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.

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.

Short and sweet classical history

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I’m gradually adding to my Reading Trincaria reading list and so I will be posting a regular quick Sicilian themed book review during the week to gradually extend our Sicily related reads.

This week I’d like to share one of the first books I ever read about this magical island, a true classic which helped to spark my love of Sicilian history.

 M I Finley and Denis Mack Smith: A short history of Sicily.

This book was the definitive guide to the history of Sicily for many generations and is considered the best general history book on the island. This ageless classic is a beautiful introduction to Sicilian history for anyone wanting to begin a journey through the various epochs of Sicily. Written in a clear, precise and evocative style, it encourages you to seek out more about this fascinating place.

Denis Mack Smith was an English historian, specialising in the history of Italy from the Risorgimento onwards.  An Emeritus Fellow at Oxford, Mack Smith was considered the world’s leading scholar on Italian history for the English society in the post world war two period.

A History of Sicily, with Moses Finley, was initially published in two volumes, Medieval Sicily 800-1713 and Modern Sicily after 1713. Later an abridged and reprinted version was released as the single volume titled:  A History of Sicily with Moses Finley and Christopher Duggan.

Denis Mack Smith’s real talent lies in being able to take the often dry elements of historical fact and turn it into clear, readable and engaging prose, popularising the history of Sicily to a broader audience, his writing was filled with wonderfully quotable phrases.

This book while a little dated is still worth picking up as it is a brief clear single volume introduction into one of the most complicated European histories.

Unfortunately, this book is out of print so the best way to track it down is through the public library system or through second-hand book stores. But it’s definitely worth the effort.

The Ultimate Sicilian History Lover

 

History

John Julius Norwich:

The Normans in the South 1016-1130

The Kingdom in the Sun 1130-1194.

Sicily: A short history from the Greeks to Cosa Nostra.

Sicily: An Island at the Crossroads of History

The Middle Sea: A history of the Mediterranean.
John Julius Norwich

 

John Julius Norwich’s series dedicated to the Normans of Sicily is the ultimate Sicilian historic read.

The Norman period in Sicily was a medieval renaissance, a golden age of enlightenment despite the backdrop of darkness in Europe. Norwich was a formidable historian and storyteller, and these books read like a charming historical novel, shedding light upon a lesser known period of the islands past.

This specific historical period is particularly evocative and is linked to images of crusading knights who left for the holy land from the port of Messina and the French Norman kings who battled with Saracean armies who had been ruling Sicily for centuries as a peaceful Arab Emirate. It’s fascinating to think that in the early middle ages Sicily spoke Arab, Greek and Latin and Palermo was a melting pot of culture, education and science.

The first Norman King Roger of Hautville, actually combined the best of the Arab and Latin worlds which made his Sicilian court a single source of enlightenment and wealth, while the rest of Europe was going through the dark ages.

Today, unfortunately, apart from many medieval castles, dotted around strategic coastal and inland locations there is precious little left in the form of documents which reflect this Sicilian Renaissance, only fragments remain of the developments made in Sicilian literature, science, agriculture and geography.

As the Normans pushed out and exiled the Sicilian Arabs the only evidence of this extraordinary period are the remnants of Arabic in the Sicilian dialect, north African ingredients in the cuisine, converted mosques which have become churches and archaeological ruins of elaborate gardens which used irrigation systems introduced by the middle eastern conquerors of the island.

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John Julius Norwich is a well known British historian, intellectual, aristocrat and personality, who chose the Norman Period as inspiration for some of his books and his work will make you fall in love with the rich tapestry of Sicilian history.  Norwich discovered Sicily quite by accident in the 1960’s while searching out a sunny place for a vacation with his wife in mid-October they decided upon Sicily. Stumbling upon the island they immediately fell in love with the area, and he became obsessed with the neglected Norman monuments liberally dotted around the island.

Norwich has a gift of turning extensive historical information and jargon into something exciting and readable. While wading through the convoluted ancient texts which are the base of his books he was able to reveal the human element to the stories and mould the material into a fascinating story.

The son of a diplomat and British aristocrat, Norwich claims to be descended from King William IV. His education is impressive, he studied in Canada, at Eton and at the University of Strasbourg. Later he served in the Royal Navy before taking a degree in French and Russian at New College, Oxford.

He has written more than thirty different books on subjects as varied as Venetian history, Britain, the ancient Byzantine Empire, architecture, Shakespeare, Ancient History, The Papacy, several Novels, world literature and books for children.

Norwich’s two most recent books about Sicily (Sicily: A short history from the Greeks to Cosa Nostra and The Middle Sea: A history of the Mediterranean) are excellent introductions to the general history of the island and the whole area of the Mediterranean in. For anyone who doesn’t know much about the history of southern Europe, these books, in particular, are a perfect introduction.

All of John Julius Norwich’s books are available from the Book Depository.

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.

Food and religious festivals in Sicily this August

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August is a month filled with endless food and religious celebrations which fill the table with local fare and many opportunities to witness ancient patron saint festivals. Most Italians have their annual summer vacation this month, so there is a particularly hectic series of outdoor events paired with epic traffic jams to match!

Italy in August means the thermometer hits its peak and the humid Italo summer closes down the entire peninsula as all Italians go to the beach, up to the mountains or overseas.

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Ferragosto is the mid-August holiday, the Latin term Feriae Augusti (Augustus’ rest), was celebration first introduced by Emperor Augustus in 18 BC. In addition to the existing Roman festivals which celebrated harvest times, the Roman Empire chose to revel in the heat and basically take the month to rest.

During the ancient celebrations, horse races were held across the Empire, and beasts of burden were released from their work duties and decorated with flowers. The many Palio horse races all around Italy still reflect these ancient Roman celebrations. The name “Palio” comes from the pallium, a piece of precious fabric which was the prize given to winners of these horse races.

The popular tradition of taking a trip during Ferragosto came about during the Fascist period. In the second half of the 1920s, during the mid-August period, the regime organised hundreds of popular tours. People’s Trains for Ferragosto were available at discounted prices.

Today the 15th of August is a national holiday and a religious feast day which celebrates the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. The Roman Catholic church believes it was the day when the Madonna’s sinless soul and the incorruptible body was taken up to heaven.

 

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In Sicily and Italy, there are many ancient festivities in cities where the ‘Virgin of the Assumption’ is the patron or protector. Ferragosto in Sicily offers elaborate parades and celebrations from Randazzo (Catania) to Messina, Capo d’Orlando (Messina), Motta d’Affermo (Catania), Novara di Sicilia (Messina), Montagnareale (Messina), Piazza Armerina (Enna), Aci Catena (Catania) and many more.

 

Here are some annual events to pin for later and check out in August.

 

August in Sicily

 

For an impressive complete list see Sicilia in Festa which provides the most up to date information about festivities province by province during the year for all visitors to Sicily.

Be sure to check out official event links and web pages as event dates may be changed.

A walk to the fig tree

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In the summer Sicilian’s become like frugivorous animals living off the fruits produced by their gardens. So my husband, son and I are obliged to take a walk to the fig tree to gather up its bounty.

The only problem is the tree is hidden deep below a steep precipice behind overgrown bushes and prickly vines. So a simple walk to a fig tree becomes a trek through the Sicilian undergrowth.

According to my son’s fertile imagination, we were buried in the jungle. In reality, we were making a path through the rugged and abandoned countryside. I was imagining twisted ankles, ripped clothes and thorns.

 

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After literally cutting a path through the bushes we were rewarded by a pleasant walk under the shade of overgrown hazelnut trees in a pathway well hidden from the still burning afternoon sun littered with small mulberries we all love to eat.

 

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When we finally reached the tree, we receive the most indulgent reward, an elaborate tree filled with lush mature fruit. Something is satisfying about eating fresh fruit from under a tree. As I pick the most delicious figs, the white sap bleeds onto my hands, and the figs split open, I place them in my mouth.

 

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While slurping up my first fig of the year, I recall how Italian Renaissance poets used the image of the fig as an erotic metaphor for female genitalia, who knew to eat a fig would be so provocative.

 

 

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The fig has been cultivated for more than 5,000 years and is native to the region between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. The tree repeatedly appears in the Bible, and some scholars believe the forbidden fruit picked by Eve was a fig rather than an apple.

 

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We are forced to fight off the birds for the figs, as their growing season is so short and intense, we have to be quick, or we’ll miss out. If there is an abundant crop, I might get the chance to make fig jam, or we can choose to dry them in the sun so we can eat them later with roasted hazelnuts in the winter.

The exciting possibilities are endless.

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A place of elephants, lions and bears

Lions and bears post

 

My grandparent’s gardens are gone
like so many poetic laments about lost paradises
nothing of their cultivated land
where father, son, mother and daughter lived
the flowering trees are a memory
recalled by a dying generation
no more sustenance or song
only the shadows of a once fertile island

Ancient olive groves gradually enveloped by slithering vines
slowly strangled hazelnut trees blossoming in the spring
the shadows of disappearing golden gardens
soon everything will be erased by the choking weeds
abandoned in the flow of time
to become forests once again

They left behind youth, families and home
to follow dreams, leaving a past filled with memories
compelled by the constraints of poverty, desperation and ambition
the land left untended by their hands
overwhelmed by loss the oasis is being erased by wilderness.
with no one left to stop the decay

Our ancestors gardens will be like so many other lost empires
we are destined to forget the seeds they planted
like so many graveyards left to themselves
Trincaria will become savage again
a land of hunters and hunted

Once more an ancient home for the beasts
a place of elephants, lions and bears
we will discover the cyclops skulls left behind
and wonder if the myths are true.

 

         – for my Sicilian grandparents Giuseppe and Carmela Bongiovanni

 

Savage sicily

 

Today I thought I’d try something different and share a little of my creative writing.

Poetry is my first love, it is where my ideas come from, yet I have never found a place for it, apart from submissions to obscure literary magazines throughout the years.

I’m currently working on the content for a new creative writing blog which will be the home not only for my interest in poetry but also music, books and conversations. I’ll be sure to let you know the details as soon as it’s all finished and launched.

This is one poem I thought I’d include in my first book, but I’ve had to cut out. As for those who have been following my blog for a while would know, I’m still working on my book, a travel memoir which I’m redrafting and will be self publishing as soon as I raise the funds.

I’ve been thinking and remembering my dearly loved Sicilian grandparents this week, as they both passed away in this period, one nine years ago, the other last year. I thought I’d share a poem which was inspired by them and other Italian immigrants. Sadly their’s is a generation which is slowly fading away, yet I feel their spirit and energy is still very much a part of me.

This poem is inspired by the historical fact that Sicily was once physically a part of North Africa and up until ancient Roman times the island was filled with natural forests inhabited by mini elephants, lions, bears and many other fascinating wild animals which have since disappeared.

The Sicily of my Grandparents was the opposite to this, filled with fertile gardens, abundant fruits and a vibrant agricultural tradition which today has been mostly abandoned. Sadly much of Sicily is destined to return to its ancient abandoned state.

There are many references to mythology, the Sicilian poetic school of the middle ages and other elements which reflect the innate sadness and ancient history of Sicily. The cyclop’s skull image refers to the archeological discovery of mini elephant skulls, which were mistaken as the remains of these mythological creatures.

Let me know if you enjoy this kind of creativity here on Sicily Inside & Out …

Smoky roasted Artichokes

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The Sicilian spring is moody as the weather fluctuates between rain and days of glorious sun. The Sciroccio wind whips itself up from the African desert and pushes the seasons along.

White blossoms in the fruit trees blend with shadowy greys. The spring is an armistice which allows the winter to gradually surrender itself and begin the cycle again.

Artichokes

Sicilian artichokes are as prickly as the late winter weather, but after their external spikes are removed the internal fleshy flower is a delicate balm for the cold. 

The artichoke is a thistle and comes from the same family as the sunflower. This edible flower is a native of the Mediterranean and dates back to ancient Greek times when they were cultivated in Italy and Sicily.

Greek mythology tells how Zeus created the artichoke from a beautiful mortal woman. While visiting his brother Poseidon, Zeus spied a beautiful young woman, he was so pleased with the girl named Cynara, that  he decided to make her a goddess. Cynara agreed, however she grew homesick and snuck back home to visit her family. Zeus discovered this and became angry, throwing Cynara back to earth and transforming her into a plant.

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Cynar is an Italian liqueur which gets its name from the artichoke and the mythological origins of this plant. This bitter alcoholic drink is made from thirteen different plants including the artichoke. It is generally drunk straight as an after dinner digestive or as a cocktail mixing it with soda water, tonic water and lemon, lime or orange juice.

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It is always a joy to prepare artichokes as part of the Sicilian table every year. They may seem difficult but they are versatile, easily stuffed and the tender internal leaves can be prepared separately as a pasta condiment. The discarded stalks can also be blanched in hot water, then blended together to make a creamy pesto like mixture.

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The best way to prepare the first tender artichokes of the season is to stuff them with a combination of fresh spring aromas like pancetta, parsley, spring onions, garlic, finely sliced celery, a pinch of hot chilli pepper, all soaked in a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and a squeeze of lemon and then cooking them slowly over hot coals, or ‘a braci’ as they say in the local dialect. 

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Covering the richly flavoured artichokes with hot smoking embers and letting the stuffing’s taste gradually imbue itself into the artichoke is the best. The tough external leaves are crusty and burnt but act as a protective shell until the internal tender parts are fully cooked. The fat of the bacon melts and amalgamates with the sweetness of the vegetable in an irresistible smoky flavour. 

I love preparing them for my Birthday in late February every year. The only flowers I ever truly enjoy are a bouquet of carciofi.

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Vedi qua il post anche in Italiano: Carciofi affumicati e arrostiti

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.

Branciforte

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