Siracusa: Sunday, 25 September 2011

We’ve been in Siracusa since Friday evening.  My wife, Christopher Check, and I, accompanied by our young friend and board member Mark Atkins, are checking out the site of our next Winter School, and there is so much to do: so many ancient ruins to check out, so many medieval churches to visit, so many dishes and wines to try out to see if they will be suitable for our guests.  As the saying goes, it’s a tough job.  I should know, I invented the program.  These conference-cum-trips not only carry out our educational mission, but, to be brutally frank, although they barely break even, they allow us to spend time with the supporters without whose generous contributions we would not be in business.

We flew by way of Zurich on Swiss.  Looking at the airline’s name on the plane, SWISS, followed by translations into German, French, Italian, and Romansh, I realized that in a multi-lingual country like Switzerland as much as in India, English can become the default language for international discourse.  SWISS did they best they could to delay our departure from Chicago long enough for us to miss our connection, but they failed.  The new Airbus they are boasting of over here is only slightly less uncomfortable than those Aeroflot planes on which they cram a third more passenger than they are designed for.

In case anyone is interested, Siricusa is worth the effort to get here.  I’ve spent a good deal of time in most parts of Italy, and this is my third trip to Sicily (in preparation for our Winter School on ancient Sicily in January), but  I had previously bypassed Siracusa.  In the Summer it is hot and crowded, but the tourists and trippers are melting away, and the weather is cooling down a bit.  Today was fairly warm—a humid high in the mid 80’s—but generally the highs now are 80 or below.  In January, the highs hover between 55 and 60.

We are staying at the Hotel Roma on the island of Ortygia, the “Quail Island” that was the original site of the Corinthian colony established in the later 8th century B.C.  I have no complaints about the hotel, apart from an ambitious SKY television system that gives us hundreds of channels we don’t want to watch and no volume control.  I finally had to unplug the set.  I think the problem is—as usual—a failing batter in the Telecommando.  I’ll have to fix it or miss my favorite silly shows.

We spent the first full day exploring Ortygia–the solemn cathedral of St. Mary built around Gelon’s early fifth century temple of Athena.  The greatest of Greek tyrants built the temple, whose structure and columns are still visible, after his epoch-making defeat of the Carthaginians at Himera in 480, a battle every bit as important for the Western future as Salamis (according to legend fought on the same day) was.

We walked all over Ortygia and spent a very bright two hours rambling over the castle built by Emperor Friedrich II but misattributed to a better man, the Byzantine general George Maniakes.  Leaving the castle, I stood gassing on about French films in front of a papyrus-infested pool of running water with little fishes and ducks.  Breaking off, I asked where the famous Fountain of Arethusa was.  Then I caught the sign.  There’s a lesson in n here somewhere.

The first time I ate anything like real Sicilian food was at a restaurant in New York with the late Paul Piccone, but it was a pale imitation of even the supper I had on the outskirts of Rome with Roberto de Mattei, and what you can feed as foreign cuisine to Romans is not quite the exotic amalgam of Italian, Greek, Spanish, and Arabic/North African culinary traditions that have formed the Sicilian kitchen.

The first night on town (friday) we chose well: “Il Blu”–a little rather hip place on the Via Nizza, looking out at the little harbor.  There is little point in describing the dishes.  I could barely master the names and quickly forget them.  Our antipasto were types of Pane Cunzatu,  a sort of thick bruschetta with different toppings of fish and tomatos.  Mark Atkins, Chris Check, and I ordered what the proprietor suggested, but my wife agreed to get different dishes for the sake of variety.  “Women, he sighed, “women.  They have to have their own way even when they are wrong.”

My pasta was delicious, with small tomatoes, rucola, and bits of what seemed to be dried swordfish.  My wife’s was a strange dish with tuna and something that seemed like flour tortillas.  The fish course, when it finally came—we had to wait just the right amount of time or we could never have attempted it—was sesame-crusted young swordfish.  The dish was a million miles from the muscular swordfish I was used to and will now forever regret.  My wife had tuna, and as good as it was, the proprietor—whom I took for a misogynist—was right.

After the first hour, he dropped his assumed role of tutor of the hopelessly ignorant and asked about my Italian.  I said people sometimes took me for Milanese.  “Milanese,” he said with some asperity, “my wife is Milanese.”  When the pretty signora appeared, we chatted about the language.  Some people, I told her, say my vowels are wrong.  “Nonsense,” she replied, “what idiot told you that?  Some from Naples or maybe a Sicilian?”  I told her it was in Caserta.  “What do they know?  They can’t even speak Italian.”    I almost confessed that I had several times interviewed Umberto Bossi, founder of the Lega Lombarda/Lega Nord, but caught myself in time.

We absolutely could not eat a dessert but ordered a pane cotta for the four of us.  Again, the proprietor was right, if a bit exaggerated, in saying, “the best in the world.”

We drank three bottles of a beautiful white wine from Siracusa, a dry and spicy moscato (I know, dry moscato should be a contradiction in terms, but times are changing.) with the name Cyane, a fountain nymph who claimed this island of Ortygia before the arrival of Artemis.   The company is Pupillo.  There’s always room for grappa, and he gave us a beautiful local grappa (di Noa) that was almost worth the dinner.  My wife drank a very light and delicious Marsala amaro from Florio.


Yesterday we walked all over Ortygia and spent a very bright two hours rambling over the castle built by Emperor Friedrich II but misattributed to a better man, the Byzantine general George Maniakes.  Leaving the castle, I stood gassing in front of a papyrus-infested pool of running water with little fishes and ducks.  Breaking off, I asked where the famous Fountain of Arethusa was.  Then I caught the sign.  There’s a lesson here somewhere.

Sunday, we left Ortygia by foot and headed to the archaeological museum.  It’ s a vast place on a sprawling triangular plan of three stories.  Fortunately, the visitor will not even dream of not getting lost, so scientifically has it been planned out.  In general I do not like museums, especially museums whose curators refuse to distinguish between objects of historical and aesthetic significance and mere junk that happens to have survived.  My wife does not object to the 100 thousandth Etruscan sarcophagus or ten millionth Apulian potshard.   I do.

Still, there are some wonderful pieces:  several fine Attic vases, an excellent Roman copy of a Hellenistic Greek Aphrodite, two exquisite little female heads, and a very fine terracotta bust, albeit in fragments, of a female goddess with golden hair.  She is probably Demeter or her daughter Kore/Persephone.  In every Sicilian museum, and Siracusa is certainly no exception, there are hundreds, even thousands of figurines of the mother and/or daughter carrying piglets or other cult offerings.  Worshippers bought these mass-produced figures and brought them to shrines as offerings.

Perhaps you already know that Sicily, according to ancient tradition, was  or is the Island of Persephone.   As the beautiful tale goes, she was picking flours at or near the site of Enna, not far from Mt. Aetna, when the Lord of the Underworld seized her and brought her to his kingdom as the queen.  Her mother Demeter wandered the earth, sorrowing, and would not exert her power to let any living thing grow, bear fruit, or reproduce.  Zeus finally relented and allowed Persephone to return to earth, though because she politely accepted some pomegranate seeds to eat, she was compelled annually to return to the realm of Hades during the dead season.  At the wedding of his brother Hades and Persephone—who was revered both as the maiden Kore and as Persephone the Queen of Hell—Zeus gave the island of Sicily as a present.

The tale existed, obviously, before the Greeks had made any settlement in Sicily and it is obvious that the colonists grafted a Greek story onto some native, probably Sicel traditions.  Pre-Greek religion on Sicily appears to have been very much oriented toward chthonic deities, the gods of earth and under-earth, responsible for the annual mysteries of  death and rebirth.

And, while I am skeptical of the modern sort of pseudo-scientific myth-making that uses anthropological methods to make sense out of Greek religious and philosophical traditions, it cannot be an accident that Western (Italian and Sicilian) Greek philosophers, while as rational as the Ionian tradition, were not deaf to the mystical dimensions of human existence.  Pythagoras, Parmenides, and Empedocles represent a different and I should say deeper attempt at understanding the universe than Anaximander, Heraclitus, and Anaxagoras.  It is also no accident that Parmenides and Empedocles both presented their philosophies in the form of poems for which they claimed divine inspiration.

Perhaps I can speak more about Empedocles when we get to Acragas.  I should also mention a brilliant and deeply learned book by Gunther Zuntz, Persephone: Three Studies in Religion and Thought in Magna Graecia.  It is worth every penny of the $670 that I see Amazon is charging for a used copy, though someone, please, should reprint it.

More to come….