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!

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.

Voce del Popolo

In the current climate where #metoo and #blacklivesmatter seem to be heralding real change there are some interesting debates about historic artworks; either because they represent people or events that are now seen as offensive or because the behaviour of their creators has been equally unacceptable.  Consequently we have seen calls for Confederate statues to be removed or destroyed (watch out Mt Rushmore), a memorial to a conscientious objector taken down, complaints about paedophilia to the Met in NY, a Manchester gallery see-sawing over whether to display a painting of naked nymphs, a some sexually active buildings planned to neighbour the Louvre given a firm “non” in Paris.  Acclaimed work by Woody Allen and Kevin Spacey is now viewed very differently, but should we be able to separate the artist from their work; or see historic events as milestones in our journey to who and where we are?

Perhaps the greatest concern with this and so many debates today is that the clamour for change is stoked by social media where arguments snowball as a result of knee jerk outrage rather than any considered judgement.

One of the largest open spaces in Rome, is the Piazza del Popolo, and though it was originally named after the poplar trees around the area in modern Italian it means People’s Square, and now that it has been pedestrianised it would be the ideal place for public gatherings, or in the current climate would that run the risk of becoming a mob?  This was until the 19th century the site of public executions.  Italy has recently begun to suffer from populist politics too with racial attacks in a country that has long been more tolerant than many European neighbours.

Most people who visit the Piazza notice the twin churches that flank the opening of Via del Corso, the Rameses II obelisk and Egyptian styled fountains at the heart, and the steps that lead to the house and gardens of the Villa Borghese.  The city gateway at the north of the space, the Porta del Popolo is quite anonymous by comparison, but even this has more impact than the church that adjoins it.  I wonder what proportion of the popolo venture through the door?  They should.

There are a multitude of reasons to do so; a chapel designed by Raphael, a scattering of Bernini sculptures, and a macabre moment or two, but for this photographer there is one draw that will always overshadow the others.

The altar in the Cerasi Chapel features a work by Carracci, a promising painter of his day but it is rendered invisible by the pieces on either side by another up and comer; Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.   Caravaggio’s realism and use of light and shade were surely precursors for every dramatic photograph.
His work here demonstrates another aspect of his character; both works proffer a backside to his rival.  This is relatively subtle in The Crucifixion of St Peter, and the saint’s legs and feet are the attention grabbers; old, dirty and anything but idealised.

Turn to the Conversion of St Paul and there’s no doubt that he’s showing the horse’s arse to his rival.  So Caravaggio was irrepressibly cheeky (excuse the pun), but his disregard for authority went much further.  Gambling, fighting, an illegitimate child and eventually murder featured on his charge sheet.

Time to take down and destroy the Caravaggio’s?  How do we then differ from the monument destroyers of ISIS?



Dark Times

No lighthouse hunting today

Perhaps I was suffering from a degree of geographic confusion arising from the sea being to my west rather than my beloved east coast, though more likely it was the mental clouding arising from having been made redundant from my training job less than an hour previously, but in either event my usual sense of direction deserted me in Heysham and I walked as shown here.  

Perhaps in some way though I was following a historic precedent.

According to some stories, a teenage boy was kidnapped by pirates from his home in Ravenglass, Cumbria at some point in the 5th century.  He was sold into slavery in Ireland.  After a few years he escaped and boarded a boat bound for France which was blown off course with the result that he came ashore back in England.  If as some believe he landed in Heysham, then he was only 50km or so from his birthplace.

Across Morecambe Bay to Cumbria

Buildings on the site I was visiting give credence to this being his landing spot, and the legends relating to the origins of a place in Cumbria called Aspatria support his return.  The young man was St Patrick. (Or one of them as some scholars believe that tales of two different preachers have become conflated.)

Of course all of this took place in the period known pejoratively as “The Dark Ages” where we have few written records to draw upon.  What supports this story is that this small settlement on Morecambe Bay has long religious significance.

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Standing on a small headland are the remains of a tiny chapel (St Patrick’s Chapel) that dates back to the 8th century, though evidence suggests it had earlier wooden predecessors.  It is too small to have been a place of worship and so preaching is likely to have taken place outside.

National Trust Artist’s Impression

Why the building then?  Perhaps it was there to house something of importance?  Research has found lots of burials on the site including some within the chapel itself, but it is the graves outside that are most interesting.  Among them are two examples (a group of 6 and a separate pair) of graves carved into the solid rock.  Sockets at the end of each suggest that large markers were inserted at the head of these graves, so it’s thought that these were perhaps resting places for important individuals (or their bones at least).  Like the reliquaries that still draw pilgrims to many catholic churches, this was probably a place to get close to the truly holy.

Of course if you’re attracting a lot of visitors sooner or later you want a real church, and just below the chapel sits an unmistakably Anglo-Saxon church.  St Peter’s Heysham.  Consecrated in 967 AD, it too follows earlier buildings, and it has changed and developed over the centuries as evidenced by the mismatched window and door styles, and the fact that it is no longer a tall narrow structure.

More interesting graves are in the churchyard, though the most interesting of all was denied to me.  A viking style hogback grave marker was moved inside the church for its protection in 1977.  As it was nearly dusk the church was securely locked, so I was unable to photograph this record of Norse pagan imagery found in an English christian churchyard, though there are images online.

Still in the dark about my navigational error I began to retrace my steps through the gorse, brambles and nettles along the cliff tops.  At least I could be sure there would be no snakes!

Patrick’s Presence?


Interesting video featuring Heysham in the 1970’s (about 6 mins in – though I enjoyed the whole clip)


Sex Tourist?

Wells, Bishop’s Palace

Let me just be clear. I’m not a paedophile or any other seeker after illicit sexual gratification in countries with lesser legal or moral codes.  Even if I were, the present parlous state of my employment would have ruled out such extravagance (all offers for photography, training or Organisational Development considered!) which is why I took a very short break this summer that consisted of a road trip to parts of the UK that I needed to explore a little.  My trip took me to Wiltshire and Somerset; parts of the ancient historic kingdom of Wessex (also inspiration to Thomas Hardy).


From here I travelled east along the base of England’s rough triangle, through West and East Sussex to the coast, before returning home, crossing the Thames and entering into Essex on my way.  You will understand now why I chose my title, but perhaps wonder why this suffix appears in all of these southern locations.

My fellow countrymen whose xenophobic hatred of immigration might do well to consider their own origins.  The Roman occupation of course brought many nationalities to these shores; their armies consisting of men from all parts of their empire, many of whom settled in their adopted country.  In the fluid centuries that followed the collapse of Roman rule, waves of settlers arrived from Northern Europe.   England derives its name from the Angles that arrived from Southern Denmark where as those from Germany/Holland, the Saxons, settled in Southern England.  Wessex therefore became a description of the West Saxons, Sussex those to the south, and Essex those to the east.  In between these was the county of Middlesex (now absorbed into London).

It is hardly surprising then that this is an area rich in history; every small town and village seems to have a historic building of some description so I could have spent weeks or months peering into churches or photographing ancient sites, breathing the salty air or scaling grassy slopes.  Time, and more importantly money meant I had to be selective.

So here’s a taster; I hope you enjoy what is to come.

Multi-cultural Part 1

_PW_2448This may seem like a completely innocuous piece of railing and yet on encountering it recently it stirred a flood of memories from almost 35 years ago.  Here I stood for hours on a hot summer’s day, while parents and other relatives operated in shifts to keep me company and supply me with food and drink as those hours passed by.

The railings are in Bloomsbury, a part of central London that is known for the greenery of its garden squares, its cultural and educational establishments, and of course the literati of the Bloomsbury Group.  No surprise to find me here today then, but what was the draw for a young schoolboy?

The clues are still there in the buildings that surround my objective; The British Museum.  On the day of my 13th birthday they opened an exhibition that produced an overwhelming demand from the public, so much so that even though the Museum opened extended its opening hours into the evenings the closing date was put back by three months.  Nearly 1.7 million visitors came to see Tutankhamen, or more accurately his burial treasures.

Whether it was the impact of that visit or not, I went on to study Latin and Ancient History, so the British Museum was an essential element of any trip to the capital during my teenage years.  Naturally I was interested in the Greek and Roman artefacts as well as those of the tribes who inhabited these isles before and after the Romans, but of course I revisited the Egyptian displays too.  What schoolboy could resist the macabre draw of ancient corpses and canopic jars designed to hold human viscera.

Since I last visited a more modern piece of culture has added to the appeal.  Norman Foster’s reworking of the Great Courtyard creates an absolutely stunning interior where people can get their bearings before delving into the collection of their choice or simply relax with some refreshments before doing battle with the Assyrians.

Having satisfied my architectural objective I did a quick tour of the greatest hits, but with one notable exception.  I gave the Elgin Marbles a miss.  Not because I don’t rate the quality of the sculpture, or because I am politically opposed to their presence here, but simply down to a perverse desire to avoid the obvious.  There will be many who walk past these masterpieces from the Sutton Hoo burial simply because they’re small or dismiss them as the work of barbarians.  They should remember that we refer to this period as the dark ages because we’re in the dark about them, not because the people were not enlightened


However I must return to the Elgin Marbles.  There are many who describe Britain’s possession of the marbles as theft; the sculptures were part of the Parthenon and should be returned to Greece, but for me if you pursue that argument to its logical conclusion we all become poorer for it.  If every item in a museum around the world were returned to its homeland we become focused on only ourselves and have no understanding of other views of the world, views that may be alien to us but worthy of our understanding.  Furthermore, the dissemination of this art and the knowledge that it embodies, is a form of protection.  The eggs in one basket argument may have seemed far-fetched a few years ago, but what if all the treasures of the middle eastern cultures were returned home?  How much greater would have been the destruction wrought by Islamic State?  Dissemination of historical artefacts is spread betting for the priceless and irreplaceable.

When I was a teenager the British Museum shop signified the end of a visit; almost invariably to buy a scarab beetle for handful of change.  The products on sale now are more commercially sourced and aimed at the higher end of the market; expensive jewellery and other luxury items prevail.  Amongst them I spotted a scarf designed by Grayson Perry retailing for just £80.  The graphic represented a map of the museum, labelled in Perry’s irreverent yet perceptive style.  The entrance is therefore marked thus

Where the world meets the world.

I’m glad they do.


Reduced Circumstances

_PW_5723Driving through some of the nicer villages of Northamptonshire I came upon a small church on a bend in the road, a small church with no apparent congregation.  Yes there were some buildings nearby, but nothing you call a settlement.

This in itself if perhaps not so remarkable; I’ve encountered churches before where the surrounding village was wiped out by the plague so that the centre of worship remains when all else has been reduced at first to ruins and then green fields.  Bywell in Northumberland has two churches and a castle, but no longer a village.

This church promised something more though.  Firstly due to its colour.  Unremarkable to local no doubt, it, and the nearby buildings were made of a rusty coloured stone mottled with patches of pale green.  I’d never encountered it before, but this is the local ironstone, a sandstone with iron oxides that provide the orange colouring.  I’ve known it be mined as an ore before (Industrial Heartland) but not used as a building material.

The second attraction was its architecture; the pointed lancets that marked it as Early English in style and therefore somewhere after the Normans but probably pre Elizabethan.   In fact both Tudor monarch and French invader played leading roles in the history of this church.  One of the outcomes of the last hostile conquest of this island was the establishment of monasteries that espoused a continental rather than Anglo-Saxon version of Christianity.  The Augustinian priory that was established here wasn’t a huge affair, but the lands under its control covered a few square miles and the monks gave the place its name. The village of Canons Ashby.

The first religious buildings were developed within a decade or two of the Conquest, but the present building dates back to the 13th Century, though it is much changed since then. There are clues even from the outside in the walled up openings that would have once been an open cloister. Step through the door and there is an interior division that seems a little too robust to be adding support to the roof timbers. The east window is also a later addition; not just the stained glass which features figures that could be placed in any Victorian or early 20th Century setting. The fresco around them appears distinctly Baroque.  This end of the building is just at odds with the rest.

The reason takes us back to the Tudor monarch. The church is just a fragment of the larger monastic complex and was created by truncating one wing of the square cloister and demolishing the rest. Another victim of Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries. That anything remains at all is because Henry gave the land to one of his supporters together with permission to keep the small church as a private chapel.

Why no magnificent ruins then such as those at Fountains, Whitby or Finchale?  Perhaps there are clues in the other nearby structures and that same ironstone, and in particular the Elizabethan Manor House. That’s a story for another post.