Sunday, March 18, 2012

Ellie's Walk in Ancient Ortygia

Since men began to sail the Mediterranean thousands of years ago, ships have sheltered in the harbor of what is now Siracusa, on the eastern coast of Sicily, off the "toe" of Italy, bordering the Ionian Sea.  The western harbor is formed behind the island of Ortygia.  

The Island of Ortigia is slightly larger than a square kilometer / 0.39 square miles, but concentrated within it is an extraordinary density of monuments of historic and artistic importance.  Ortygia is now connected to Siracusa across a narrow channel by three bridges, but was always known as Città Vecchia (the “old city”), and is storied as the birthplace of Artemis, Hellenic goddess of the hunt, wild animals, wilderness, childbirth, virginity and young girls(!)  On the shore of Ortygia is Arethuse, a fresh-water spring recorded by the earliest travelers, thousands of years ago.  Nearby stands the imposing stone Porta Marina ("Sea Gate") which is the only surviving element of the medieval fortifications of the island.  The Porta Marina still separates the modern traffic in the adjacent piazza from the narrow stone-paved streets and alleys of the old city.

Ellie has a tale to tell of a walk, nay – an adventure, that took her from the Porta Marina through la Città Vecchia, and back to the 17th century. But I’ll let you read her email, interrupting to provide a little of the history of the place.

January 17 --

I've just had a little turn around the town with a procession for San Sebastian.  It began at a niche for Saint Sebastian, a sort of tiny baroque temple.  Slowly, over the course of an hour, the musicians showed up.  A police car came and four officers got out, in order to march in front and behind the group.
There was also a group of men wearing red velveteen caps with red trim who were milling around, too, with a matching banner.  The musicians were in winter marching band gear, navy blue.  People were greeting and milling around and as is usual down here, men mostly greeted each other with cheek-kissing.

Why here and why now, you may ask, and why Saint Sebastian?  Just inside the narrow gateway of the ancient Porta Marina stands the faux-Baroque Cappella Votiva della Fratellanza di San Sebastiano (or VotiveChapel of the Brotherhood of St. Sebastian) -- the tiny temple she describes.   The Chapel was built a hundred years ago to honor the aforementioned brotherhood, which was and still is a business association that unites church workers of the port of Syracuse.  The Saint was a Roman soldier, martyred about 268, and is patron of archers, athletes, and soldiers, and is appealed to for protection against plagues. Saint Sebastian’s Day is January 20, and Ellie’s band of musicians were part of the warm up for his big day. 

Sicilia, in a17th Century British engraving of the travels of Aeneas

But I interrupt; pardon me.  Ellie continues:
Finally the group assembled, though it was much too loose to be called a formation.  First the men in velvet caps started roaring in a call and response fashion, no idea what they were saying; it might have been Latin for all I could tell.  They started off, not exactly marching, more ambling, through one of the gates of the city, Porta Marina, with people walking, ambling along behind and beside them.  The musicians walked behind them, and a few people including me walked behind the musicians.  While the first tuned was being played, and they had progressed about half a block, the saxophone section came trotting down the street and got more-or-less into place.

 When the first piece ended, something happened.  The tenor sax player and one of the drummers began to dispute something -- how I wish I knew what! -- I think it was about leadership, possibly, or chain of command issues.  Things got more and more heated, I actually thought it was headed for a brawl.  This was all happening about ten feet from me. 

I could see that the tenor sax was essentially ordering the drummer to quit the scene if he didn't agree to whatever was wanted.  The drummer was waving his sticks under the nose of the tenor sax in a threatening manner.  Pretty soon other men were trying to break up the fight.  The next thing we knew, the drummer and the cymbals -- presumably his wife -- were gesticulating and striding off.  Several people tried to run after them and coax them back, but nothing doing.  So now the band was missing cymbals and a drum.  With a rather strange feeling in the air, and me trying desperately not to laugh because it was absolutely out of a movie, it couldn't be in a movie because it would seem like a hopeless stereotype, the red-caps started up with the great call and response hollering, quite deafening.  

Back streets of Ortygia
So, you get the picture: the precision engineering and discipline that characterizes Italian society!!  Having read this much in the email, Ellie’s dad Bill chimed in with his own tale of cacophony, from a trip to Italy decades ago:

[Bill says:] How Italian. My first exposure was in Genoa when . . .I arrived on the ship. The baggage handlers yelling, hollering and I thought about to come to blows with their various ideas on how to handle our bags. Minutes later they were embracing us and each other!  And [later on, in the village] when Veccio Piero died in the olive tree and the family got him to the cubicula in the cemetery, there was a near brawl with male relatives yelling at each, waving hands in the air---should the coffin go in with the head first or feet first!!!! Then they went home and drank wine and laughed together. And I could go on but won’t. . . . What a wonderful people. The drummer and cymbal player will all be happily united for the next Saint's Day.

It seems as though the revelers and bandsmen (and Ellie trailing) are off for some of the High Holy sites in the old city, so let me fill you in just a bit. She resumes her narrative, and quickly refers to three sites of antiquity in Ortygia; the first is il Tempio di Apollo, on Piazza Pancalli. Whether originally dedicated to Apollo or to Artemis, it dates from the 6th century BC, and is the oldest Doric temple in western Europe(!) Like most such sites, it has had an ecumenical history: it was turned into a Byzantine church and then the Muslims took over and converted it into a mosque. Later, under Norman rule, it was turned back into a church.
Tempio di Apollo
Ellie continues. . . .

The procession headed down the street toward the center of town, where the ruins of the temple of Apollo lie. After another piece, the bass drum broke ranks, I think because he was the son of the drum and cymbals. He handed his enormous drum to a lady who then had to carry the thing for the rest of the procession. So now the group was down three percussion players. The rest of the players didn't seem much fazed, however, and the procession continued to the Piazza Duomo, and down the piazza to the church of Santa Lucia. 
How to describe Siracusa's magnificent cathedral?  It probably started out as a place of worship for the ancient Siculo tribes: you can see traces of their huts in Via Minerva and in the courtyard of the nearby Arcivescovado. On this spot the Greek settlers of the city erected a Doric temple in 480BC, to thank the goddess Athena for helping them defeat the Carthaginians at sea.
The Duomo has of course been plundered and pillaged by Romans, by Arabs, and by Normans, but through it all 10 of the original 36 Doric columns have been built right into the walls of the nave. It was christened Il Duomo: the cathedral of Siracusa in 640AD, by Bishop Zosimu, and when the Arab Saracens swept through in the mid 800s, they reputedly were able to cart off 5,000 pounds of gold and 10,000 pounds of silver.  Then a mosque, now (again) a cathedral, Il Duomo dominates the huge Piazza, site of royal pageants, cruel executions, and (now) touristic excesses.

Il Duomo
The church to which Ellie's procession was bound is the Basilica of Santa Lucia of the Holy Sepulchre, at the far end of the Piazza Duomo, at the site on which The Saint was martyred in 304 AD.  The present-day church can be dated back to the Normans who, in the 11th century, liberated Syracuse from Saracen nomination which had lasted for two centuries. The present Basilica retains the basic Norman plan of immense nave and with two side aisles.  Of this period remains the rose window on the façade, some re-cast arches, the portal with Cordovan-style arch, the three apses and the four large supporting pillars of the dome, which are believed to have been erected in the 12th century.

Ellie continues:

Basilica Santa Lucia al Sepolcro
Everyone went into the church while the band played on outside the open doors. Then there was more deafening hollering by the redcaps, arms raised toward a small painting of San Sebastian. The band finished and came inside, and then redcaps brought a small stepladder and a cardboard box and a bunch of keys. Two men used the stepladder to get up to two large closed doors, behind which, presumably, Sebastian was waiting.

Sure enough, after much fumbling with keys and always getting the wrong key, two locks were unlocked, and the doors opened. There was Sebastian, lifesize, with gilt hair and loincloth. The man on the stepladder then decked the statue, first with a red necklace with a cross, then a halo which was carefully screwed onto his head. Then a man below handed up gold arrow ends to the man on the stepladder, who then carefully screwed them into holes in his torso, leg, and arm, and even one in his groin! Then two enormous candles were lit and placed on either side. More hollering with arms raised, and that was the end.

The church itself is tall inside and white with gold trim, mildly baroque, with a tiled floor. At the altar there is a Caravaggio of Santa Lucia's burial.

I don't know the story of S. Sebastian, but I'm sure I can find out!

Love, EB

But you already know about St. Sebastian (from my commentary earlier in the blog.)  And yes, he is the patron saint of archers.

As Ellie says, above the gilt-haired, haloed Sebastian is an immense painting by Caravaggio depicting the Burial of Santa Lucia that hangs over the main altar. The painting is a masterpiece of bold contrast: light and dark, the composition dominated by two enormous figures – the sweating grave-diggers -- hovering over the body of the Saint.  Caravaggio was a brilliant and revolutionary painter in his day, and also quite a rogue – he had come to Syracuse, having mysteriously escaped a gruesome underground Maltese dungeon.  Right here in Syracuse, perhaps at this, the site of her tomb, the Milan artist painted this wonderful altar piece, probably handed over on 13th December 1608, on the anniversary of the festival of Santa Lucia, patron of the city.
'Seppellimento di Santa Lucia' e Caravaggio
How coincidental: a month after these events my sister Anne vistied Ellie in Puglia, and took in a few days in Rome.  So galvanized was she upon seeing another Caravaggio in a Roman church, she set out -- having known virtually nothing of his masterful work -- in pursuit of every one of his paintings that she could find in the Eternal City!  I hope to follow in her footsteps one day, and also return for more walks with Ellie in ancient Ortygia.
Moon rise in Ortygia

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Visiting the Ancients

In early December Bruce and I wanted to see our friend Andreas one more time before ... going back home.

So we took a ferry from Brindisi (Italy) to Patra (Greece), which is overnight and takes 15 hours. Fortunately, there were virtually no passengers, so we had whole banquettes to ourselves (including all-night TV).

We drove off the ferry into Patra and drove up to the bridge crossing the Gulf of Corinth. The day was beautiful and warm, and the arid mountains bounding the gulf were crystal clear.

The waters of the Gulf of Coritnth are also crystal clear and the day was enchanting. We drove along little "seaside" towns which were quiet in this off-season, stopping at Galaxidi in the afternoon, and staying the night. It is a charming fishing village about ten miles from Delfi. There are no tourists this time of year, so we had the pick of the little hotels in town. The contrast between the supremely arid mountains and the gentle blue waters was sort of fascinating; one doesn't expect them to border each other.
A perfect seaside luncheon: pickled vegetables, cheeses, beer & fish

The next day we drove to Delfi, where the ancient oracle was located.
It is a fantastical location for people to have gotten to in ancient times. The mountains rise steeply from an olivey plain, and after winding round and round precipitous roads, one comes to Delfi the town, and beyond it ancient Delfi.

The site consists of a museum, which houses the objects that came out of the site, and the site itself. On a 70-degree hillside overlooking a tremendous ravine, the oracle was built, as well as, surprisingly to me, at any rate, an amphitheatre, many buildings, a school, a gymnasium, and at the very top, a gigantic stadium. The theatre seated 5,000 people, the stadium 40,000.
Here, in Delfi, was the belly-button of the World!
Delicate carvings remain: Honeysuckle leaves ornament the capital of a column
Intricate Grecian scripts adorn temple walls

The numbers tell the story: all those people we in this wildly inaccessible place! Some people came to to have questions answered, having come from far and wide, and in return, sent gifts to Delfi; some of these gifts were enormous carved stone statues, one in particular had come from an island, which means the very heavy, breakable thing had crossed the waters on a boat, then up into these is mind-boggling.

It must be that we have incorrect ideas about ancient people. I, for one, think of the difficulty of doing things, of traveling, and think, well, they just didn't go far from home, because it was so difficult. Yet this is plainly not the case, whether it is medieval England, or ancient Rome, or ancient Greece. In fact, there seems to be an inverse relationship between the difficulty and the effort: the harder the thing is to accomplish, the greater the effort is put into it.

Think of the cathedrals that were built in the fourteenth century, the temples that were built 2,000 years ago. The Mycenaeans lived 3,500 years ago but spared nothing to produce stupendous stone structures, where the blocks of stone were so large that the only way it could have been raised was by building a hill, rolling the stones into place, and then taking down the hill. And Stonehenge was built, the stones carved, 5,000 years ago with antlers. Unfortunately, no matter how much you think about it, it is deeply incomprehensible and jarring to all one’s preconceptions.

After Delfi, we drove to Athens to stay with Andreas and wife Maria and their two children Christina and Savas. (I met Andreas at the University in High Wycombe.) Greece is going through significant upheaval, and we were a tad trepidacious about arriving in a place that the news portrays as spinning out of control. Everything seemed calm and the same as our last visit, though people have much less money for eating out, petrol, housing, and are very worried about how much worse things might get. There are regular protests, but not on the days we were there, but at any rate, the protests are only in front of the Parliament building. We managed to have excellent times with Andreas and family. The tavernas and little restaurants are very good, and we ate our fill of calamari, octopus, and other delicious things.

We had been up to the Acropolis the previous visit, so we did not do that, but went to the Archaeological Museum, where we saw the amazing finds from the ancient city of Mycenae. Gold jewellery, bronze tools, pots -- all sorts of things from Mycenae, which piqued our interest. We resolved to see Mycenae after Athens, as it was on our way back west.
The funerary art, as well as the busts, were very surprising because they were so individual, instead of heroic. I found myself really looking at faces, and tombstones that seemed to tell a story about the person who had died, often of women. They also have a huge collection of black and red Attic pottery, which my dad would have appreciated very much indeed.

After three nights, we said goodbye, wondering when we would see Andreas again, we headed back west, stopping at Mycenae. It is known as Cyclopean stone, because the stones of which this royal city was built are so large that myth says it was built by giants (Cyclops). The famous entrance gate depicting two lions is the earliest known example of sculpture in Europe.

The setting is beautiful, on a hill overlooking a great plain bounded by other great hills. Smoke signals were sent between cities, especially to warn of invaders by sea, which is visible in the distance. There was virtually no one there, and we were able to sit and contemplate how this came to be, what life would have been like, with only the sounds of goat bells and birds -- chaffinches, green finches, wagtails, robins, a hawfinch (!), sparrows, starlings. Mycenae Photos
This photo of Mycenae is courtesy of TripAdvisor

I sat looking at the grave circle, with its absolutely perfectly rectangular upright stones, fitted together so that a piece of paper could not fit between them, wondering...what can one wonder? What is one to think? From these graves were found women, children, babies, literally covered with gold, from head to foot. An extraordinary feature of Mycenae is the beehive-shaped tombs, gigantic underground structures built in a cone shape, with grand entrances using Cyclopean stones. We went inside one of them, tremendously tall and about forty feet across at the base where we stood. There was an interesting acoustical property: when you hoot, there is a three second reverberation. They must have noticed this and built them partly for this phenomenon.
Mycenae Photos
This photo of Mycenae is courtesy of TripAdvisor

We drove across the Peloponnesus to ancient Olympus, where the Olympic games began. I, stupidly, kept looking for Mount Olympus, but there was no mountain!  Today, Olympia is a small town.  We stayed in a bedraggled pension with too many idiosyncrasies to mention and a decor that required sunglasses. But it was cheap and quiet! And offered decent wine and a home-cooked meal on a cold and rainy night near the bottom of the year.

The next morning, our last of the trip, we walked to the ancient site. It is beautiful, and very extensive.  [We couldn't take pictures, having stupidly forgotten our battery charger, but this photo tour -- starting with the villa of the Roman emporer Nero -- gives you some idea.]  So sophisticated, with baths and echo chambers and a stadium to accommodate 45,000 people. Again, one has to marvel at this many people dropping whatever they were doing to attend games! And where did they all come from?   

The hubbub must have been something: people buying and selling food and drink and souvenirs, and votive figurines by the thousands (many of which we saw in the museum nearby). The rituals bonfires, where a hundred oxen would be roasted, must have been a sight, and smell.

The great temple of Zeus succumbed to an earthquake around 400 AD, and the giant sections of columns lie there just as they fell that day.

And then we drove back to Patra and got on the afternoon ferry. It was my second trip to Greece, and Bruce's third. How marvellous, the things we have seen!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Gite Italiane


As I write this our Vermont family is “enjoying” traditional snowstorms and temperatures not above freezing. The web tells us that you in England are having below-freezing temperatures, but I must report that we’ve made mostly crystal-clear sun for the past three days – probably not a short as yours, but still very much nearing Solstice brevity – and can eat breakfast on our first-floor, south-facing terrace in the morning. Yesterday we looked out over the wall into the next fattoria, we saw a man high on a spindly ladder, beating the branches of an olive tree, harvesting fruit into the ground-net below. He worked on into the morning, singing outside, unaccompanied, except by the dogs of all the surrounding groves.

It’s hard to believe that Ellie left lane End nearly two months ago, and I followed at the end of October. We left our home and all of you, our friends; it will likely take a bit of getting used to in order to again feel “at home” in Vermont, but – before we go there, it’s been great to take advantage of some of Europe’s wonders. Let me tell you just a bit of what we’ve been up to in Puglia, Italy.

While I was finishing up business in Lane End, Ellie met her daughter Sophia in Paris, and spent a week crossing Europe – by way of Reims, Strasbourg, Munich, Lake Garda – to Venice, where I met them at the start of November. The best part was that Ellie had found us a marvelous owner-let apartment in a back neighborhood on a quiet canal in Venice AWAY from all the tourists. Three days with no cars, motorbikes (even bicycles); just a few putzing motor-boats!

We wandered and lost ourselves in the maze of streets and canals, and took a boat way out into the islands of the lagoon. Sophie’s guy (back in Vermont) is a glass-blower, so she and Ellie spent a couple of hours on Murano (the centuries-old home of “Venetian glass”) while I went to Torcello, the site of a fabulous Byzantine basilica.

The Autostrada took us to Ravenna the afternoon we left Venice, but we arrived too late to visit the fabulous cathedral. But it seems that Ravenna is an international center for conservation, design and creation of mosaics, partly because of the fabulous work preserved in the floors of ruined palazzos left from the Roman era. I walked into a lovely back-street Renaissance church and through a back chapel, paid for il billetto, and walked down into another world. It was my first (but not my last) experience suddenly encountering the foundations, decorated floors and mosaiced walls they left us, buried beneath the world we’ve built in subsequent millennia.

We drove down the Adriatic coast after dark, and landed in a hotel in Senigalia. We awoke to all the spaciousness of a coastal vacation town out of season, had a nice run on the deserted beach, and prepared for another long day in the car, heading straight for our new home in Puglia. We drove all day down the coast to Bari, headed inland, following directions given by our landlords (Terry and Joan, from Sevenoaks), arriving in time to make our first Italian supper.

So what have we been up to? One thing is: learning and enjoyed Italian cooking. (OK, that’s two.) Ellie is a good cook anyway, but particularly seeks out fresh ingredients. We have them here: greens, pears, pomodori, with great choices of cheese, salamis, and meats in shops everywhere. And of course: entire store aisles full of pastas: fresh and dried. Puglia is a huge source of both olive oil and wine, and we enjoy them fresh and local. The wine at .79€/L. isn’t GREAT, but is very drinkable. So we enjoy the sun as much as we can, eat well; I work while Ellie works on Italian verbs. (In case she never told you, she’s always wanted to live in a foreign culture, learning the language by the seat of her pants: French or Italian being her ideals. She has made fast friends with a local woman Patrizia Lelli, whose mom is teaching Ellie to make a traditional pasta: orecchiette (small ears).

As we enter the final festive two weeks of the year, we anticipate a fairly quiet Christmas; we’ve sent off cards to friends and family in the US, and limited our gifting to no more than 10€ of little nothings for each other. Our host/landlord Terry turns sixty on Boxing Day, so Joan has warned that we might be over-run by ex-pat British celebrants that day. Our (third) wedding Anniversary in January 1st , and I return to the US on January 4th, so we are likely to take several days for our own celebrating and leave-taking, mostly likely in Sicily.

What I’d like to share, though, is an amazing exposure to antiquity that we had several weeks ago. In the course of about ten days we travelled to the Naples area and the – a few days later – took the overnight Adriatic ferry to Patras, Greece. In the course of these we had five very different exposures to the ambitions, skills, and accomplishments of the ancients Mycenean, Greek and Roman civilizations. Planning our trip to Naples with visiting Lane End neighbors Taz and Kellie, we learned about Paestum, an ancient somewhat out-of-the-way site of what had been a huge trading hub of Magna Grecia, the civilization which spread west from the Greek city states around 2500 years ago.
Paestum is only partly excavated, as it had been a city of thousands at its height; like all ancient sites, a visitor sees structural remains from many eras – in this case including a Roman forum and gymnasium superimposed. But most famously, Paestum shows off the most well-preserved Greek temples in Italy. The sun had miraculously banished two days of rain, and we chose to spend all our time that morning out of doors, missing the artifacts preserved in the museum nearby.

But then, on to our other destination of the day – Herculaneum. When but a youth I was captured by the romance and decadence of Bulwer-Lytton’s Last Days of Pompeii, and had fantasies of growing up to be an archaeologist. But several people had told us that spending our time in Herculaneum – the other Roman city buried by Mt. Vesuvius in August 79AD – was more worthwhile. Pompeii was famously covered by ash and pumice from the angry mountain, but Herculaneum was horribly engulfed in a flood of boiling mud which hardened to a porous rock over the centuries.

Plundered by 18th century aristocrats who tunneled to find its treasures, Herculaneum was more recently brought into the open air. The biggest problem is that encroaching Naples suburbs grew over it; as you look over the railing twenty to thirty meters down into the ancient city, you see only ¼ of its estimated size – the rest laying undisturbed beneath the tufa cliffs on which the modern world sits. The surge of volcanic mud blasted much, but it also left wooden beams, furniture, and food preserved (well-baked or charred), and even two-story buildings: the partly-preserved top floors and roofs are evident at no other ancient site. We saw incredibly well-preserve mosaic floors and walls, delicate and sophisticated wall paintings and other amazing architectural and artistic bits – all in situ, just as crafted and preserved. We saw the baking ovens, food storage containers, and the sophisticated plumbing in the public baths.

And the following day we visited the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, and marveled at the treasures removed during the excavation years – the most artistic and lifelike statuary of bronze and stone, intricate jewelry of gold and precious stones, household implements (bronze, bone and wood). Glass work, painting, and incredibly detailed and subtle wall mosaics too: staggering.

Having stayed with Ellie’s old Bucks University chum Luigi and his family, we were subjected to a fearsome dose of “mama’s cooking” and other local delectation.

We spent a day with Luigi driving to wonderful out-of-the-way hilltops, beaches and harbors around the Bay of Naples. We started the day visiting the tunnels, temples, and ruins at Cuma, founded in the 8th Century BC on the top of a hill right on the sea, from the which it dominated the coast and played a vital role in spreading the Hellenic culture. After the collapse of the Roman Empire, it was progressively abandoned for becoming a safe shelter for pirates and Saracens and for this reason destroyed by an alliance of close cities in the Xth century.
Tradition recognizes in one of its tunnels the Atrium of the Sibyl where the Greek hero Enea was announced a glorious destiny that will lead him to found the eternal Rome.

After a few days recovery, we headed to Greece for a visit with our dear friend Andreas and his family in Athens. More recently our friends Alison and Michael visited us from Gloucestershire, flying out just in time for the dose of winter winds which have hit us and kept our fire going day and night. OK, well several days have gone by since I started this, and things do change.

We’ve been enjoying ourselves in Puglia for the last weeks, but now I am beginning to think more about my inevitable and long-deferred return to the US for work. Ellie and I will go to Sicily a few days after Christmas – she will likely stay there for January before coming back to Puglia to receive more visitors in the spring. On the other hand, I’ll be getting on an airplane early on January 4: Catania (Sicily) to Rome to Dublin to New York. A dreadful day is what I’m expecting, followed by yet another flight the following day to Huntsville, Alabama, where I will work at the “home office” with colleagues I’ve seldom seen over the past years.

As Alabama cotton blossoms Vermont will just be coming out from under snow, and I’ll make my way to the northeast in late March, rendezvous with some in-coming flight bearing my wife from Italy, and we’ll re-claim our home. Whew!

We’ll keep you apprised of some other experiences in the New Year, but this is quite enough to write just now. Wishing you the Happiest of Holidays, our warmest regards. . .
Bruce & Ellie