Many thanks to a reader from Sicily who recently sent an email about the famous bust of “Eleanor of Aragon” in Palermo’s Palazzo Abatellis. Not only in the Blue Guide, but in many other sources too, this work (c. 1489), by the Dalmatian-born master Francesco Laurana, has been taken to be a portrait of Eleanor of Aragon, daughter of the King of Naples and later wife of Ercole d’Este of Ferrara. On the website for the Region of Sicily’s Department of Culture, however, Alessandra Merra and Valeria Sola argue that the sculpture in fact represents somebody quite different. The full text can be read here, in Italian. For those who do not understand Italian, I’m summarising it below:
Laurana came to Sicily sometime around or before 1468, to Sciacca, summoned by the influential Carlo Luna (scion of a noble house of Aragonese descent), who had probably become acquainted with Laurana’s work at the court of the kings of Naples, themselves also descended from the royal house of Aragon. Laurana received his first Sicilian commissions from Luna, and the bust is not a portrait of Eleanor at all but of a different noblewoman entirely, the wife of Carlo Peralta, Count of Caltabellotta. She died in 1405 and was buried in the Abbey of Santa Maria del Bosco di Calatamauro. The bust stood on her tomb until its transfer to Palermo in the 19th century. The fact that the bust was a posthumous one (sculpted many decades after her death) makes it not a portrait but an idealised image of a virtuous lady, which explains its famously rarefied quality and formal rigour.
An important preservative as well as sweetener, honey was an indispensable ingredient in the Classical kitchen. Along with the bees of Mount Hymettus and Mount Ida in Greece, the wild bees of Mount Hybla in the province of Ragusa, Sicily, were the most celebrated source of honey in Antiquity. They and their produce became a literary byword for all things exceptionally sweet and good, eventually coming to represent poetry itself. Citing Theocritus (c. 300 bc), the founding father of the pastoral idyll, the American 19th-century nature writer John Burroughs expanded on the subject in his Locusts and Wild Honey: ‘Sicily has always been rich in bees.
The idylls of Theocritus are native to the island in this respect, and abound in bees, ‘flat-nosed bees’ as he calls them in the Seventh Idyll, and comparisons in which comb-honey is the standard of the most delectable of this world’s goods. His goatherds can think of no greater bliss than that the mouth be filled with honeycombs, or to be inclosed in a chest like Daphnis and fed on the combs of bees; and among the delectables with which Arsinoe cherishes Adonis are ‘honey-cakes’, and other tidbits made of ‘sweet honey’. In the country of Theocritus this custom is said still to prevail: when a couple are married, the attendants place honey in their mouths, by which they would symbolize the hope that their love may be as sweet to their souls as honey to the palate.’ In his first Eclogue, Virgil described the ideal lullaby for old age to be the murmuring of Hybla bees. Ovid compared women’s hairstyles to their numberlessness. In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, with some sarcasm Cassius remarks that Mark Antony’s fine words ‘rob the Hybla bees and leave them honeyless’.
In one sonnet John Keats longs to sweeten his song by sipping the dew on ‘Hybla’s honied roses’ in the moonlight. Fanny Trollope, disappointed in business in the US, made euphemistic use of the honey’s proverbial qualities in her Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832): ‘During nearly two years that I resided in Cincinnati, or its neighbourhood, I neither saw a beggar, nor a man of sufficient fortune to permit his ceasing his efforts to increase it; thus every bee in the hive is actively employed in search of that honey of Hybla, vulgarly called money; neither art, science, learning, nor pleasure can seduce them from its pursuit.’ That pursuit was possibly not far from the mind of James Leigh Hunt when he published a popular volume of Sicilian divertimenti simply entitled A Jar of Honey from Mount Hybla in 1848. The actual thing can in fact still be purchased, in different varieties according to the flora of the season: the satra honey is derived from wild thyme; zagara honey from citrus flowers.
The expressive statue of a young man in a finely-pleated linen tunic, Il Giovane di Mozia, was found at Cappiddazzu on the northeast side of the island of Mozia (the ancient Phoenician Motya) in 1979. In the stance of a victor, with hand on hip, the pose of the statue expresses great confidence in his youth, beauty and power. This remarkable work, made of white marble and dating from the 5th century BC, is thought to be by a Greek artist. It was found buried under a layer of rubble, face up in the road by the sanctuary. The face and the front are abraded, possibly from when the bronze accoutrements were torn from the statue during the attack of 398 BC by Dionysius I of Syracuse. When the statue was loaned to the British Museum in London for the duration of the 2012 Olympic Games, it was universally referred to as ‘The Motya Charioteer’. But this identification has not always been so certain. It is true that the work shares similarities with the famous charioteer of Delphi. But there have been numerous other theories: one suggests that the statue may represent Melqart, a Phoenician god and titular divinity of Tyre, identified by the Greeks as Heracles. He was probably wearing a lion’s skin made of bronze (which would have partially covered the head) and a bronze band around the chest—the holes where this would have been fixed can still be seen. Another theory suggests that the statue may represent an athlete, or an unknown Carthaginian hero. The fact that it was not recovered and replaced in a temple, in spite of its enormous value, would be explained if it indeed represented a god. The shocked survivors of the battle against Dionysius may have thought their god profaned and buried it where it was found. Perhaps. I haven’t seen any claims for Melqart recently. Certainly not since Brian Sewell, in the London Evening Standard, announced: “This standing figure, larger than life-size, broken off at the ankles, is a charioteer. His dress is no ordinary chiton, the standard male garment of the day, but one that falls full length to protect his body from the clouds of dust kicked up by horses’ hooves.” Whatever the truth, if you didn’t see it in London, get ye to Motya.
1. Fonte Ciane, near Syracuse, just west of the city itself.
To get there, leave town on the road signed for Canciattini. Then fork left onto a narrow lane called Traversa Cozzo Pantano. The Fonte Ciane is at the end of this lane (follow signs to Villa dei Papiri).
The Ciane river meets the sea just south of the city of Syracuse. It is a very short and very narrow river, little more than a brook, winding slowly from its source among papyrus pools and orange groves, in a rather strange landscape of wire fences and barred gates and barking dogs.
I have never seen papyrus growing wild before. In Europe it grows only here, and along another Sicilian river, the Fiumefreddo. The spring at Fonte Ciane takes the form of a reed-fringed pool beside a stand of tall eucalyptus trees. A wooden walkway takes you out over the water so that you can examine the papyrus plants from close quarters. Their stems are extremely tough and cannot be broken without a knife (but don’t experiment—there are signs warning you not to damage the plants). You can also spend long minutes trying to spot the frogs. They make a great din, croaking and puffing out their cheek sacs, but as soon as they hear you approach they fall silent, and locating them can be frustratingly difficult.
The spring takes its name from the Greek word for azure and also from the story of the nymph Cyane, who attempted to prevent Hades from carrying off Persephone and was changed into a fount of water, condemned to everlasting weeping.
It was Cicero who said that Syracuse knows no day without sun. Certainly when I have been there I have found nothing to prove him wrong. It is a wonderful place, with many layers of history–you can easily spend a few days here. It was founded in the 8th century BC by settlers from Corinth in mainland Greece and rose to great power under its ruler Dionysius the Elder in the 5th century BC. Under the Romans it was peaceful and prosperous and acquired an amphitheatre. St Paul came here and is said to have preached in its great stone quarries. Syracuse was the birthplace of Archimedes and is now home dedicated to his inventions, appropriately sited in Piazza Archimede (and covered in the new edition of Blue Guide).
The cathedral (duomo) of Syracuse is one of the most extraordinary sights in Italy: a Doric temple of 14 by 6 columns, built in 480 BC by the ruler Gelon, to celebrate victory over the Carthaginians and dedicated to Athena. The closed by a modern curtain wall and obscured in front by a Baroque façade, that temple’s colonnade is fully discernible today. The interior is one of the most atmospheric I know. The picture here shows a view down the south aisle.
The other picture, an oil-painting, in the chapel at the head of the south aisle, shows Bishop Zosimus with the IHS mongram on his chasuble. It was Zosimus who converted the ruined Temple of Athena into a cathedral. The work is attributed to Antonello da Messina, the great 15th-century Sicilian artist credited with introducing oil painting to Italy.
Interior of the cavern, showing its proportions relative to the human figure.
Side wall of the cavern, covered with the scrape-marks of slaves’ chisels.
A famous feature of Syracuse are her ancient stone quarries, known as latomies. These were no ordinary quarries. In ancient times they were also used as internment camps for prisoners and cohorts of slaves were kept here in uncompromising conditions, chipping away at the rock to carve out perfect blocks of exactly one cubit. The best-known of the latomies is the so-called Ear of Dionysius, a tall cave entered by a narrow, man-made slit in the rockface, and extending backwards and backwards into the gloom. Once your eyes have got used to the dim light, you will see that every inch of wall surface is striated with the marks of the slaves’ chisels. The name of the cave was coined by Caravaggio, because of its particular acoustic properties: it amplifies every sound, giving back a single eerie echo.
3. The Temple of Olympian Zeus
To get there, take the Via Elorina. Cross the Anapo river, then the Ciane, and then look out for brown signs taking you left to the Tempio di Giove Olimpico.
Just outside Syracuse to the south stand two forlorn columns, in a field of wild flowers next to a horse farm where sad-looking sway-backed horses canter up and down behind a wire fence. It is a very ancient temple, dating from the 6th century BC, and occupied a strategic spot much beloved of would-be besiegers of the town. As the picture below shows, there is a superb view of Ortigia (the old city) from the temple platform.
4. Pantelleria: the donkeys that were saved from extinction
The island of Pantelleria lies over 100km from Sicily, in fact it is closer to Tunisia. It is famous for its delicious capers and its wines, for having been the island home of the nymph Calypso, with whom Odysseus dallied on his way back to Ithaca, and for having a longish roster of celebrity residents, among them Gérard Depardieu. It is served by boat (seas permitting) from Trapani. What is less well known is that it is also the home of a hardy breed of donkey:Photo: Azienda Regionale Foreste Demaniali, Pietro Alfonso
Photo: Azienda Regionale Foreste Demaniali, Pietro Alfonso
According to Ellen Grady, author of Blue Guide Sicily, the Pantelleria ass is a kind of donkey native to the island, where it has been used since the 1st century BC. It’s very big (the size of a pony), very strong, with a smooth, shiny black pelt. Very fast moving, sure-footed on the mountain tracks. It became extinct 20 years ago because people weren’t using them any more and the last one slipped into the sea and drowned. The exciting news is that the forestry technicians at the San Matteo stud farm at Erice have been able to recreate the donkey, using Jurassic Park-style procedures (taking genes from donkeys throughout Italy which had this particular donkey in their ancestry). It has taken them 17 years, but recently the first four Pantelleria asses were shipped to their island, where they will be used for tourism (trekking around the volcanoes).
The stud farm itself, San Matteo on the Sicilian mainland, is reached from the hilltop town of Erice by taking the Raganzili road. It’s also an agricultural museum. More info (in Italian) on the following website: www.ilportaledelcavallo.it/articolo.asp
The Sanctuary of Santa Rosalia on Monte Pellegrino. An extract from Blue Guide Sicily by Ellen Grady.
Interior of the sanctuary
The most direct approach to Mt Pellegrino from Palermo is from Piazza Generale Cascino, near the fair and exhibition ground (Fiera del Mediterraneo). From here Via Pietro Bonanno ascends to the sanctuary of St Rosalia, crossing and recrossing the shorter footpath used by pilgrims making the annual pilgrimage on 3–4 September (often barefoot or on their knees). A flight of steps zig-zags up the Scala Vecchia (17th century) between the Primo Pizzo (344m; left) and the Pizzo Grattarola (276m). The terrace of the rosy-pink Castello Utveggio (built as a hotel in 1932, now used as a congress venue), provides the best view of Palermo.
A small group of buildings marks the Santuario di Santa Rosalia, at 428m, a cavern converted into a chapel in 1625 (open summer 7.30–8, winter 7.30–6, T: 091 540326). It contains a statue of the saint by Gregorio Tedeschi, and a bas-relief of her coronation, by Nunzio La Mattina. The water trickling down the walls is held to be miraculous and is carefully captured by Futuristic-looking metal conduits. The outer part of the cave is filled with an extraordinary variety of ex-votos.
Rosalia, daughter of Duke Sinibald and niece of William II, lived here as a hermit until her death in 1166. She is supposed to have appeared to a hunter on Mt Pellegrino in 1624 to show him the cave where her remains were, since she had never received a Christian burial. When found, her relics were carried in procession through Palermo and a terrible plague, then raging in the town, miraculously ceased. She was declared patron saint of Palermo and the annual procession in her honour (14–15 July), with a tall and elaborate float drawn through the streets by oxen, became a famous spectacle.
A steep road on the farther side of the adjoining convent climbs up to the summit, from which there is a wonderful panorama extending from Ustica and the Aeolian Islands to Etna. Another road from the sanctuary leads to a colossal 19th-century statue of St Rosalia by Benedetto de Lisi, high on the cliff edge.