Not knowing enough to come in out of the rain, I walk the ramparts of Enna’s castle, built 700 years ago and looking its age. Rain was falling all over Sicily the first time I came to the island, en route to a borsa di studio in Rome’s American Academy.Borsa is “purse” and they filled it with lire, almost enough to get by on. The old Vulcania— teak paneling and brass fittings, little boys in Philip Morris suits striking chimes for tea and bouillon—lay over for most of a day in Palermo, where Mike Kelly waited at dockside. Attaché without portfolio at the U.S.consulate, i.e. Langley spook, this former college chum promised a day to remember. Our afternoon’s rubbernecking ended with dinner at a snooty hotel in Acquasanta, outside the city. Acquasanta is holy water, hard on the purse, and the Villa Igiea doesn’t feature spaghetti and meatballs. For starters they offered artichokes, new to this callow traveler. Nobody cuing me, I ate mine to the last bite, leaves, prickly needles, and core.
That was then, this is now, and I have learned to deal with artichokes. However, I haven’t packed an umbrella. The telescope on the battlements is protected by a wooden cupola, though, and sheltering beneath it I make out Lake Pergusa in the near distance. Brackish dead water, it discolors the plain like a bruise or a bowl of dark jello. No tides ruffle the surface, and if the lake has an outlet not even the geodetic people can say. Ancient Sicilians thought it covered the entrance to Hades. Pluto or Dis ruled this kingdom of the dead with his queen Proserpine, snatched from the land of the living. Each year in the spring she left the underworld, assuring the rest of us a new lease on life.”Lease” was all it was, and in the fall death reclaimed her.
Enna on its pinnacle enjoys a bird’s eye view of history. This fosters detachment, and intruders on the plain clump together. If it’s A.D.500, they must be Vandals. Characters in this costume drama keep changing, and history on the island notes their entrances and exits. When Byzantines ruled Sicily, Arabs called Saracens, a wave flooding from Africa, broke against the city on its eagle’s perch. Finally they made their way up to the top, crawling one by one through the sewer. Later, Normans, a new wave, drove these Arabs back to the sea.
No longer “Sicily’s navel,” Enna (pop. 28, 000) sends its young men north to Turin and Switzerland or south to the petro-chemical refinery in Gela. In the decade after World War II, half a million left the island, one in every ten Sicilians. Italians in the North, all for cheap labor, look with contempt on these Southerners. They have a saying: Europe ends at Naples. In the main square named for Victor Emanuel, the little king from Piedmont—he replaced the Bourbons, Neapolitan kings—shop windows are shuttered and traffic is nil. Splendid but damp in white gloves and white helmet, the cop on his podium has nothing to do but kill time.
Turning left in my Fiat out of the square, I bump forward slowly into Piazza Crispi. The bronze fountain, spouting water where there is plenty of same, copies Bernini’s “Rape of Proserpine” in the Villa Borghese, Rome. This sculptor handled marble as if it were bronze, and if you look closely at the original you see the dints in the flesh left by the god’s brutal fingers. Terrified, the maiden shrinks away but he has her, and a marble tear falls from her eye. Crispi, a local hero who spoke for reform, made his way to the top in the new Italian state. Becoming prime minister, he meant to do good but left his people worse off than he found them.
Shapes loom out of fog as I descend the hill of Enna and rejoin the modern world. The autostrada, a concrete ribbon wrapped around the island, running east to Catania ends at the Ionian Sea. Going the other way, it ends at Marsala, Arab Mars-al-Allah, the harbor of God. But long before the Arabs, Phoenician traders dredged the harbor and put down fresh roots on the coast. Homer’s rootless heroes sailed the waters to the north. Lurking in this Tyrrhenian Sea, Scylla and Charybdis dragged some of them under. Near the Gulf of Gela, washing southern Sicily, the poet Aeschylus died, brained by a tortoise-shell dropped by a passing eagle.
Trinacria, ancients called the sea-girt land, like a tricornered hat on the waters. Pointing in the wrong direction, its peak looks toward Africa, visible on a clear day. Trinacria’s emblem, stitched on aprons for the tourist trade, shows a three-legged figure, the twisty legs angling out from a disembodied head. Palermo on the north coast is Sicily’s head. Like John the Baptist’s, it sits on a platter, the littoral, cut off from the past when its splendors put Rome in the shade.
Blank walls, a stage set embellished with statues, box in Palermo’s four corners, Quattro Canti di Citta. The city’s four mandamenti swear by these statues, one appointed for each jurisdiction. But the patron saints on the walls turn a deaf ear on their constituents. In the warren of tiny streets that move out from the center, today merges with yesterday, and tomorrow doesn’t look any better. Men and women in Palermo take no thought for tomorrow. As to the future: “Che cosa si pud fare?” What can you do? Not masters of their fate, they don’t employ the future tense.”I have to go,” you hear them saying, leaving “shall” and “will” to others.
Palermo as it used to be lies within a mile’s radius of the Quattro Ganti. You can make the circuit by bus but have to buy your ticket at the tobacconist, often chiuso, out to lunch. Traffic is pazzo, as in Marzo pazzo, crazy March, and drivers, coming to an intersection, play chicken. Nobody wears a seat belt, machismo forbidding this. With time to spare, I set out to keep my appointment on foot.
Along Via Roma, Japanese tourists have buried the dress code with their late emperor. Young men peddle Zippo lighters or swipe at car windows, hoping to wash them for a few lire. A sign fastened to a lamp standard promotes a local clinic specializing in dosaggi ormoni (“guaranteed to pep up your sex life”). Further south in Pretorio square, the rococco fountain strains at its moorings like Donizetti’s balloon. Nymphs, tritons, and river gods, some minus a hand or a couple of toes, attitudinize in the circular basin.Menefreghisti, don’t-give-a-damn ones, roam Palermo’s streets at night, and what time’s tooth has spared they make up for.
Pausing for breath, weary Palermitani sit on the raised curbing, their backs to the fountain. Mike Kelly, where he said he’d be, doesn’t need a name tag. Taller than others and red-headed to boot, he licks the ruins of a sweet from his fingers.”Pasta reale. Marzipan to you.” No longer our man in Palermo, he has come in from the cold looking pinched—red hair streaked with silver like Mother Machree’s, chinos and scuffed gym shoes—and when he gets up to shake hands, lists to starboard. A dose of lupara will do that, he says.Cosche favor this sawn-off shot gun, loaded with “wolf shot,” ball bearings. Sicilian for the mob, cosche means a thick cluster of artichoke leaves, and if I have forgotten our long-ago dinner, he hasn’t.
Already in college, dinner was what he lived for, also lunch and breakfast with snacks in between. Life in Palermo agrees with his sweet tooth, and a gut like LBJs hangs over his buckle. He’d walk a mile for a tube of cannoli, fried pastry stuffed with sugar, ricotta cheese, bits of citrus, and chocolate. Marzipan is his passion. The best, “frutta di Martorana,” comes from the convent beside the Martorana church where the nuns make the almond paste, shaped and colored like apricots, rosy apples, and pears.
Mike plus the Blue Guide equals a cicerone, but the city, seen through his eyes, isn’t like the Musee des Beaux Arts. Its churches, palaces, and temples back a ramshackle stage crowded with supers in a Mascagni opera. The opera always ends badly—“Morir! è troppo orribile!”— but the supers don’t pull a long face. Presents “from the dead” cheer them up on All Saints Day, the dead getting their due on All Souls, a day later. On this “Giorno del Morti,” parents, he tells me, decorate the graveyards and hand out sugar dolls to their children. For the feast of St. Rosalie, they set aside a full week in July. In the 1700’s, Lampedusa’s Prince, not the novelist’s, a real one, paid for the fireworks, going deep in the red but glad to do this for the city’s protectress.
Niece to a Norman king, William the Good, she began early on to display religious “symptoms,” and leaving the world at 15, hid herself on Mount Pellegrino. For 500 years she was never heard of, carried bodily to Heaven, people said in Palermo. Eventually, though, aided by a holy man, they found her bones near the top of the mountain. The reliquary, a silver casket kept under lock and key in the north aisle of Palermo’s cathedral, isn’t often exposed to the public. But never mind the churlish sexton, this Assunta church deserves a visit for its own sake.”Matrice” or center of the medieval town, it mixes Romanesque and Gothic under a neo-classical dome. Royal tombs in the south aisle remember Norman King Roger and the German emperors, “Holy Roman” ones, who ruled Sicily after he did.”Assunta” is Assumption, as in the Feast of, and remembers the Mother of God. Outliving her son, some say for three years, others for 50, she went to Heaven still clothed in the flesh.
The front tomb on the left is Frederick II’s. German tourists, flocking in winter to the island in the sun, deck his tomb with anemones and laurel. Half German, half Norman, Frederick was Stupor Mundi, Wonder of the World. He lived in Oriental splendor, kept a harem, wrote poetry, and patronized poets. Mike knows Sicilians who think he lives on in the flaming cone of Etna, waiting to come back in his kingdom’s hour of need.
Americans, in a hurry when they bombed Palermo in the Second World War, opened the bomb bays and hightailed it for home. Monuments, houses, and munition dumps went up together, and 50 years later the holes in the ground are still there. Cottage hovels perch on the brink in the Albergheria quarter, southwest of the old Norman palace. But the bombing, an ill wind, blew good to some, and where the slums used to be an open-air market claims squatter’s rights. In Piazza Ballaro, the produce stalls and truck beds are heaped with pods of broccoli, some bigger than a man’s head.
Scooped from the bomb sites, anthills of rubble dot the Marina, above them a rusty ferris wheel, ghost of carnivals past. Arabs housed their elect, el-Halisah, in this dilapidated quarter, and a thousand years later the Arab thing hangs on in Palermo. Reconsecrating their cathedral, Normans sprinkled holy water on an old mosque. As you enter from the south porch, the left hand column is inscribed with squiggly verses from the Koran. Behind the long facade of the Norman-plusSaracen palace, the Palatine Chapel pays its respects to Islam. Down an avenue of granite pillars, God above the altar and the King on his dais confront one another, and geometry confronts the Word Made Flesh. Stalactites, not cherubs, hang from the cupola over the sanctuary, octagons on the coffered ceiling displace the heavenly host. Out of love with the “human face divine,” Arabs dreamed their different dream, preferring an art of abstraction.
Crowned in the cathedral on Christmas Day 1130, King Roger ruled his city through a deputy, “Emir” of Palermo. The Emir was Greek and his title a holdover, but neither thought it unbecoming and the world they made between them says that Kipling with his “East is East and West is West” had it wrong. South of the Quattro Canti, the dome of the Martorana church quotes a Byzantine hymn. The inscription is lettered in Arabic, however, and the great campanile is Norman. In its shadow, the little red domes of San Cataldo only need a minaret to convert this Christian church to a mosque. Palermo in its heyday, accommodating Greek, Norman, and Arab, thought up this catholic style. It isn’t permissive where anything goes but tolerant, implying decisions.
Mike is a history buff, not the pots-and-pans variety but “Battles and Leaders.” Too young himself for “Operation Husky,” he has it by heart and wants to show me the east coast where the Allies drove the Wehrmacht back to the sea. Taking the scenic route, we drop south from Palermo, then pick up the highway, cut between hummocky hills.
Lowering toward the sea, the plateau melts into farmland, but mountains, north and east, pinch off this subtropical coast. A single chain, they continue the Apennines, coming down from Italy, and Africa’s Atlas Mountains, coming up from the south. Sicilians scrape a living between them. Etna, ready to detonate, overawes the east and much of the center. Snow scallops its peak and lies heavy on the flanks, taking up half the sky. Taormina to the east, domesticating this difficult neighbor, offers views. Tourists bored with Capri fill the grand hotels, one of them a Bristol, always a Bristol, and the streets and squares are lined with ceramic shops, pastry shops, and boutiques.
A 12th-century Frenchman, exiled in Sicily, wanted to know who could live in a country “where the very mountains vomit fetid sulphur,” boiling up above the gateway to hell. Taken from the earth, men passed through this gate and descended, like Proserpine, “into the regions of Satan.” Empedocles, Mike says, was one of these men, and threw himself from Etna’s summit into its flaming core. Disappearing without notice but sure to come back, he pretended to godhead. The volcano foiled this philosopher, though. Burning him to clinkers, it tossed up one of his sandals, denying the resurrection and the life.
Not long ago, many Sicilians had never seen a wheeled cart, and when the little king died in Garibaldi’s time it took several weeks before the interior knew this. Today’s news, some important, gets through in a jiffy, thanks to the motor car. Hill towns, built of local red stone, lie off its beaten track, Vizzini, for instance, on our right hand to the south. Verga the novelist, raised in Vizzini, brought it to gloomy life in his Mastro-Don Gesualdo. A.k.a.”San Giovanni,” blackish, rusted, without a shadow, its windows open in the heat like so many black holes, the crosses of its church-towers trembling in the sun-dark air. Most travelers omit it, and the motor car, a cocoon, whisks them through homogeneous space.
Reaching Catania and the coast, we hang a right for Siracusa, in the rain and near dark not that different from its American namesake. Imitating the Jersey Turnpike, a Zona Industriale stretches to the horizon on either side of the road. Crushed Coca-Cola cans and empty beer bottles, “Nastro Azurro,” skitter across it. Our hotel when we get there is the Jolly, a big chain like the Holiday Inn.
But gigantic fluted pillars line the sides of the Duomo in the heart of the old town. Lifted from a Greek temple, they remember the Age of Pericles, and for two and a half millenia people have come here to worship. The Greek pillars are Doric, the cathedral’s apse is Byzantine, and Normans, deft of touch though who would expect it, created the 12th-century mosaics. Under the temple, sacred to Athena but converted to a Christian church in the early centuries, excavations reveal a cluster of huts. Pre-Greek, they go back to the 8th century B.C.Mike to the contrary, this “hodgepodge” makes an order.
As the afternoon wanes, the passeggiata, a daily rite, forms up on the promenade that runs beside the Piazza del Duomo. Men linking arms with men and women with women pace solemnly by the water’s edge under the ficus trees. Shading this Foro Italico, the trees are like fig trees, only bigger. Rich, poor, and middling, the men wear a flat tweed golf cap, the coppola, and the women are dressed to the nines. Sun whitens the cobbles, Aeolus, god of winds, having blown away the rain. No day without sunshine on the island of Ortygia, Cicero told them back in Rome.
Bridges link the island to the city across the harbor where the fishing fleet, in from the sea, rides at anchor. On the prows of the boats an unwinking eye, like the sky-blue beads that shutter their coffee bars, wards off the evil eye. Business and industry, necessary evils, occupy the modern city, incidentally polluting the waters around it. Below the city proper, the river Ciane spills into the harbor. Mike remembers how pleasure craft, casting off from the Foro Italico, used to take trysting couples upstream to its source. Old olive trees, lemon trees, and the pomegranate lean toward the river, on its left bank a temple once devoted to Zeus. Proserpine, they say, might have evaded her captivity in Hades, but eating a pomegranate, forbidden fruit like the apple Eve pulled in the Garden, had to stay there. Though her handmaid Ciane did what she could to frustrate the rape, Pluto had his way, and this luckless intercessor watered the ground with her tears. Greek “cyane” is blue but waste darkens the spring and you wouldn’t want to swim in the river.
In the tropics, memories don’t linger, and 1943, when Kesselring’s Germans and Patton’s Seventh Army fought their fight to the death, is ancient history in Siracusa. But older wars, like light from a dead star still throw light on the present, and past and present run together beside the Ionian Sea. The richest city of the classical age, Siracusa had a rival, Athens, over the water. The place we come from, it stands for the good society. I am “of Athens” and reverence its precepts, most of all the summons to reason. But in 415 B.C.it launched an unholy war. Thucydides, a participant, tells what happened. Tactful historians ought to imitate history, only the facts, no editorials, please, but all must find a lesson in this tale of pride before a fall.
“The men, not the walls nor the empty galleys, are the city,” said Nicias the Athenian, spurring on his cohorts. However, all Sicily came in on the Siracusian side, “and we who seemed to besiege others found ourselves besieged.” Blocking the harbor mouth with a chain of boats and grapples, the defenders penned in the Athenian fleet. The army of Athens fleeing south, they hacked it up piecemeal.”Both army and fleet and all that ever they had perished,” said Thucydides. Coming with a purpose to enslave others, they went away loaded with chains.
Survivors, seven thousand of them, went to the Latomie, stone quarries northwest of the city. Most left their bones there, servitude taking the rest. Sun baked them in their prison house, a cauldron open to the sky. Nights they froze, and the alteration bred disease. Few of many came home to Athens. The quarry pits in “Neapolis,” an archaeological park, rank high with tourists, but citrus groves and palm trees hide the deep cuttings and bougainvillaea hides their vertical sides. Hewn from the rock, a semicircular amphitheater overlooks the park and the base of a colossal altar, 200 meters long. Broken pillars sketch the portico that used to enclose it. Sicilians live in the ruins but turn an indifferent eye on the past. Absorbed in the day’s business, they let the dead bury their dead.
In the Quarry of the Capuchins, called for the monks who built the nearby convent, the vegetable gardens have gone back to nature. Lichen slicks the damp ground where the sun doesn’t penetrate, and tufts of maidenhair root in the crannies. Mike names this fern for me, “capelvenere,” “ hair of Venus,” remembering the goddess who came from the sea. Above the Latomia di Santa Venere, the tomb with a Doric pediment belongs to Archimedes. Thinking up new inventions, he died by accident when Romans sacked the city in 211 B.C.
South and east of the park is the church of Santa Lucia, Siracusa’s patron saint. Martyred on the spot—just here! tour guides say—she went traveling in death. Byzantines, great relic hunters, took her body away, and later Venetians stole it from Constantinople. Caravaggio, an exile too hot for Rome to handle, painted this saint’s burial. I look for his work in the Museo Nazionale, a bone shop. Almost lost among tomb slabs, intarsia panels, bits of classical sculpture, church vestments, terracotta figurines, and a pair of old carriages, St. Lucy lies on the ground, awaiting interment. Caravaggio puts her front and center in the painting, but his eye is on the gravediggers, busy at their chores. One has a great brawny bottom swathed in cotton, silvery where it catches the light.
Down the street from Ortygia’s museum is the Arethusa Fountain, a cistern sunk below the piazza. Eighteen hundred years ago, a Greek traveler described it: “An isle Ortygia lies on the misty ocean over against Trinacria where the mouth of Alpheus mingles with the springs of Arethusa.” Alpheus the river rises in Greek Olympia, dark with old sacrifice. Its indwelling god meant to rape Arethusa, but this wood nymph, plunging into the sea, emerged in Sicily, changed to a fountain. The god, taking the same likeness, ran her down, however, and now his spring and hers flow together. If you throw a cup in the river at its faraway source, it comes up again in Sicily, reddening the fountain with blood. Anyway, old chroniclers believed this.
Visiting Arethusa’s fountain is a must for tourists, and Mike, newly posted to Palermo, performed as expected. That first time round, though, he wrinkled his nose.”Foul” is his word for this common laundry tub where ladies of Ortygia did their week’s wash. Warned off by the iron balustrade, the ladies are gone, but algae films the murky water, ducks paddle its surface, and local fishermen, leaning over the rails, cast for bream. Papyrus edges the cistern, the same that grows beside the spring of Ciane. Some say it got here from Egypt, a gift of the Ptolemies, others, that conquering Arabs introduced it before they went back where they came from.
“Pre-Poppa,” Mike called himself in his student days, learning how to spend what his father had saved. A quick study, he got through a lot in a hurry. His pension rewards him for the years of derring-do but isn’t all that much, “considering,” and leaning down he massages his leg. Living on the island, less gets him more, however, and this retiree isn’t going home to Eureka, CA.
Also he has a bee in his bonnet, something about buried treasure. X marks the spot, the grave of Queen Margaret in Monreale, just up the road. Wife of William the Bad, opposed to the other William, the queen has her sepulcher in the chapel beside the church choir. Not a whited sepulcher, this one holds a king’s ransom. So say Mike’s sources, old tomes in the Archbishop’s palace, and why don’t we have a look for ourselves?
Early in the A. M. we meet at my hotel, a stone palazzo with a block of its own on Via Roma. The Inghams, 19th-century Britishers who introduced the world to the wines of Marsala, called this Grande Albergo delle Palme their home away from home. A stuccoed frieze of dancing girls runs the length of the lobby, Art Nouveau windows filter the light, and coyly erotic statues stand about in the corners. Though the potted palms look wispy, the oily green ferns get a lot of TLC, and even in Palermo they keep the aspidistra flying. Between the marble staircases, a bust of Wagner asks attention. He finished his “Parsifal” in the hotel, and both lack interior plumbing.
Cassaro Vecchio takes us west from the city, past the Norman palace and the cathedral on its green island, defended by a phalanx of saints. Seventeenth-century villas, 19th-century townhouses, and high-rise condos built a month or a year ago flank the main drag coming into Monreale. Mike keeps out of churches unless for weddings and funerals but is eager to do the rounds of Santa Maria la Nuova. When they buried the Norman queen, if his sources have it right, they wrapped the body in crimson, sewn with gold thread and embroidered with pearls. Beside it in the coffin, the king placed a jewel-encrusted crown.
Speculating, Mike wonders what the fabulous treasure would bring on the market, i. e. the black market. You can take the man out of the CIA but not the CIA out of the man. He viewed with alarm when I knew him in college, finding corruption wherever he looked, not least in “the corridors of power.” Joining the Company, he meant to do something about this.”Things changing remain the same,” though, a painful lesson learned, and keeping his head down he sees to it that his checkbook is balanced. In Sicily, he says, one hand washes another, “always has, always will.” That wellmeaning policeman they sent out from Rome—I must have read about his death in the papers?—was a man for All Souls Day, “only good for giving sugar dolls to children.”
As we enter the church, a fanfare of sound rolls up the nave and the Pantocrator looms out of darkness. The organist in the choir is fingering his keyboard, and a thoughtful tourist has fed the coin box that turns on the lights. Delphi, the first time I saw it, was like that, a thunder clap and startled doves beating the air above the oracle’s cave. I thought they thought God spoke in the thunder. The God in the apse has great staring eyes and the iris appears to float free. Wherever we turn, we are under surveillance. Better to make a clean breast of it, this spooky presence is saying, if one of us has something to hide.
An artificial world pieced together out of glass, precious metal, and stone, Monreale’s is natural too. In a corner of the cloister south of the church, lions, yawning but toothless, spill water in the Arab fountain. Atop the twin columns that mark off the cloister, birds peck the spiral scrolling. Writhing shapes like vines or creepers coil up the trunks of these petrified trees, and the acanthus leaves look blown by the wind. Heads peer from the foliage, Proserpine’s among them. In touch with a darker world before our new dispensation, she belongs in this pantheon, and maybe Christ’s mother, Mater Dolorosa, owes something to the pagan queen of sorrows.
In a God-obsessed time, somebody cared about the world and its business, and the church’s mosaics mingle profane with their sacred. The carpenter and his adz have been at work on Noah’s Ark, strewing the deck with wood shavings. In the ladder that leads down to terra firma, you can see the nails that fasten the rungs to the risers. Going up the ladder, animals, two by two, are glad to get away from our doomed habitation. Going down again after the Deluge is another story, though, and both lion and lamb look reluctant.
Moving as the light moves, the blazing mosaics quiver like water, or like a sun-besotted sky above the pillars that keep it from falling. Sages in the fire recite the course of human history, beginning with the Creation and ending with the last days. God hangs on the Cross, but dying doesn’t die and waits to come back to His kingdom. Reserved for this Second Coming, the throne in the presbytery is vacant.
In the meantime, things don’t look good. Cain murders Abel on the walls of the nave, and with this bloody fratricide history begins. Over the main entrance, fire licks the walls of Sodom. Lot and his daughters make it to safety but Lot’s wife, looking back, is turned to a column of salt. Forfeit to the underworld, she has her chance to escape, but one way or another can’t seize it.
“Original sin” is the culprit, and contemplating it guiltily all must say “mea culpa.” But Adam and Eve, eating the forbidden fruit, don’t look guilty, only confused. Near the high altar, he delves and she weeps with a shuttle in her hand. On the church’s bronze doors, an angel drives them from the Garden. Eve, reaching out to her mate, offers comfort, to him and the rest of us, unwilling legatees. Adam, who ignores her, isn’t having any, though. Throwing up a hand despairingly, he seems to be saying: Che cosa si pud fare? What can you do?
Mike isn’t with me as I leave the church, and turning back I find him slumped against the wall in the transept. St. Louis, King of France and unlucky Crusader, is the transept’s star attraction, and an urn on the altar has this King’s internal organs and heart. Indifferent to the relics, Mike points dejectedly to the marble tomb on our left. A printed notice under glass says that Queen Margaret lies here. Or rather she used to, and this 19th-century sarcophagus copies the original, lost in “the fire of 1811.”
Back in the beginning, Greeks, colonizing Sicily, opened the windows and let in the sun. Phoenicians, there before them, preferred a world like Caravaggio’s, light infiltrated by darkness. Casting off for Gibraltar and the waters beyond, they left “Magna Graecia” to their successors. No riddle too thorny for these rational men, problem solvers like Oedipus the King. Wanting to know where I come from, I set out on their track, racing the sun as it wheels west from Palermo.
Cellas, stylobates, and metopes are all Greek to him, Mike says, protesting. But stowing his long legs under the dashboard, he climbs into the Fiat beside me. Palms and giant carob trees bend away from the sea, then the road dips inland between the salt flats of Trapani and the plains of Castellamare. In the up-and-down country the olive groves go on forever until, without warning, the temple appears on its spur. Western Sicily’s major city a long time ago, Segesta is deserted. Daisies gild the plateau, punctuated by goats, baaing sheep, and a woebegone sheep dog. Outside the cafe, its roof alight with bougainvilleae, unhopeful vendors make a pass at the handful of tourists. Wars with Greek Selinunte kept this city on the boil. Today’s winner lost tomorrow, then, the wheel turning, they went at it again. Arabs, strictly business, put a stop to their squabbles. Seizing Segesta, they made a Carthaginian peace.
You climb up by a path lined with bristling plants like oversize pin-cushions. Below in the fields, grape vines propped by stakes in long symmetrical rows suggest a military graveyard. Wrinkled red fruit, the kind farmers feed their hogs with, hangs from the cactus plants, and on the warty surfaces “Giuseppe” has scratched his name with a penknife. Fasces on a broken pillar remember Mussolini. Higher up, the Greek theater has seen better days.
But the temple still stands after two and a half thousand years. Unfinished, it lacks its cella or sanctuary, home of the cult god, and inside the portico the eye looks on vacancy. Weather, pitting the limestone columns, has cracked the metopes, square spaces in the frieze, and weeds and wild flowers widen the cracks year by year. Someday “Mother Nature” will bring the temple down. Archimedes could move the earth with a fulcrum, he said, but the force he disposed of doesn’t hold a candle to hers. It isn’t always maternal, and Selinunte previews the future. Farther south on the ocean, it lay in Hannibal’s path when he came up from Carthage, bad luck to Selinuntines. But nature, not man, toppled their city.
Shattered columns lean against its building blocks, squared off like dice or rounded to cylinders. Honey-colored, the great drums weigh a hundred tons apiece. Some columns remain, survivors of the earthquake. Selinon, wild celery, pokes up through the sandy soil. This herb, good for seasoning, gave the city its name.
Putting Humpty Dumpty together again, archaeologists have reconstructed a pair of the temples. One, newly crowned with its entablature, rises from cypress trees, and ramparts of tufa stone, left over from old volcanoes, enfilade the approach to the other. At sunset a flaming sky glimmers through its colonnade, behind it the wine-dark sea where the black boats of the tonnaroti, tuna fishermen, ride low in the water. It really is wine-dark, like their local vino rosso, “Corvo,” the raven. Marinella, a mile away, is built against the water, and the summer visitors who crowd it don’t go home without seeing the ruins. When the season ends, however, Selinunte is left to itself.
Men and women in Magna Graecia claimed mixed descent from Greeks and Trojans, the lion lying down with the lamb. Segesta’s founding father, Trojan on his mother’s side, had for his father a Sicilian river god, like that Alpheus who pursued Arethusa. Aeneas, fleeing Troy, ploughed the furrow that marked the line of the walls. En route to his destiny, he stopped off on the island, and his adventures are part of its story. Virgil has him founding Erice, high above the sea northwest of Segesta.
The mountain Erice sits on is Aphrodite’s work, forced up from the ocean but left high and dry. At the base of the mountain the sickle-shaped promontory is Tràpani, a Mafia stronghold. Anchises laid his bones there, returning to the arms of the goddess of love on whom he had fathered Aeneas. Off this coast she rose from bloody foam when Cronos, wielding a sickle, castrated his father and threw the severed members in the sea. Sicels, an ancient people, were first on the island, and Sicily is the land of the sickle.
No Mason-Dixon Line divides it but you know you are South when you get to Marsala, astride the coastal road to Agrigento. Garibaldi and his Thousand entered the city in May 1860, step one on the road to Italy’s reunification. The people, Mike says, broke out the tricolor when this hero came in, but most didn’t know what his word “Italy” meant. Maybe it meant “La Talia,” they thought, the name of their new ruler’s wife.”South,” a state of mind in Sicily and elsewhere, means taking life easy, passion that smolders, above all the unwinking sun. Behind the coastal plain the entrails of the hills carry burning sulphur, and the leaves of the olive trees shimmer like wood burned to ash. Piddling villages snooze on the plain, a dust bin layered with the offscouring of modern life. On the outskirts, the half-finished houses are “fruit of the emigrants.” Sending money home to Sicily, they haven’t sent enough.
People in Agrigento favored the grand scale, and Plato, an early tourist, said they built “as if they would never die.” But the city he knew has come down in the world, searched by war and earthquake. Nearby Porto Empédocle, nourished on the ruins, quarried its building blocks from the piles of broken limestone in the Valley of the Temples. This industrial seaport honors the philosopher, a native son. Working out his doctrine of the four “elements,” earth, air, fire, and water, he said how love and strife kept them on the boil. Life dwindled whenever the temperature dropped, but disorder engineered its renewal.
Almond trees frame the temples, on a shelf below the modern town. Juno’s, only a single colonnade and a few free-standing fragments, is open to the sky, and four Doric columns remember the Dioscuri’s. This is a letdown, but Mike, whipping back an imaginary curtain, points to the great temple named for Concord. Alone on its rise and set off by the emptied-out country, it stands four-square like St. Peter’s in Rome. Clearing out his huge piazza in front of St. Peter’s, Bernini divorced it from life’s messy clutter. Around Monreale, dwellings, shops, and cottage gardens press against the walls, part of a living network. The Temple of Concord dispenses with these filaments, eager for takeoff like Donizetti’s balloon.
Floodlights, illuminating the valley at night, leave its hollows in shadow, and the temples from a distance look new as today. White stucco made from marble dust coated the limestone, but though this is gone, the tawny gold turns to chalk in the half light. Formed up like an army, the ghostly colonnades hark back to the rational mind that conceived them. On to a good thing, this mind didn’t bother to vary it much, and if you see one temple, says Mike, you have seen them all. Truth to tell, they have their family likeness.
What you see isn’t just what you get, though. In the near distance beyond vineyards and fields of artichoke, waves eat at the shoreline, and wind rising in the cypress trees tosses their plumes. From the manicured terrace of our hotel, I hear the soughing in the branches. Out there in darkness, something wants to get in. Aeschylus, on terms with darkness, thought about this scary presence before the eagle laid him low. Vindicating reason, he patched a truce with the underworld, home of the Furies. Irrational spirits, they rose from the sea when Aphrodite did, sprung from the blood of our father Uranus. On its official side, Magna Graecia wants to disown them. No getting rid of the Furies, however, and the old poet offered them houseroom. According to him, they live in darkness, under the temples of law.
Magna Graecia disappeared 900 years ago when Greek Byzantium’s last colonies fell to upstart Normans. Reggio Calabria, across the Straits of Messina, fell in 1060.Addio to their palaces and villas, they said, then for ages slept the sleep of the vanquished. In 1973 an offshore diver woke them up in Reggio. Exploring the waters 600 meters out, he saw an arm emerging from the sand of the sea floor. This was how the world recovered the Riace Bronzes, older than Christendom and not much the worse for wear.
Lost in a sudden squall but waiting their time, they beckon from a little museum in the boonies. Getting there is half the fun, but Mike has seen all the pupi— puppet shows—in Palermo and agrees to tag along. The new bill in Messina, “Orlando, Rinaldo, and Fair Angelica,” is worth an excursion, say the Sunday papers, and having done Reggio we can catch the matinee.
On the Calabrian shore across from Messina’s harbor, electrified pylons gather power for the lamps of Sicily, bringing light where there used to be darkness. Mountains on either coast come down to the water, the traghetto plying between them. Dropped off in Villa San Giovanni, we take the road for Reggio, “sempre diretto.” But driving “straight ahead,” their best advice in Calabria, lands us up in a cul-de-sac. Where is the Museo Nazionale? The kibitzer at the curbside looks at us skeptically.”You’re parked in front of it,” he says.
On rectangular blocks packed with sand, two naked soldiers puzzle the crowd, a pair of stranieri, a teacher, and a gaggle of school kids. General issue, a helmet like a woolen cap covers their heads but the sea has worn holes in one of the helmets, and one of the soldiers has lost his right eye. Both, under the fluorescent light, look coppery green. Strife, the element they live in, keeps them alive, though. No bodies truer to life, and you half expect them to step down from their platforms.
Memorizing the statues, I circle them slowly until the attendant plucks me by the sleeve. One of his sleeves is empty, and a military medal hangs from his chest.Chiuso, he says, time for closing. In the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies as they used to call it, time is cheap but money is dear, and the museum, short on money, closes promptly at noon.
Back in Messina, we locate the puppet show on Corso Garibaldi. However, the theater is dark.”Africa begins at the Straits of Messina,” Mike says indignantly, waving the Sunday paper. It didn’t mean to deceive us, only to please, but this is “settimanale,” their once-a-week closing, and a padlock and chain bar the door. Today we have no pupi.
Returning to Palermo along the coastal road, I stare from the window—felucca-like sails, an old Norman church wedged between rock and water—but the men of Reggio blot out the wine-dark sea. Each held a sword, the hilt still visible, also the buckler strapped to the left forearm. The shield it carried is gone, though. Thick beards, hiding the neck, curl and twist like the pubic hair and the shoulder-length hair that escapes from the helmets. Neither man has been circumcised, only a detail but important to the sculptor.
One of that famous tribe called “Anon,” he lived in the best of times when Nicias sailed from Athens, living on to cope with the dark time that followed. But he wasn’t dejected and his hand didn’t swerve. Getting the muscles right—powerful deltoids where the arm joins the shoulder—he shows you how the ribs articulate in the rib cage. His heroes aren’t superhuman, however, and it seems he knew this. Awaiting their fate, a fight to the death or a trip to the agora, they stand at-the-ready. One inclines his head slightly, the other looking straight at the camera.