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Isola di Paradossi

The highlight of a month’s wandering round Europe this autumn was hearing Leo Nucci sing Rigoletto in the Teatro Massimo in Palermo. The duet with Gilda was so good it stopped the show: shouts of “Bravo” and also of a lot of comments which I didn’t catch. The whole scene was played again. I thought it was very good and I didn’t know than Nucci is seventy six years old and a legendary stalwart of Italian opera. The upshot is that the only two occasions on which we have been to operas in Sicily are also the only two occasions in which we have seen the show ground to a halt. At the Taormina Opera Festival in 2002 Cavalleria Rusticana was stopped by booing whereas here it was cheering. The have strong and clear opinions, these Sicilian chaps.

It was hot in the opera house so we went for a drink before strolling back to our extremely idiosyncratic two-storey hotel suite. There were tens of thousands of people on the streets. They were having a good look at each other and often greeting each other, talking and sometimes singing. There were many children and large families and very old people who in most countries would be cowering indoors at midnight. There were various street entertainments and you wouldn’t have needed any money to have an enjoyable evening. There was no drunkenness, no violence and no sense of any threat, prompting the question as to whether there is another city in the entire world that you would rather walk through at midnight than Palermo? But, next morning, walking to the cathedral, the impression was different: there was litter everywhere and masses of uncollected rubbish. Parking is anarchic and driving aggressive. A lot of English people would respond by calling it “third world”, but that’s a misleading cliché. The social scientist in me saw a society which in its civic dimension is week, in its kinship dimension strong and in its civil dimension also weak, but complex and changing.

Monreale is a hill town just outside Palermo and easily accessed by regular buses. Its cathedral is a very confusing building. Seen from the north, the town side, it looks at first as if it could belong in many other parts of Europe further north (there is no further south). It is constructed in beige stone and reminded me of a building in Falaise in Normandy until I looked more closely at the lower and smaller of two lines of windows which look distinctly exotic and non-European. If you go round the other sides of the building it is a riot of orientalism which you might expect to find in Morocco. The is “Arabo-Norman” architecture, Sicily’s unique marriage of the extreme ends of the then known world, created by Norman warrior-bosses and Arab craftsmen. Go inside the building and it is something else again, the greatest expanse of Byzantine mosaics in the world. These are as unlike the light, pastelly, domestic mosaics of a Roman villa as it is possible to be. They are dark, green and gold, redolent of the east, of mysticism and magic. The nine great buildings of the “Arabo-Norman” tradition, including also Palermo Cathedral, are (of course) a “World Heritage Site”.

At Agrigento, in the middle of the south coast of Sicily, there are probably the most extensive ruins of any ancient Greek city, Greece included. They stretch along a ridge overlooking the sea whence came the Carthaginians who pestered and, eventually, destroyed the city. Apart from a few curators the ruins are inhabited, even well into the autumn, by thousands of tourists from most of the countries on the planet. But on the ridge inland from and above the ancient city lies the modern city of Agrigento, only a few hundred yards away. It is much smaller, around the same size as Leamington Spa where we live. So far as I can see there are no tourists in modern Agrigento; the litter and rubbish are at the level of Eminesque self-caricature. This is said to be the Mafia capital of Sicily and epicentre of the heroin industry.

Ah, yes – the Mafia. In Palermo Mafia references are ubiquitous; they are on the memorials to victims, on political posters, in the newspapers and referred to also in the shops and stalls of anti-Mafia civic campaign organisations. In Agrigento the word is nowhere to be seen or heard: it’s the old style. Thus the Sicilian condition. Greek. Roman. Arab. Norman. Spanish. Italian. Whatever. Mafia. Not-Mafia. Beautiful, apart from where it’s plug ugly. Friendly (but not at Catania Airport). Rich in essence, poor in practice. Everywhere layered, contradictory and complex, stuffed with ambivalence and paradox.

And – here I may annoy you if you’re that nice sort of person who sees cosmopolitanism as an extension of your niceness and entertains the illusion that internationalism is essentially benign. Do I love Sicily? Is it high on my list of places to revisit? Yes and of course. Do I want England to be in any kind of political or financial union with Sicily? Of course not. Do I think the European Union has been bad for Sicily and good for the Mafia? Of course. On the boat to Palermo I read the great Sicilian novel, Tomassi Di Lampedusa’s The Leopard (Il Gattopardo). The Prince who is the leading character is opposed to the unification of Italy on grounds similar to those of my opposition to European integration; he was right to be so – these unifications spread vices a good deal more efficiently than they spread virtues.

Finally, and on a lighter note, Sicily furnishes one of my favourite quiz questions:The highlight of a month’s wandering round Europe this autumn was hearing Leo Nucci sing Rigoletto in the Teatro Massimo in Palermo. The duet with Gilda was so good it stopped the show: shouts of “Bravo” and also of a lot of comments which I didn’t catch. The whole scene was played again. I thought it was very good and I didn’t know than Nucci is seventy six years old and a legendary stalwart of Italian opera. The upshot is that the only two occasions on which we have been to operas in Sicily are also the only two occasions in which we have seen the show ground to a halt. At the Taormina Opera Festival in 2002 Cavalleria Rusticana was stopped by booing whereas here it was cheering. The have strong and clear opinions, these Sicilian chaps.

It was hot in the opera house so we went for a drink before strolling back to our extremely idiosyncratic two-storey hotel suite. There were tens of thousands of people on the streets. They were having a good look at each other and often greeting each other, talking and sometimes singing. There were many children and large families and very old people who in most countries would be cowering indoors at midnight. There were various street entertainments and you wouldn’t have needed any money to have an enjoyable evening. There was no drunkenness, no violence and no sense of any threat, prompting the question as to whether there is another city in the entire world that you would rather walk through at midnight than Palermo? But, next morning, walking to the cathedral, the impression was different: there was litter everywhere and masses of uncollected rubbish. Parking is anarchic and driving aggressive. A lot of English people would respond by calling it “third world”, but that’s a misleading cliché. The social scientist in me saw a society which in its civic dimension is week, in its kinship dimension strong and in its civil dimension also weak, but complex and changing.

Monreale is a hill town just outside Palermo and easily accessed by regular buses. Its cathedral is a very confusing building. Seen from the north, the town side, it looks at first as if it could belong in many other parts of Europe further north (there is no further south). It is constructed in beige stone and reminded me of a building in Falaise in Normandy until I looked more closely at the lower and smaller of two lines of windows which look distinctly exotic and non-European. If you go round the other sides of the building it is a riot of orientalism which you might expect to find in Morocco. The is “Arabo-Norman” architecture, Sicily’s unique marriage of the extreme ends of the then known world, created by Norman warrior-bosses and Arab craftsmen. Go inside the building and it is something else again, the greatest expanse of Byzantine mosaics in the world. These are as unlike the light, pastelly, domestic mosaics of a Roman villa as it is possible to be. They are dark, green and gold, redolent of the east, of mysticism and magic. The nine great buildings of the “Arabo-Norman” tradition, including also Palermo Cathedral, are (of course) a “World Heritage Site”.

At Agrigento, in the middle of the south coast of Sicily, there are probably the most extensive ruins of any ancient Greek city, Greece included. They stretch along a ridge overlooking the sea whence came the Carthaginians who pestered and, eventually, destroyed the city. Apart from a few curators the ruins are inhabited, even well into the autumn, by thousands of tourists from most of the countries on the planet. But on the ridge inland from and above the ancient city lies the modern city of Agrigento, only a few hundred yards away. It is much smaller, around the same size as Leamington Spa where we live. So far as I can see there are no tourists in modern Agrigento; the litter and rubbish are at the level of Eminesque self-caricature. This is said to be the Mafia capital of Sicily and epicentre of the heroin industry.

Ah, yes – the Mafia. In Palermo Mafia references are ubiquitous; they are on the memorials to victims, on political posters, in the newspapers and referred to also in the shops and stalls of anti-Mafia civic campaign organisations. In Agrigento the word is nowhere to be seen or heard: it’s the old style. Thus the Sicilian condition. Greek. Roman. Arab. Norman. Spanish. Italian. Whatever. Mafia. Not-Mafia. Beautiful, apart from where it’s plug ugly. Friendly (but not at Catania Airport). Rich in essence, poor in practice. Everywhere layered, contradictory and complex, stuffed with ambivalence and paradox.

And – here I may annoy you if you’re that nice sort of person who sees cosmopolitanism as an extension of your niceness and entertains the illusion that internationalism is essentially benign. Do I love Sicily? Is it high on my list of places to revisit? Yes and of course. Do I want England to be in any kind of political or financial union with Sicily? Of course not. Do I think the European Union has been bad for Sicily and good for the Mafia? Of course. On the boat to Palermo I read the great Sicilian novel, Tomassi Di Lampedusa’s The Leopard (Il Gattopardo). The Prince who is the leading character is opposed to the unification of Italy on grounds similar to those of my opposition to European integration; he was right to be so – these unifications spread vices a good deal more efficiently than they spread virtues.

Finally, and on a lighter note, Sicily furnishes one of my favourite quiz questions:

QUESTION: From which king of England does the Godfather get his name?

ANSWER: Richard I.

EXPLANATION: When the boy Vito Andolini arrives at Ellis Island the incompetent American official dealing with his case confuses his family name with his birthplace so that he becomes Vito Corleone. The name, of course, means “Lionheart” and the town is called after Richard (I) the Lionheart.

Lincoln Allison November 2018