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We returned to Palermo for another wonderful opera in the Teatro Massimo, “La Traviata” this time, and for some further exploration of the city.
For the brief trip up to the 11th Century cathedral of Monreale, above Palermo, and a visit to the Capuchin catacombs, we hired a tour guide. It was pricey, but included transportation to the two sites, too distant from the center of town for walking. All in all, having the guide was mostly distracting, but there was one interesting discussion with her that made us think.
She described growing up in Palermo in a family where speaking Sicilian was considered “low-class.” She had to, she said, learn “her native language” when she got away from home in her twenties. She is trying to raise her children to be bi-lingual in Sicilian and Italian. As we talked a little more, she pointed out that Garibaldi, the leader of the formation of modern Italy, and to whom there are many monuments in Palermo, had actually been very bad for Sicily, in her view. Garibaldi and “the thousand” (volunteers to fight the Bourbon government of “The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies” – which included Naples), defeated the Bourbon troops in the summer of 1860, leading eventually to the consolidation of modern Italy, with Sicily in it.
But her point was that the net effect of Garibaldi’s success was, once again, Sicily’s subordination to Rome. In a long, long history of Sicily’s domination by the Greeks, the Carthaginians, the Romans, Arabs, Normans, the Spanish and the French, the Romans were remembered as among the most repressive.
Above, the “Trinacria” -ancient symbol of Sicily, the three legs reflecting the three corners of the island, with the head of Minerva in the center, and the wheat standing for Sicily’s position as the most important (and thus oft-conquered) source of grain for early Mediterranean civilization. There’s evidence the three-legged image was even older, representing the sun, but that makes sense with Sicily’s climate anyway…
The “Shamrocks and Trinacria” headline of this article reflects a growing awareness on our part of the parallels between the British conquest and domination of Ireland and the Roman (Italian) conquest and domination of Sicily. Both islands have their own language, both languages suppressed by the conquering powers, and both suffered economically during the periods of outside rule – still in place in Sicily.
Even though plenty of people on the island use Sicilian as their first language, it’s not easy to learn. It’s definitely a distinct language, not a “dialect” of Italian – with elements from Spanish, Arabic, Greek and who knows where all. I asked the local vegetable seller what her beautiful chard was called, and she promptly responded, “zarche” (pronounced zar-kay). Then she hastily added that, in Italian, it’s “bietola.” Unfortunately, there are no Sicilian/English dictionaries, and Google Translate has no clue.
The Monreale cathedral part of the tour pointed out another feature of Sicily, and that is the blending of cultures that has very much left its mark on the island and its language. For roughly 300 years, between 700 AD and 1000 AD, Sicily was dominated by the “Saracens” – Muslim Arabs. Palermo particularly reflects this influence, with many of the most important Christian religious structures built from converted mosques, or with their design deeply influenced by elements of Muslim art and architecture. During the time of Norman (Viking) domination of Sicily 1000 AD to about 1100 AD, Muslims, Christians and Jews lived peacefully and collaboratively in Palermo and in other cities on the island.
Unfortunately that all came to an end during the period of Spanish domination of the island in 1400s and 1500s, when the Inquisition reigned supreme. One square in the center of town, in front of the headquarters of the Inquisition, was the favored location for many burnings of heretics.
But the amazing cathedral in Monreale, on a high plateau overlooking Palermo, was built in the early 1,000s, with its entire interior filled with detailed mosaics of various Christian religious scenes – and Muslim decorative elements. Same for the monastery next to it, which preserved the Muslim tradition of formal ablutions before prayer.
We have no photos from the catacombs, but that’s probably just as well. Many of the 8,000 desiccated corpses accumulated from 1500 to the mid-1800s there are hung up along the walls, many fully dressed in their funeral costumes. It was apparently prestigious for the prosperous to be (rather poorly) taxidermied. It’s interesting to see the clothes, but mostly it’s just plain creepy, like a jar full of fingernail clippings saved during a lunatic’s lifetime.
With the recent proposal for a 54 billion dollar expansion of the US military budget, another thought comes to mind. The scores of huge, elaborate stone churches that dominate Palermo (and everywhere else in Sicily) show, among other things, the lavish squandering of huge amounts of human labor and creativity on ritual buildings – instead of human resources being directed towards schools, hospitals (which could have been just as art-filled), agricultural infrastructure, and clean, beautiful housing for the poor.
The tradition continues! Except now many societies squander their wealth on military paraphernalia, rather than arguably more harmless, sometimes even beautiful, ecclesiastical grandeur. The same principle is involved, though. The wealth of society is still spent on things that ignore the basic needs of most human beings. Too bad, these days, that the powerful worship weapons.
In other news, we had a great visit from our friends Mark and Jolee. Lovely, and remarkably easy to pick up a friendship again after a gap of some 37 years… We hope we will see them again soon, maybe in their home, Turkey.
The celebrations of Rosa Balistreri’s life continue, and night before last a musical parade through town included a truly charming group of school children singing her songs.
A little later this month, Licata will be utterly devoted to festivals – first Easter (an important aspect of which seems to be wearing your new outfit) and then the Festival of Sant’ Angelo, the town’s patron saint. Barefoot fishermen reportedly run through town, carrying whatever is left of his 800 year old bones in a large and elaborate silver box. Then there is a greased-pole competition. More on that later…