Saturday, 17 May 2014

Sicily 4 - A Mosaic

The Colours of a Mediterranean Spring


Christ Pantocrator, Cefalù,1148





In February 1989 I made a trip to Sicily, sailing from Naples at night.  In my diary I noted: the Jolly Hotel tower and the Martini sign, bright crimson, yellow and white over the Magazzini Generali silos and frigoriferi building.  Extraordinary fascist art; decals of stone and work-ethic mosaics in and on the Tirrenia reception hall.....the motor-nave Torres, built by SEBM in 1988, leaves the port, the dome of San Carlo singing goodbye.....

Up at sixish, still dark, but the lights of the Conca d'Oro readily visible.  No dawn, a dark smudge of cloud instead.....  In the market the stalls are being laid out, full of octopus and strange fish, and freshly slaughtered kids hang outside the butchers.  A man SINGS about cabbages.....  I rest in the church of the Gesu, if rest is the right word in this astonishing monument of Sicilian baroque, coloured marble and crazy motifs of babies, dolphins, angels, ducks and flowers from the floor to the garish frescoes of the ceiling.....

Orchis italica - Naked Man Orchid


Yellow oxalis; almond blossom; hazy clouds; rising cliffs of limestone in the mist.  Bougainvilleas in flower, lemons in abundance, oranges.....  Arabic the language around me on the train; concrete shells up the barren hillside, then, the sea.  Citrus groves, olives, eucalyptus, tamarisks, pines - a few carobs.  Marigolds and borage in flower, palms, oleanders, agave, brambles.

The Greek Temple at Segesta - built by the Elymian people in the 5th Century BC but never finished


Segesta warmly honey/rosy in the weak sun; daisies and yellow vetch, golden wild marigolds, white dead nettles, pink-tinged asphodels, the bright green of wild carrot and sunny yellow of giant fennel.  On the hill opposite the bleats and clonks of sheep at graze.  In front of the peristyle a steep drop to a stream in a limestone ravine; pines up the slope above the vineyard opposite and a clump of little firs by the temple. 

The Greco-Roman Theatre, Segesta - built before 409BC


I walk up the hill through marigold-thick air.  Theatre in magnificent position, looking north over the sea at Castellamare del Golfo: plenty of signs of modern life - autostrada, railway, farms, fields, pylons etc - but it is not impossible to think it all away, to reforest it.....  I scramble periculously down the mountain through wild countryside and floral vineyards to the station at Calatafimi - no one at all about, though a dog yelps, and magpies cackle, and the wind cools my neck and the sum warms my back and I sit on the desolate platform waiting for the 15.23 for Trapani.....

Calendula Officinalis - Pot Marigold - and Viper's Bugloss (Echium Vulgare)


Segesta in 2014 the landscape is still a mosaic of flowers, but it is not the same.  The car park is full and the visitor centre is busy.  A shuttle bus ferries culture-hungry tourists up the tarmac road to the theatre and the sense of isolation, and of peace, has gone.

St Bernard's Lily


But the colours of Sicily still catch the sun, and everywhere we go there are examples of the shimmering mosaics of nature and art that amaze, from the exotic floors of the Roman Villa at Piazza Armerina to the Christs Pantocrator in the apses of Cefalù and Monreale.

Fishing nets drying - Cefalù


In some ways the art of the mosaic is like impressionism, in others it is like the pixellation of digital photography.  The artist takes a selection of small uniform pieces of tile, in a range of colours, and arranges them to build an image, subtly setting the tesserae at different angles to catch and reflect light at differing angles.  The Romans did not pursue this effect so much in pavements, but the breathtaking gleams and glints of the curved surfaces in churches, where candles and oil lamps play on the walls, show just how alive these designs can become. 

Fresh from the groves of Palermo (what's left of them)


In 1989 I went out from Trapani on the motornave Canaletto, out on the shining sea: Trapani, Erice and the coast down to Marsala fading into the blue, the windmills of the salt pans curiously more prominent as we became more distant.  Now on the starboard bow is Levanzo, a limestone rock, a small port, field systems, squares of walls set out up the dry flanks of the hills.  Favignano on the port bow.....  The boat has half a dozen passengers, and carries various merchandise - fruit and vegetables, a second-hand deep freeze and ice-cream cabinet, a lorry carrying old furniture. The people are short, dark, with black, or grey, hair, weathered faces, dark jackets or jackets, jeans or dark trousers, and smart shoes.....  It's clouded over, and the sea is dark; we're coming into harbour, a low African-looking spread of square white buildings, a yellow church with ceramic dome....


Ferula communis - Giant Fennel (though not fennel at all!)


A recurrent theme in the diary is flowers everywhere, beautiful carpets of them, and the blue sky, the blue sea....  Visiting again this year (and last) the floral display is still breath-taking, with a mixture of yellow and orange, blue and green that would make Matisse dance from his wheelchair. It is no wonder that the artists of the great cathedrals were inspired to such greatness.  The gold and blue edged with red, inlaid with turquoise and outlined with dark streaks could be sunsets on the mountains, or the beach at dawn.


It is not all bright sunlight, however, and in 1989 I visited Erice - soughing pines and the fog rolls in, obscuring all, making it quite likely that the Normans might return.....  haloed in the clouds the church and tower, silent save for the occasional 'ctang' of a bell, loom out of, or back into, the mists, the white stone and orange lamps vaguely luminous, the winds the breath of ages.....

Darkness gathers; damp, rotten, grey, thick, cloying darkness.....  Earlier I had a chat with the Custodian of the Norman castle, an old, friendly man, a strange encounter among the castle ruins and the TV signal boosters and telephone antennae, the wind humming in the guys, and the custodian's block entirely laced in by rusting lightning conductors.  We talk of the weather, and of the difficult times, how everything is upside down.....  He tells me of the tourists in the summer, when it can be 45º in the shade, with the brilliant harsh colours of the tourists' summer clothes, and the noise..... 

The Madonie Mountains, from Polizzi Generosa


This year we stay for a while in the wild mountains of the Madonie, and lie on the beach at Cefalù

Cefalù - dominated by the fortress of its Cathedral


then we edge our way past the squalor of Palermo's outskirts, through the impossible traffic, then over the hill at Monreale, pausing to see again the glories of the cathedral 

Christ Pantocrator, Monreale, 1185


and its cloisters, 

The Cloisters, Monreale


looking down on the Conca d'Oro from three hundred metres above the sea, bemused by the concrete sprawl that just was not there when I first saw the view in 1977.  Then we cruise past Partinico and Mary Taylor Simeti's Álcamo, and past Castellammare del Golfo to stay on a hill near Scopello, where in the 1950s Gavin Maxwell spent some time living by the old Tonnara (Tuna factory). 

The rocky coast of the Zingaro Nature Reserve


The Riserva Naturale Orientata Zingaro is one reason to be here, and it is worth the trip.  If Castellammare del Golfo is best seen from a distance, the Zingaro Nature Reserve is best seen close up, with an abundance of wildlife, from the Italian Gladiolus (common sword lily) 

Gladiolus Italicus

to the Sardinian Warbler

Sardinian Warbler

all around you blooming and chattering.  But it is more than even this, with small museums of local nature and history housed in traditional buildings, and tiny coves, with caves in the dolomitic limestone, reached only by steep footpaths.  

Cistus - I think this is Creticus


Here there is still a tradition of weaving palm fronds from the Chamaerops Humilis (European Fan Palm) into artefacts and one museum is dedicated to the once lucrative business of extracting manna (used as a mild laxative) from ash trees (Fraxinus Ornus).   All this and, if you are sharp you could see a Bonelli's Eagle.


Ceiling, Catania


On our return we stop, again, at Enna.  In 1989 I noted that the best thing about Enna is the station and its bar and restaurant; run by Mrs Jolly Fat Lady and Son.  And I noted that there was a fantastic exhibition of a national competition for ideas for a public car park......  Not quite sure what happened to that?


The Nave - Enna Cathedral

In 1989 I wandered up the main street, finding the Cathedral in disorder, dusty, seats piled in one corner, planks in another and behind that some gilt palanquin.  The black columns of the nave stand on elaborate carved plinths, and then, above, there is wedding cake sugar icing decoration.  The ceiling is heavily carved wood, the apse ornate stucco - Christ being crowned against a yellow background: the light filters in through dirty glass and garish stains..... An interesting marble pulpit is supported by angels, their protruding breasts well worn....  Pleasingly the angels are still there, and the interior has been spruced up, with the floors, some marble and some ceramic, gleaming clean and fine where the light falls through clean windows.

The Sacristy - Enna Cathedral


Further up the hill, in 1989, I came to Enna castle, a real state of disrepair - rabbit cages and opera house - cages for baritones and mezzo-soprani, cages for maestri del coro and so on.  The stage in ruins, half up and half down, the rows of metal chairs waiting for never, the backdrop a flaking bright blue wall.  As I leave, the only visitor, I see the guardian at his desk, his capped head down on his crossed arms....

Calascibetta (from Enna)


This time we are greeted at the castle entrance by an enthusiastic guide, employed by the city and keen to tell all.  He shows us, and a couple from Florence, what there is to see, explaining that once there was a theatre here, but now there is no money for it.....  His warm disposition and pride in his post smooth away the centuries of Sicilian wars and changes of ownership.  It becomes his castle to share, and he communicates an underlying love for his island that informs us more than detail, and confuses the Florentines, who, having just provided Italy with their ex-mayor for Prime Minister, thought they had all the answers.  

Our Guide to Enna Castle

The extensive castle is both ruined and still standing, and where marigolds touch the stones, sunning themselves against the hard wearing ancient rock, I am reminded of how the tesserae of mosaics build glorious pictures.....





My 1989 diary ended with sunrise over Vesuvius, a few shining clouds and that threatening shape, lowering, jagged, naked.  Our 2014 trip ended as we dipped our wings over Etna; snow melting down into green valleys, a plume of smoke drifting into the clouds above.  From the air, the villages and fields, a mosaic.....






From my 1989 diary:   wandering these eerie streets I say hello to all those, few that they are, that I come across.  Without fail my greeting is civilly, if not even warmly, returned......





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