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Thursday, November 01, 2001

Travel

Sicily


Sicily has always known invaders. From the early Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Vandals, Ostrogoths, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, on through a variety of soldiers of warring European nation-states, until, finally free of these foreign encumbrances, it took on – perhaps with a sigh (see Lampedusa’s Il Gattopardo) – the yoke of the Piedmontese monarchy and became part of the newly created nineteenth-century nation of Italy. Most of these invading peoples left interesting remains, some in relatively good state of preservation, some testimony to the vibrant cultural combinations that existed: a church made from a Doric temple or a room of a mosque forming the nave of a church.

Ironically, lovers of ancient Greece can see more complete temple architecture in Sicily than on the Greek mainland. That is because Sicily remained relatively desolate through the ages while elsewhere city dwellers quarried the remains of temples to build new edifices. Many will argue that a trip through the Greek remains of Sicily starts best on the mainland of Italy. A traveler might consider flying in to Naples so as to visit the Museo Nazionale Archeologico, which has a vast and informative collection of material from the Greek past of southern Italy that will provide an orientation. The Museo is, handily enough, within walking distance of the train station, where one can board a train for Paestum.

It is in Paestum, indeed, that a review of ancient Greek architecture truly begins. Here, situated in an open field with mountains as a backdrop, about 150 kilometers south of Naples, stand three extraordinarily gleaming white Doric temples in a remarkable state of preservation. If one carefully averts the eyes from the squalor of the tourist come-ons located outside the site, it is possible to imagine what it must have been like to visit in earlier centuries before Paestum was “discovered.” Of course, the romantic idea of quiet and spaciousness at these sites is no doubt at odds with the realities of ancient life, when a temple zone would have been a beehive of religious activity, pilgrims, suppliants, priests, sacrificial factotums, and the slaves to support these, not to mention the monumental donations that would mar the serenity of the landscape just as the monument to the veterans of the Second World War will destroy the prospect of the Mall in Washington, DC.

The visitor who continues down the coast to Reggio Calabria (more than 350 additional kilometers) for a visit to the Museo Nazionale della Magna Graecia will be rewarded with a display of two larger-than-life-sized bronze statues thought to be of Greek manufacture from the fifth century BCE. This involves a train ride of several hundred kilometers, first backtracking from Paestum to Salerno to get a fast train. At Reggio, get off at the stop called Lido. This is considered by the hardy traveler to be no more than a hop, skip, and a jump to the museum where the statues are housed, although most travelers – certainly those with luggage – will opt for taxis. These two statues, similar to the Zeus-Poseidon bronze in the National Archeological Museum in Athens, were probably lost at sea while in transit to Roman Italy. Relatively few bronze pieces survive from antiquity since they can so easily be melted down. That is why shipwrecks are so important, the ocean floor being an excellent hiding-place.

Discovered in 1972 off the coast of Riace by a scuba diver, these bronzes were a thrilling find. The photographs of underwater divers bringing them up, and holding them under the elbows as the statues moved through the water almost like humans, will bring a lump to the viewer’s throat. They are remarkable for their state of preservation, having eyelashes, eyeballs, and teeth intact, set into the bronze head, which gives them a ferociously fleshly appearance, quite unlike the ethereal, sightless glance one generally associates with ancient marble statues. Luckily, these great bronze warrior males are so thrilling and unexpected that the visitor to Reggio can overlook the absolute paucity of other matters of interest, not to mention general amenities in the city. There is, however, an excellent hotel directly behind the museum, the Grand Hotel Excelsior (fax: 011-39-09 659 3084).

Cross into Sicily and go south to Siracusa. Among the many delights of this beautiful city is the cathedral that is located on the immediately adjacent island of Ortygia. With its truly splendid baroque façade, the cathedral dominates a large square of exquisite proportions faced with majestic palaces. There are a number of outdoor restaurants and cafes in the piazza to provide the curious with hours of people-watching and the esthete with a variety of pleasing prospects. Inside, the visitor discovers that the cathedral is a seventh-century creation, made from a Doric temple to Athena. Because the interior was wisely stripped of its baroque decoration in the early decades of the twentieth century, the grand columns, pediments, and capitals of the original temple are still there to be seen embedded into the stone walls, forming support for the structure. It is a splendid example of the way in which the pagan religion of antiquity was so easily and naturally blended into the new cult of Christianity.

From Athena to Santa Maria del Piliero (or her equivalent) is a transformation found over and over again in the Mediterranean world. An exquisite variant on this eternal Mediterranean female figure is the so-called Venus Anadyomene (Rising from the Sea), a Roman copy of a second-century BCE Hellenic original, to be found in the Museo Archeologico Regionale Paolo Orsi. This museum is, like so many of its counterparts throughout southern Italy, an architectural gem housing a superbly installed important collection of ancient finds. The museum is on the mainland near the excavations of the ancient theater and amphitheater. Back on the island of Ortygia, the traveler will find excellent accommodation in the Grand Hotel (fax: 011-39-0931-464-611), which permits an easy stroll to numerous restaurants, as well as a visit to the Fons (Fountain) Arethusa mentioned by so many ancient literary figures. Dinner in the rooftop restaurant of the Grand Hotel offers not only superb cuisine but a dazzling view of the great bay of the city of Siracusa and the enchantment of the many fishing boats and yachts moored below.

Perhaps the loveliest place on the island, however, is the region immediately south of the city of Agrigento. The city itself is hideously deformed by modern concrete construction that, by contrast, makes Athens look like the hanging gardens of Babylon. But on the ridge south of the city stand three splendid temples, again from the fifth century. They are essentially Doric in style, but there is that characteristically experimental and innovative styling that the Sicilians achieved since they were far enough away from the rigidly conservative style masters of mainland Greece to be free to do their own thing. The Italian government has made this hilltop with its temples into a park, free of the cheap commercialism that disfigures most tourist sites in the world. A hotel, the Villa Athena, stands below in a large field of olive trees, one of the most delightful spots a visitor will encounter in the pursuit of beauty, tranquility, and history.

On a warm night, one may sit at dinner on the terrace of the Villa Athena while gazing up at the temples, dramatically (if dishonestly) lit by floodlights; after dinner, there is the chance to wander through the olive groves up to the temple site. The Villa Athena (fax: 011-39-0922-402-180) offers excellent food, but for something less pretentious, one may walk up the hill to Trattoria del Templi just at the beginning of the modern town. For an even more delightful outdoor dining experience with excellent food, many would suggest Ristorante Kukalos, some few kilometers by car from the temple site.

A few hours away from Agrigento by car is the vast archeological zone of Selinunte. There are a great number of temples in and surrounding this Hellenistic city site, still mostly unexcavated, but with the grid street pattern and walls very much intact and in evidence. The Italian government is keen to reconstruct the temples to give scale, dimension, and depth to an otherwise flat plain. This flies in the face of standard archeological procedure, but the romanticism of leaving a site “as found” is in fact a denial of the fact that the archeologists derange reality as much as those anthropologists who interview supposedly innocent “natives.” Some temples are already up. Far more thrilling than the temples, however, is the ancient quarry site for the temple construction of Selinunte called Cave di Cusa, 18 kilometers to the west. Here, one can see giant column drums still half carved from the stone, others toppled over, a dramatic sight that works very powerfully on the viewer’s sympathies, making all too clear that frightening moment in 409 BCE when work stopped as the news must have reached the workers that the Carthaginians had invaded.

Selinunte is a very large site to walk around, but luckily enough it stands on the very edge of a modern resort town called Marinella, where modest hotels (among which some favor the Lido Azzurro) and a variety of good fish restaurants surmount a beautiful strip of beach. By now, the tourist must decide whether it is time to hasten to the airport outside Palermo, visit the city with its beautiful palaces and Norman architecture (one will have a comfortable stay at Centrale Palace Hotel [fax: 011-39-091-33-48-81]), or make the effort to detour to see a most unusual and singular statue on the island of Motya, near Marsala on the western coast. This extraordinary find, discovered quite by accident in 1979, is a marble sculpture, life-size, of a teenage boy, whose face is not unlike other archaic or early so-called severe-style heroic boys (one thinks of The Charioteer at Delphi, for instance). This boy, however, wears what is for moderns the erotic provocation of a diaphanous gown revealing what straightforward nudity makes unremarkable. The reward for seeing this strange phenomenon easily makes up for the indifferent accommodations in hotels and restaurants one will find in this part of the island.

Finally, no visit to Sicily is complete without a stop at Segesta, a temple far out in the countryside, in the hills, two hours south of Palermo. Its peristyle stands on a large stone base, stark, dramatic, with no other diversion for the eye. For once, the mechanisms of commercial tourism fade into the background, the enormous fact of this solitary structure demands the viewer’s complete attention, and the passage of time is obliterated.

Charles Rowan Beye is distinguished professor emeritus of classics at the City University of New York, a contributing editor to greekworks.com, and author, most recently, of Odysseus: A Life.
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