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A historical journey into Sicily’s distant past

‘The world is a book and those who do not travel read only a single page.’ Augustine of Hippo’s oft-quoted metaphor explicitly conflates geographical and intellectual exploration. Such a sentiment resonates with a travel-keen history student who is eager to explore the past through the tangible mediums of art, architecture and archaeology – mediums which lie beyond the expressive boundaries of written discourse and demand direct and unmediated observation. Too often, it seems to me, historical inquiry is confined to the lifeless pages of monographs and research journals where the peoples, societies and cultures are reduced to dehumanized abstractions. In short, articulate prose and vivid adjectives are never a substitute for witnessing the physical remnants of the past first-hand.

Monastery of San SalvatoreIn March 2017, I had the pleasure of joining the University of St Andrews History Society on their annual trip, this year to the Mediterranean island of Sicily. Something of a historical miscellany, this quaint region serves as a junction where the vestiges of the ancient, medieval and modern world converge to form a veritable cornucopia for historians of all periods and specialties. Over the course of one week, we peregrinated from Palermo in the northwest to Catania in the east, with interspersed day trips to Corleone, Mt Etna and Syracuse. In Palermo and Catania, we were treated to the sights of grandiose ecclesiastical edifices, formidable military fortifications and resplendent aristocratic residences, which collectively represented a conglomeration of Greek, Roman, Gothic, Norman and Arabic architecture. Our visit to the commune of Corleone exposed us to the debilitating social and cultural impacts of the Sicilian mafia – how their atrocities have left an indelible scar on a community once renowned for its pious foundations. A trip to Mt Etna offered a case study in environmental history. Here, we examined how the people of Catania have adapted their city’s urban planning and architecture to combat this perennial natural threat. A final visit to the city of Syracuse introduced us to some of Sicily’s prominent archaeological sites including the remnants of an Apollonian temple, Greek and Roman theatres and an ancient limestone quarry. What follows is a mere selection of what were, for me, the most memorable and stimulating moments of this exhilarating adventure.

Our first full day was spent in Palermo where we investigated some of the city’s most distinctive ecclesiastical sites. The first of such sites was the church of Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio, a co-cathedral constructed in the mid-twelfth century under the orders of King Roger II and later given to a Benedictine convent. What was intriguing about this building was its conspicuous hybridity. Within a single unitary structure, one can observe an archetypal Byzantine dome, a Romanesque bell tower and a seventeenth-century Baroque façade! The monastery of San NicoloThe interior of the building is adorned with Byzantine and Norman mosaics, Arabic inscriptions and eighteenth-century frescoes. Collectively, these features tell a story of cultural restlessness. As Palermo has undergone periods of Byzantine, Islamic, Norman and Italian dominance, its aesthetic landscape has become embedded with the emblems of these unique cultures, leaving behind a cross-section which encapsulates some seven centuries of history.

The next day took on a rather more sombre tone as we ventured into the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo. Constructed in the sixteenth century, this macabre dwelling was originally intended only for the friars of the Capuchin monastery as an alternative to their original cemetery. However, as the prestige and popularity of internment grew, the catacombs gradually began to accept echelons from all corners of society. Today, it serves as the final resting place of some 8,000 people: men and women; infant and elderly; professional and lay. While the intention was that the bodies would be preserved in a perpetual life-like state, neglect and sub-standard preservation techniques has meant that most of the bodies exist as skeletal remnants. The notable exception was the body of one Rosalia Lombardo (d. 1920), a two-year-old girl whose body was successfully preserved by a combination of glycerine and zinc sulphate. As I gazed at her fragile body, my thoughts drifted to her heart-broken father who had yearned for her to remain exactly as he remembered her. While he got his wish, many others did not. Most of the people that paid to have themselves or their loved ones preserved here got a very poor deal indeed. Upon exiting the catacombs, I found myself engaged in discourse with my fellow historians: How ethical is (attempted) bodily preservation? Should this site be open to the prying eyes of the general public? To what extent is this violating or upholding the rights of the deceased? This site serves as a solemn memento mori and, while not for the faint-hearted, offers a curious insight into the historical perceptions of mortality and corporality.

Corleone skyline

The following day marked the first of our day trips. Following a lengthy bus journey along the precariously narrow roads of the Sicilian countryside, we arrived at the charming rural town of Corleone where. Under the guardianship of two canine companions, we trekked to the town’s apex where we encountered the Monastero del Santissimo Salvatore, a thirteenth-century monastery which continues to serve as Corleone’s centre of piety. We were greeted by a cordial caretaker who gave us a brief tour of the monastery and its chapel, emphasising the various frescoes depicting the triumphs of Benedictine and Carmelite saints. After climbing to the top of the chapel’s bell tower, we were treated to a picturesque panorama of the town which, despite its beauty, seemed to exude an aura of melancholy. Before departing, the caretaker declaimed that “Corleone is the home of the saints, not the mafia” – a poignant assertion, and one imbued with a touching sense of community pride. This remark notwithstanding, the remainder of our visit would demonstrate that organized crime had, and indeed continues to have, a palpable presence in this small community. During a visit to the anti-mafia museum, we were given a vivid and emotive account of the Sicilian mafia. The stories of such venerable figures as Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, two judges who had defied the mafia’s corruptive and intimidating tactics and died for their cause, evoked admiration and commendation. Conversely, the various photographs depicting the gruesome murders conducted under the orders of figures such as Bernardo ‘the Tractor’ Provenzano and Salvatore ‘the short’ Riina, succeeded in breeding a sense of fervent resentment in the visitor. One particularly harrowing photo, taken by Letizia Battaglia, showed a victim lying face down in a pool of blood with an image of Christ tattooed on his back. The message the mafia sought to convey was clear: ‘not even Christ can save you from us’. This experience has driven me to denounce the culturally exploitative entertainment industry which persistently places the mafia on a romanticized pedestal. Make no mistake, this is an insidious organization, and one entirely bereft of humanity and moral fibre.

The next stop in our itinerary was the city of Catania. Famous for its continuous war with Mother Nature, this city has endured innumerable natural disasters. Earthquakes triggered by the Afro-Eurasian plate boundary and eruptions from the city’s not-so-friendly neighbourhood volcano have necessitated frequent reconstruction. A trip to the Monastery of San Nicolò l’Arena served as an apt case study of the city’s struggle. Founded in 1558, this Benedictine monastery has undergone several processes of nature and man-induced modification, rendering the present-day structure drastically altered from the original. In 1669, an eruption from Mt Etna surrounded Catania in lava which solidified to create a lava bench immediately adjacent to the monastery. In 1693, however, a less innocuous event was to occur. On the 11th January, Sicily was struck by the most powerful earthquake in Italian history, obliterating the island’s east coast and reducing the Monastery of San Nicolò l’Arena to its foundations. Reconstruction was protracted, but by 1866, a new monastery had been rebuilt on the foundations of the original, and was even supplemented by an additional cloister and roof garden built on the lava bench. This monastery serves as a paragon of human inventiveness – of mankind’s unyielding ability to exploit the opportunities brought about by even the most devastating of natural phenomena.

The second of our day trips took us directly to Catania’s historical bane. Reaching a height of over 3,300 metres, the active stratovolcano of Mt Etna overshadows the city of Catania, periodically expelling a miasma of ash and dust which permeates the city’s skyline. At a height of 2,500 metres, we observed, in awestruck astonishment, the menacing volatility of this natural wonder. The expulsion of gas produced a thunderous din which reverberated through atmosphere and evoked in us a slight sense of trepidation. Our concerns were confirmed the following day when we received news that 10 people had been injured in a violent eruption (the third eruption in a period of less than three weeks). That night, Etna glowed with an angry red radiance which was accentuated by the backdrop of Catania’s pitch-black skyline. One can’t help but question whether these increasingly frequent eruptions are harbingers of another cataclysmic event, possibly on par with those of the seventeenth century.

Palermo cathedral, Sicily

Our time in Sicily was concluded with a final day trip to the ancient city of Syracuse, where we explored some of the city’s riveting archeological sites. A visit to the Castello Maniace introduced us to the city’s military history. Built in c. 1240 under the orders of Frederick II, this imposing fortification has a diverse and colourful history. Over the course of the thirteenth century, it served as a royal residence, housing figures such as Peter III of Aragon and later, Eleanor of Sicily. During the fifteenth century, it was instead used by Ferdinand II of Aragon as a prison for his political opponents. By the Napoleonic wars of the nineteenth century, the castle was playing a more prominent military role, having been recently endowed with cannons and casemates. Today, the site stands as a monument to Syracuse’s formidable military strength and offers an ideal spot to embrace the sublime beauty of the Ionian Sea. The remainder of the day took us to the city’s archeological park where we enjoyed the sights of a Greek theatre and a Roman amphitheater, the former of which continues to be used during summer festivities.

This was an intellectually invigorating experience and one saturated from start to finish with historical stimuli. Moreover, and on a rather sentimental note, it offered the opportunity to form bonds with a truly charismatic and congenial group of like-minded individuals. I hope that the History Society’s annual trip is a tradition that will continue to be preserved for many years to come.

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