We had been planning to go to Sicily last May, when of course fate took a turn. We were happy to be able to take the trip in late September, when the weather was still good but after the summer crowds had departed.
Palermo, originally settled by Phoenicians in the 8th C BC, was successively inhabited by Greeks, Romans and Arabs until the Normans arrived in the 11th C. Under little over a century of Norman rule, the Kingdom of Sicily became one of the wealthiest and most advanced cities in southern Europe.
The Norman Kingdom was multicultural and religiously tolerant, most unusual for medieval Christian Kingdoms. The Palatine Chapel, built by King Roger II around 1140, is decorated with marble inlays and a series of mosaics representing the lives of Christ, St. Peter and St. Paul; the tiles in the mosaics are interspersed with gold to stunning effect. The mosaics are executed in the Byzantine style, in which saints as well as Christ are presented as heavenly figures floating in space, not human beings walking the earth. Nevertheless, you can see attempts at realism in some of the scenes, e.g., Christ entering Jerusalem or St. Paul being baptized.
There are both Latin and Greek inscriptions, reflecting the fact that both Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox services were held here.
The coffered ceilings were done by Muslim artisans, and are similar to work done at around the same time in Moorish Spain. Beautiful as it seems, the level of detailed work in this ceiling is quite amazing and can’t be properly admired from the ground. Undoubtedly, it is meant to be observed by a higher authority.
The four-meter high candelabra, with outstanding sculptures by an unknown artist, is almost lost in the magnificence
The nearby church of Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio, known as the Martorana, which was built at around the same time as the Capella Palatina, has several interesting mosaics. One depicts a Greek admiral presenting the church to Mary, and another, executed somewhat later, shows Christ crowning King Roger – the first, a symbol of piety, while the second, the divine right of kings personified.
Other Norman-era churches in Palermo included the church of San Cataldo, built as a model of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem to honor returning Crusaders, and the church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti, a monastery built on the site of a former mosque.
After the fall of the Norman dynasty, in the 13th C, Sicily came under French and then Spanish domination. It went into a long economic and cultural decline during what was, in most of the rest of Europe, called the Renaissance.
Sicily’s only Renaissance artist of note was Antonello da Messina, who was one of the first Italian painters to use the new technique of oil painting developed in Flanders. Unfortunately, most of Antonello’s work was lost during the great Messina earthquake of 1908, and only a few of his great works survive today in Sicily.
The first, Mary “Annunciate”, is in a small, not much visited museum in Palermo. I like this version because it eliminates all the standard iconography of Annunciation paintings – angels, birds, lilies – and focuses only on Mary’s face as, disturbed from her reading she is now forced to focus on barely credible heavenly message. (And don’t I love depictions of Mary as an intelligent woman in an era when most women were illiterate).
The second, in an even smaller museum in nearby Cefalù, was long known as the “Anonymous Seaman.” Recent scholarship has pointed out that the sitter’s clothes, while simple, represented the court fashions of the day, and were probably very expensive. We still don’t know who we has, though. So the painting of the man with the enigmatic smile might better be known as “Anonymous Rich Guy.”
Sicily enjoyed a brief period of prosperity during the Baroque era, and there are many churches decorated in Sicilian Baroque style, perhaps best described as “let no space remain undecorated.” The artistry – inlaid marble, painting and sculpture – is outstanding, but the total effect can a bit overwhelming.
Pictured below: The Chiese del Gesù, a depiction of Jonah and the Whale in the church of Santa Caterina, and a statue of St. Joseph in the church of San Giuseppe Teatini.
Somewhat more restrained (and to the modern eye, more pleasing) is the work of sculptor Giacomo Serpotta, who worked in the latter half of the 17th and beginning of the 18th C. Serpotta worked in stucco, normally a very perishable medium. He developed a method of polishing his statues with marble dust, which gave them not only the look of marble but also some of its durability. His real genius, though, was in the fine details of his work, whether in the bravura depiction of the Battle of Lepanto, the faces of children, or a woman’s costly drapery. Note the little lizard on the base of the female statue – a play on the sculptor’s name, which means “little serpent” in Italian. Photos are from the Oratorio di Santa Cita and the nearby Oratorio di San Domenico.
King William II of Sicily, Roger’s grandson, wanted an artistic monument that would rival his grandfather’s in magnificence. So he endowed a cathedral in the small town of Monreale, about 12 km uphill from Palermo. Construction was begun in 1174 and not completed until nearly a century later.
The walls of the cathedral are completely covered in mosaics, representing scenes from the Old and New Testament as well as depicting Christ and various saints.
Christ and the saints are depicted expressionless and floating in space, in traditional Byzantine style. One of the saints depicted is St. Thomas Becket (called Thomas of Canterbury here) – particularly interesting because William II’s wife, Joanna of England, was the daughter of King Henry II, who most likely ordered Thomas’ murder.
There is also the obligatory artistic reference to William’s divine right to rule.
The Biblical scenes have a vibrancy and sense of life not often found in works of this era. More energetic than the Byzantine, but not as realistic as the later work of the Renaissance, the Monreale mosaics are a style all of their own.
The floors are made of inlaid marble with intricate designs, including these whimsical rabbits.
The pavement in the Baroque era chapel, added later, reminded me of Chinese dragons.
We were also able to climb one of the towers for a view of Palermo and the Mediterranean beyond.
Next door to the cathedral is a Benedictine monastery. The cloister has a fountain clearly derived from Arab models.
A particular feature of this cloister are the capitals topping the columns surrounding the central enclosure. Each one is richly carved and completely different from its fellows – it’s almost as if the artists were told they could do whatever they wanted.
Here are some of my favorites: Adam and Eve being expelled from the Garden of Eden, telamons (supporters) executed in typical wacky medieval style, and an early Starbucks.
After leaving Palermo, we travelled across the island to Taormina on the eastern coast of the island. Taormina has a Greek theater, built originally in the 4th C BC. The theater was built on a spit of land extending into the water, in order to take advantage of sea breezes during the hot Sicilian summer (think Candlestick Park without the fog). And as with most Greek theaters, it was built into a natural amphitheater, whose acoustic properties allow patrons sitting in the upper decks to hear the actors on stage.
The theater hosts performances of ancient Greek plays (in modern Italian) for two months every summer. These days, they use modern lighting and sound amplification.
The town has a lovely public park which commemorates, among other things, the successful exploits of Italian minisubs early in World War II. Calling them submarines is rather too generous – they are basically torpedoes with a seating platform, guided by two mariners in scuba gear who would aim the torpedo and then jump out of the way. They managed to sink a British battleship off the coast of Egypt early in the war, but they had limited impact because the Allies got pretty good at bombing them out of the water and the Italians couldn’t make many more of them.
Other than that, Taormina offers little but views, but what views they were, both day and night.
We made our way back across the island along the north coast, and stopped at Cefalù, site of another famous 12th C Norman Cathedral with spectacular mosaics.
We had hoped to spend some time on the beach in Cefalù, but it was a bit too cold and windy for a swim. The anchoring rocks on some of the roof tiles suggested that the wind was not an uncommon occurrence here.
We visited the local art museum, where we saw the Antonello portrait of an unknown man noted above. And in the cases of Greek vases was this remarkable find – instead of the mythical themes usually seen on these vases, there was this depiction of ancient tuna seller.
The next day was much nicer, but the surf was still pretty rough.
We spent the last few days in San Vito lo Capo, west of Palermo, and used it as a base for exploring the northwestern part of the island.
First up was Segesta, a site founded in the middle of nowhere in the 9th C BC by the Elmi people, traditionally identified as refugees from the fall of Troy. They built a temple in the Greek style in the 5th C BC, but it was abandoned, unfinished, in 409 BC when the Elmi left the site to fight a war.
Greek colonists built a town up the hill a few centuries later, but they ignored the temple and situated the town facing the other way, towards the sea, and built the inevitable theater. That town was eventually abandoned too, and given the remoteness of the location no one else came to live here.
As a result, you can see the Temple much as it was left, nearly 2500 years ago. You can even see the stone tabs which were used to move the stones into position (typically, they weren’t removed until the building was almost finished).
You can walk up to the ruins of the Greek town and see the remains of the theater too.
Not far from Segesta is Erice, also built by the Elmi people but these days known for its medieval buildings (including a surprisingly ornate cathedral) and spectacular views.
Mozia is a small island by the west coast of Sicily that was founded as a Phoenician colony in the 8th C BC. It was a prosperous city for several hundred years and was famous for the production of sea salt (just as nearby Trapani is today). It was used as a friendly military base by the Carthaginians (another Phoenician colony) when they invaded in 409 BC (the same war that led to the abandonment of Segesta). Mozia was defeated by the Greeks a couple of decades later, after a long siege, and the conquering Greeks put the entire population of the town to the sword. The town was not rebuilt. By the time of the Punic Wars, several centuries later, the Phoenician/Carthaginian settlement was in Lilybaeum, modern Marsala.
These days the island is basically an archeological site, where you can still see the remains of the once-impressive fort and the floor mosaics of an ancient villa. There is also a small museum where you can see examples of Phoenician pottery, and a marvelous statue of a Greek charioteer, discovered on the island in 1979.
On the short ferry ride to the island, you can see some of the salt flats for which Trapani is famous.
In nearby Marsala, you can see the “Nava Punica,” an imaginative recreation of a Carthaginian naval vessel sunk during the Punic Wars.
San Vito lo Capo
We finally got a beach day on the last day of our trip.
One of the glories of traveling in Sicily is the fantastic food. We don’t have as many photos of food as you might think, since the food was so good we were usually finished eating it before we could snap a photo.
A favorite local specialty was Couscous Trapanese, a kind of stew made with couscous, fish and vegetables, served with a tomato fish broth that you poured over the couscous to your taste. It has something in common with the Spanish paella, the French bouillabaisse, and the Moroccan tagine, but is a dish all its own. Each restaurant made a slightly different version. One variation which we particularly enjoyed included chopped up almonds, which gave the couscous a crunchy, toasty flavor.
The wines are pretty interesting here too. They are largely made from grape varieties particular to Sicily. The whites are made from Cattarato, Grillo, or Zibbibo grapes, while perhaps the most prestigious white appellation, Etna Bianco, uses a Cattarato/Carricante blend. All of these are crisp, low in a alcohol, and work well with fish. Reds are usually made from Nerello Mascalese (very much like Pinot Nero) and Nero d’Avola (which makes a very strong wine). But you can also find a very nice intermediate-body wine called Cerasuola di Vittoria which is a blend of Nero d’Avola and Frappato. Look for it.
We didn’t forget the cannoli.
Although we ate mostly fish on this trip, one of the best meals we had was in a meat oriented restaurant near Segesta. On leaving the temple, it wasn’t immediately obvious where we were going to eat, since as noted it’s in the middle of nowhere. So we decided to try the place suggested in a flyer someone had left in our windshield. This place was really off the beaten track – 5 km on unpaved roads – but we’ve lived in Italy long enough to know that if a restaurant can survive in the middle of nowhere, it was probably pretty good. We were not disappointed, and Ted finally got the rabbit he had been searching for.
We didn’t get photos of the food, but here’s a shot from the front of the restaurant, indicating just how remote this place was.
And here we are after a wonderful 10 days in Sicily.