Dr. Dawg

Italian notes: the jetsam of millennia

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This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

I never fully grasped Walter Benjamin’s vision of history until I saw it veritably stamped upon the land of Sicily.

It first came home to me in Siracusa, a city founded by Corinthian Greeks 2700 years ago (Sicily itself has been inhabited since at least 8000 BC by various competing tribes, including the Sicani and the Sicels—the Sicilian word for “Sicilian” remains “siculo.”)

Wave after wave of invaders/settlers have left their mark on Sicily: Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Arabs, Normans, Vandals, Ostragoths, Byzantines, Swabians, Spanish and French. The Kingdom of Sicily was once richer than England.

Archimedes was murdered in Siracusa. The Siracusan tyrant Dionysios II, not a patch on his father whose harsh rule was combined with a deeply cultured sensibility, reputedly hung his sword by a hair over the head of the servile Damocles.

In Siracusa I listened to Ms Mew and the owner of a small ceramics shop talk politics (learning the expressive Sicilian word “schifiu” in the course of the discussion). The irony was palpable: for centuries—millennia—the very soil of Sicily has been imbued with politics, court dramas, intrigue, and a succession of royal unseatings. As though a little too hot to handle even now, Sicily is presently an autonomous region within Italy. Somehow the political convictions that permit a discussion even to take place are rendered ephemeral and contingent by the very stones under our feet.

Indeed, the layers of irony in Sicily must be experienced first-hand to be appreciated. The Valley of the Temples in the Agrigento area and the excavations in Selinunte are striking to the eye—majestic columns against the skyline. But these are not the ruins into which once-proud structures fell over thousands of years. In fact they are restorations from rubble, some of the latter doubtless natural, some deliberately produced.

The Carthaginians laid siege to the thriving Greek colony in Selinunte in 409 BC, and they prevailed: after a series of conflicts they finally razed the city, with its temples, around 250 BC. The Concordia temple near Agrigento was so named because an unrelated inscription was found nearby. Once a Greek temple, it was Christianized in the sixth century by a Pope who cast out two demons from the place and re-dedicated it to Peter and Paul. Eight columns of the temple to Herakles were restored by an Englishman in the last century, Alexander Hardcastle. Ruins, reconstructed to look like ruins.

So history is written and re-written and written over and erased. And all around are the mute artefacts, the ruins, the restorations, the gorgeous museum pieces*: like Wittgenstein’s lion, if they could speak we would be unable to understand them.

*If you don’t walk around the Satiro, spend time with him, you cannot possibly get the sense of his pure freedom, his complete abandonment to a whirling dionysiac ecstasy. I have never seen a sculpture that moved me so deeply.

Photo Gallery:

[The following are a few of many photographs taken during the past few days. Right-click to view each image in better resolution.]

A view of the sea from Ortigia, the small island at the heart of Siracusa. The rocks in the background are some of those that the maddened, blinded cyclops Polyphemus threw at Ulysses’ departing ships. Ignore the fellow snoozing in the foreground, an obvious tourist: his coppola is a dead giveaway. Sicilians have largely abandoned them.


A narrow street in Ortigia, taken from our hotel balcony.


This badia in the central square of Ortigia is dedicated to the memory of Santa Lucia, who reputedly tore out her eyes and handed them to an admirer, preferring to dedicate herself to spiritual matters. She is frequently depicted carrying them around: the church clearly indicates this central fact of her life with the blank windows as shown. Little cakes in the shape of eyes are eaten on December 13, her feast day.

Santa Lucia.jpg

A Norman rose window in the ruined church of San Giovanni in Siracusa, from which one can access the vast catacombs, in size second only to those in Rome.


The vast Ear of Dionysius, an artificial limestone cave in which the Siracusan tyrant Dionysios I reputedly confined prisoners—and, due to the acoustics of the space, was able to listen in to their conversations. Plus ├ža change….


The hilltop city of old Ragusa (Ibla).


The Arabic influence, in a building in Modica.


Part of one of the magnificent Roman mosaics in the Villa del Casale, near Piazza Armerina.


Eight columns of the temple of Herakles, near Agrigento.


The temple of Concordia.


A church ceiling in Scichli.

Schicli church ceiling.JPG

A Spanish Neo-Gothic palazzo in Donnafugata (the facade was added in the 1800s).


Men in a square in Caltagirone. In Sicily, one sees knots of men or of women socializing in the streets and the squares, but mixed groups are rare.


A flowered, tiled staircase in Caltagirone.

Calta Girone.jpg

The temple of Hera in Selinunte.


Salt pans (saline) and stored salt on the coast of Marsala.


Phoenician mask in the Giuseppe Whitaker Museum on the island of Mozia/Mothia/Mostya. The island is a treasure trove of Phoenician structures and artefacts.


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This page contains a single entry by Dr. Dawg published on May 19, 2012 11:20 AM.

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