Like many people, I hesitate to photograph people without their knowledge. Sometimes, if the mood is right, I ask permission, but then the people invariably strike poses or give an embarrassed smile for the camera. So, the few I have are usually street scenes or action scenes. Some I feel I couldn’t display publicly as they could be misinterpreted, have vulnerable children in them, or are otherwise not suitable. Below are some I hope fit the challenge and I have captioned them.
Palermo is this year’s Italian City of Culture. The city has stunning architecture, beautiful churches and art that is equal to that in many other parts of Italy, but for me, Palermo’s gem is the baroque Oratory of the Rosario in Santa Cita.
Tucked away in a back street of the capital, this exuberant masterpiece is often overlooked as one stumbles from one opulent Baroque creation to the next in this very theatrical city. The flamboyance is all inside the building, because the Oratory, by its nature, had to be simple. Perhaps that is why it is often missed by visitors to Palermo.
I first saw the Oratorio on the 1912 BBC series Unpacking Sicily, presented by art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon and chef Giorgio Locatelli. As the presenters walked us into a room whose walls were covered with sparkling white putti climbing and curling around pillars, playing with and teasing the allegorical statues I fell in love with the place. It seemed to me to be redolent of joy and happiness as the impossibly round and naked infants cavorted along the walls oblivious to saints or sinners.
Giacomo Serpotta (1652-1732) the Sicilian artist responsible for the interior of the Oratory was a sculptor of genius whose work in stucco* produced a very distinctive style. His work was already sited all over Palermo when he was commissioned in 1699 to transform the Oratorio and according to art historian Anthony Blunt, he was provided with an artistically complex iconographical plan for the oratory.
In his use of stucco, he created a new art form. Sacheverell Sitwell, who considered his female figures to be the equivalent of those in portraits by Gainsborough, states that the sculptor lifted a minor art “out of itself into an eminence of its own”.
One of three Oratorios (the others being San Dominico and Santa Zita a few metres away) the Oratorio of San Lorenzo is a masterpiece of Sicilian Baroque. The artist worked on this interior between 1698 and 1710, and apart from the cavorting, mischievous cherubs, it features a series of 10 symbolic statues, plus panels detailing the lives of Christ, the lives of St. Francis and St. Lawrence, and one that tells the story of the Battle of Lepanto.
Of extraordinary elegance, white swathes of stucco supported by a swarm of putti flow over the walls; life-size allegorical figures sit casually on ledges as though at a picnic while cherubs play with the draperies of their skirts and blow kisses, and a cornucopia of fruit and flowers adds joy to the scenes.
The Battle of Lepanto is the panel in front of which people stand for a long time absorbing the detail of the battle, the virgin protecting the fleet, the stormy seas, and the two boys sitting on the edge of the panel, one Christian and one infidel, who resemble in every way – even down to their clothes – the street urchins one can still see playing in the streets of Palermo.
The 16th century Battle of Lepanto was the largest naval battle since antiquity and the last major engagement fought between more than 400 rowing vessels. A fleet of the Holy League, a coalition of European Catholic maritime states of which the Venetian and Spanish Empires were the main powers, inflicted a major defeat on the Ottoman Empire in the Gulf of Patras. Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quixote, was one of those injured in the battle.
I think it fair to say that Serpotta displays in this work, an anti-war sentiment, or if not anti-war then a compassion for the enemy unusual at that time.
The altar in the Oratory is disappointing after the sheer gorgeousness of the walls. It was originally famous because it held a masterpiece by the great Caravaggio, a Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence (1609), but this was stolen in 1969. It has never been recovered despite a massive reward being offered. It is presumed that the theft was the work of the Sicilian Mafia and the latest rumour is that it was shredded and fed to pigs.
In 2015 a rather poor digital copy of the altarpiece was placed in the vacant space but it cannot be considered even a good copy.
And now I’ll let the pictures fill in the gaps.
*Stucco: The artist first constructed a model using frames of wood, wire and rags, held together by sand and lime. Over the model a mix of lime and plaster was applied, to which marble dust was added to achieve the smooth surface glaze, This was the invention that lifted Stucco to a higher level and Giacomo Serpotta is credited with creating an original technique that imparted to his work a lustre, not unlike that of stone or marble. Great skill and dexterity were needed as plaster mix dried very quickly but it was valued as it allows the artist not only to build up forms but to carve into them as well.
Address: Via Immacolatella, 90133, Palermo. Tel: 0921 582370
Palermo is like nowhere else in Europe. It’s a crazy, chaotic, crumbling city with a vibrant life that has led it to defy the Mafia, the last in a line of exploiters bent on conquering and subduing the spirit of its people. Every neighbouring power at one time or another. has occupied this island that lies at the crossroads of the Mediterranean, with the result that it offers the visitor a heady mixture of aromatic Arabic food served in tiled restaurants that hark back to Spanish invaders, and stunning architecture and artefacts from Greek and Norman periods. All this in streets lined with crumbling buildings, visual proof of the Italian Government’s neglect of a region for which it seems to have no respect.
View from the Cathedral by Solange Hando
We all think we know Palermo from years of watching films like The Godfather (in all its parts), and Scarface, but the films have never shown the beauty of the baroque palaces, the marble statues that are public art, the beauty of the bay at sunset and the tranquillity of the surrounding countryside.
Outdoor Art in Sicily – Photo Mari Nicholson
The façade of the Teatro Massimo, the magnificence of the Cathedrale at Monreale, five miles south of the city, with its fabulous mosaics brought to Sicily from Byzantium, and the hidden beauties of the marble Serpotto Cherubs in the Oratorio del Santissimo Rosario, are Palermo at its best. At its worst are the alleys strewn with litter, the almost feral children that chase each other around the stalls in the markets, itinerant sellers of silver jewellery and leather belts who accost you at tourist spots, and neighbourhoods filled with ghosts.
Teatro Massimo In Piazza Verdi, Palermo – Photo Mari Nicholson
Italy in the raw is on every Rococo street corner, the Italy of Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano (he operates in a different region of Sicily but the sense of his world is here). Stand in the Piazza Verdi opposite the Teatro Massimo, Europe’s third largest opera house, and look towards the steps of the theatre on which the final scene of The Godfather III took place, and I defy you not to hear the swelling music of Cavalleria Rusticana and hear the howl of anguish from Al Pacino as his beloved daughter died in his arms.
But it is in its streets that the real Palermo, and Sicily, is revealed and in its boisterous street markets with their mixture of fresh food, dusty shoes and lurid outerwear vying for your attention with the fast-food stall, the fresh orange-juice seller and the suspect ‘antiques’. Crumbling baroque facades look down on this carnival of life which attracts the rich and poor of the city.
The Orange Juice Seller, Palermo, Sicily – Photo by Mari
Despite advances made by the justice system and the reverence in which Giovanne Falcone and Paolo Borsellino are held (the two Judges gunned down by the Sicilian Mafia in 1992) the honoured society is still a reality in Palermo. Its presence is a burden the Sicilians have had to bear for many years because few were prepared to defy the demands of the organised crime ring and, let’s face it, it dispensed a type of justice, the only sort on which the poor could rely.
Herb Stall in Palermo Market, Sicily – Photo by Mari Nicholson
Yet by the end of the 20th century and as a result of the assassination of the two popular judges, the Sicilians began to challenge the status quo. Led by Rita Borsellino, sister of the assassinated judge, a native of Palermo and anti-Mafia activist, an anti-Mafia movement, Libera, was formed. Now another movement called Addiopizzo, meaning ‘goodbye to protection payments’ is operating but this movement is trying to involve tourists for the good of the city.
Addiopizzo was founded in 1994 by a few young restaurateurs who had a vision of a Sicily where the Mafia did not control all sectors of the economy and where businesses of all sizes could keep 100% of their profits.
This organisation has now moved into offering anti-Mafia tours and accommodation and lists of bars and restaurants are available where it is guaranteed that the owners are refusing to pay protection money. Addiopizzo offers walking and cycling tours, car hire and accommodation, and can even arrange a tour to Corleone.
Addiopizzo could be the saviour of Palermo and the means by which the people’s pride and their strength to resist the corruption which has ruined their city, could be resurrected. I personally, can highly recommend all their tours and the walk around Palermo is truly an eye-opener.
In the midst of the chaos, the crumbling architecture, the fading grandeur and beauty of its palaces and mansions, the city has a vibrancy not felt in any other city in Italy. It has a life of its own, a language of its own, and it has art spilling out on to the streets. Go see for yourself, and when you’re there, do support ADDIO PIZZO.
Took me a while to think about some landscapes, and unfortunately, I was unable to get out and about to photograph some, so here is a selection of some of my favourites.
This was taken on a fairly good day in Chicago from the top of the famous landmark, the Sears’ Tower. The skyline is probably more impressive from ground level, but I found the view from above quite exciting. See another Chicago photo, bottom.
Citiva is in Lazio Province, within driving distance of Siena, Rome. and Orvieto. Inside the mountain fastness is a quaint old town of cobbled stoned streets, a couple of good restaurants serving rustic food, and a Bodega where the wine flows very liberally.
This was taken from a cable car as we floated over the mountains in Switzerland. I seem to remember that it was quite a long cable-car trip, longer than most I remember. It was a magical journey over the mountains and villages below, the brown and white cows hardly visible and their cowbells muffled by the distance.
One of my favourite places in Sicily, the National Park of Madonie, where wild figs grow along the roadside and just a few locals are left in near-deserted villages to sit outside their doors and chat to whoever passes by. Now and again one sees a thriving village like this one, which is being slowly restored to its former glory by returning families who have made some money working elsewhere and now are coming home to reclaim their birthright.
Sicily has long been one of my favourite countries to visit. Some will say it’s not a country but an Island that forms part of Italy but to me Sicily is so different in every way that it can be considered another country. The food, the people, the extreme variety of environments and the landscape that can change within the distance of a few miles make this almost a paradigm of the Mediterranean.
With over a thousand miles of coastline, the highest volcano in Europe, woods, lakes and rivers that attract tourists from all over the world, it can easily be forgotten that Sicily is also blessed with magnificent parks, one of the loveliest being the Madonie National Park in Palermo Province which covers a large territory in the central-northern part of Sicily. What makes it more attractive to the visitor is that this is not just a nature reserve: it is an area where people live and work, making it perfect for culturally rich travel. It incorporates 15 towns and villages including Polizzi Generosa, the twin Petralia towns, Soprana and Sottana, Gangi, Castellana Sicula, Castelbuono, and Isnello, the latter two probably the most interesting. Throughout the area are several monasteries, hermitages, and churches, many of them isolated and seemingly deserted.
Many of the villages are semi-deserted due to the younger generation having abandoned agricultural life for the charms (and better earnings) of the city and resorts along the coast – and who can blame them? The back-breaking toil of bringing in the olives for pressing, tending the vines and the citrus trees, and shepherding sheep and cattle in the searing heat of summer does not bring in a lot of money.
In parts of the Madonie however, there is a movement to re-open some long-closed houses, as former inhabitants return home with savings that enable them to upgrade these dwellings and use them as vacation homes.
The Park is rich in flora and fauna with the northern slopes covered with thick woods and centuries old olive groves, cork, chestnut, ash and oak woods. The sunny southern side is characterised by hilly slopes cultivated with wheat and barley and although the park only covers 2% of the island’s surface, more than half of the Sicilian vegetable species can be found here.
The Sicilian countryside is full of wild edible plants that are still used in local cooking and the Madonie is rich in vegetables like wild asparagus, funghi of every imaginable shape and colour, wild figs, wild chard, wild mustard, edible thistles, wild onions and wild garlic, and herbs such as fennel, borage, mint, thyme, rosemary and oregano.
As regards fauna, Madonie houses about 70% of the nesting birds and about 60% of the invertebrates of the island, among them several endemic, rare and protected species. The Park is a paradise for bird watchers and for those who like to see mammals living free in their native habitat. Among the animals likely to be encountered are wild boar, fallow deer, Italian hare, European hedgehog, and red fox. And everywhere you will see butterflies of every colour and hue.
Specialities of the mountains which I can recommend are the Madonie Sfogio, Manna, and a delicious cheese called Madonie Provola, a characteristic pulled-curd cheese made with cow’s milk. This is still produced in the traditional way when small ‘pears’ of cheese are made towards the end of the process, straw yellow in colour and with a thin rind, which are then tied up in pairs and hung astride a pole.
Madonie Sfogio is characteristic of the Park, a pastry dessert which has been made for over 400 years and nowadays mainly produced in Polizzi Generoa, Petralia Sottana and Castellana Sicula. A short pastry case filled with mountain cheese, candied pumpkin, egg whites, chocolate, sugar, and cinnamon, it is baked and served cold. It can sometimes be found in other villages, often with a pistachio filling (another product of the mountains).
Manna is described as the Gold of Sicily despite the difficulty of harvesting it. It is made from the sap of specific varieties of ash trees, extracted by making incisions on the bark of the tree – rather like rubber tapping – causing a whitish resin to flow out which crystallises and creates stalactite forms which are then dried before being sold. In the past, families used to move to the country for the summer harvesting of the manna: men incised the trees and the women and children collected the manna, but nowadays the manna is only harvested in the territories of Castelbuono and Pollina. A few young men still follow the traditional way of doing things but as few of them have the knowledge to determine when exactly to make the first incision, it is mostly left to the older generation to harvest the sap.
Manna has medicinal properties as well and items made from the sap are sold in many of the villages. It is an intestinal regulator, a digestive, a light laxative, it soothes a cough, it decongests the liver and it is rich in mineral salts. Nowadays it is used in pastry making and in cosmetics (soaps, creams etc.) and although its taste is sweet it can be used by diabetics as it doesn’t modify glycaemia.
A visit to part of The Madonie can be made in a day if time is short, or there are some excellent hotels and hostels in the Park and the tourist board can advise on holidays for walkers, riders, bird-watchers, photographers – even cookery holidays. It is a very pleasant drive, easily accessible from Palermo or Cefalù – but take it slowly as there are some very dangerous bends through the mountains – or it is possible, and not too expensive, to hire a car and driver for the day, leaving you free to stop when the mood takes you, to photograph the landscape and the people, and to relax and drink in the beauty of the park.
When to go? Well, spring sees spectacular spreads of wildflowers carpeting the mountain slopes while summer offers cool temperatures and an escape from the crowded coasts and cities down below. Autumn brings rich colours from the forest foliage, wild figs to pick along the road, and a bewildering array of wild mushroom dishes in every restaurant, and in winter the ski slopes are brisk with downhill action.
Siracusa (often spelt Siracuse) in south-east Sicily, is often overlooked in favour of the more touristy Taormina but, if possible, the visitor to Sicily should not miss this surprisingly large city that was once described by Cicero as the greatest Greek city in the world.
Assaulted by Romans, Byzantines, Vandals, Arabs, Normans and Spanish, Sicily has absorbed these foreign cultures and made it her own, perhaps best exemplified in Siracuse’s Cathedral in the Piazza Duomo, the delightful pedestrianised square in the heart of Ortygia, the island in the centre of Siracuse.
The façade of the cathedral is 18th century and like so much of Sicily’s architecture, it was erected following the earthquake of 1693. It is actually built on successive works to the Temple of Athena, the doors of which temple were said to be made of gold and ivory. Round about the 17th century the temple was transformed into a Christian church which later became the Cathedral. Walk down Via Minerva to see how nothing was wasted: one example is the giant Doric columns of the Greek temple to Athena that were incorporated into the church that superseded it.
The Piazza is regarded as one of the most beautiful in all Italy with the Cathedral on one side and various Baroque palaces dotted around the square. Day and night the piazza is full of people, as the ground floors of the once-great palaces are now mostly restaurants, cafés and bars and on a warm evening there is no better place in Siracusa in which to sit and enjoy a café or aperitif.
There are two main areas in the town, the archeological area which includes Greek and Roman theatres and ruins, and Ortygia, a small island that feels more like a tiny peninsula, with beautifully restored Baroque buildings, a number of fine hotels and some great restaurants.
The Archeological Area
In the Neapolis Archaeological Park situated in the northwest of the town, are a number of well-preserved Greek and Roman remains.
The main attraction is the Greek theatre (not to be confused with the more often photographed Greek Theatre in Taormina which has as its backdrop the snow-capped Mount Etna) where the plays of Aeschylus and Euripedes are still performed from May to the end of June each summer as they were more than 2,000 years ago.
Started in the 5th century when Syracuse was one of the great cultural centres of the Mediterranean world, the theatre is considered to be one of the most perfect examples of Greek architecture to have survived and can accommodated up to 15,000 spectators in its 59 rows.
The Ear of Dionysis
The nearby fragrant lemon grove was once an old stone quarry used at one time to house 7,000 Athenian prisoners of war, the limestone dug from it in 500 BC being then used to build Siracuse.
Wander into the vast man-made chamber known as Dionysius’s Ear, a 20m high pointed arch cut into the rock face which owes its name to a visit by Caravaggio in 1608. Used as a prison, the excellent Cathedral-like acoustics meant that the prisoners’ conversations could be heard from outside.
There is also an impressive Roman amphitheatre, approximately 140m long, built in the 3rd Century AD where traditional blood sports took place, gladiators and wild animals providing the blood-letting that was so much part of these offerings. The hole in the centre is believed to have been a drain for the blood and gore – as one guide told me – or, a space for scenic machinery – as another guide told me!
The Archaeological Museum is just a short walk from the park and if time allows, it is worth a visit.
Ortygia, 2,55 Years of History
At only 1km by 500m the best way to see Ortygia is just to wander through the area admiring the Greek and Roman remains, the Norman buildings and the Baroque decorative facades. Enjoy the sun by sitting at one of the many cafes in the area sipping a café or an aperitif, or lunch al fresco at one of the many good restaurants on this tiny island. Take a picnic and sit on the seawalls and admire the fish that swim lazily in the clear waters of the bay.
One could easily walk past the Fountain of Arethusa. filled with white ducks and surrounded by walls of greenery, as it looks so unpretentious.
Legend has it that the Arcadian nymph Arethusa, fled underwater to Siracuse to rid herself of the amorous advances of the God Alpheios and the Goddess Artemis transformed her into the fresh water spring that we can see today.
The ruins of this Doric temple stand incongruously in the middle of the town (you can’t miss it as it’s on a main thoroughfare), on one side of which is a bustling market with sellers hawking clothes, handbags, umbrellas and anything else that will sell.
It seems such a pity that the Temple is not isolated so that visitors could enjoy it in tranquillity, but then it was probably full of bustling life when it was in use back in the 8th century BC when it was at its most active. It is the oldest temple in Sicily and over the centuries it has been a Byzantine church, a mosque and a Christian church.
Plato visited Sicily several times as did Simonides and Pindar, and Aeschylus who sang of its beauty. Its enormous military power made it capable of withstanding attacks from Carthage and Athens and the city remained powerful until the Arab conquest in 878 when it lost its supremacy.
Today Syracuse is a pleasant town in which to spend a few days – more if you want to travel beyond it, say to Noto, a perfect day out.