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Villas of Sicily

The Dominican monastery church of Santa Caterina in Palermo, for example, is perhaps the finest Baroque ecclesiastical interior in Sicily, frothing with stucco statuary, hectic pastel frescoes, and marmoreal excess. There are altars of amethyst and of lapis lazuli. There is a biblical bas-relief depicting Jonah and the whale in what seems like an early version of CGI. There is a soaring 18th-century cupola lighting an interior presided over by a statue of the church patron, a nun from a wealthy family named Maria del Carretto, sculpted by Antonello Gagini in 1534. There is, too, a haughtily severe Renaissance façade that is about all of Santa Caterina that most visitors ever get to see. The church is held in trust by the seven ancient surviving nuns of the order, and the public is permitted inside just one day a year, on St. Catherine's Day.

Yet when I visited the Palazzo Alliata di Pietratagliata in Palermo, Antonio Licata di Baucina suggested that we have a look at the church the following day. "There is so much in Sicily that people need help to experience," he remarked. Arriving the next morning at the door of a convent behind the church square, Baucina pressed a buzzer and bent toward an intercom to speak what were apparently the magic words. "It is the Prince of Baucina," he whispered, as though Italy were not legally a republic and as if the perfumed world of Tomasi di Lampedusa were in no sense a vanished one. Promptly a buzzer sounded. A door swung open. Keys were produced. We trotted around to a side door of Santa Caterina and let ourselves in.

To say that the experience was heady is not to suggest that the average traveler is in much danger of feeling shortchanged in Sicily. The island, after all, is almost embarrassingly over-endowed with the loot left behind by the Greeks, the Romans, the Arabs, the Normans, the Bourbons, and the various other invaders lured there over 25 centuries by its agricultural wealth, unsurpassed marble quarries, vast salt flats, abundant fisheries, and strategic position in, as one journalist put it, "the Mediterranean heart of things."

There is another, less palpable, kind of wealth in Sicily, which takes the form of what you could call a Sicilian cast of mind. Colonized relentlessly over centuries, Sicilians appear to have absorbed and then subtly subsumed whatever it would have been fatal to resist outright. Thus the island became the exotic amalgam that it remains, and the Sicilians a blended people, so tempered by their heritage that they sometimes suffer from what the writer Gesualdo Bufalino called "an excess of identity." A Sicilian's birthright, Bufalino noted, is the conviction that he stands at the center of the world. Like most blessings, this one embraces its own opposition; it is not rare in Sicily to encounter expressions of almost existential resignation to what Bufalino called "the thousand windings" of inheritance.

To visit Sicily is to feel somehow implicated in these turnings, physically, emotionally, and psychically. On a given Sunday afternoon, one may find oneself, as I did, standing in the small Baroque city of Noto, elated at the overwhelming spectacle of buildings columned, domed, and ostentatiously barnacled with carvings, all of them arrayed as richly as cakes in a bakery window.

In Noto, the day I visited, sun pierced the clouds and fell in fat slabs across the broad piazzas. Although the palaces were shuttered, the family bustle of a midday meal floated from behind the curtains of a porter's apartment. Two women hung wash on a wire angled between a house and the corner of an elegant small church. I got the sense of having wandered onto a stage set during a break in the program: a turn of the clock and the show would resume. That same afternoon as I drove back toward Catania, I found myself dispiritedly passing through scenery left over from another, and more typically squalid, island scenario. Ubiquitous, half-finished housing blocks litter coastal Sicily like corroded souvenirs deposited by such gangsters as the unlettered Totò Riina, who bilked his own people with construction boondoggles as he also helped bring down an international banking cartel, subvert Italian politics, and dispatch his enemies using particularly vicious means. Riina was notorious for having murder victims dissolved in acid. One is reminded of those people by the sight of so many buildings gutted and left as skeletal remains. "I don't say, 'There is no Mafia anymore,'" the renowned former mayor of Palermo, Leoluca Orlando, told me one afternoon at his Art Nouveau villa in the city center. "What I say is that, at a certain point, Sicilians were obliged to decide between terror and shame and while, for many years, they accepted shame, when the disease became acute, they fought back." Orlando's success in combating the Sicilian mob earned him shortlist status for a Nobel Peace Prize, but not without personal cost. He and his family have spent decades living under 24-hour police guard, and the one time in his adult life when he was able to drive an automobile was on a trip to California, where he impulsively rented a convertible and roamed the coastal highway, unawarethat FBI agents were protectively on his tail.

In Sicily, a visitor is repeatedly left struggling to reconcile excesses of artistic splendor and moral squalor, to negotiate between the occult and the rational, sensuality and intellect. One afternoon on the small island of Ortigia, just off the eastern coastal city of Syracuse and a new destination for northern Italy's art-and-fashion flock, I came across a wizened vendor roasting chestnuts on a homemade brazier. Their smoky aroma ribboned past the columned façade of Andrea Palma's duomo and into a sky of stormy green clouds. Dogs ran freely through the piazza, and time collapsed. One was in the 21st century and also the 17th.

A stone's throw from the church, along streets with names like Via Circe, stands a landmark that every guidebook commends with the usual historical blather: references to Pindar, to Virgil, to the goddess Artemis. (Although oddly not to Caligula, who, having raped his sister Drusilla and then taken her for his common-law wife, became so crazed by her unexpected death that he fled Rome for Syracuse to consult the oracles, never bothering, as the Roman biographer Suetonius fastidiously noted, to bathe or shave.) Fed from a source first discovered by the Greeks, this legendary landmark, the Fountain of Arethusa, looked to me like a glorified duck pond. Litter clung to stands of mingy papyrus. Tourists clumped around a columned fragment that resembled the kind of Neoclassical fakery you'd expect at a suburban garden center, someplace like New Jersey's celebrated Fountains of Wayne. The fencing was picked out in Christmas bulbs.

"If you can't accept contradiction, you can't understand Sicily," says my friend Piero Longo, the author of a recent volume on Sicily's architectural history. One could say the same of excess.

Horror vacui is how Longo describes the Sicilian aversion to the austere, visible in the phenomenal gilded mosaic cycles at the hilltop cathedral of Monreale, almost surreal in their scale and extent; in the Gesù church in Palermo, so ornamented that the decorations seem like magnified depictions of viral pathology; in the fatigued botanical garden on Via Lincoln, where 18th-century attempts at planting according to the rational Linnaean precepts are overwhelmed by the island's rampant fecundity. A kind of elaborate tension informs the give-and-take of even the most ordinary transactions, infusing the act of paying a taxi fare, mailing a postcard, or ordering a chickpea fritter on the street with a sense of theatrical business, as if to test whether you're in on the game.

"Learn these," instructed Renata Zanca, grabbing my notebook to write out the following: knife, fork, spoon, I'd like some more, thank you, that's enough. We were seated at an outdoor table of the Antica Focacceria San Francesco in Palermo, Zanca offering a thumbnail lesson in Italian that was also an impromptu tutorial in Sicilian priorities.

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