The Giudei of San Fratello: part 2

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During the Giudei’s procession, I am introduced to a local academic and former mayor of San Fratello, Professor Salvatore Mangione. He offers me a drink at a small bar, together with other acquaintances. This gives me a chance to get off the crowded street and out of the confusion. I stand at the bar for a while, sipping a glass of peach nectar and listening to Mangione’s explanation of the Giudei.
The Professor is a proud Sicilian and talks with great ease in what seems like a finely rehearsed paragraphs of a prepared speech. I wonder for how many Diavolata’s he has been delivering his lecture to visitors. He leans with his elbow on the bar top, his golden orange Crodino bitters aperitif in his hand, and with an unaffected air of authority, he gives his performance in an impromptu tone.

He notes how the Giudei are characters in a sacred drama which has a strong cathartic element to it. They are like members of a secret confraternity who are entrusted to their roles in an age-old mystery play. Like the religious celebration, even their costumes are sacred, to be worn only during the Holy Week celebration.
The origins of the event aren’t clear. Professor Mangione suggests that the festival might refer to a social rebellion in San Fratello’s history which has long since been forgotten. The primary indication of this comes from the fact that at one time only the peasants were allowed to dress as Giudei, and the upper class allowed three days of practical joking to pass without retribution.
The Festa has a history of violence, and the Giudei’s drunken revelry creates a significant disturbance in the town. Numerous police reports have been filed against the masked revellers through the years, and there have been multiple attempts to ban the event. But despite efforts to halt the celebration, the Giudei continue to punctually re-appear after every prohibition, in even greater numbers than previously. And so the performance has continued to this day uninterrupted, even during the two World Wars.

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As the Professor finishes his little lecture, a young child at the back of the bar lifts the hood of his little Giudeo costume, and puckering his lips, he trumpets loudly on his father’s bugle horn. Taking this as a signal to end his presentation, Professor Mangione smiles, sips the rest of his drink, and confidently states that the Diavolata is a tradition that will never end, as long as the children have such enthusiasm.

Walking out of the bar, I see that the side streets, the sidewalks and the street corners are overflowing with men in masquerade. They are playing an endless stream of tunes, which intermingle with what seems to be one long sustained raspberry, creating an aural overload.
For a second I hear what I think is an emphatic triumphant march, but before I can listen to it properly, I grab onto a distorted waltz, and then I’m distracted by a strange polka; another group is distorting a selection of traditional songs, such as Torna a Sorrento and O Sole Mio.
It is such a strange, playful musical collage, the way the trumpeters pick up bits and pieces of popular tunes and distort them, creating as much colour and disarray as the celebration itself. In amongst the noise and exuberance, I get caught up in the enthusiasm of the moment, before being suddenly struck by the realisation that nothing of this makes sense. I think it’s not meant to have a particular meaning; it’s pagan, ritualistic and hedonistic all at the same time.

 

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The Giudei begin their celebration around eleven o’clock on Good Friday morning and continue their rampage around San Fratello, playing their eclectic music, blocking traffic, and creating general confusion. As the feast continues, the men begin to mix their playing with alcohol and become ever rowdier, and then start to play practical jokes. Around midday, the Giudei start to peter out at the end of the main street, to turn around and mingle at bars and side streets, or chat with friends and family in the main square, where most of the confusion is focused.
The birth of this grotesque Good Friday carnival, which corrupts the original religious celebration, can be found in the local history. San Fratello’s origins can be traced back to the time of the ancient Greek domination of Sicily when the town known as Apollonia was founded in three hundred and twelve A.D. Later, with the conquest of Sicily by the Norman Count Roger I, the town became the site of a Lombard colony.

It was Count Roger’s second wife, Queen Adelaide of Monteferrato, who ruled over the hamlet in the twelfth century, creating a unique settlement for immigrants from Northern Italy, who kept strong ties to the French language and culture and to the Catholic faith.
In the colony, a unique dialect based on French evolved, which is still spoken today. The dialect of San Fratello is entirely different from the traditional Sicilian dialect of North-Western Sicily. This language is a testament to the migration to Sicily, of colonists with origins in the north of Italy, such as Piedmont, Lombardy, and Emilia Romagna, during the Norman domination. The dialect itself is a mix between the idiomatic local dialect of the Monferrino and the dialect of Normandy. It is a strange hybrid that sounds elegantly French, yet is tainted heavily with the harsh, local rugged dialect of Sicily.
From the Norman occupation of Sicily (1061-1194 ) up until the Sicilian Vespers uprising against the French in 1282, there was a gradual influx into Sicily of colonists from Northern Italy. In general, the towns where these Norman people settled are found in the provinces of Messina and Enna. Some of the Sicilian cities strongly are influenced by French culture, particularly in the local dialect, apart from San Fratello, include Novara di Sicilia, Fondachelli Fantina, Sperlinga, Nicosia, Aidone and Piazza Armerina.
A testament to the early Norman colony in and around the town of San Fratello is the small temple located on Monte Vecchio, which is dedicated to three early Catholic martyrs, Saints Alfio, Filadelfio, and Cirino. It is from these three Brother Saints, or Santi Fratelli that the town gets its name.

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Before the Norman domination, Sicily was under Arab rule for some two hundred and thirty-three years. Contrary to popular belief, Arab Sicily was an educated and tolerant society, especially concerning other religions. Even though Islam was the dominant religion, there were strong communities of Jewish and Catholic faith allowed to exist side by side with the dominant ruler’s religious system of belief.
The Norman conquest of Sicily was based on, among other things, an intense desire to bring Catholicism to the island and remove other religions. It is with this historical context that the Giudei celebration at San Fratello takes on a sinister quality.
The Giudei (or Jews) of the Easter celebration of San Fratello can be seen to represent a grotesque parody of the ethnic minorities of the Arabs and Jews in Sicily during the Norman period. The Norman colonists of the town created a celebration to exorcise Sicily of non-Catholic minorities.
As the tradition of the Diavolata evolved into part of San Fratello’s culture, the original significance and purpose of it was slowly forgotten, and this celebration became viewed as a reflection of the nature of the local inhabitants. With the spread of Catholicism in Sicily, the irreverent mockery of the Giudei festival resulted in the widespread belief that the San Fratellani were ‘tutti Turchi,’ that is, they were “all Turks,” the term ‘Turk’ in Sicilian referring to enemies of the Christian faith.

So from its original function, the festivities at San Fratello have to a certain extent backfired, inadvertently linking the town to a non-Christian system of belief and creating one of the most undeniably unique festivals in the world.

 

The Giudei of San Fratello: part 1

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Photo by Alberto Bigoni on Unsplash

San Fratello is perched high up in the rambling Sicilian highlands, nesting itself in the crown of the Nebrodi Mountains, which run along the Tyrrhenian coast towards Palermo.

The road on the way to the town negotiates its way through the mountains like an elaborate obstacle course; every car is climbing up navigates hairpin curves and steep ascents.

Driving up to San Fratello I am distracted by the endless mountains, with their irregular shapes. It’s as if this part of the earth was once a giant cauldron, filled with melted pitch left to cool after being violently boiled.
The escarpments left behind after the creation of these mountains are outlined by an expansive cloak of forest that distends out like an insidious moss, covering wet stones. The greenery of the invading vegetation expands to the length and breadth of the island, the uneven growth interrupted by the scars of past landslides and roads that cut through the slopes.

The colours, too, attract my attention; it is early spring, and the heavy greys of winter are being surpassed by the bounties of the goddess Demeter, who has reigned over the island since time began. The countryside is filled with fresh new grasses, and the dead almond trees are being resurrected by blossoming pale pink flowers.
Arriving near the town, I see paddocks divided by clumsy fences, which hold the robust San Fratello horse breed, grazing on the springtime grass. These thoroughbreds are as noble as their Arabian origins. They are the essence of strength and elegance, with their fresh, velvety black coats and steadfast physiques. They fit precisely into the landscape, as wild and intense as any steep climb or precipice.
The history of the San Fratello breed dates back to the Sicily of the eleventh century. They are said to be descendant from the remnants of cavalry left behind during one of the many battles for Sicily’s possession. The Arabs came up against the Norman invaders from France, towards the end of their period of domination over the island, from 827 to 1060 A.D. The struggle between the two powers lasted some twenty years, and one of the points of focus was here in the fertile Nebrodi Mountains.

 

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I haven’t come to San Fratello to see the horses, even though they are a fascinating sidetrack: I’ve come to witness an ancient Easter celebration, which is part spectacle and part mysterious ancient ritual.
Easter is one of the most important feasts in the Roman Catholic Church calendar, and in Europe, it’s more widely celebrated than Christmas. It also comes together with the welcomed spring, so the celebration at San Fratello is a mixture of religious ceremonies and pagan rites associated with the seasons.
There are endless Easter celebrations in Sicily, from processions re-enacting the last moments of Jesus’ life, with antique statues, which meander through small towns, to decorative Palm Sunday celebrations showing the journey of Jesus from triumphal acclamations, to betrayal and execution, death and resurrection.
These festivities are all pure theatre and spectacle, dating back to medieval times when the church sought to educate the common people about the central figure and founder of the Roman Catholic religion, with the aim of bringing people into the church. Easter in Sicily is full of traditions, the most colourful of which happens here at San Fratello.
The Diavolata of Good Friday is a mixture of the diabolical, as its name suggests, and of many other complex strands of history, exhibited by the spectacle of the costumes and the music, which is filled with both pagan and Christian energy. Good Friday is when Jesus is crucified and is considered a day of mourning for the church, but at San Fratello the characters of the Giudei, or the Jews, as they are known, turn the solemn funeral of Jesus into a macabre celebration, which mocks both Christ and those who condemned him to death.

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Driving along the main street of San Fratello, I see a Giudeo for the first time. He’s one of a series of men in the most confusing fress, which seems both comical and sinister at the same time. The Giudei slowly begin to multiply, ambling by in bright red jackets with yellow lapels; pantaloons, pseudo-military trimmings, and ridiculous helmets decorated with different shapes and designs. They are soldiers from an army that never existed; gathering together every year to disrupt the Easter celebrations, and the town, with their masked faces, ridiculous appearance, practical jokes and trumpeting.
Each Giudeo has a cornet slung over his back, the straps of the instrument hanging over the elaborately embroidered designs on the back of his jacket. They are all dressed alike, but with a subtle difference in the details of their costumes, which reflects a lack of discipline in their characters and dramatically raises the level of madness and confusion in this truly unique celebration.
One Giudeo has a long white tuft of hair hanging down from his shoulder, another a long black donkey’s tail pinned on his buttocks, hanging down suggestively between his legs. They are a strange mix of elegance and silliness, complete with military jackets and white gloves.
Some Giudei gather together and line up on either side of the main street. A reporter and two cameramen from the Rai Italian broadcaster are standing near me, ready to record, which means I’ve inadvertently chosen the best vantage point to observe the procession. The second group of Giudei comes around the corner, and this time I get a better look at them from the front, as they walk past in pairs. The first one has a large red and blue pom pom feather duster on top of his helmet, like a cruel imitation of the Italian Carabinieri’s ceremonial headdress.
They all have a Klu Klux Klan sack mask over their faces, always in bright red, with circled black eyes, designed and cut out like a Zorro mask. The sbirrijan, or hood, is completed by a long, yellow, cartoon-like nose. Some have dark moustaches, like old black and white movie villains, ready to tie helpless damsels to railway tracks, while twigging at their whiskers and sniggering at their own dastardliness.

But it is the tongues that stand out the most on the Giudei’s masks; they are long, hanging down about ten centimetres, with a cross at the centre designed in silver studs. It is this symbolism, together with the name “Giudei,” which suggests that these masked men represent a synthesis of the Jewish leaders and the Roman military that condemned Jesus to death. Their long the black tongue is a symbol of the hearsay and deception that occurred during the schizophrenic turn of public opinion, which according to the Bible story led to the condemnation of Jesus.
The crowd of masqueraded men makes up a strange collage of colours; bright red military costumes, the jackets with lapels of gold fringes all the way down the front, each with a different design on it, and on the back a long strip of yellow. These men are the symbols of a military hierarchy; not just simple soldiers, but decorated generals or officials, like high commanders in the Kiser’s German army of the early twentieth century. But even this reference to a central European military tradition is a contradiction, undercut by the yellow strips on the men’s backs, yellow being the colour associated with cowardice.

 

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These costumes are striking. At first, they slap me across the face with their very absurdity, and I am utterly at a loss for words to describe or understand what they represent. Then I begin to separate in my mind the individual pieces that make up the costume, and I start to recognise the many different elements.

The most outstanding thing is how these came to be put together like this. The truth is that no one exactly knows. This is the most intriguing thing about the Giudei and their costumes. The celebration is a source of wonder for those who study anthropology and ethnology.
On the streets, there are Giudei of all shapes and sizes, junior Giudei, fat and slim Giudei. There are no women Giudei in this celebration, and I don’t know why they are excluded; perhaps this goes back to the fact that they depict the hierarchy of the Jewish community in Jesus’ time, in which only men were the patriarchs.
Some of the Giudei are waving at the TV camera, while others casually gather along the street, waiting for the procession to begin. One of them, his mask resting slightly above the bridge of his nose, is smoking a cigarette and talking to an unmasked friend.
They all have absurd helmets on their heads, made up of standard caps with distinct ornaments on top. One helmet has a flowerpot on it, complete with flowers, and others have horsehair tails, hooks, and feather dusters on them. Some are bejewelled with half moons and stars.
The Giudei wait for the procession to pass so they can celebrate with cruel joy the perceived defeat of Jesus in the history of the early Catholic Church. These colourfully dressed Giudei disturb the solemn, religious march with their loud trumpet playing; curiously, they never speak, their improvised music becomes their voice. The cortège is typical of the many others seen throughout Sicily on Good Friday, when the crucified Christ is taken around the town on a funeral celebration to commemorate his death.

The masked men line up on either side of the road, and some climb on the top of a wide wall. They are waiting to begin their celebration. I watch them clearing out their instruments of saliva, in anticipation of the arrival of the mourners, who can be heard from around the corner, droning out the rosary prayers and singing out the refrains of a traditional procession hymn, in a disciplined drill.

 

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The procession appears from around the corner; A large crucifix is mounted on a giant float and is carried by the modest pilgrims, who continue their sombre chants. The Christ’s head is bowed down; hands nailed to the cross.
Each of the Giudei launch into their trumpeting with a distorted joy; first in a warbled drone and then with a frantic, deranged glee. Different groups form small clusters to disrupt the mournful procession with their music; a loud braying begins and echoes along the corridors created by these extraordinary dramatis personae.
Soon the solemnity of the procession is overpowered by the Giudei’s racket, and they overtake not only the march but also the whole town, filling San Fratello with their loud trumpet playing and acrobatic stunts. Despite the distractions caused by the disguised men, the worshippers in the procession continue to recite their Good Friday prayers, as they run the gauntlet.
After the pilgrims of Christ have passed by, some of the Giudei join the tail end of the funeral march, continuing their wild celebration. Hundreds of masked men crowd the streets amongst spectators and participants, to create a discord of noise and colour.

Groups of hooded men form semi-circles every few meters along the street, ecstatically trumpeting a victory theme, echoed and drowned out by other groups of trumpeters nearby. Moments of silence don’t last long, as other groups start up further down the street, their impromptu music reverberating through the hollow streets of San Fratello, and deeper still into the timeless Nebrodi Mountains.
Some of the more exuberant men perform acrobatics by hanging from lamp poles, others climbing high to hold themselves horizontally and swinging around to attract the most attention possible.

 

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Looking at the backs of the Giudei’s red coats more closely, I notice that many of the intricately embroidered designs on them have religious references. For example, in one model there is Saint Francis, in his brown Franciscan robe, helping Jesus off the cross after the crucifixion; the two religious figures are mixed together to create a unique spiritual collage, as the Saint lived many centuries after the time of Christ.

Other random designs include swans swimming on icy lakes, princesses with Barbie doll features, wearing tiaras, and peasant couples holding hands as they’re about to start dancing; also, Christ on the cross, images of the crucified Christ, Snow White, an American eagle, the Virgin Mary, and various other religious icons, rich with details. I even saw a Donald Duck on one junior Giudeo.

The designs range from the deeply religious, to the secular, a strange juxtaposition of incompatible elements. These embroidered beaded or sequined costumes are hand made and are a tradition in themselves. Often, the suits are handed down from father to son.

The Good Friday Diavolata at San Fratello is a mixture of both pagan and Catholic elements, even though some commentators suggest that the celebration has more in common with pagan festivals celebrating spring than with any Catholic ceremony. Indeed, the festival has a grotesque carnival atmosphere to it, and the participants’ focus is more on enjoyment and mischief-making rather than anything else.

Rebuilding Messina

 

The most powerful recorded earthquake to hit Europe struck Messina at about 5:20 AM local time. Its epicentre was under the Strait of Messina, which separates the island of Sicily from the province of Calabria, the “toe” of Italy’s geographical “boot.” The main shock lasted for more than 20 seconds, and its magnitude reached 7.5 on the Richter scale.
Ten minutes later a tsunami brought waves estimated to be 13 metres high crashing down on the coasts of northern Sicily and southern Calabria. More than 80,000 people were killed in the disaster. Many of the survivors were relocated to other Italian cities; others immigrated to the United States.

Experts long surmised that the tsunami resulted from seafloor displacement caused by the earthquake. However, research completed in the early 21st century suggests that an underwater landslide, unrelated to the quake, triggered the tsunami.

The Messina shoreline was irrevocably altered as large sections of the coast sunk into the sea. Houses, churches, palaces and monuments, military barracks: commercial, municipal and public buildings had all collapsed entirely or were severely damaged. Many structures were cracked shells, roofless, windowless and standing upright precariously.

Initially, authorities adopted a plan to demolish the remaining structures of Messina and transfer the city and its port elsewhere in Sicily, but this was discarded after loud protests from the Messinesi.

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The area around where today’s Cairoli square is at Messina was at the centre of the city’s rebirth after the 1908 disaster. Piazza Cairoli became the ground zero of the new town and was the main area where temporary housing was built for the newly homeless of Messina.

The square was a makeshift area made up of a tent hospital, premade wooden houses donated by countries like Switzerland, Russia and the United States, a printer and a chapel.

In the reconstruction of the city, many of Messina’s historic Palazzi was too severely damaged to be fixed and were merely knocked down while some more modern buildings built later in the fascist period were irrationally demolished to make way for modern apartment buildings in a rush to make profits. Beautiful buildings from the 1930’s like Cinema Trincaria and Cinema Teatro Peloro Anni (pictured above)  were unfortunately sacrificed for Messina’s need for public housing.

Piazza Cairoli is dedicated to the Cairoli brothers, two heroes from the period of the Italian unification. Today it is a green, fresh piece of garden in the centre of the city, divided in two by the tram lines and the main streets of the town Via Garibaldi and Viale S. Martino.

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Today there is no reference to the disaster whatsoever in the open space, it is simply a beautiful square popular with the locals because of its proximity to the best shopping in the city.

Around the piazza there are many bars, gelaterias and restaurants, hile along the furthest part of the piazza, the most well known Italian fashion brands have their stores, which makes this area the high-end shopping district of the city.

It is a beautiful part of the city and is the focus of events throughout the year, from street food festivals to the quaint Christmas markets every year. It’s lovely on a Sunday for a quick coffee or an ice cream.

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During the week you will see many families stroll around the square with their children, or take a moment to sit in the shade on a hot day and catch the tram to different parts of the city. It is also where the local MacDonalds is located so there will often be groups of teenagers slurping soft drinks. While others use it as a meeting spot before or after their shopping sprees.

The memory of the time when Messina was practically erased from existence seems to have been forgotten as this thriving modern, cosmopolitan city busily goes about its daily business.

10 Feste Patronale in Sicilia

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Every town and city in Italy has its own Saintly patron or protector which has its own dedicated festa or celebration during the year with associated religious processions and events.

In Sicily alone, there are three hundred and ninety town halls which means many lifetimes of Saint day celebrations.

Apart from the religious celebrations, the locals take pride in celebrating the grandness of their particular Saints miracles and the intimate connection with their specific town. The statues of each Saint is a work of art, and the parades are filled with music, prayer and colour. The locals take their saints seriously and try to keep up the traditions.

Sicily’s nine major provincial capitals each have big celebrations which have been practised uninterrupted for centuries, and today each is a significant event in each cities calendar filled with holiday markets, art exhibitions, food preparations and epic fireworks.

Some towns have more than one Patron which means several celebrations throughout the year. While other cities whose Saints celebration happens in the dead of winter, so they have decided to have a summer version of the festa for visitors to experience too.

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Here is a list of the important Patron Saint-day celebrations of the main cities in Sicily (Agrigento, Caltanissetta, Catania, Enna, Messina, Palermo, Ragusa, Syracuse (Siracusa) and Trapani.

To round the number up to an even ten I’ve included an extra location at Cefalu where the festivities feature the Saint’s statue being loaded onto a boat, the procession continuing out into the sea, something which is common for many celebrations around the island particularly with coastal towns.

Mata and Grifone

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Sicily is famous for its ceramics, designed in the classic Maiolica glazed style with delicate baroque patterns. The most original pieces and those who stimulate the most interest from visitors are the Moorish head designs, which consist of pairs of pots, cups or jars which depict a fair-skinned woman and a man with distinctly North African features.

Most foreigners are perplexed by this extravagant couple, which is often impressive features of many exquisitely groomed balconies and gardens all over the island.
Behind this couple, there is an intriguing mix of mythology and Sicilian history.

Theirs is a love story akin to Romeo and Juliet or Tristan and Isolde, with a surprisingly gruesome mixture of violence and folly. The story takes us back to the end of the Arab period in Sicilian history from 831 to 1091 when the island was known as the Emirate of Sicily (Arabic: إِمَارَةُ صِقِلِّيَة).

This intriguing tale has been interpreted many times, and the characters at its heart have inspired many artists throughout the centuries.

The original folktale comes from Palermo and tells of a Saracen merchant who falls in love with a beautiful local girl. They start a passionate love affair until the girl discovers her lover has a wife and children waiting for him in his homeland. In a fit of jealousy and rage, she murders him in his sleep, cutting off his head so that her lover would stay with her forever. The girl uses the head as a vase to grow a beautiful basil plant. Others who saw her flourishing plant forged themselves colourful clay head pots in an attempt to recreate the bountiful fertility.

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A more romantic version of the Moorish heads tale comes to us from Messina. Every summer as part of the elaborate mid-August celebrations dedicated to Messina’s patron the Virgin Mary, the pagan founders of the city is also featured in the religious procession.

The gigantic eight-meter tall papier-mâché statues of Mata and Grifone riding on horseback date back to 1723 and reenact the arrival of Roger the first of Sicily to Messina, after the island was finally liberated from the Arab domination in 1071.

Roger, I was a Norman nobleman he became the first count of Sicily, and his descendants continued to rule Sicily until 1194.

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In 1547, when archaeological excavations outside of Palermo first unearthed the remains of mini elephants and hippos which used to roam prehistoric Sicily, this discovery lead to the widespread belief that Sicily was founded by giants. The elephant skulls were also taken as proof that the Cyclops from Homer’s Odyssey existed. The elephant skulls peculiar shape, and a typical single hole at the centre seemed to confirm that the animal in question had a single eye.

Many Sicilian academics believe Messina’s Mata and Grifone are manifestations of ancient nature gods, the pale-skinned Mata is a version of the ancient Greek myth of Persephone who was the daughter of the goddess of nature Demeter and who was kidnapped by the underworld god Hades, ruler of the ancients afterlife. There is a secure connection to many other pagan gods representing contrasting elements which coexist such as night and day, male and female and winter and summer.

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The tale told at Messina is a love story, with a staunchly Catholic flavour and no bloodshed. Mata was the daughter of a Messinese nobleman caught the eye of Grifone a general in the invading army who had just conquered Messina.

Pledging his undying love for Mata, he asked for her hand in marriage, which was granted with the understanding Grifone would convert to Catholicism, which he did and then the two went on to become rulers of ancient Messina.

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Probably the most famous version of the gruesome Moorish heads story is the one retold by Boccaccio in the Renaissance short stories from his Decameron. Boccaccio sets the story directly in Messina, the main protagonist is Lisabetta or Isabella an orphaned noble girl who is jealously guarded by her three brothers.

Isabella falls honestly and spontaneously in love with Lorenzo, a local boy of modest means. Their love affair goes on in secret until the three brothers discover Lisabetta leaving to meet her lover and decide to put an end to the relationship to avoid tarnishing the good name of the family. The brothers lead Lorenzo out of the city and murder him, hiding his body in a shallow grave and on their return home tell their sister Lorenzo quietly left on business.
But when her lover is absent for too long, Lisabetta becomes desperate with worry. One night Lorenzo appears to Lisabetta in a dream telling her he was killed by her brothers and where his body is buried.

Determined to find Lorenzo, she obtains permission from her brothers to go on a trip to the countryside with her female servant. She finds Lorenzo’s body and unable to give her lover the burial he deserves and insane with grief she cuts off Lorenzo’s head. At home, she hides the head in a vase and plants some basil in it. The plan blossoms, watered by Lisabetta’s tears.
Isabella’s behaviour alarms the neighbours and her brothers discover Lorenzo’s head. They get rid of the evidence of their crime, leave Messina and flee to Naples leaving behind a distraught Isabella to die of a broken heart.

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In 1849 the sad tale of Isabella of Messina was revived by British artist Everett Millais who created the first painting in the romantic Pre Raphaelite style. The canvas of Lorenzo and Isabella is filled with hidden messages and subtle phallic symbols which have intrigued art lovers for generations.
Another imminent Pre Raphaelite artist Edward Coley Burne Jones painted a portrait of Isabelle and the pot of Basil in 1867. This interpretation of Isabelle depicts the emotive moment the girl weeps over her basil plant towards the end of the story.
The Coley Burne Jones masterpiece draws on ancient mythology, recalling elements of traditional folklore, for example, the ancient Greeks and Romans believed basil was associated with hatred, and according to folk beliefs the plant had to be sown with swearing and ranting. The ancient Egyptians used the herb in the embalming process, making it also a symbol of mourning.

Romantic poet John Keats used the story as the inspiration behind his poem Isabella, or the pot of Basil. In the hands of the highly idealistic romantic Keats, the tale became a love story corrupted by the pride and greed of Isabella’s brothers who treated her like an object.
The Romantic’s version is set in Florence, the poem is filled with profoundly violent imagery before and after the murder occurs. Keats quotes the Greek myth of Perseus who killed Medusa the gorgon serpent-headed monster, which is at the centre of the Trinacria an ancient symbol still used to represent Sicily today.
Behind every work of art, there is always a story, Sicily takes this aphorism to an extreme with its history filled with violence, tragedy and loss.

The baroque ceramic Moorish heads are the artistic expression of the islands rich yet dark mythology.

Reflections on a summer garden

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I am probably the worst gardener in the world, name a plant, and I’ve probably killed it usually by forgetting to water it.

Strangely enough, both my parents and grandparents were (and still are) fantastic green thumbs. Our family always had terrific vegetable gardens. In the summer we never needed to buy tomatoes, basil, eggplants (aubergine), zucchini, capsicums, chilli peppers or any other variety of Mediterranean vegetables. We always had figs and grapes in the summer and fennel or broccoli in the winter. My mother still has endless flowering plants decorating the outside of her house everything from roses to succulents and anything in between. My dearly departed Nonna Carmela grew flowers in her front yard. I still remember going out to check the mail, the perfume of her violets and the stunning antique white roses which lined the pathway.

My first steps were on a farm in Serpentine Jarrahdale a few hours south-east of the capital of Perth WA, filled with animals and plants. Then when it was time to start school I moved to five minutes from the CBD in Victoria Park. Luckily with the luxury of large quarter acre blocks of land in the Australia of the 1980’s, there was always space for an abundant vegetable patch behind the house. Then moving to the semi-rural Swan Valley in Western Australia I grew up with the habit of eating fresh farm vegetables together with local table grapes, rockmelons and watermelons.

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The Italian community always had the habit of planting their own fruit and vegetables a tradition which persisted and was shared with extended family and friends. There were bags filled with the first tomatoes from whoever was able to harvest first. Or bunches of platted garlic or onions from an overabundant crop. Kilos of broad beans or peas waiting to be shelled and frozen after a bumper year. And if someone knew your lettuce had been decimated by snails or rotted by fungus they’d likely give you some of theirs.

Since moving to Sicily, I can’t say I’ve suddenly inherited the gardening gene, but I have become more passionate about the art of gardening. A garden is a place of reflection, there is a sense of peace which connects you to the rhythms of the natural world. I love planting things and watching them grow. Growing things is like planting the seed of an idea in your mind and seeing it develop into its ultimate form. As a mother, a writer and creative I can see the obvious connections between the fertility of the natural world and that of the mind.

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I love to spend my summers in the vegetable garden, planting, nurturing and watching everything grow. Every year I happily take my son into the garden and teach him about the different plants, herbs and vegetables and show him how to prepare them and enjoy them in his food.

There is a deep connection between my memories and the garden, every time I am there I feel connected to my ancestors who went through these same rituals.

 

Sagre and Feste in July

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Food and religious festivals (sagre and feste) all over the peninsula are at the heart and soul of Italian traditions. The ones celebrated on the island of Sicily are particularly rich in history, colour and taste.

Sicilians are proud of their cuisine and dedicate a considerable amount of effort in preparing and sharing their typical plates. So a visit to a sagra is a celebration and invitation to taste the best of Sicily.

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While patron Saint celebrations have a long history in Sicily and Italy linked to the establishment of the Roman Catholic Church throughout Europe. Sicilians have a sincere dedication to their hometown Saints and a visit to a big feast day will give a unique experience into the intriguing history of Sicily as each has been linked to a particular place for centuries.

The Saints statues are works of art unto themselves, their stories are miracles are amazing tales, and the churches they are housed in are filled with more colour and art still. The celebrations include elaborate pageants like processions, music, fireworks, food and costumes.

Sicily is dedicated to its Saints and cuisine, and these elaborate parties show the best side of the island for all to see.

Here are some events to pin for your next trip to Sicily.

July in sicily

Disappearing Sicilian Markets

For the love of Sicilian Markets title
It’s no secret I’m a fan of open air markets, I love trawling through every stand exploring what I can find. My blog is filled with photo’s of African wood carvings, crafty jewellery and fun discoveries, endless market randomness and textures. I enjoy the colours and the unexpected. A Sicilian market contains everything from fresh produce, antiques, fabrics to bric-a-brac.
Every year in Sicily, is made up of annual appointments with big Sicilian markets and fiere (/fiè·re/), which are big brothers to the simple daily food markets who bring together many vendors from other provinces together with the trade of livestock. A spring fiera previews what you will see in the stores during the summer, while an autumn one often brings a chance to find unique gifts without the Christmas rush.
Often visitors to Sicily criticise markets as places filled with cheap Chinese rip offs, which sadly is a valid lament as over the years of the never ending economic crisis in Europe, many boutique operations and family businesses selling beautiful products have closed down, moving overseas to cut costs, leaving space for dreaded cheap imports to fill in the gaps. I’m afraid my beloved Sicilian markets are beginning to disappear.

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In my little piece of Sicily in Messina province most locals have an appointment with the Fiera at Capo d’Orlando on the 21st and 22nd of October which is associated with the feast day celebration of the local Madonna, who is the city’s patron. Also I never miss out on the autumn and spring markets at Sant’Agata di Militello, the ancient Fiera over the 14th and 15th of November (and the 14th/15th of April) which stretches out along the main esplanade running parallel to the Tyrrhenian sea.
The November markets are usually where I do my Christmas shopping, but for the first time last year I actually came home empty handed. There were the usual endless stalls common of this extravagant fair, yet none of the substance of these historic markets which date back to the 1700’s.
Established by the Ventimiglia family, a well known Sicilian aristocratic dynasty, who gathered up the agricultural wealth of the Nebrodi area, the Sant Agata fiera was a focal point for farmers and artisans of all types. The first day is dedicated to livestock while the second offers visitors everything from textiles to haberdashery, farming tools, local produce, fashion and crafts.
Marching up and down the stalls last year I found nothing of quality, so much cheap Chinese junk, many obviously second hand clothes and shoes being passed off as new, strange one size fits all clothing which really won’t cover anyone who weighs more than 40 kilo’s and the same series of scarves and Christmas decorations as other years. I didn’t see the usual ceramics I go crazy over and there was only one antique stall which had the same things as last year, the owner sadly told me business is really slow and he probably won’t be back next year.

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The decline of markets in Sicily has gradually been creeping forward all over the island. For example many travel magazines surprisingly still sing the praise of Palermo’s Vucciria as a thriving major Sicilian city market, but the once buzzing neighbourhood packed with hundreds of food stores spilling over out onto the streets has become nothing but a small strip of resilient store owners who keep the historic markets alive for the tourists.
Italians believe in slow food and travel, where you take the time to soak in the character of a place, happily making the most of the moment. In a country where the people and culture are as colourful as the scenery itself, it is justifiable to seek out a more authentic connection to everyday life.

Food markets are filled with the sights, sounds and tastes of an Italy which relishes its food. In times of economic downturn Italians will cut back on everything else except what is on the table.

 

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Thank goodness the Palermitani’s demand for fine food persists, it is this which keeps the other daily food market neighbourhoods thriving. The il Capo, Ballero’ and Borgo Vecchio markets keep the traditions alive with their associated family run restaurants and street food vendors deep in the centre of Palermo.

You can still have an authentic Sicilian market experience at Ballaró which extends from Piazza Ballarò in the Albergheria district (near the church of San Nicolò) along Via Ballarò past Piazza Carmine toward Corso Tukory, roughly parallel to Via Maqueda toward the main train station.

While the Capo markets are tucked behind the Teatro Massimo opera theater and extend from Via Porta Carini off Via Volturno near the old city wall toward Piazza Beati Paoli. The Vucceria is at Piazza San Domenico, but in a much reduced manner as compared to its past history, it still winds along Via Maccheronai toward Piazza Caracciolo and Corso Vittorio Emanuele, branching off along Via Argenteria.

The Borgo Vecchio markets are in between Piazza Sturzo and Piazza Ucciardone. Palermo’s markets are usually open all day from 9 to 7pm (they are closed Sundays and open only half days on Wednesdays).

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At Catania the main markets are in Piazza Carlo Alberto near Via Umberto and Corso Sicilia which is easily reached from Via Pacini off Via Etnea near the Villa Bellini park.
The Pescheria (fish markets) filled with the city’s most sought after seafood is located off Piazza Duomo near the cathedral and fountain dell’Amenano, between Via Garibaldi and Via Pacini, extending along Via Gemelli Zappalà and some of the nearby streets. Catania’s markets are closed Sundays and afternoons.

Sadly the markets around me seem to be fading into insignificance, so when you visit Sicily be sure to visit a major city’s food market as it is a precious piece of Sicilian history.

To discover the best local daily markets in Sicily simply ask around, once you arrive in Sicily the best information will be found through local knowledge. If you want a general idea about the different smaller markets to visit see the Italian Ambulente web page, which is a site set up by market stall owners to let tourists know about market days. The page is in Italian but it is easy to do a search of particular towns throughout Italy to see when the markets are usually on in most local squares.

Vedi qua il post anche in Italiano: Per l’amore dei mercati Siciliani

Here’s my personal list of Sicilian Food markets not to miss.

Sicily'a markets

 

Leonforte at the beating heart of Sicily

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Goethe once said to have seen Italy without having seen Sicily is not to have seen Italy at all, for Sicily is the clue to everything. But in order to understand Sicily you need to go to its geographical centre because the key to the island’s identity is there. The province of Enna is known as the belly button of Sicily and is the home of the island’s most ancient traditions.

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The town of Leonforte casually rests upon the Erei mountains of central Sicily, only about thirteen miles from the main provincial capital of Enna. Today it is a beautiful municipality surrounded by a scenic countryside. It’s an idealistic tranquil place like many other communities all around the island where everyday life rambles on without much fuss or bother and the locals tend to forget about the outside world, happily going through the rituals of daily life in Sicily.

The provinces of Enna and Caltanissetta have always been a source of great strategical importance in the island’s history and have been the backdrop to many battles and skirmishes throughout history. Together with its immense agricultural wealth and fertility, the heart of the island has always been more savage or untamed, its landscape isolates it from the coast, yet it has always been inhabited from prehistoric times.

Before the founding of modern Leonforte the area was home to the ancient city of Tabas or Tavaca which became an important base during the Muslim conquest of the island from 827 to 902 A.D. The Arab invaders from North Africa saw the island as an earthly paradise. The central province of Enna became a Muslim stronghold for generations together with many other major Sicilian cities such as Palermo and Syracuse.

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Sicily was essentially an Arab Emirate from 831 to 1091 A.D after an extended struggle with the late Roman Byzantine Empire lasting nearly four hundred years. In an extraordinary piece of Sicilian history, for two hundred years the island became a multicultural society which blended together both Arab and Byzantine elements of life.

The new Arab rulers initiated land reforms increasing productivity and encouraging the growth of small estates, by introducing elaborate irrigation systems which tapped into the island’s abundant underground water supply, bringing water to areas which once suffered from drought. The introduction of crops like oranges, lemons, pistachio and sugarcane by North African Muslims also improved Sicily’s agriculture and added new elements to Sicilian cuisine. 

The local population conquered by the Muslims were Romanized Catholic Sicilians in Western Sicily and Greek-speaking Christians in the eastern half of the island. Christianity and Judaism were tolerated under Muslim rule but were subject to some restrictions as to where they could practice their rites and were obliged to pay religious based taxes.

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The gradual breakdown of Muslim rule in Sicily began in the 11th and 12th centuries as a series of Norman Kings began to push the Arabs out of Sicily. The Norman period, however, continued to be multi-ethnic in nature. Normans, Jews, Muslim Arabs, Byzantine Greeks, Lombards and native Sicilians lived in relative harmony. 

Arabic was the official language of government and administration for at least a century into Norman rule and traces remain in contemporary Sicilian and Maltese. Under the guidance of the royal court of Frederick the second of Sicily Italy’s first school of poetics was born, anticipating the Tuscan Renaissance. Muslims also maintained their domination of industry, retailing and production, while Muslim artisans with expert knowledge in government and administration were highly sought after.

After many centuries under the influence of Middle Eastern and North African culture and religion, Sicily began another epic transformation under a succession of staunchly Catholic French Norman Kings who all struggled with endless battles throughout the island to push out other foreign dominations. At Leonforte one ancient folktale recounts how the local river was tainted blood red during brutal wars between the Saracens and Normans to control the heartlands of Sicily.

In the succession of thirteen different invaders of Sicily’s history the Normans were surpassed by the German Hohenstaufen’s, then the French house of Anjou and eventually the Aragonese House of Barcelona who gradually transformed Sicily’s culture over the course of two centuries. The Roman Catholic Church gradually became a part of the culture and forced Sicilian Muslims to be expelled from the island.

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The town of Leonforte was later founded by the Branciforti, a legendary Sicilian noble family, whose founding father, Obizzo gained his knightly title and name after heroically holding up the flag of the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne in the battle to expel the German Lombards from Italy.

The first member of this Sicilian aristocratic family is credited as literally holding up the royal flag despite losing both of his hands in a grotesque mutilation. This heroic action earned himself and his family the name of Branciforte, in honour of his strong arms who helped to hold up the cause of  Charles the Great’s campaign to unite Europe after the fall of the Western Roman Empire.

Leonforte together with Scordia in Catania province and Niscemi at Caltanissetta were all founded around the same time in the 1600’s as part of a project to colonise central Sicily with a conscious focus on town development, infrastructure and agriculture.

Building upon what had been left behind from past foreign inhabitants the Branciforte positioned Leonforte on the same strategic position on the internal Altesina mountains as the Arabs had used to divide the island into its three historical valleys which are still used to define the geography of the island today. From the Val Demone in the east at Catania, to the Val di Mazzara of Ragusa and Syracuse in the south and the Val di Noto in the west from Trapani to Palermo.

Prince Nicolò Placido Branciforti literally built the town from the ground up, his family gradually constructing a castle, a parish church, convent, gardens and several water fountains. Leonforte developed under the flag of the Braciforte with its regal crowned lion, holding onto the royal French Lily adorned flag, complete with two severed front paws in the foreground as a testament to the family’s heroic founder.

The town’s name reflects its connection to the Sicilian nobility and its iconic coat of arms. Leonforte flourished and developed under the rule of the Braciforte and today it is well known for its agriculture from its mouth-watering peaches, fava beans, olive oil, citrus, terracotta products and cheeses.

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Of all of the historical treasures of Leonforte, the one which the locals are most proud of is their baroque Granfonte water fountain, which is at the centre of their civic and cultural history. Built on the ruins of an earlier Arab fountain known as the Fonte di Tavi, it is connected to a complex irrigation system of pipes, mills and smaller fountains which go down into the valley and was once used for the irrigation of the surrounding countryside and a now lost botanical garden.

The fountain built in 1652 was designed by prominent Palermo architect and painter Marino Smiriglio, whose works are dotted around the island and include Palermo’s central Quattro Canti at the intersection which connects the four main neighbourhoods of the Sicilian capital.

The Granfonte or 24 Cannola as it is known locally is a grandiose succession of twenty-two archways and twenty-four bronze spouts which gush out water into a series of sandstone basins once used as a public wash house, fountain and marketplace in a main square of the town. The archways are elaborate frames filled with ornamentation and inscriptions, spiral shaped stones and two lion carvings on either side which quote the coat of arms of the ever-present Braciforte.

A little over 74 feet long and 8 deep the Granfonte is imposing and faces out to the original entrance of the old town at the Palermo gates, which lead to the original trade route towards the Sicilian capital. This theatrical backdrop of water quotes influences from the historical papal gardens of Tivoli outside of Rome to the Flemish fountains of Amsterdam and is literally at the heart of the city’s civic and religious history.

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Public fountains in Sicily were used up until the early 1900’s and were an important focal point of everyday lives. Daily trips to gather water, wash clothes and take animals to drink were occasions for socialising, gossiping, visiting the markets and as a meeting place in general. Today the Granfonte at Leonforte no longer hosts the markets but it has become the stage for a much more elaborate religious performance during Holy Week at Easter.

Good Friday at the Granfonte water fountain of Leonforte becomes the focal point of a suggestive funeral procession which commemorates the death of Jesus Christ.  An elaborate march weaves its way through all the streets of the town on the afternoon of Venerdì Santo. The crucifix stops in front of each church it meets arriving at the Chiesa della Madonna near the Granfonte where the ancient life-sized wooden statue of Christ is taken down off the cross and placed in a decorative glass coffin, in a performance played out by the local priest.

Accompanied by a large bonfire lit in the piazza, the fountains waters are silenced as a sign of mourning and respect for the solemn funeral rite. At dawn the cortege is accompanied by a brass marching band playing a funeral march as Christ’s coffin is carried on the shoulders of the hooded and tunic wearing members of the brothers of the Confraternity of the Santissimo Sacramento, followed by the statue of the Madonna Addolorata as a symbol of the grieving mother of Christ.

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The parade makes its way up through the ancient stairways of Leonforte ascending up to the highest point of the town at the Church of Santa Croce, symbolic of the hill where the martyrdom of Christ took place. The band stops playing and in the silence, the mourners begin to recite a poetic lament in the form of an ancient folk song which mixes elements of prayer with the local dialect.

The Lamento is hypnotic, exotic, evocative of a middle eastern call to prayer and is an integral part of the ritual of the Passion at Leonforte. Once performed by the elders of the community today it is the young who uphold this tradition of song handed down from father to son, in a prayer recited in the local dialect which seeks to console the Virgin Mary in her hour of loss.

With the resurrection of Christ on Easter Sunday, the people of Leonforte gather in the square of the convent of Capuchin friars to celebrate. All of the statues who participated in the many processions during holy week, are a part of the meeting of Christ with the Madonna. The Granfonte’s waters are reopened restoring their healing qualities and the baptismal promise of new life.

Per la versione in Italiano clicca qui: Leonforte il cuore della Sicilia

Leonforte il cuore della Sicilia

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La città di Leonforte si trova su i monti Erei della Sicilia centrale, solo 13 miglia dalla provincia di Enna. Oggi è una città bellissima circondata da una scenica campagna.

È un posto idealistico e tranquillo come molte altre comunità dell’ isola, dove, la vita quotidiana senza confusione o disturbo e gli abitanti tendono a dimenticarsi del resto del mondo, vivendo serenamente i riti della vita di ogni giorno in Sicilia.

Le provincie di Enna e Caltanissetta sono sempre state luoghi di grande importanza strategica nella storia dell’isola, e, sono state campo di molte battaglie e “scaramuccie”. Insieme alla sua immenza ricchezza agricola ed alla sua fertilità, il cuore dell’isola è sempre stato più selvaggio ed incontaminato, il suo territorio lo isola dalla costa, tuttavia è sempre stato abitato sin dai tempi preistorici.

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Prima della fondazione della moderna Leonforte, l’area era la casa dell’antica città di Tabas o Taraca, un’ importante base durante la conquista Mussulmana dell’isola, dal 827 a 902 A.D. Gli invasori Arabi dal Nord Africa vedevano l’isola come un paradiso terrestre. La provincia centrale di Enna fu una roccaforte Mussulmana per generazioni, insieme a molte altre città principali, come Palermo e Siracusa.

La Sicilia fu essenzialmente un Emirato Arabo dall’ 831 all’ 1091 A.D. , dopo una lunga lotta con il lontano Impero Romano Bizantino, durata quasi 400 anni. Quindi per gran parte della sua storia l’isola divenne una società multiculturale, che mischiava insieme sia elementi della vita Araba che Bizantina.

I nuovi dominatori Arabi iniziarano a rivoluzionare l’agricoltura: incrementando la prodottività e incoroggiando la crescita di piccoli poderi; introducendo elaborati sistemi di irrigazione che sfruttavano la abbondanti acque presenti; portando l’acqua alle area che una volta soffrivano la siccità.

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L’introduzione di piante come arance, limoni, pistacchi e canna da zucchero da parte dei Mussumani Nord Africani migliorarono l’agricoltura dell’isola e diedero nuovi elementi alla cucina Siciliana. La popolazione locale conquistata dai Mussulmani era Cattolico Romana nella Sicilia Occidentale e Greco Cristiano nella metà orientale. Cristianità e Giudeismo erano tollerati sotto il dominio Mussulmano, ma erano soggette ad alcune restrizioni, come i luoghi in cui potevano praticare i loro riti e l’obbligo di pagare tasse religiose.

Il graduale declino del dominio Mussulmano in Sicilia inizia nell’ 11° e 12° secolo, quando il Regno Normanno inizia a spigere gli Arabi fuori dall’isola. Il periodo Normanno comunque continuò ad essere di natura multi-etnica. Normanni, Ebrei, Arabi Mussulmani, Greci, Bizantini, Lombardi e Siciliani vivevano in una relativa armonia.

L’Arabo fu la lingua ufficiale del governo e dell’amministrazione per circa un secolo durante il dominio Normanno e ne troviamo tracce anche oggi nelle lingue Siciliane e Maltese. Sotto la guida della corte di Federico II di Sicilia nacque la prima scuola poetica d’Italia, anticipando il Rinascemento Toscano. I Mussulmani mantennero inoltre il controllo dell’industria, del commercio e della produzione, mentre gli artigiani Mussulmani per la loro grande conoscenza erano altamente ricercarti.

Dopo molti secoli sotto l‘influenza della cultura e delle religioni di Medio Oriente e Nord Africana, la Sicilia inziò un’ altra epica trasformazione sotto una successione di Re Franco Normanni, fortemente cattolici, impegnati a combattere battaglie senza fine nell’isola per cacciare le altre dominizioni straniere. A Leonforte antichi racconti, parlano di come il fiume locale fosse diventato rosso come il sangue durante le brutali guerre fra Saraceni e Normanni.

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Nella successione di 13 differenti invasori della storia della Sicilia i Normanni furono sovrastati dai Tedeschi Hohenstaufen, poi dal casato Francese degli Anjou e in seguito dalla casa Aragonese di Barcellona che trasformò gradualmente la cultura della Sicilia nel corso di due secoli. La Chiesa Cattolica Romana lentamente divenne parte della cultura e costrinse i musulmani Siciliani ad andarsene dall’isola.

La città di Leonforte fu fondata dai Branciforte, una leggendaria famiglia nobile Siciliana, il cui padre fondatore Obizzo ottenne il suo titolo cavalleresco eroicamente, sostenendo la bandiera del Sacro Romano Impero di Carlo Magno nella battaglia per scacciare i tedeschi lombardi dall’ Italia.
Il primo membro di questo famiglia aristocratica Siciliana viene ricordato per aver letteralmente tenuto la bandiera reale nonostante avesse perso entrambe le mani in una grottesca mutilazione. Questa azione eroica fece guadagnare a lui ed alla sua famiglia il nome di Bracciaforte, in onore delle sue forti braccia che aiutarono a sostenere la causa di Carlo Magno per riunire l’europa dopo la caduta dell’ impero romano d’occidente.

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Leonforte insieme a Scordia nella provincia di Catania e Niscemi a Caltanissetta furono tutte fondate nello stesso periodo, nel 1600 come parte di un progetto di colonizzazione della Sicilia centrale, con l’intento di focalizzarsi sullo sviluppo delle città, delle infrastrutture e dell’agricoltura.

Costruendo su ciò che era stato lasciato dietro dai passati abitanti stranieri, i Branciforte situarono Leonforte in una posizione strategica, sul monte Altesina, seguendo la divisione territoriale dell’isola fatta dagli Arabi, che prevedeva l’individuazione di tre valli, che sono usate ancora oggi per definire la geografia della Sicilia; dal Val Demone ad est di Catania, al Val di Mazzara di Ragusa e Siracusa nel sud e la Val di Noto ad est da Trapani a Palermo.

Il Principe Nicolò Placido Branciforte costruì il suo feudo letteramente dal nulla, la sua famiglia gradualmente costruì un castello, una chiesa madre, un convento, i giardini e una serie di fontane. Leonforte si sviluppo’ sotto la bandiera dei Branciforte con il suo regale leone incoronato, che sostiene la bandiera che raffigura il giglio francese, completata da due zampe mozzate in sottofondo come testimonianza dell’ eroico fondatore della famiglia.

Branciforte

Il nome della città riflette la sua connessione con la nobilità Siciliana e il suo iconico stemma. Leonforte fioriva e si sviluppava sotto il dominio dei Branciforte ed oggi è ben conosciuta per la sua agricoltura, per le succose pesche, le fave, l’olio di oliva, gli agrumi, i prodotti di terracotta ed i formaggi.

Di tutti gli storici tesori di Leonforte, l’unico di cui gli abitanti sono più orgogliosi è la loro fontana in stile barocco, la Granfonte, che è al centro della loro storia civile e culturale. Costruita sulle rovine dell’ antica fontana Araba conosciuta come fonte di Tavi, è collegata ad un complesso sistema d’irrigazione a tubi, mulini e piccole fontane che vanno giù nella valle, ed un tempo erano usate per l’irrigazione della campagne circostanti e di un giardino botanico ormai sparito.

La fontana, costruita nel 1652, fu disegnata dall’ importante architetto e pittore Palermitano Marino Smiraglio, i cui lavori sono presenti in tutta l’isola, compresi i Quattro Canti di Palermo all’intersezione che collega i quattro prinipali quartieri del capoluogo Siciliano.

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Granfonte o 24 cannola come è conosciuta localmente, è una grandiosa successione di 22 archi e 24 bocche in bronzo dalle quali sgorga l’acqua in una serie di bacini in pietra, una volta usati come lavanderie publiche, fontana e mercato nelle piazza principale della città. Gli archi sono elaborate cornici arrichite con ornamenti e iscrizioni, pietre a forma di spirale e due leoni incisi su ogni parte che ricordano la stemma dei sempre presenti Branciforte.

Lunga un pò meno di 74 piedi e 8 profonda, Granfonte è impressionante ed è di fronte all’entrata originale della vecchia città alle porte di Palermo, che conduce all’antica rotta commerciale verso il capoluogo Siciliano. Questo teatrale sfondo di fontane vede l’influenza degli storici giardini papali di Tivoli fuori Roma, delle fontane Fiamminghe di Amsterdam ed è letterlamente il cuore della storia civile e religiosa della città.

Le fontane pubbliche in Sicilia vennero usate fino i primi del 1900 e furono un’ importante punto focale della vita quotidiana. I viaggi giornalieri per prendere l’acqua, lavare i vestiti e abbeverare gli animali erano occasioni per socializzare, spettegolare, visitare i mercati ed un posto d’incontro in generale. Oggi la Granfonte a Leonforte non ospita più i mercati ma e’ diventato luogo di più elaborate celebrazioni religiose durante la settimana santa di Pasqua.

Via Crucis

Venerdì Santo la fontana Granfonte di Leonforte diventa il punto focale di una suggestiva processione funebre che commemora la morte si Gesù Cristo. Un’elaborata marcia intreccia la sua strada attraverso le vie della città nel pomeriggio di Venerdì Santo. Il crocifisso si ferma di fronte ad ogni chiesa fino la chiesa della Madonna vicino la Granfonte, dove l’antica statua in legno a grandezza umana viene scesa dalla croce e situata in una decorativa bara in vetro, in una rappresentazione messa in scena dal prete.

Accompagnata da un grande falò nella piazza, le fontane sono spente come segno di lutto e rispetto per il solenne rito funebre. All’alba, il corteo è accompagnato da una banda di ottoni che suona una marcia funebre e la bara di Cristo è portata a spalla dai membri della confraternita del Santissimo Sacramento incappucciati e vestiti con tuniche, seguita dalla statua della Madonna Addolorata come simbolo del lutto della madre di Cristo.

La parata si fa strada attraverso le antiche scalinate di Leonforte salendo fino il punto più alto della città la Chiesa della Santa Croce, che simboleggia il colle dove il matirio di Cristo ebbe luogo. La banda smette di suonare e nel silenzio chi è in lutto inizia a recitare un lamento poetico sotto forma di un’antica canzone, che mischia elementi di preghiera con il dialetto locale.

Il lamento è ipnotico, esotico, evocativo delle musiche medio orientali, ed è parte integrale del rituale della passione a Leonforte. Una volta veniva messa in scena dagli anziani della communità, oggi invece sono i giovani a mantenere questa tradizione, tramandata di padre in figlio, una preghiera recitata in dialetto che cerca di consolare la vergine Maria nella sua ora di dolore.

Con la resurrezione di Cristo la Domenica di Pasqua, le persone di Leonforte si raccolgono nella piazza del convento dei Frati Cappuccini per festeggiare. Tutte le statue che partecipano alle molte processioni durante la Settimana Santa, prendono parte all’incontro di Cristo con la Madonna. Le acque di Granfonte sono riaperte restituendo le loro qualità guaritrici e la promessa battesimale di nuova vita.

For the english translation of this article click here:

Leonforte at the beating heart of Sicily

 

This is Sinagra

this-is-sinagra-blog

I often get asked about whereabouts I am in Sicily, I generally say I’m in the province of Messina as most small towns are rather insignificant, in the sense that they tend to be generic, small and therefore not many people know their exact location unless they are famous for some reason or another.

My tiny Sicilian village has been my quiet refuge over the years, a place where I can choose to disappear if I wish, my base to explore Sicily and the place where I choose to write. Sicily is conducive to reflection and creativity, the slower paced life here is perfect for writers and the island has created many well-known creatives. The only danger is you actually are tempted to forget the outside world, the island is quite isolated and if you become attuned to its rhythm the external world can easily not exist, in a metaphorical sense of course.

Here below are a selection of photo’s I’ve taken around Sinagra deep in Messina Province to illustrate how beautiful this part of the world can be.

Each town has a similar topography most Sicilian towns are made up of a town hall, a series of churches (for example the town of San Marco d’Alunzio has more than 100!), historical palaces, castles, the main square and a suggestive historical centre where all the older buildings are located.

Not to say each town will all be the same, but if you stick to these standard historical elements you will be sure to witness the best a town has to offer.

Together with local flare, cuisine, festa celebrations and sagre your trip to Sicily will be a rich experience.

Let me show you the town where I live.

This is Sinagra, Messina.

Parish Church

Chiesa Madre

 

Chiesa Madrice

 

Gangini Trittico

San Rocco

San Giovanni

 

Castles and Palaces

 

Castello

 

Palazzo Ioppolo

 

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Walking along the side streets

 

Small town Sicily

 

Sinagra from Castello

 

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The view

 

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Feste, sagre and market time

 

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Main square

 

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I am experimenting with video, so here is a bonus short portrait of Sinagra I recently finished. It’s a little shaky at times but I think it gives you a greater sense of the character of Sinagra. I hope to invest in better camera equipment and explore Sicily through a vlog sometime soon.

I’ve had many people encouraging me to post video’s about Sicily as relatives of Sicilian migrants love their heritage. So this is dedicated to all Sicilian’s around the world and Italophiles who can never forget this beloved island.

 

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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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