5 April 2014

South East Sicily

Apart from a post about the Ile de Ré last summer, this blog doesn’t attempt tourism or travel. However there was some interest in that one, so here’s another, this time about South East Sicily. There is so much information readily available about Sicily that I can’t add much here that’s going to be helpful. I was intrigued to discover that the regions of Sicily and South West England are similar in size and population (25,711km2 and 5,043,000 population/ 23,828km2 and 5,289,000, respectively), if not much else, including the absence here of active volcanoes, thankfully. 

The history of Sicily is long and complex, stretching back to antiquity and its colonisation by the Greeks around 750BC. The theatre at Siracusa (below, top) and the temples at Agrigento (below, lower) are Greek in origin:

The statue in front of the Temple of Concordia is Igor Miteraj’s
Ikaro Caduto (Fallen Icarus), 2011
but were altered by the Romans who added Sicily to their republic after 242BC. The Casale Roman villa near Piazza Armerina still contains the “finest mosaics in situ anywhere in the Roman world” (UNESCO) from around 400AD:

After the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century AD, Sicily frequently changed hands, and during the early Middle Ages it was ruled in turn by the Vandals, Ostrogoths, Byzantines, Arabs and Normans. More than one of these occupying influences can become apparent in the same building. For example, the side of the Duomo (below left) in Ortigia (now part of Siracusa) reveals Doric columns from the Greek temple of Athena and its later use as a mosque:

However, the most significant influence on the architecture of South East Sicily was the powerful earthquake of 1693. At that time Sicily was under Spanish rule but power and resources were controlled by the Sicilian aristocracy and the church. Numerous buildings across the region, including churches and the town houses of the nobility, were reconstructed in the fashionable late Baroque style – eg the front elevation of the Ortigia Duomo (above right).

Probably the largest concentration of Sicilian Baroque is at Noto (Cathedral, above, top) and it can be found in in Scicli (interior of Chiesa di Santa Teresa, above, lower) and elsewhere. The exuberance of Sicilian Baroque makes its English contemporaries (eg the Old Royal Naval College at Greenwich and Chatsworth) seem constrained. Nonetheless, the major academic work on Sicilian Baroque is in English published in 1968 and written by Anthony Blunt (last mentioned here in quite another context). The book’s cover shows the Cathedral of San Giorgio in Ragusa Ibla, a difficult building to photograph because of its railings and the palm trees nearby (below):

In 2002, Ragusa, Noto, Scicli and five other towns in SW Sicily were inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list as "representing the culmination and final flowering of Baroque art in Europe" and grouped as the Late Baroque Towns of the Val di Noto. The Valle dei Templi at Agregento, Villa Romana del Casale and Siracusa/Ortigia also appear on their list, as well as Mount Etna. The restoration of the historic sites has been financed by the EU funding for projects in Sicily, €8.5 billion from 2000 to 2007, with an exceptional degree of success. As La Stampa tartly observed:
Needless to say, the money was not used to lay a single brick of such great works – waterfronts, motorways, marinas – as those that have face-lifted countries like Spain and Portugal. With the notable exception of the island’s museums and historical monuments, which have in fact been renovated.
And there is much still requiring attention, eg the Palazzo della Cancelleria in Ragusa, below, left. Restoration of a different kind is that of Caravaggio’s The Burial of St Lucy (below, right), painted in 1608 and currently on display in Chiesa Santa Lucia alla Badia in the Piazza Duomo in Ortigia.

Visitors to Siracusa can hardly fail to notice a large modern conical building rising above the otherwise rectangular townscape (eg in the view of the Greek theatre above). This is the Santuario della Madonna delle Lacrime (Shrine of Our Lady of Tears), celebrating a local miracle of 1953. The event and the religious significance of the Shrine are discussed on its website. It intrigued me as a large and anomalous piece of 20th century architecture, and there seems to be little about it in guidebooks.

Although the Shrine was completed as recently as 1996, it was designed in 1957 and construction took nearly 30 years. The architects, Michel Andrault and Pierre Parat, were French and their agency, ANPAR, was active from 1957 to 1995. Their last works seem to have been in a rather different style from the Shrine - some of the towers at La Défense in Paris. In February 2014, Jonathan Meades made two programmes for BBC4, Bunkers, Brutalism and Bloodymindedness: Concrete Poetry, in which he made the case for for 20th-century concrete Brutalist architecture, “tracing its precursors to the once-hated Victorian edifices described as Modern Gothic and before that to the unapologetic baroque visions created by John Vanbrugh, as well as the martial architecture of World War II”. I suspect that the Shrine is more Expressionist than Brutalist but there is certainly evidence of béton brut (the imprint of the wooden formwork into which concrete is poured), a technique pioneered in France by Auguste Perret, who for a time, was Le Corbusier’s employer. The architectural interpretations of the Shrine seem to include a lighthouse, a tent, tears and “the elevation of humanity towards God”. I couldn’t help noticing that from the south of the Shrine on a clear day the shape of Etna is unmistakeable, although 80km to the north.

Trying to be helpful: the weather in late March seems similar to that in southern England on a good day in late May, sunny, but not hot or rainy, almost ideal for sightseeing, although continuous sunshine is not guaranteed. In full summer and when crowded, visiting, for example, the Roman Villa (essentially sheds with walkways to look down on the magnificent floors) could be trying. The state of the roads and the topography means that journeys in Sicily seem to take longer than maps might suggest and could be expected to take even longer in summer traffic. But, as Martin Amis attributes to his father: “Italy, nice people, nice food”. Buona fortuna!

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