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Sicily: Land of Contrasts

Why Sicily?

An island of intensity and contrasts, we've visited several times. On our current adventure, we're living in a cave, an experience I'll describe later.

Sicily has always beckoned foreigners. D.H. Lawrence lived here for some years and Lawrence Durrell wrote of it. Yet 'la dolce vita' doesn't apply to this mass of stone kicked by the boot tip of Italy. Salt and sulphur mines, quarries, deforestation, active volcanoes, historic strife, and a history of absentee landlords have left their harsh mark.

Sicily remains compelling at the crossroads of Euro-North African-Mid Eastern cultures: a land filled with myth and remnants of the ancient Greeks, Phoenicians, Romans, Muslims, Normans, Spanish, Swabians, and French who lived here. With its own dialects, history, and allegiances, it's a land set apart from the rest of Italy, both physically and culturally. It offers much to see but seems a hard place to get to know. Something surprising always awaits as you travel in Sicily.

Trinacria, photo above, Symbol of Sicily (read more about it)

Mount Etna Lives

Mt. Etna is very much a live volcano Topped with eternal snow, Etna still fumes with earth's inner fire. Years ago, we could hire a jeep and guide to take us up there. I saw red veins flowing through the hot earth underfoot. You could feel the warm, shifting, ground under your feet and smell the acrid sulfur from the mythical forges of Hephaestus.

Etna dominates Sicily's eastern landscape, is Europe’s largest volcano and one of the world’s most active. Dramatic jets of lava were recorded spewing vertically into the air as recently as 2013. Yet, it remains an active visitor destination.

The Renaissance in Sicily

Sicily, too, had its Renaissance master artists. Antonello da Messina is a famous local boy who made his mark in art history. Some of his works, like the Madonna of the Salts (shown) seem to me strikingly modern in their play of expressions, modelled plasticity, emphatically simplified masses, dramatically high contrast, and super-defined 'realism'.

Anonymous Art and Outsider Art

Much of the art I saw across my travels has led me to muse about how many truly wonderful artists remain anonymous. Which contemporary artist would forsake 15 minutes of personal fame for the timeless endurance of an anonymous artwork? Made for its own sake, or perhaps aligned to a higher or spiritual purpose, so many wonderful art creations have been made by anonymous hands.

Wandering the cloister at Monreale, for instance, I marvelled at the many original figures carved atop its sinuous columns. The Arabic and oriental influence of the architecture gives a unifying theme to the Duomo, but the carvings themselves are delightful excursions into individual artistic imagination and skill.

This holds true of much Outsider Art, as well. Made by persons, typically unknown, uncelebrated, and far outside the mainstreams of art education, culture, and markets, such art may offer a uniqueness not found in schools of accepted art Consider, for example, the thousands of roughly carved heads in nearby caves and rocks by Filippo Bentivegna, a poor, brain-injured Sicilian living in Sciacca (photo credit: He lived a solitary life but was sovereign to a kingdom of stone creations, abandoned when he died in 1967. Visiting his home, now repurposed as a museum showing some of his more than 2,000 carvings, was memorable . What drives a person to make art? Sometimes it seems like an internal need, keen as hunger.

Archaeology and Art: The Eternal Present

Art, architecture, and archaeology tend to blend here. As does present and past. Scattered through this land (once called Magna Graecia) are glorious Greek temples and amphitheatres, Phoenician artifacts, Roman architecture and mosaics of Moorish design.

Valley of the Temples and Kolymbethra Garden, Agrigento

We lived for a time in Agrigento. Below it is the Valley of the Temples, probably my personal favourite site in Sicily. This flat area once stood atop the ancient Greek city of Akragas, hailed as the most beautiful city in the ancient Mediterranean. Stone remnants of the old city wall and gates remain. In this sacred valley are some of the finest and best-preserved ancient Greek temples in the world. As you walk on here, you can feel your feet stepping alongside ancient footsteps. The spaciousness of the entire site can easily take a day or more to explore.

It's quite an experience to walk in this site, dedicated to ancient gods, with its many temples and ancient enclosed garden. You take your time, enjoying the placement of the site itself, less aware of the modern world nearby, imagining and recreating some of the life that took place here and calls out silently from these stones. Going down from the temples to Kolymbethra Garden (photo taken in winter, 2016), you discover an ancient paradise of citrus and olive trees..

Thanks to a system of canals, the ancient Greeks transformed an arid land into lush orchards. I recall the delicious aroma and taste of different kinds of oranges, mandarins, and the very Sicilian chinotto. I ate this fruit (including varieties no longer cultivated) as I wandered down from the temples above, pulling them directly from trees (allowed!)) I wonder how many tunic-garbed ancients had done the same.

The outstanding attraction remains the Temples. Here is where I've seen, up close and personal, the best standing examples of simply majestic Doric architecture. Monumental in scope (the columns of the Temple of Zeus were reported large enough to hold a person within one of their grooves!).

Concordia Temple (left,, photo credi).

JS at Temple of Juno, Valle dei Templi, 2016

Recumbent ruins of telamone (gigantic figures used as support columns,) lie now where they might once have stood to support the architecture. The best examples of these giants are in the nearby archaeology museum, but I think the ones seen here, eroded and lying on the earth, give a clearer poignancy to the passing ages.