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In Sicily the modern is unspeakably hideous

But the island is home to great beauty

By on Friday, 25 January 2013

POPE ARRIVES TO CELEBRATE MASS IN PALERMO

I have just been on holiday, as I mentioned. The place I visited, not to for the first time, was Sicily, an island I have long wanted to know better. It was quite an itinerary: Toarmina, Catania, Syracuse, Noto, Avola, and Scicli – lots of Baroque architecture, the last three towns being lavishly reconstructed after the earthquake of 1693. Noto is particularly famous for this, and has a historic centre full of baroque churches and palaces. I had been warned years ago that Noto was falling down. But since then, back in 1996, it did indeed fall down: at least the dome of the Cathedral fell in, which served, as they love to say, as a wake-up call. Since then the Cathedral has been restored, and now looks brand new, and much other work has taken place. I have certainly complained in the past about the neglect many historic buildings have suffered in Italy, so it seems a bit rich to complain about their restoration, but sadly, some buildings in Noto and elsewhere have been ruined by restoration. Once weathered facades now look as though they have been moulded out of yellow plastic. But the best is still very good. Take the Palazzo Beneventano del Bosco in the Cathedral Square of Syracuse  It looks its age, but still looks lovely.

The other drawback in Sicily is the all too evident environmental degradation. Walk out of the historic centre of Noto, and you see what would otherwise be a spectacular landscape littered with old bits of plastic, abandoned fridges and televisions, and dumped mattresses, not to mention disfigured by shoddily constructed illegal buildings. The modern in Sicily is unspeakably hideous: Syracuse and Catania are full of jerry built apartment blocks covered in netting and scaffolding, falling to pieces before one’s eyes. “Abusivismo”, the building of houses without planning permission, is endemic in Sicily. And yet the Italian television was full of politicians championing the environment such as Nichi Vendola, a rising star of the Left. Lots of talk, but little action – the same old Italian story.

And yet Catania is a fascinating and lovely city. The diocesan museum is a must see. Walking the streets of Catania you get an idea of what must have inspired the builders of Valetta, and you are reminded of other far flung outstations of the Spanish Empire, in particular Mexico City. And there, as in other places, you find the Saints: St Agatha in Catania, Saint Lucy and Saint Sebastian in Syracuse. I was very struck by the fact that the Emperor Diocletian has been dead for centuries, and yet in the streets of Syracuse only last Sunday people were acclaiming his most famous victim, shouting “Viva San Sebastiano!” The Cathedral there, incidentally, has been open for business since the seventh century. There is something eternal about the faith, and about Sicily too.

  • JabbaPapa

    … some buildings in Noto and elsewhere have been ruined by restoration. Once weathered facades …

    Why do you think that damage is beautiful, and that repairing it is some sort of sin against aesthetics ???

  • Patrick_Heren

    I am glad the Syracusans are still cheering San Sebastiano, Diocletian’s most famous victim. The stunning 3rd/4th c mosaics at the Villa Casale near Piazza Armerina were probably installed by Diocletian’s co-emperor Maximian. The Villa was perhaps where he and his family holidayed to get away from Diocletian, and the other cares of office. It is a very atmospheric place, despite the inability of the authorities to create a decent visitor centre.
    By the way, a priest at Piazza Armerina cathedral once refused to celebrate a scheduled mass on Sunday because there was only us and one other family in the pews. Our Sicilian  friend dubbed him “Padre Stanco”.

  • http://twitter.com/veryphil Phil Hasenkamp

    You make a lot of illogical connections here, and you’ve chosen to skip over a lot of sociocultural history that has produced the southeastern Sicily one sees today.  Your subjective observations are, to use your word, hideous, and poorly communicated.  Try doing a little more research and going to Sicily on more than a holiday before writing such banal fluff.  (I apologize if you’re an elementary school student doing your first paper.  If so, good job!)

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    You cannot write the history of Southern Sicily or anywhere else on the back of a postage stamp.

  • Parasum

    Restoration can be very damaging – especially if done inexpertly and without artistic tact. This is as true of work on paintings or vestments as of work on furniture or churches or books. The good intentions can’t redeem a botched or tactless job. Especially when the tactlessness takes the form of injudicious modernising – whether 18th century, 19th, or something more modern.

    None of that implies “damage is beautiful”.

  • Danielp

    Maybe you should do some research next time you visit sicily. This article reads like a primary school draft. I think you’ll find if you go with an open mind and a little more knowledge about the history, the struggles and the environment of sicily, your experience will be vastly different. Did you go to pantalica, cavagrande or the cava d’ispica? They are all incredible environments in southeast sicily. And the fact they are restoring these beautiful and unique buildings is a good thing and should not be discouraged just because you like a bit of wear and tear.

  • http://twitter.com/veryphil Phil Hasenkamp

    Are you saying that I know nothing about Sicily?  Your pathetic attempt at an insult wasn’t even grammatically correct.  You’re an English-speaking Catholic friar who presumably knows Latin and you use bad grammar?  I’ve lived here for 15 years, I speak the language and own a home here.  The wild, misinformed and pompous conclusions you reach in your piece are a disgrace.  You do not represent your profession well.

  • JabbaPapa

    None of that implies “damage is beautiful”

    But the notion that “once weathered” façades have had their beauty “ruined” by getting rid of their weatherdness does…

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    Have a look at some of the pictures of Noto Cathedral….. its facade looks brand new. Brand new stone does not look as good as weathered stone, imho.

  • http://twitter.com/veryphil Phil Hasenkamp

    The author’s miserably simplistic reflections show that he knows zero about art history, aesthetics and even less about Sicily’s sociocultural past.  Was this written by a 5th grader?

  • maxmarley

    And there are also Modica and Regusa, centres of baroque elegance.
    When we left these towns during a vacation for a stay in Touristy Taormina, we knew we had made a big mistake.
    The ability of the Italians to turn a devastating earthquake into an opportunity to create a legacy of architectural gems never ceases to amaze me.

  • JabbaPapa

    Given that a large part of the cathedral collapsed, and reconstruction (not restoration) was necessary, that’s hardly surprising — but the English fascination with damaged stonework does not really exist down here in the Mediterranean, where clean, smooth stonework is considered as a thing of beauty in itself.

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    The dome is new, and the paintings inside the dome too (and good are they too. But the facade has been overcleaned to my taste. The Chiesa del Carmine in Noto is not restored and looks very good.

  • JabbaPapa

    It looks filthy, IMO — in dire need of a good scrubbing.

    Some decades ago I would have agreed with you — because the old techniques for cleaning stone were directly damaging in and of themselves ; but non-invasive and non-destructive techniques have existed since the 1990s at least ; and their results are very impressive.

  • Boleyn

    Went to Sicily in 2011 and enjoyed it, especially Taormina, for which I wrote a review. Love to visit the churches. I agree, in places some ‘tidying up’ could be done and I do prefer the older architecture to the modern developments. Palermo was certainly ‘an experience’ and glad a coach driver was doing the driving rather than me! The clock in the square was certainly  worth seeing and at a nearby cafe I enjoyed a fantastic Cannoli.   A tour around Palermo Cathedral was worthwhile, revealing it’s certain character, brought about by the different styles, added and amended during it’s long history. One of the most memorable sights was Cefalu with the cathedral, dating back from 1131 and the way it took centre stage as it rose formidable bulk above the medieval town. According to tradition, it was created by earth brought in from Jerusalem!
    Overall, the sort of place you would like to re-visit.

  • Bullen

     Went to Sicily in 2011 and enjoyed it, especially Taormina, for which I
    wrote a review. Love to visit the churches. I agree, in places some
    ‘tidying up’ could be done and I do prefer the older architecture to the
    modern developments. Palermo was certainly ‘an experience’ and glad a
    coach driver was doing the driving rather than me! The clock in the
    square was certainly  worth seeing and at a nearby cafe I enjoyed a
    fantastic Cannoli.   A tour around Palermo Cathedral was worthwhile,
    revealing it’s certain character, brought about by the different styles,
    added and amended during it’s long history. One of the most memorable
    sights was Cefalu with the cathedral, dating back from 1131 and the way
    it took centre stage as it rose formidable bulk above the medieval town.
    According to tradition, it was created by earth brought in from
    Jerusalem!
    Overall, the sort of place you would like to re-visit.