How history shapes Sicily’s character

 (Book excerpt)

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The weight of Sicily’s history makes it an inherently sad place, like all places with long human histories she laments her past glories which in turn give her a unique melancholy. Yes, Sicilia is defiantly as feminine as her beating heart, Etna. Sicily’s infinite stories shape her own sorrowful character which are absorbed into the collective memory. It is a common characteristic of places like Turkey, Palestine and Sicily to carry the trauma, tears and testimony of the great tragedies and triumphs in their past which seem to inhabit the place’s soul.

This is an apprehensive land, savage and full of decay, rich in pagan fears and superstition which keep themselves enclosed like a firmly locked chest. Fear can capture the soul slowly suffocating it with its exotic spell. Here God and hope are forgotten as Sicily absorbs you into its ancientness. There is little movement only the stagnant ramblings of the everyday. Here people live in small towns, think of small things and talk and gossip about other people with small things.

For many centuries Sicily has been dominated by other people and the population has absorbed a certain slave mentality. Any proud Sicilian would be offended if called a slave, but it is something more subtle than this. It is a type of survival instinct which allows them to accept a certain amount of suffering without questioning.

Danilo Dolci a social activist from the nineteen sixties, known as the Italian Ghandi wrote many books about the nature of Sicily’s social problems, which then were akin to the problems of the third world countries, his observations illustrated the Sicilian’s self inflicted sadomasochistic nature.

Dolci wrote about the silent acceptance of the people of Corleone near Palermo, how they: ‘wear the habit of mourning perpetually and in the soul of this habit repose the essence and the apotheosis of Omerta. The Mafia draws strength from Omerta. This word from the local dialect means manliness or self-control and the idea of keeping oneself strictly to oneself in every circumstance; it implies the refusal to help established authority and is native to the Sicilian’s character by the time he is ten years old.’

© Rochelle Del Borrello 2015
© Rochelle Del Borrello 2015

Sicilians tolerate unemployment, high taxes, a complicated welfare system which tricks them, a medical system full of doctors with more political ambition than concern for patients, a public service full of incompetence, laziness and nepotism, a legal system which is slow, complex and often unethical and a political situation which is at times volatile and usually seeks to exploit the population. In short Sicilians endure all of this and much more, but they would rather suffer than abandon Sicily and even those who somehow found the strength to go never forgot their cherished Isle.

The island has been in decay for centuries and its people have lived in its ruins, forever. Through the centuries various conquerors have tried to overwhelm Sicily usually after a period of war caused by a struggle for domination. When the diverse invaders eventually came to occupy the land they struggled to live and develop according to their cultural make up. Any progress petered out as the next aggressor gradually pushed out its predecessor, leaving decay to take over what they had constructed. The layering and intermingling of the dominations of Sicily has created a complex concoction of culture. Sicily has a history influenced by the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Spanish, French, Phoenician, German, Austrian and British occupations, Sicily has outlived them all.

©Rochelle Del Borrello 2015
©Rochelle Del Borrello 2015

The strength of Sicilians to live through many centuries of invasions comes from doing very little other than surviving. The secret to overcome invaders is to have the fortitude to endure them. Sicilians have never been completely taken over or assimilated into other cultures, they have always simply outlasted them. Sicilian people have survived by being stoic and resistant focusing on day-to-day living holding their ground with a stubborn focus on their own internal world.

This passive resistance has served them well in the past but leaves behind unattractive attributes in the Sicilian culture and point of view. Many centuries of living alongside foreign invaders has left a deep sensation of mistrust in those who come from outside of Sicily. Admittedly racism is a strong word, but fear and mistrust of all things foreign is clear in the way Sicilians relate to foreigners.

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Sicilian Patron Saints

 

Good Friday Procession San Fratello

Sicilian people have a unique rapport with religion and superstition which binds the two seemingly conflicting doctrines together. The connection between the two can be traced back to the struggle the early Catholic Church in Sicily had against pagan religions. The Roman Catholic Church always had a tremendous amount of power over Sicilian’s spiritual, cultural and political lives. Yet despite this the catholic faith has had to coexist with the traditions and superstitions left behind by centuries of domination by foreign cultures, in Sicily, which has resulted in the particular phenomenon of the Santo Padrono.

The early Church battling the strong belief in superstition used the cult of the patron Saint to tap into the people’s desire for protection from illness, bad luck and disaster, it was a shrewd strategy which brought worshippers into the church. From the final part of the fourth century onwards the strength of Christianity lied in the way it created a bond between this life and the one beyond the grave. Help came from the Saints who were fellow human beings whom people could count on to be beloved and powerful figures in their own society.

© Rochelle Del Borrello 2015

Today each town in Sicily has its own saintly protector. Sicilian people have a connection to their town and Saint which is almost fanatical. The cult of the patron Saint is a mixture of religious fervour, superstition and faith. The patrons are protectors who are deeply connected to each place through a long history and the Saint often represents the very character of a town. Sicilians who have migrated overseas, have brought with them the celebrations associated with their Saint to their new homes, in the post world war two period celebrations were re-enacted throughout the world from Australia, to the Americas.

St Leo’s springtime procession around Sinagra begins in his main home, the Church of Saint Michael the Archangel. The elegant mildly baroque church was rebuilt in the nineteenth century after the devastating flood of eighteen hundred and twenty-five destroyed most of the town. The Saint’s effigy spends most of the year here, apart from short vacations to the country church of St Leo, which is no more than a humble chapel.

The wooden statue of Saint Leo is a true a work of art and is seen as a true personification of the Saint. San Leone is dressed in full ceremonial bishop vestments, he indicates up to the heavens with a gentle right hand, his intimate connection to God is also directed as a blessing towards Sinagra. In the nineteen eighties there was a controversy surrounding the restoration of this sculpture. After being sent away to Palermo, to be cleaned and revived, the original colour of the Saint’s vestments was discovered and after removing many layers of paint, St Leo returned to Sinagra with different coloured robes, this led to rumors the Saint had been switched.

©Rochelle Del Borrello 2015
©Rochelle Del Borrello 2015

Today St Leo tranquilly abides in the church of Saint Michael the Archangel which itself is a puzzle pieced together with the remnants of crumbled fragments from the past. The main Chiesa Madre’s interior is white washed with lots of natural golden light that bathes over the hodgepodge of what is decoupaged together inside. A series of saintly statues rest on either side of the church’s body in two rows of arched grottoes. Saint Rocco, The Virgin Mary, Saint Sebastian, Jesus of the Sacred heart, Saint Anthony, Saint Francesco di Paolo and Saint Lucia lead the way up to the church’s head.

Above the altar stands the parish priests pride and joy, a trio of statues, that form an intricate trittico panel, which he often mentions to be an original of the Gangini school of sculptor, a well-known Messinese producer of high quality works from the sixteenth century. At the centre of the precious white marble highlighted in golden details is the Virgin Mary and child flanked by Saint Michael the Archangel, the guard of heaven and Saint John the Baptist. At their feet the apostles in miniature at the last supper and above them all God is holding the earth in his hand.

Looking up at the dome above the altar, seems a little disappointing with a simple, sparse almost minimalist decorations, little angels in the corners, the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, a metaphor for hope and faith and elaborate curtains which seem three-dimensional even though they are painted flat on the side walls of the apex. A puzzling circular pattern at the center completes the design with a series of chubby levitating cherub heads. It is difficult to squint to make out more details and understand the motif better, but obviously there is a limit to how long you can stare at the ceiling during a religious ceremony.

Before the procession begins St Leo is mounted on a wooden frame which is supported by four thick logs and is carried on the shoulders of a group of ten to twenty men. Maneuvering the statue towards the main door with short sharp shuffling feet the men lift the Saint up and down quickly three times saluting the church and crying out ‘Eh Viva Santo Leo’ in praise of their patron.

Winding painfully slowly down the steep steps outside the church Saint Leo walks over the grey lava cobble stone streets glancing over at the ruins of Sinagra’s Castello. The bell tower clock and partial ruins are all that remain of the medieval castle fort which has been a stable part of the Sinagrese landscape for generations.

©Rochelle Del Borrello 2015
©Rochelle Del Borrello 2015

Saint Leo marches down Via Roma the main commercial hub of the old town which is now nothing by hollowed out hovels, dilapidated palaces slowly filling up with pigeon faeces and the odd newly restored building in a flurry of colours like a chameleon set in reverse. This first leg of his procession is the same taken by dearly departed Sinagrese on their final passegiata to the cemetery during their funeral.

Down Via Veneto heading towards the main square the urban-scape becomes less steep until reaching a plateau in the Piazza San Teodoro. Continuing straight ahead St Leo reaches the beginning of Via Umberto primo the old civic centre of Sinagra before the successive floods of nineteen twenty-six, nineteen nineteen, nineteen thirty-one and nineteen thirty-two.

At the beginning of the street there is the antique Church of the Crucifix with its bell tower dating back to the medieval period. This church is intriguing, much smaller than St Michael the Archangel, and ultimately more suggestive. The locals call it ‘the church of the convent,’ which indicates the existence of a former religious community, near the local cemetery there are the ruins of an old convent covered in prickly bushes and ivy.

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Drawn to Sicily

Sad road to Raccuja

All Sicilians have this blinding obsessive love of there Sicilia which exists beyond any hardships, lack of education, lack of economic betterment or even famines which have occurred on the island, everyone holds onto their beloved Sicily despite everything. Of course until they were pushed away from their homeland when things on the island became so unendurable and people could literally no longer live. Only then did economic depression forced them to leave their close-knit communities to migrate in massive numbers all over the world.

Only then did my Grandparents find the strength through adversity to cut their family bonds and unravel themselves enough to move overseas. Yet the umbilical-chord at their core still remained in tact tingeing their lives with an idolized nostalgia for their Sicily. It’s a passionate patriotism which led most to create their own Sicilian web either with their own family or in new Sicilian Diasporas. There are many children and now grandchildren of these Sicilian migrants who still reflect this idealized notion of Sicily inherited from their heritage. I too assume to have been caught up in this wave of historical patriotism.

My grandparents generation isn’t the first to have left the island the inhabitants of this region have immigration in their blood. Sicily’s ancestry is made up of generations of colonising Greeks, conquering Romans, tyrannical Normans, cosmopolitan Arabs and imperial Bourbons. The constant rampage of countless other dominations whose influence has ingrained Sicilians with a sense of restlessness. There is a latent angst which exists side by side with the Sicilians connection to each other and their land in a paradox which pulls them away from Sicily while also keeping their culture in the foremost of their mind.

Internal migration within Sicily has always occurred as the itinerate worker population have always slavishly followed the ebb and flow of seasonal work, but never before had overseas migration occurred on such an immense scale as it did in the Sicily of my grandparents youth after the second world war.

These were poor people, uneducated, often living in a semi-feudal economic system. Work for them was about survival. It was hard physical labor based on the land, cultivating small plots for themselves, mostly using a bartering system to provide important products like bread, meat and other necessities for everyday life. Apart from producing for themselves, the only other activity was agricultural work for large property owners; wheat harvesting in summer, collecting hazelnuts in autumn and olives and oranges in winter.

The property owners were Barons or wealthy land owners who took advantage of the poor uneducated majority. There was no getting ahead for these people, no hope for reward or betterment. This was their life. It is a world I could never imagine. A world which should have been filled with sorrow.

Yet the stories my grandparents shared were far from sorrowful. They told of energetic friendships and families that they had known all their lives. They shared stories of laughing and joking, of dancing, singing and teasing. They described the wonderful animals they had in their lives, of mad people, wise people, of their stoic grandparents, a feisty older generation who were as savage as the times and who lived lives with so much hardship that they seemed carved from stone. My Nonni’s stories are from the place which grew out of Greek and Roman mythology and their tales became my family’s mythology.

Raccuja, Messina

The harshness of my grandparent’s Sicily isn’t what I heard in their anecdotes. Rather it was the language, the laughter of a carefree adolescence, will power and a formidable strength of character. They created their own jokes, their own language and way of relating to one another. They had their own poetry, song and dance. It is this that made me fall in love with their Sicily. The yarns were not only wistful memories of a youth spent working hard, being repressed by their elders and poverty, there were also many great moments of humor and joy.

My grandmother spent her evenings in the once harsh Sicilian winter indoors with her five sisters huddled around the fireside, eating roasted chestnuts and listening to her father recounting the lives of the saints, reading passages from Dante, remembering old family anecdotes, inventing songs and poetry about everything from local politics to Sicilian legends. This experience gave her a voice with a passionate desire to tell and listen to stories an ability which she has passed onto her children and grandchildren.

My grandparent’s history is full of exotic superstitions and ghosts as if they came from a fairytale land. Each fable is told with that enigmatic tongue, full of words I find too hard to understand, a dialect which is no longer spoken, a dying language which is a product of their Sicily. It was their own language formed by their isolation and the landscape of endless mountains, which created words forged by their own inventiveness and creativity, an intimate product of their isolated daily lives.

I have absorbed the images of my grandparents’ Sicily, a strange mix of characters, landscapes, history and language which has blended with my own imagination to create a personalised mythology. Their stories come from deep in North Eastern Sicily in the Province of Messina.

The tales were played out in the hamlet of Campo Melia high up on a mountain ridge between the towns of Raccuja and Sinagra, where dozens of houses were once filled with family and friends. Today the buildings are silent headstones gradually being overwhelmed by the natural overgrowth in an abandoned countryside. The remaining inhabitants are a handful of elderly people and their families who tenuously hold onto their memories of home, until death takes them, too and their families finally move away.

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