleri has produced have been captured perfectly.  Each episode dawdles slowly to its resolution like an old nonna climbing the alleys of Modica, which gives plenty of time to take in the food, the ambience and the culture of Sicilia.  (Modica is another preferred filming location for the TV company).

Camilleri, who is in his 90’s, has already delivered the final novel to his publisher doubtless in anticipation of his own demise.  Whether his creation meets the same fate we shall have to see.  Perhaps there was a clue in Blood Rain, though the seemingly deadly attack on Zen was subsequently lessened when Dibdin wrote another novel.  Camilleri won’t have that option.

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…