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!

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

 

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.