March 28, 2010
Back from Sicily
Unpacking from Sicily--glorious Hellenic Sicily with wildflowers crawling round and up and over temple stones and gorges and hillsides and food food food—. A golden city of yellow sandstone Noto rebuilt after a 17th century earthquake up in the hills, then a white city of marble, Siracusa, by the ocean, then a black lava city with powdered pumice mixed with plaster to make the walls charcoal….this Catatonia by the water as well.
Temple after temple after temple---golden Hellenic temples that are more complete here than in Greece. One of our Greek compatriots at the American School (13 of them and 9 of us in a bus!) said if we weren’t speaking Italian, she would think we were in Greece. The temple at Segesta outstanding and the locale by a gorge where some cruel conqueror catapulted 8000 (yes that’s three zeros) men over the cliff. As well: Selinunte, by the beach, a dusty town with great food—the food in Sicily rarely falters. The best olives, best pastry—always light wonderful croissants from the smallest salumeria, fresh fresh marzipan—and fish fish fish. Broiled from the sea in Palermo, sautéed in Catania, crumbled into tomato paste on the best pizza we have ever had in Selinunte.
I am digressing and will continue to. Sicily is a mosaic of visions and ideas, history and geography, time compelling maps in our loaded and folded brains. I had not known of Sicily’s crossings of Greek and Carthaginians and native Sicas, then Romans and Arabs and Byzantines and Normans. Palermo lovely, a city bounded by dissonance in time: a Roman fresco inside a gracious ruined palazzo alternating with a Norman church from 1000 years later, in perfect intimate splendor, then another 7oo years for a fountain of Shame, because the white marble statues are mostly nude and shameless. This outside our hotel door. Next door the contemporary museum—an older building redone like many of the museums in Sicily. Very beautiful renovations, sympathetic to the original stone with touches of wood and air. The transformation by Scarpa of the 15th-century Palazzo Abatellis in Palermo as an art museum (1953–54) with Messina’s last painting of the Annunciation—wonderful.
Then onto to Monreale outside Palermo, a gigantic church with equally great mosaics (just more of them; I actually preferred the intimacy of the Capella Palatino). The Normans used Arab workers to create these immense visions (comic books?) of bible stories. Later that afternoon we drive dizzyingly up hills to take in Gibellina Vecchia—old Gibellina, which was destroyed in a 1968 earthquake—a continuing facet of these cities’ history. Something like L. A.—great weather and beauty under constant threat of total destruction. We see it from Hellenic temples up to now. There at Gibellina Vecchia, a 20th century sculptor Alberto Burri creates a moving monument to the victims by covering the city in concrete, leaving its streets. Most moving to me is the sheer isolation of the place. Narrow twisting roads that drop off into nothing, one has to wonder on the self sufficiency and (still) separateness of these places. I felt similarly all over Sicily. It is an island, not that large, but the hills and circuitous landscape creates hills and valleys, cul de sacs and precarious urban sitings.
A night at Erice on top of a mountain, cold that night, narrow streets and we arrive after dark, leave by 8am and never get to see much—the sadness of these tours! But then we would not have seen what we were led to. That morning to Motya, an island off the coast, a private archaeological retreat with dusty museum and wonderful water, plants, wildflowers large and bloomy, fennel as big as a man, over grown comical and druidic. A burial site where we argue over possibility of human sacrifice. Return across water past salt flats and Dutch-like windmills—where are we? The speed of our travels or the strangeness and variety of Sicily overtake me here. I lose track. A Museo Baglio Anselmi at Marsala (ancient Lilybaeum) where I find book by the brother of Salvatore Giuliano, the bandit of Sicily from WW II and about whom I am giving a ‘report’ about the film of the same name by Francesco Rosi: a fictional doc-like black and white cinematic morally ambivalent chaotic pleasure-palace that predates Battle of Algiers and influenced it. Same co-writers. Gorgeous and funny to see the myth lives on. We spent too long in Marsala I thought but on to the Cave di Cusa quarries near Selinunte: a beautiful spot surrounded by the sea where the columns were quarried 2500 years before (wouldst our b and b were located there!). We see columns that are abandoned for Temple G that we will see the next day. They are mammoth and we also see how quarrying is done. The hunk of rock carved away in a circle until they can cut it at bottom, off its ‘stem’ so to speak, and roll it on out.
The drive into Selinunte is through horrific industrial / commercial wasteland, a Route 28 in New Jersey type car ride for Easterners to recognize (or viewers of the Sopranos?) and for us in Sicily we think the Mafia had a hand (buying off permits and permissos). We arrive in Selinunte proper, a dusty town by the sea that next morning proves rich rich in temples: complete ones and gorgeous ones and partial ones and soft ones and hard ones and ones by water and ones by guard walls and and ….. I win the ‘block’ challenge: i.e. can you identify what this piece is and where it comes from? Somehow having listened to Jess the day before I say it’s a triglyph and yes it’s a corner piece. Everyone claps. The best is yet to come: We reach temple G—its columns tumbled in an earthquake. It is as if one has entered a fairy tale, the columns larger than is imaginable: 6 of us cannot encircle one! We are in the land of Jack and the beanstalk. Margaret our fearless leader says perhaps these should be left this way forever. Certo. A scholar here at the Academy tonight (back in Rome) points out that Greece was crowded, hardly room for two farms in each valley, so Sicily was to the Greeks like Texas and they went big, bigger, biggest. There were some Texans at the table tonight! Certo.
Fantastic and haunting. Again the power the ambition the hubris and then again the amazement. At Agrigento, below a modern city lining the horizon, between the city and the sea, more temples in the named Valley of Temples. The most startling the mammoth stone bodies in the crushed temple that would have been even bigger than temple G but they are lying down these tumbled hulks that remind one of nothing so much as the Hulk in comic book terms, worn weathered by rain and wind, pieced of stone. The temple of Concord further on which is the most complete we have seen, the most complete greek temple in the world? and quite amazing since it had the interior walls still there. Dark windowless, it houses the statue of the god but seemed to me a treasury of sorts—unsleepable and indeed one of the scholars from Athens Ann said U of Chicago teaches that these are ‘banks’ in effect—i.e. treasury houses. Which seemed so to me but to the religious among us, a no starter. Any way--- to see the construction was interesting and speculative.
To quote Corey our leader from the academy: We go on to “the important Hellenistic city of Morgantina—with its excellent associated archaeological museum in an ex-Cappuccin monastery at Aidone. In an amazing coincidence, former AAR Mellon Professor Malcolm Bell (FAAR’70, RAAR’89) of the University of Virginia was on hand at Morgantina to show the group the “House of Ganymede” and the excavations of the Hellenistic baths.” He doesn’t add that Bell won the suit against the Met regarding stolen treasure that has now after nearly 10 years been returned to italy and is in rome this minute about to go back to the museum of morgantina! Coincidences are large.
The house of Ganymede presumably has the first mosaic floor. Again I am startled by the darkness, lack of windows. Why would you want to live like that with such light in the surrounds? Morgantina was perfect, a town laying out below. But because of bus considerations we couldn’t stay. A sadness —
Made up in part by a specially arranged visit to the mosaics of the Villa Romana del Casale near Piazza Armerina (closed for restoration right now). Fantastic 6000 square feet of mosaics from 300 ad. Hunts and gladiators and rooms of girls exercising. Abstract designs and animal heads and hot baths (used until the middle ages). Gorgeous tremendous and they still don’t know whose it was: the emperor or someone just high in administration? Stunning. We have seen such art of mosaics in Sicily from Hellenistic to this Roman example through the 12th century ones. Stone lasts where paint does not. Enough to make one a sculptor!
Then gold town of Noto with its magnificent balconies and elegant food: its yellow piazza and baroque buildings looking down a hill into gorges, rebuilt on a plan after 1693 earthquake leveled the original city. Great food here. “Later that afternoon was the steep climb via Ferla to the remote archaeological area of Pantalica, with its thousands of Sicel rock-cut tombs in the walls of a limestone gorge.” Here no one can figure how people lived and indeed Ann V. who is a classicist from BU who is charming as well as her husband Richard, asks (as do I) how people survive in Ferla: i.e. what is the economic basis here in this land of isolation and wind. Pantalica, I can only think it was used either solely for ritual practices/times for burying the dead or perhaps living there with fields in the low fertile lands below. We begin to see Mt. Etna as we come down the hills, it is covered with snow a kind of Mt Fuji hazy in distance, its feet disappearing in clouds which Stephen insists are fumes and they are not.
Siracusa next, a city of white marble. Beautiful by the water with an antique, old city on an island Ortygia with a land bridge. Great food again and easy to walk around to visit the Temple of Apollo—presumably the earliest, mostly foundations but with a great strange large long inscription, the Duomo with its baroque columns next to Greek ones reusing the Temple of Athena. The Palazzo Bellormo gallery with its Messina —another beauty and a room of earlier paintings, again magnificently restored. In the New City or Mainland, there was the immense Archaeological Museum ‘Paolo Orsi’, and the Archaeological Park with its ancient quarry-prisons--- 10 times human height where the Siracusans starved the losing Athenians prisoners in a place called Dionysus’ Ear (check out pix to see how accurate is that name ). A wonderful theater preparing for Euripides in June where my friend Lyndy attended two years ago and said the play starts in the afternoon and goes till dusk, at end the hero walks out into open air, when they let out birds to fly against the charcoaling sky. Gorgeous sounding. I will come back.
The olives, the pastry, the happiness!
On the last day we go into Catania airport to drop off some and rather than wait for the plane 4 hours later, we take a slow crowded bus into the city expecting nothing and find a city of black! It is near Mt. Etna and so lava lines its piazzas and black pumice is ground and mixed with plaster. The walls then are black, grey, charcoal against white marble. Magnificent. The fish market the biggest in Sicily so Stephen and I have our last big fish meal. Totally tasty and head back in traffic to the airport.
Ahhhh: I remember the wildflowers, the wind the jumping among the stones, the first mosaic Norman church the food. A great trip. Takes one away from yourself (identity disappears) and so much input and then on my return turned to my new film for install and lo and behold I worked hard and resolved/solved it over the weekend. So much for an hiatus to clarify the mind. It is looking quite fine, poignant rhythmic, fitting itself into place with a sweetness. Called “l'impero invertito" ("hacking empire" in English but it doesn't translate to Italian well, so inverting empire). Now to make it happen with 5 projectors, one wall screen and two monitors. Yes and more and yes and yes.
It is primavera here on our return—all the plum trees in bloom, that iris by the casa rustica still going strong (genes of iron)— and my worry about the out of focus film from march 14 shoot for THE PURSUIT just before we left is alleviated with a visit to the lab Monday, Fotocinema. Not so out of focus actually, mostly fine and the lighting fantastic and the acting perfect and yes I can use so that releases quite a lot of tension since my “natives are restless” and can’t do too much more. Celebrate your b roll (i.e. the secondary footage which can often be the most fun and satisfying any-way ) but as there is no synchronous sound, it’s as if all the film is b roll, so perhaps this is my c roll. My energy is up. I will shoot more film and take camera back to NYC for check up. No one in Rome knows the Beaulieu (camera) it seems which is crazy since its from Switzerland and should be easily repaired in neighboring lands but hey —
This blog reminds me of nothing so much as what Kit Robinson says in a recent Grand Piano group autobiography: to make “a book mark in time.” I too in camp at 11 or 12 or 13 one summer said I will remember this and walked on stone path and indeed if I don’t remember every stone I remember the instant. Such is the mix of intent and brain, memory arc to past that exists in present and sings to us…..images of listening before off to bed.
Ciao mi amici!