Cefalù: Resort Town in Sicily

When people ask me what my favourite place in Sicily is, I give the name of the last one I visited, because each time I go there, Sicily works her magic on me and I fall in love again with the people, the scenery, the ambiance of wherever I happen to be.  Last time it was Cefalù, the medieval town lying just an hour’s drive east of Palermo and located between its own natural bay and the towering rocky granite mass called La Rocca.

El Duomo, just off the main street

I had thought of Cefalù as a touristy town as it seemed to feature in most of the holiday brochures but when I first walked down its winding medieval main street flanked with an array of little shops from artisan bakers and designer boutiques to a beautifully tiled pharmacy complete with ancient fittings, I realised how wrong I’d been.   In between the shops are family-run restaurants serving the freshest of fish and local delicacies, and its unique Norman cathedral is right on the street, although set a little way back, its place in the life of the town assured. Doubly so, as there is a bar and a gelateria on the corner!

Cefalù’s origins go back to the Carthegenians.  It was then colonised by the Greeks (the name derives from the ancient Greek word for “Cape”) but the town we see today was built at the behest of the Norman King, Roger II.

The building of the two-towered Cathedral began in 1131 and is a fine example of what is termed “Sicilian Romanesque”.  There is an exquisite mosaic of Christ Pantocrator on a gold background above the altar, created by twelfth-century Byzantine artists which is twinned with the Palatine Chapel in Palermo and the Duomo in Monreale. If there is a chance to see all three on a trip do take advantage of this, because seeing the trio of mosaics enhances one’s appreciation of each one.

Towering above the Duomo and the town centre is La Rocca, a massive crag which presents an interesting challenge to walkers in the hot summer months. The steep ascent winds up ancient, well worn steps and footpaths but it is well worth the effort to reach the top. A bottle of water is essential. Don’t even attempt the climb in very hot weather,

La Rocca, Cefalu

It is an old Saracen stronghold and near the top there are the remains of a megalithic Temple of Diana which dates back to Sicanian-Greek times (the Sicans were one of the native peoples of Sicily, and Diana, of course, is a Latin name for the Greek goddess Artemis).   Left to decay over time only parts of the fortress survive – fragments of several small castles and a vast medieval wall encircling the mountain.   The crenelated ‘castle’ at the summit is a recent, but faithful, reconstruction and beyond the temple, the mountain is wooded with pine trees and a few indigenous shrubs. 

As well as the ruins of the temple, the climb is worth the effort for the truly spectacular views of the cathedral, town and coast.  Red roofed houses and the ochre and yellow walls of the town are gilded by the sun and on the dark sapphire of the sea tiny white sail boats are bobbing. 

 The harbour area with it narrow alleys and medieval buildings is a picturesque spot. Unlike most of the fishing villages that dot Sicily’s coast, Cefalù had a great and grand past – important enough for Roger II to build a cathedral here.   Worth seeing are the Saracen wash-house, the Lavatorio, and the Osterio Magno originally thought to have been King Roger’s residence but which now houses art exhibitions. 

During the morning the fishermen sit on the quayside by their upturned boats, repairing their nets or getting ready to take to sea again, happy to exchange banter with the curious tourists who are fascinated by the method of net-mending. If it is not a school-day there will be children playing among the ropes of blue and orange and dogs and the occasional brave cat will chase each other around the lobster pots.

Style Italia, even in this small local shop

While its later history was less distinguished, there is still an indefinable air of something important about this harbour.  The beach is indifferent but its position, and views of stunning sunsets through archways in the walls make it a magnet for people at night, to walk along the rocky path that winds along the shore below the sea-facing walls and to drink coffee or wine in dusky bars that hug the waterfront.

Around Cefalù, places of interest include a hillside pilgrimage destination, the Sanctuary of Gibilmanna, and directly south of Cefalù is the Madonie National Park (my own favourite) where holiday-makers will find skiing in winter and hiking in spring and autumn.  The pictuesque town of Castelbuono in the park makes a pleasant day out whether you take a taxi or a bus (a 40 minute journey departing from Cefalù railway station), Palermo is just an hour away by train, and the Aeolian Islands can be reached by hydrofoil in the summer, including Volcano Island with its still live volcano (best seen at night if you have time).

Sicilian cooking has a reputation second to none but those with a nut allergy should be careful. Sicilians really love pistachios.  They eat these green nuts wherever possible and will even smear pistachio paste from a jar on a slice of panettone. They sprinkle them over pastries, create wonderful ice cream with them and make pasta sauce with them. Pasta with prawns, tomatoes and pistachio has to be eaten to be believed – it’s fabulous.    And while pistachio ice cream is not unknown to us in Europe or the USA, that in Sicily has a flavour so intense that most people after the first one, ask for ‘a large one’ next time.

Where better for an aperitif ? Right in front of El Duomo

And Cefalu also has beaches. Most beaches have a charge for chairs and umbrellas but along with this you get clean sands and well behaved people, sunshine, sea, boat rides, and often a cafe. What more could the seeker after a hedonistic holiday ask for?

Cefalu Harbour at Night

Palermo: Caravaggio to be Returned?

You may remember that when I wrote about the Serpotta Stuccoes, I mentioned that the Caravaggio masterpiece, Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence, had been stolen from the altar of the Oratorio and that the replacement painting was not something one could really admire.

I was more than pleased, therefore, to read in The Guardian a few days ago, that there are hopes that the painting may be recovered soon as Italian investigators have received information that the painting, which was stolen in 1969, could be hidden in Switzerland.  The head of Italy’s anti-mafia commission last Thursday said that the information came from a former mobster-turned-informant who revealed that it had once been held by Gaetano Badalamenti, a ‘capo di capo’ (boss of bosses).  The informant told the mafia investigators that Badalamenti (who has since died in America where he had been convicted of heroin trafficking) had been in touch with an art dealer in Switzerland.

To have this masterpiece returned to the Oratorio of San Lorenzo would be something wondrous for the people of Palermo, as when the criminals stole the painting by cutting it from its frame with razorblades everyone presumed it was lost forever.

Rosy Bindi, the head of Italy’s anti-mafia commission, told The Guardian that they have collected enough evidence to launch a new investigation and to request the collaboration of foreign authorities, especially those in Switzerland.

Leoluca Orlando, mayor of Palermo, who has helped Palermo transform itself from a  stronghold of the mafia to a European Capital of Culture, said that the city was no longer dominated by mobsters and godfathers, that it has changed and now demands the return of everything the mafia had stolen from it.

The return of this painting to the Oratorio will be an event to be celebrated throughout Sicily.  I hope it happens soon.

Meantime, here are a few of the pictures of the 16th-century stuccoes from the Oratorio that I originally posted.

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Serpotta’s Stucco in Palermo

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.

My favourite putti
The Playful Putti

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.

Cherub from Serpotta's stuccoes

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.

Notice the devil above the statue
Two allegorical figures sit ledges while all around are figures, faces, leaves, fruit.

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”.

Icons

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.

End Wall of Oratory.
The Battle of Lepanto panel. Below the ship sit two boys, one Christian and a victor, the other an Infidel and a loser in the battle, but they are alike in their sorrow.

Above Lepanto scene - one cherub foot missing, one crying, one supporting
A less-happy trio of cherubs, one has already lost a foot, one is supporting him and one is crying.

These could be today's urchins in Palermo
These could be today’s urchins from the streets around Palermo, clothes, stance, everything. In the middle the detritis of war.

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.

Centrepiece on a wall

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, the 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.

Window wall with playing cherubs

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.

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*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