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.

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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 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.

 

 

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…

 

Son of Janus

In one of my Genovan posts I casually mentioned the city’s name being derived from Janus.  This is far from certain as there are other theories about the origins of the name (including the Italian word for knee!), but the presence of the great statue in the Palazzo Bianco was enough to convince me of the Roman God’s influence.  Still, as we’ll see below, it’s possible that if the Genoese aren’t completely bought into claiming him he may have headed for the warmer climes of Sicily.

Janus is famously the two-faced deity who is god of transitions, which of course is why we have January named after him as one year moves into the next, but his patronage also extends to doorways, the transition between in and out.

A recent post by fellow blogger Staci di Anna Pollard reminded me just how many doorways I’d photographed on my trip to Sicily at Easter and prompted me to gather a selection together for this post.  (Believe me there are more!).

Doorways in Italy always make for good photographs; whether for design, colour, texture or for the hidden scenes beyond and in Sicily I found another reason to be drawn to them; their size, or more precisely their lack of size.  Yes, the churches, opera houses, museums and public buildings have rather grand entrances as you’d expect, but up in the hill towns the homes of ordinary folk seemed to feature doorways that would require anyone of even above average height to bend or risk injury.

And so despite my attendance at two of Christianity’s most engaging festivals during my visit it seemed fitting in these days when journalistic balance is a hot topic that my trip should be influenced by this pagan god too.  Or am I just being two-faced?

Kephaloídion

Cold and wet are good news for some!

Before I began my rudimentary Italian lessons online I’d never heard of Cefalù, yet it is one of the most popular holiday resorts in Sicily.  Perhaps my apathy towards beach holidays is at fault.  In any event when I arrived there in late March, the island was still at the mercy of “The Beast from the East” or one of its variants and it was cold, grey and wet.

My sunglasses and swim shorts were untroubled.

So why did I make the journey along the coast from Palermo to begin my trip here, when the rest of my intended stops were in the opposite direction?  Well naturally, because the place has history.  Now you good be forgiven for thinking that it was originally a Greek settlement.  Even had I not given you its Greek name as my title, Cefalù (pronounced Cheffaloo) still looks a lot like Kephalonia, yet there is no mention in Thucydides, the bible of my long forgotten Ancient History lessons.  Kephale meant “head” in Classical Greek, and the headland may have been home to no more than a fort or lookout post.  It’s clear to understand why this may be so when you see the enormous cliff (La Rocca) that overshadows the little town.

I was here for more modern fare.  Not quite as modern as the chemist’s shop on Corso Ruggero, though it did have a quaint appeal, nor the church of Santo Stefano whose baroque facade dominates a tiny piazza.

It wasn’t the medieval wash-house located well below street level where the basins used for the laundry remain supplied by fresh running water.

No, the clue was in the name of that main street.  Corso Ruggero.  The course of Roger.

Following the Norman invasion of 1063, King Roger II of Sicily moved the settlement down from the headland to the small harbour below and began construction of a cathedral.  Though built in the Romanesque style, this is a very different building from the great Normal cathedral in Durham that I grew up with.

Externally the twin towers at the west end provide some echo of its English contemporary, but internally there are no vast load bearing columns (though as I clumsily clattered about with my tripod they may have been glad of them).  It has something that Durham does not.  Decoration.

Like so many of the churches in Sicily the Byzantine influence is here in golden mosaics and the vast figure of Christ Pantokrator looks down on all.  This was the first example that I’d seen.  By the time I left Sicily two weeks later I’d lost count!  Between the Greeks and the arriving Normans that small town on the rock had been Roman and then Arab.  The unique mix of influences that is peculiar to Sicily was suddenly tangible.

 

My Name is Nobody (Enna IV)

And so as the two floats have been escorted to the cathedral with a funeral march and choral accompaniments at 7.00pm we are ready for the procession to begin.
The robes for the oldest confraternity of SS Salvatore bear a red Maltese cross which suggests a link back to the crusades (this being the emblem of the Knights Hospitaler), but the pictures on the exterior walls of their church  suggest their presence much earlier in time.

As rewriting history goes it isn’t subtle.  The other confraternities wear similar garb but in different colour combinations, but they are all united in wearing pointed white hoods that obscure their identities.  (The exceptions being those carrying the burden of the floats who presumably need more ventilation.)

Some see the hoods as reminiscent of the Ku Klux Klan (though there is no known connection) and of course the costumes long predate the Klan’s origins, but perhaps for this reason, all but one of the confraternities have the points of their hoods carefully folded over and held in place with what might be seen as an ersatz crown of thorns reducing the resemblance, though they are still very strange-looking.  Mondassian cybermen sprang to mind.

The true purpose of these hoods was originally to serve as a mark of humiliation for sinners in the early days of the inquisition, although it is also seen as a symbol of mourning, hiding the grief they feel at the death of Jesus.

And so at 7.00 the procession begins, a slow, funeral march from the Cathedral near the top of the hill, down to the cemetery which is nearly 4km away.  Those taking part are almost exclusively male (though the occasional small group of girls get to dress as nuns and walk between the two columns of mysterious figures slowly making their way through the town.

Each group has its own symbol that it parades, though for the confraternity of the Passion, a series of symbols from the crucifixion are individually carried on either side of the procession.  Borne on red velvet cushions they include nails, dice and even a heavily sedated cockerel.

Fascinating stuff, but there’s a problem, for after the brotherhood of the Passion have passed we then have  the brotherhoods of SS. Crocifisso of Pergusa, Maria SS of Valverde, SS. Sacramento, Maria SS of the Grazie, San Giuseppe, Maria SS del Rosario, confraternity Maria SS. Della Visitazione, Sacro Cuore, Spirito Santo, Maria SS Immacolata, Anime Sante del Purgatorio, Maria SS la Nuova and SS. Salvatore. Then clergy with a Cross reliquary containing fragments of the cross and the thorns of Christ under a canopy followed finally by the urn of the Dead Christ, the float bearing the Addolorata and another band as well as local dignitaries.  All in all there are some 3,000 people and it takes some time for them to complete the trip at which point they turn around and return via a different route.

It’s a point I’ll repeat in respect of some of the churches I saw in Sicily, but really sometimes less is more!