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.