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.

Out of Sicily for now …

Little river winery

This month I’ve been travelling home to Australia to visit family and friends. It’s been a strange visit, somewhat rushed, bittersweet and filled with a terrible sense of reverse culture shock. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so tired or disoriented than after going from a deep Sicilian winter into the middle of a warm Western Australian summer. My head is swimming with confusion and recalling many little details I’d forgotten.

I always get this strange sense of deja vu in the first few days off the plane driving around the same old streets from my childhood. I’m sad to see many old landmarks disappear, and sometimes I struggle to recognise my old friend, Oz.

This strange sense of foreignness usually doesn’t last long as I get back into a routine, but this time I haven’t been able to shake it.

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I’m gradually recalling what I loved about home, its landscapes, colours, the laid back and warm nature of the people and the incredible amount of space there is to create your own path. For the first time, I’ve realised how European I’ve become: small things make me cringe, I am a snob about my food, I’m riddled with culture shock, and for the first time I feel like a foreigner.

But I am determined to pick up my friendship with Australia where it left off, as true friendships never die, they merely need to be revived every once in a while.

Every day here I am happily breathing in the fragrances of the summer, getting a bit of a tan and merely soaking up everything around me, gathering and making new memories.

Boat reflections

This year I have had the privilege of visiting the coastal city of Geraldton North of Perth. Thanks to my sister in laws beautiful family who lives in this charming Midwestern regional city I have been able to experience this place with many insights from the locals who adore their town.

Located 424 kilometres away from the capital, which is easily reached by plane in a fifty-five-minute plane journey Geraldton has a population of 37,432 people. It has a beautiful location right by the ocean and is a quirky mix of farmers, fishermen, families, miners, surfers and laid back trendy alternative vibe.

Port at Geraldton

The port of Geraldton is a significant link in the west coast in the major industries of the region like mining, fishing, wheat, sheep and tourism.

Since 1840 ships have been tugged in and out of the port twenty-four seven and the crystal clear waters are mesmerising.

The Batavia coast marina has been developed into a beautiful succession of jetty’s, fisherman wharves, yacht clubs, high rise apartments, beaches, a museum, restaurants and many other fascinating points of interest to explore.

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The Geraldton Foreshore is the centre of Geraldton’s social and family life. Zigzagged with cycle and walking paths it is where locals do their early morning workout, there are many playgrounds, picnic areas, beaches, cafe’s, fish and chips places and even a free water park.

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One of the distinctly colourful local food places has to be The Jaffel Shack. Anyone having an early morning swim will find delicious coffee and full breakfasts in the little surfing themed hut which spills out on the foreshore. It’s the perfect place for a snack or a milkshake after you go to the beach. (Jaffles are crusty toasted sandwiches, a word I either had forgotten entirely or perhaps never even knew.)

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Shopping at Geraldton is terrific fun, there are many surf stores and trendy boutiques to explore especially along Marine Terrace. Even if you don’t buy anything a walk around the streets of the town will be filled with street art, cafe’s and newly renovated pubs and eateries to explore.

Gero winds

The only downer to visiting Geraldton in the summer is the terribly hot and robust desert winds which literally howl through the town in the afternoons. It is much better to visit in the mild winters as you won’t be battered by the wind, or risk to be blown to one side like many of the local trees along the roadsides.

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The streets of Geraldton are broad, comfortable and welcoming, just like the locals. The golden sunsets are always spectacular, and the light makes it perfect for landscape photography. The place has a beautiful colonial country feel, like stepping back into time. Every photo I take has the feeling of an old black and white or sepia picture filled with character and tales to tell.

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The memorial of the World War two cruiser HMAS Sydney is located above Geraldton on Mount Scott. The beautifully sombre memorial recognises the loss of 645 lives in what still remains Australia’s most devastating naval loss after being sunk together with and by a German ship off Shark Bay in November 1941.

The Memorial is made up of steel based on the ships original prow, a granite wall listing the names of the ship’s crew, a bronze statue of a woman looking out to sea and I dome made up of 645 seagulls dedicated to the souls of the people who died at sea.

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When I visited the monument, there were many people who were making the most of the scenic view from above Geraldton. A handsome couple of Indian newlyweds were having their wedding photos taken in the beautiful light, their celebration gave the monument a sense of elegance, respect and honour. What a special place to have your photograph taken.

Country road

Taking a drive out of Geraldton towards Point Gregory to see a magical pink coloured lake I was reminded of the golden expansive Australian landscape which is barren and dry in the summer yet beautiful. It reminded me of the expansive golden interior of Sicily, near Enna which is like a twany coloured quilt cover with its flowing hills and harsh sunshine.

Looking out from the airconditioned car along the drive to Point Gregory I recalled an old poem by Australian writer Dorothy Mackellar titled My country:

I love a sunburnt country,
A land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges,
Of droughts and flooding rains.
I love her far horizons,
I love her jewel-sea,
Her beauty and her terror
The wide brown land for me!

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Port Gregory lies near the mouth of the Hutt River on Western Australia’s Coral Coast and is home of the Pink Lake called Hutt Lagoon. This picturesque fishing village is encircled by five kilometres of exposed coral reef. Originally developed to serve the Geraldine Lead mine, the town is now a holiday hotspot for fishing and diving.

Hutt Lagoon boasts a pink hue created by the presence of carotenoid-producing algae Dunaliella salina, a source of ß-carotene, a food-colouring agent and source of vitamin A.

The lagoon is about 70 square kilometres with most of it lying a few metres below sea level. It is separated from the Indian Ocean by a beach barrier ridge and barrier dune system. Similar to Lake MacLeod, 40 kilometres to the north of Carnarvon, Hutt Lagoon is fed by marine waters through springs.

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The intensity of the lake’s colour changes right before your eyes at times it doesn’t seem pink at all then as the desert wind begins to blow and the heat begins to burn your face the lake appears to heat up and blushes in light pink. As we stood on the banks, the lake put on a lovely show for use, blooming into a gorgeous deep fuschia colour.

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Driving out onto the salt flats, the pink salt surface looks like ice, crunching under your feet and caking your shoes in light salt. It is another worldly landscape, and it takes me back to Sicily once again. For a moment I find myself near Marsala on western Sicily at the salt mines. The same hot desert air whips up the salt only here at Port Gregory no colourful windmills are helping to churn out the stockpiles of natural sea salt.

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Overlooking the Indian Ocean, the Museum of Geraldton celebrates the rich heritage of the land, sea and people of the Mid West region.

The beautiful new Maritime history museum allows you to discover ancient landforms, Yamaji history and culture, and the region’s unique natural landscapes and marine environment.

The archaeological riches included in the museum’s exhibitions include details from four different Dutch shipwrecks off Geraldton’s coast (Batavia, Gilt Dragon, Zuytdorp and Zeewijk). The whole coastline along from Geraldton is littered with wrecks from the 17th and 18th centuries as the Dutch traders would travel to and from Amsterdam into modern India and Java.

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The story of the Batavia is probably the most fascinating of all of the wrecks, coming aground near the Abrolhos fishing islands off Geraldton the fate of the Batavia was marred by a bloody mutiny and has inspired many historians and authors with its mystery and horror.

Cathedral Gero

The St Francis Xavier Cathedral was designed by World renowned Arts & Crafts architect and Catholic priest Monsignor John Hawes (1876 – 1956). Construction began in 1916 and was completed in 1938. The external of the cathedral is made in a golden coloured limestone, with a distinct mixture of Australian colonial and nineteenth-century European architecture. It resembles the Spanish style of New Norcia in the south west of Western Australia.

Gero markets

The Platform markets on Chapman road every Sunday are on the site of the original central railway station at Geraldton. They are an excellent way of exploring the local produce and the vibe of the local people. A mixture of colour, perfumes, food and creativity a visit will give you a perfect impression of the real character of the city. It was also the place I choose to end my trip to Geraldton, casually browsing and chatting with the locals before hopping on a plane back to Perth.

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.

The Normans in Messina

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The Chiesa di San Tommaso Apostolo il Vecchio is a precious artefact of the Norman period of Sicily. It dates back between 1061 and 1109 under the reign of Count Roger the first, a French Catholic ruler whose crusading knights left for the Middle East from the port of Messina.

For many years it was known as the church of the Concezione delle Vergini Riparate until it was given the name of San Tommaso Apostolo from 1530.

It is a fantastic example of Norman Arab architecture, which borrowed the dome structure of the Mosque and placed within the very stoic, classic lines of the Norman style.

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Walking past the tiny church right in the centre of Messina fills the imagination with images from of Sicilian history, you can almost see the crusaders ending their prayers and galloping onwards to the port and then the holy land.

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Sicilian churches and cathedrals simply take my breathe away, the mixture of extravagant styles from baroque, Norman, Gothic, Romanesque, Catalanian and many more. Together with the tremendous artistry of marble work, sculptures, woodwork and small details unique to this part of the world which easily mixes so many cultures in its complex history.

The Church of the Santissima Annunziata dei Catalani in Messina a most unexpected church to visit. It is literally only a short walk away from the Cathedral at Messina and is easily missed as its entrance is located under street level hidden down a flight of stairs it is often closed but if you are lucky to sneak inside you will see one of the best examples of Norman architecture on Sicily.

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The church dates from the 12th century, built on top of the ruins of an older temple dedicated to Neptune, the church is a beautiful mix of different cultural elements. The church displays influences from Arab and Byzantine architecture and also contains Roman elements.

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The central apse is well-preserved with small intricate bricks which form an archway around a beautiful dark-skinned Christ on a crucifix at its centre. The church is popularly used for local weddings, and if you are lucky to see it decorated for such an event, it is truly spectacular.

The name of the church comes from merchants from Catalonia who established a presence in Messina in the 16th century.

A newly restored treasure of Sicilian Art Nouveau

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The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele III at Messina was built from 1924 to 1929 by architect Camillo Puglisi Allegra who was inspired by the ornate seventeenth-century Sicilian baroque style which dominates the island, particularly in the Val di Noto area of South Eastern Sicily.

The beautiful Galleria has recently been reopened after many decades of abandonment, and in the evening it becomes a swirling buzz of cafes, bars, pizzerias, restaurants and fast food joints.

But visiting it in the early morning sunlight you really get a sense of the scale, colours and almost religious understanding of this elegant Liberty style structure, so characteristic of the eclectic post-1908 style of Messina.

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The Galleria is located on via Cavour and is part of a small cluster of important public buildings who circle the Piazza Antonello square at the entrance to the Galleria.

The circle around the piazza includes the main Post Office of Messina which was designed by architect Vittorio Mariani, il Palazzo della Provincia (or provincial government) built by Alessandro Giunta and the very grand Palazzo del Municipio (town hall of Messina) which is a work of the celebrated architect Antonio Zanca.

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In the morning the Galleria is like a stain-glass filled church, the sunshine streams in and there is a peaceful silence which allows you to take in the scope of the place and all of the decorative details.

The balconies which look out from the first floor onto the mosaic details on the expansive floor, the marble details, archways and domed ceilings are simply elegant. The balance of the simple classical elements gives the Galleria a real sense of style without being ostentatious.

It is light filled, breezy, with a wonderful well rounded sounding acoustics which I think would be perfect for chamber music, opera, choral music and other such refined performances which often find it difficult to find a performance space outside of the theatre.

And who would not pay good money to stay in an apartment or B&B directly over such a picturesque place?

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The Galleria seems to be empty, making it a home for Messina’s Burger King is a waste. The large elegant space has the potential to a focus of ongoing events and vibrant economic activities. If marketing is done the right way this venue could be the focal point of cafes, markets, local brands, offices and many other sources of entertainment.

Rather than lying half asleep in the late morning it should be bustling with people. The Galleria deserves to be filled with families, locals and tourists visiting and marvelling over this beautiful attraction, similar to other Galleria’s at Naples and Milan.

Teatro Vittorio Emanuele II


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Messina’s Teatro Vittorio Emanuele II was built in 1852 by Ferdinand II of the Two Sicilies.

The building is in the Neoclassical style and was designed by Neapolitan architect Pietro Valente. Previously known as the Teatro Sant’ Elisabetta its name was changed after the Expedition of the Thousand (Italian Spedizione dei Mille) which was a part of the Italian Risorgimento that took place in 1860.

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Spanish Bourbon King Ferdinand II

A corps of volunteers led by Giuseppe Garibaldi sailed from Quarto, near Genoa (now Quarto dei Mille) and landed in Marsala, Sicily to conquer the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, ruled by the Spanish Bourbons in a bid to help unify the Italian peninsula into modern Italy we know today.

The three archways at its portico entrance are elegant in the early morning sunshine and are embellished by marble architecture created by Messina’s sculpture Saro Zagari.

Walking by the theatre in the early morning the building is covered in a beautiful golden glow, each elegant embellishment seems to catch your eye and it is always a focus of contemporary art and performance. It’s outer halls often are host to exhibitions from antique opera costumes to contemporary pop art there is always something to see.

 

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Intrigued by these two busts engraved into the front of the theatre I googled them immediately on my phone. Count Vittorio Alfieri (1749 – 1803) was an Italian dramatist and poet and considered the creator of the Italian tragedy.

While Giovanni Battista Niccolini (1782 – 1861) was a believer in the independence of Italy and his neoclassical drama showed his idealistic belief in liberal politics with a distinct romantic flare. So it is no surprise why these two playwrights are featured on the facade of the Teatro Vittorio Emanuele II at Messina. Both were symbols of the new Italian theatre when the building was first constructed.

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Inside the theatre, the ceiling was decorated by Sicily’s most well known contemporary artist Renato Guttuso and represents the legend of the half man half fish Colapesce who dived below the island to discover its mysteries.

The expansive painting is stark, modern and typically evocative as is usual in Guttuso’s style. The anorexic mermaids pose around observing the skeletal Cola Pesce who is diving naked down under the island of Sicily to discover the lava river flowing at its foundations. Noticing one of the four pillars holding up Sicily is about to give way he stays below, helping to hold up the island from the abyss below.

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In between Christmas and New Years of 1908 Teatro Vittorio Emanuele II was enjoying its winter Opera season as a thriving Sicilia Opera house.

On the 28th of December as the crowd of spectators had finished enjoying an excellent performance of Verdi’s Aida and the orchestra was packing up to go home in the early morning, the worst tragedy possible happened, wiping out the grand city in a dozen or so terrifying seconds of the earthquake and tidal wave.
The aftermath is the subject of hundreds of books, biographies and testimonies which tell the sad tale of too little help arriving too late, hundreds of orphans, looting and thievery of ruined houses, broken families, fortunes and hopes.  Millionaires became paupers, a thriving city reduced to rubble in seconds, the population became ghosts and the city a desolate wreck.

And many more stories still of heroic acts, of many locals who returned home to help their city to rebuild, the Italian Parliament who decided to fund the reconstruction of a town which no longer existed, the many generations of people who lived in temporary homes while the city was rebuilt and the many acts of kindness towards Messina from the Italian royal family to the entire world.

The Teatro Vittorio Emanuele II reopened its doors for performances once again in 1980.

 

The historical heart of Messina

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Piazza Duomo at the heart of Messina’s historic centre and is the focus of the city’s social and cultural life.

 

A few minutes walk from the port, train station, post office, university and shopping districts the piazza is wonderfully positioned.

 

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Lined with gracious palazzi, cute bars, restaurants and shady trees it is a beautiful spot to the side and soak up the sunshine, even in the middle of winter.

 

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Apart from the occasional busload of tourists or cruise liner passengers who stop to see the clockwork bell tower go through its midday chiming routine, the piazza is a tranquil place to visit.

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Right at its heart is the beautifully restored Cathedral and bell tower, which was nearly completely destroyed during the 1908 earthquake.

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Today it stands miraculously restored to its former greatness and is a must visit place filled with ornamentation marble sculptures and artful details. It is a beautiful church to wander through at any time of the year.

Downstairs there is a permanent exhibition of the Duomo’s treasures filled with golden ecclesiastical objects and beautiful donations given to the Madonna of Messina in thanks for the many miracles she has granted to the city.

The bell tower houses the largest and most complex piece of intricate clockwork in the world. Constructed in Strasberg, the sixty-meter tall campanile is made up of an impressive astronomical clock and a collection of gold-coated bronze statues which acts out seven different scenes symbolic of Messina’s history. (Clockwork Messina)

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The beautifully restored Cathedral at Messina is made even more spectacular simply because it was nearly completely destroyed during the 1908 earthquake. Today it stands miraculously restored to its former greatness and is a must-see place lovingly rebuilt by the locals. One could only imagine how beautiful the original church might have been.

 

Messina’s Madonna

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Messina has a special connection to its Parton the Virgin Mary. Not only does she welcome the ships into the port with her giant golden statue at the entrance of the naturally formed inlet. She has many churched dedicated to her, and her image is at the centre of the city’s immense faith and religious celebrations.

On the third of June, a procession is dedicated to the Sacred Hair of Mary, a single strand of hair which according to the myth was tied around the letter sent to the city. The scroll is part of a procession around the town for the Madonna della Lettera.

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For the mid-August holidays, a float is constructed in her honour at Messina. The Vara, an elaborate cart depicts the biblical structure of the universe from the earth up to the heavens completed with a hierarchy of angels ending with the image of Christ who supports his mother in the palm of his hand raising her into the sky as she ascends body and soul into heaven.

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The ornate structure is pulled along basic iron slides by the Messinese with long tow ropes while singing praises to Mary. The celebration has a long history and is central to the city’s expression of faith and trust in their patron.

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The Quattro Fontane (four fountains) once dominated the corners of the two main streets of the city in pre-1908 Messina between Via Austria (now via I Settembre) and Via Cardines. The decorative fountain heads were constructed between 1666 and 1742.

The immense structures were symbolic of the city’s beauty and aesthetics before the disaster hit. Palermo’s surviving Quattro Canti mimic the style and grandeur of what Messina’s four fountains may have been.

The first fountain was designed by Florentine architect I. Mangani while later in 1717 the second was made by a local sculpture Ignazio Buceta. While the final two were completed in 1742 by unknown artists.

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Damaged significantly in the 1908 earthquake the two remaining fountains have been reassembled in the surviving stretch of Via Cardines, while fragments of the other fountains in this series are preserved in the Regional Museum of Messina together with many artefacts left behind in the aftermath of the destruction of the city.
The details in the two reconstructed fountain heads recall the influence of the Tuscan and Roman style which was popular in the seventeenth century. The elaborate decorative heads and features remember elements of mythology and the artistry behind their designs is obvious.

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Even if only a little part of these fountains survived, it is certain they were terrific to witness when they first became a part of the city of Messina.

Walking around Messina

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I love walking around and exploring the streets of Messina.

This city is filled with many treasures, and its details tell many stories.
The beauty of the world is always found in small pieces of beauty.
Like in the moments we connect to those around us, a handshake, a smile, a quick greeting, the brush of a cheek, small discrete intimacies which create harmony.

 

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When I notice a pattern on a wall, a small flourish or funny shaped piece in the puzzle, there is a sensation of feeling connected to an essential human past as if feeling the warmth of another palm against my own opened hand.
Each precious little mosaic tile tells you about how it was all put together. A work of art is created one day at a time, one word after the other, one brush stroke at the moment, until one day you step back and see the bigger picture and see you have finished something bigger than yourself, a work which will speak to everyone.
I’d like to share the little details I discovered while exploring on an early morning walk around the city.

Please come with me to Messina.

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Messina is a living, breathing miracle. The city was decimated in one of the most powerful earthquakes ever recorded in European history.

On the early morning of the 28th of December in 1908, a massive earthquake and tsunami destroyed ninety per cent of the buildings of Messina and Reggio Calabria on the opposite side of the strait which separates Sicily from mainland Italy.

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In the second half of the 1800’s Messina was a thriving hub of economic and cultural activity. It was described as a beautiful city filled with a succession of beautiful palazzi, churches and a beautiful baroque fountain which provided fresh mountain spring water to its inhabitants directly in the centre of the town.

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Gradually over the decades the city has picked up the rubble and rebuilt itself, some reconstruction projects lasting up until the 1980’s while others continue until today.

Many well-known literati, musicians, businessman and barristers worked and lived in the city. The university hosted many famous intellectuals of the day as lecturers.

Even today the University of Messina fills the town with bookstores, trendy cafes, take away stores and restaurants frequented by young students giving Messina the vibrancy that only University towns can have.

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While Messina is usually a chaotic, buzzing metropolis for most of the year as it is the focus of essential offices for the provincial and national government, towards the end of August when most office workers are still on holiday the city is much calmer and more comfortable to explore.

This is when I usually like to go for a visit, explore the typically crowded streets, take the time to soak in the cosmopolitan atmosphere and so some street photography.

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At Messina the buildings are always as expressive as the people, they speak without words, their delicate details tell of their reconstruction, the care and love that was expressed by the locals to never let go of their city, bringing it back from an apocalyptical end.

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.

 

This is Sinagra

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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.

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San Rocco

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Castles and Palaces

 

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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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The Madonna of Tindari

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Sicilian poet and Nobel Prize winner Salvatore Quasimodo immortalised the ancient town of Tindari in his poem titled: The wind at Tindari, which sketches out the timeless nature of the religious sanctuary high in the mountains of the Tyrrhenian coast in the north-eastern province of Messina.

Quasimodo’s poem is as relevant today as it was in the nineteen twenties when it was first published. Today the Basilica of Tindari still tantalizingly rests between the mountain tops above the sea drawing people’s eyes to it from kilometers, its distinctive golden dome like an exotic mirage on the horizon.

At Tindari Quasimodo finds peace from many restless spirits, secrets and lost memories of the Sicily which he left behind, his reflections bringing him back to a place immersed in the tranquillity of the classical epoch. The treacherous precipices below the town are easier to negotiate today thanks to the modern road yet same eternal wind still blows through the gracious pine trees and characteristic weeping elms which line the streets by the ancient ruins.

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Ancient Tyndaris became a Greek colony in three hundred and ninety-six B.C but had been settled during the Bronze age in approximately fifteen hundred B.C. Its strategic location looking out onto the Bay of Patti stretching up to Cape Milazzo made it a perfect to maintain control of the waters between the Eolian Islands and Messina. It was an important centre during ancient Greek times, a fertile zone high along the mountains near the coastline. The town’s early industries included the production of fine wines, precious olive oil and ceramics which made it a focus of rich trade and commerce.

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Many traces of the complex past are preserved in the town for example while climbing along the road up to the settlement, the original ancient pilgrims trail accompanies you alongside the modern road which winds its way to the top of Capo Tindari passing along-side the city’s ancient walls, built during the reign of Dionysius from three hundred and sixteen to three hundred and fifty-four A.D. The road ascends gently up to the sanctuary and the main church which is an attraction for both pilgrims and tourists alike.

Hiking up from the main car park below the church the road rises, up to the peak of Tindari. During the summer the road is closed and electric busses zip up and down every fifteen minutes. The souvenir shops begin directly after the parking area and are filled with the usual kitsch mixture of postcards, commemorative plates, ceramics, religious icons, rosary beads, beach balls, plastic toys, volcanic rock from Etna, Sicilian horse and cart models, tambourines and endless other knick-knacks.

Roadside stalls continue to present themselves up into the aptly named Piazza Salvatore Quasimodo which is directly in front of the basilica, only to resume on the other side of the square along the road at the centre of Tindari which winds its way down to the ancient amphitheatre, archaeological site and museum.

The Basilica of the Madonna of Tindari is modern construction, work beginning on it began in the late nineteen fifties after the old church was unable to cope with the influx of pilgrims to the site. The main attraction is the miraculous statue of the Black Madonna. The sculpture itself is quite modest yet history has given it a mysterious past and has bestowed upon it many colourful legends.

Source: I stock by Getty Images
Source: I stock by Getty Images

According to the tradition it was brought to Tindari by a cargo ship which was returning from the middle east filled with precious merchandise and treasures. The statuette had been salvaged from the Iconoclastic wars which saw the destruction of many religious icons which were seen as a form of idol worship by the Byzantines of the late Roman empire. As the ship sailed through the Tyrrhenian sea its journey was interrupted by a powerful storm, which forced the ship to stop in the Marinello bay under modern Tindari.

After the storm passed by the crew found they couldn’t move out of the inlet. So they lightened their load discarding cargo on the beach, including the casket with the statue of the Madonna. It is said the dark skinned Madonna chose her own sanctuary as immediately after she was offloaded the ship was able to continue its journey.

The origin of the ship and its final destination are unknown but the casket was soon discovered by local fishermen, who were obviously surprised by the discovery of such a precious artwork and took it as a miracle. The sculpture was placed in the highest and most beautiful part of Tindari, where a small Christian community was already beginning to flourish. The original church is inside the modern basilica which has been built around it leaving the original site intact inside the new construction. Many locals choose to be married in the original sandstone church with its medieval mosaics and intimate ambience, it has become quite an exclusive church.

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Inside the external church of the Madonna everything is opulent, shiny and gaudy. In the usual Baroque nature of Sicilian churches, the parade of masterpieces begins with a spectacularly intricate stain glass windows which take up most of the side walls, the most detailed found in the entrance framed with elaborate marble floors and gold details which create an exorbitant sense of extravagance.

The spectacle continues inside the church with detailed mosaics which illustrate the stations of the cross. Each mosaic is an explosion of technicolour, everyone is a life-sized panel and allows you to virtually walk right into biblical times and into Jesus’s life. The amazing detail includes the clothes, everyday objects and the natural landscape which have been carefully designed and arranged by a skilled set designer.

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Reaching the front altar of the church, bronze angels hold up a golden pedestal at their apex, framed by a protective glass case, is the statue of the Madonna.  Everything surrounding the relic has been created to glorify the Virgin Mary yet the humbleness of Madonna’s image is quite subversive when compared to the rest of the Basilica’s intricacies.

The icon is small about fifty centimetres it is quite far away yet the exotic elements of its design are obvious. This Madonna and child are in the style of an African wood carving, yet the elegant detail of the Madonna’s face and the complex design of her clothing and fine crown suggests the hand of a more refined artist. Her clothes are a tangerine colour with golden trimmings and lashings of woven gold inlays to her headdress and cloak.

 The whole church draws you towards the sculpture which is the main focus for pilgrims and its ancient quality creates an undeniable mystique. She looks out from her glass case as if she has been there for an eternity, a timeless icon of faith, motherhood and goodness. She is a mixture of pagan Goddess, nature deity and early Byzantine religious icon. 

Details of the statues origins are a little sketchy at best but most experts agree there is a mixture of oriental, African and Byzantine influences in the original design. In nineteen ninety-five the statue was presented for restoration at Palermo and after an intensive seven month period of work, many new elements of her design were discovered.

Before the restoration the statue was covered in a white silk embroidered in gold and crowned in gold, adorned in coloured stones while holding a small world globe and a crucifix. In reality under the silk covering she held the child Jesus dressed in a tunic. This additional decoration is typical of the manipulation of religious icons throughout the ages according to popular customs.

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In the eighteenth century, for example, the Madonna is described as being dressed in red with a star-shaped halo, blue mantle and golden shoes. During the restoration, the right hand was found to be covered in various materials which were wrapped around the fingers, including pieces of wire, chalk and colours. These were part of an earlier intervention in the eighteenth century which altered the statue in order for it to hold an elaborate flower arrangement.

After the cleaning of the statue, the Madonna’s eyes were found to be opened and not closed, an effect caused by layers of many centuries of dust and smoke. The form of her eyes aren’t Byzantine or Latin American, they are middle eastern, Syrian or Palestinian. The facial design is Arabic and the signs on her face replicate the energy and lines used by Egyptian or Assyrian women.

There are many contrasting elements in the statue’s dress which suggest a variety of influences during its creation. The Madonna’s headdress is a testament to the pre-existing Hellenistic traditions of the Middle East area. On the upper part of her veil, there are traces of orange-red laces which were part of an original ornamental design largely erased by repainting in gold. The mantle around the Madonna isn’t Byzantine but rather is Latin in a deep pink colour, with decorations of golden patterns in the medieval style. The clothing of the child Jesus instead is moulded by the pure Byzantine style in a typical Greek tunic with red and pink hues.

 Apart from the mixture of European and Eastern designs, there is the wooden used for the statue itself, a dark Cypress, typically found in the South of France. The origins of the statue and the artist who created it fuse elements from both Eastern and Western traditions, influenced by the Constantinople school and the traditions of the Middle East.

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The Madonna of Tindari also represents the phenomenon of the cult of the dark-skinned Madonna which has been dispersed throughout the world in the Roman Catholic Church. This unique following of this type of Virgin Mary figure is in intriguing area of anthropological and theological research. 

Olive skinned Marian statues or paintings are of mainly Medieval origin from the twelfth to the fifteenth centuries. There are literally hundreds of examples of these dark-skinned Madonnas venerated throughout the world because of the miraculous nature of the image.

Examples include Our Lady of Altötting (Germany), Our lady of the Hermits (Switzerland), Our Lady of Guadalupe (Mexico), Our Lady of Jasna Gora (Poland), Our Lady of Montserrat (Spain) and of course Our Lady of Tindari (Sicily).

A notable study into the cult of the Black Madonna was made by Leonard Moss in nineteen fifty-two, in which one hundred samples of dark-skinned Madonna statues from around the world were classified into three broad categories.

The first included Madonna icons with physiognomy and skin pigmentation which match the indigenous population, as in the case of Our Lady of Guadalupe (Mexico).

Secondly there are artworks which have turned black through specific circumstances such as general deterioration over the ages, which is the case with Our Lady of the Hermits (Switzerland), while Our Lady of Altötting (Germany) was rescued from a burning church, leaving it smoke damaged.

Thirdly there is a residual category of Madonna statues which have no real explanation regarding their darkness, The Madonna of the Tindari falls into this final category.

One interesting theory suggests some Madonnas were blackened to illustrate a quote from the Song of Songs in the Bible, which became popular during the time of the religious Crusades. The same quote which is inscribed at the base of the Madonna at Tindari: Negra sum sed Formosa which translates to “I am black but beautiful.”  

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Comparative religionist Stephen Benko believes the ‘dark brown Madonna’ is the ancient earth goddess converted into a Christian context. Many goddesses from pagan religions were painted black to reflect a connection to the fertility of the soil, including Artemis of Ephesus, Isis, Ceres and others. The Roman goddess of agriculture and fertility and the Greek equivalent, Demeter derives from Ge-meter or earth mother was worshipped throughout Sicily and Tindari was the site of a former temple dedicated to the goddess Cybele.

Some earlier portraits and statues of the Madonna are said to have been created by Saint Luke the Evangelist, who lived as a contemporary to Jesus and his Mother. So these early depictions of Mary which accentuate her ethnic appearance are considered authentic portraits of the Madonna, influencing the creation of many medieval religious icons.

Regardless of religious belief or faith, this statue is a universal symbol of unity between cultures, serenity and timelessness. Its true beauty lies in its ability to survive throughout the ages, its simplicity and its interpretive ability.

The Madonna of Tindari looks directly at you with her dark eyes and tanned skin and together with the wise adult Jesus child in her arms provokes you and invites you to look deeply into their fascinating mystery beyond the extravagant circus which plays out around her.

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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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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 grandparent’s 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 labour 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 landowners 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 willpower 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 humour 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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