DREAM JOURNEY: PART IV
Bangkok, 22 May 2015
Normally, we would be rather groggy as we drive our MG off the ferry in Bari at 8 am in the morning, coming in from Dürres and the previous post. I certainly would be; I never sleep well on ships. But this is a dream, so I decree that we are bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as we roar off the ferry. Our goal is Otranto, very near the end of Italy’s high heel. We head down the old Via Traiana, now more boringly called the Strada Statale 16, as far as Brindisi. There we take the SS 613, which follows the trace of the previous local Roman road that was too modest to have a name. We pass through Lecce, where we pause. Lecce is known for its plentiful baroque buildings constructed in the 1600s, all using a beautiful local white stone, so I throw in a picture of a square there as a visual memorial to this city.
We continue on to Otranto, and drive straight up to the Cathedral. For this is the objective of our visit to Otranto – or rather the floor of the church is. When visitors enter the church, they are greeted by this magnificent floor.
It is the largest floor mosaic in Europe. It brings me back to that other floor mosaic which we visited in the first leg of our trip in Aquileia, although eight centuries separate them. Some clever fellow took this photo from the ceiling, showing more or less the full extent of the mosaic.
The subject of the mosaic is a Tree of Life, and you can indeed see the trunk of the tree working its way up the nave. Strangely enough, the narrative of this tree flows from the top down, and so near the high altar we have various scenes from the story of Adam and Eve, of which I throw in one photo.
Honestly speaking, the story is difficult to read, so I shall just insert a couple of photos of other parts of the floor. This is King Arthur
and this, Satan
while this is said to be a self-portrait of the floor’s designer, a monk by the name of Pantaleone who hailed from the monastery of San Nicola di Casole, a little to the south of Otranto.
The mosaic was laid down in the 12th Century when this part of Italy was Norman, along with Sicily. In fact, the design of the floor rather reminds me of that other great masterpiece of Norman art, the Bayeux tapestry. I include here one photo of that tapestry, the famous scene where Harold Godwinson is killed by a Norman arrow through his eye.
Next stop: Palermo in Sicily. We’ll get there by cutting across Italy’s heel to Taranto and then along the instep and sole of the Italian boot all the way to Reggio Calabria, where we’ll catch the ferry over to Sicily. I take the back roads to get to Taranto, because I want to drive through a small town called Copertino. As far as I know, this town is known for nothing special except a large castle and a saint. But to us, it has a great importance: my wife’s maternal grandfather came from Copertino and so it is the source of one-eighth of my children’s DNA. He emigrated to Milan in the early 1900’s, part of the massive migrations out of the south of Italy at the turn of the 20th Century. In typical migratory fashion, his departure eventually brought all his brothers and sisters up north. Family lore has it that his father ruined the family by taking the new Italian State to court over the expropriation of some of his land. He took the case all the way to the Court of Cassation, where he eventually lost the case, by which time he had also burned through all his money. Even though this is a very modest place with nothing special to write home about, I feel I must throw in a photo to commemorate it.
Onwards to Taranto, although in truth as we approach the city we turn our heads away and drive on. Taranto has been devastated by the plans of successive Italian government in the post-war period to develop the south of Italy through the implantation of heavy industry. What were then the biggest steel works in Europe were plonked down here in the 1960s, and other heavy industry followed. By the 1980s, when my wife and I went to Taranto for the first time, the investment was in trouble. But the government couldn’t let it go down the tubes, it was politically too important. So money – half of it wasted through corruption and graft – was poured in to prop everything up. It’s stayed propped up – just – but in the meantime the industrial complex has poisoned half the population. Talk about sustainable development …
We are now driving through what was once Magna Graecia, Greater Greece, that string of Greek colonies which dotted the underside of the Italian boot as well as the coasts of Sicily (and even the shin and calf of that shapely Italian boot). The glittering stone in this string of cities was undoubtedly Syracuse in Sicily, where Archimedes – he of the original eureka moment – was born and was killed. But all the cities along here, from Taranto to the East to Selinunte in the West, were once flourishing and prosperous city-states. One of them, Sybaris, even became a byword for self-indulgent opulence – it was said of one of its citizens that he slept on a bed of rose petals, and if even one of them was folded over he could not sleep. The town’s name has entered the English language, a sybarite being a voluptuary or a sensualist. Now, Sybaris lies under four meters of mud, and the only claim to fame of the surviving Calabrian towns is that they are infested by the ‘Ndrangheta, Calabria’s answer to Sicily’s mafia. It is said that John Paul Getty III, kidnapped in Rome back in 1973, was kept hidden in these parts. He was returned after his family forked over a ransom of $3 million – paid a good deal reluctantly (his grandfather is reported to have said, “I have 14 grandchildren. If I pay one penny now, I’ll have 14 kidnapped grandchildren”) and only after one of his ears had been cut off and sent to a newspaper. It is whispered that many a new house around here was built with Getty money.
We stop for a moment in Crotone, on the ball of Italy’s foot, not because it’s any less dreary than the other towns we’ve passed through, but because something momentous happened here: Pythagoras set up his first school and came up with all those clever mathematics, among which was his theorem which I, like every child of 11 or so, learned in geometry class: “a2 + b2 = c2“, or in plain English, “in a right triangle, the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the square of the other two sides”. At least, that’s what I was told by proud Crotonesi when I was here 20 years ago to do an environmental audit. Alas! It was not so. Pythagoras did indeed come to Crotone, but all he did was to set up some sort of mystical, esoteric sect which dabbled in the quasi-magic of whole numbers. It’s very unlikely that he personally came up with any of the mathematical cleverness attributed to him; his disciples did, but later. I think this painting, by a 19th Century Russian painter, captures nicely the strongly mystical (and to my way of thinking, rather weird) overtones of the initial Pythagorean movement.
What Pythagoras and his sect did do in Crotone was to eventually take over the city’s government, and it was during his time in office that Crotone destroyed Sybaris. Several other cities in the area also espoused Pythagorean forms of government, but after a while there was a backlash. Back in Crotone Pythagoras was chased out, to end his days in nearby Metapontum, another city now lying under meters of mud. But Pythagorean schools continued, although they restricted themselves to maths and “natural philosophy” and left politics to others. Probably better that way …
I take one last look at the industrial plant I audited all those years ago – another industrial works plonked down here, and another one that has closed, leaving nothing but bitterness in its wake.
It’s time to move on.
When we reach Reggio Calabria, although my wife is reluctant I insist: we must go to the Museum of Magna Graecia to see the two Bronzes of Riace. Neither of us have ever seen them, and it would be a pity not to take advantage of our passing through Reggio to have a peek. I know the objective of our trip is early Christian mosaics, but other wonders along the way should not be ignored. No sooner said than done! With a click of the mouse, I have us parked in front of the museum and magically transported past the queues of people waiting to enter the climate-controlled, earthquake-proofed room where they stand.
What magnificence! And what we see today are stripped down versions of the original. Each would have been coiffed with a Corinthian-style helmet, would have carried a shield on that raised left arm, and would have held a lance in the other. The latest theories hypothesize that they represent two of the Seven Heroes who set off from Argos to fight against Eteocles, king of Thebes and son of Oedipus (he of the complex), and died at the city’s seven gates. One expert suggests that they were originally part of a group of seven statues which stood in the Agora of the city of Argos. How they ended on the sea bed off the coast of Calabria is anyone’s guess. My guess, for what it’s worth, is that during the Roman times Argos was hard up, and rich Romans, avid for Greek art, came along and offered to buy the statues. Why not … In later centuries hard-up Italians sold their Renaissance treasures to rich Englishmen, avid for Italian art, and later still these Englishmen, hard up in their turn, sold these same treasures to rich Americans. In any event, they were being shipped to Rome, but when the ship was off the coast of Calabria a violent storm blew up, and the captain, rather than losing his ship and his life, tossed the heavy stuff overboard.
Time to catch the ferry over to Sicily, home to some of the most beautiful Byzantine-style mosaics still extant, created when the Normans controlled Sicily. The web helpfully informs us that there is a ferry over to Messina every hour or so. In this dream trip, we will not have any difficulty in catching the ferry, unlike real life 30 years ago when my wife and I decided to take her mother to spend Christmas and the New Year in Sicily. We arrived in Reggio Calabria on the evening of 23 December, along with a horde of Sicilian migrant workers returning home from Northern Europe for the holidays. We discovered to our horror that the ferry boat crews had just decided to strike for more pay. Those bastards had chosen this particular time to strike because they knew it put the owners under huge pressure to settle. Settle they did, but not before we had spent a miserable night in the ferry car park. When those ferry boat crews arrive, as they assuredly will one day, before the Pearly Gates, I hope they will be kicked off down to Hell, to roast in its fires for Eternity (anyone curious to know what that might look like can refer back to the posting with which I started this dream journey and study the photo I inserted there from the back wall of the church on the island of Torcello).
Once on the other side, we set off for Palermo. I firmly decide that we will take the normal roads to get there. In this dream we’re in no hurry, and I prefer by far the “reeling roads”, the “rolling roads”, that “ramble round the shire”, as G.K. Chesterton wrote in his most famous poem “The Rolling English Road”. Yes, I prefer by far his “merry roads” and his “mazy roads” to the smooth monotony of sterile highways. We pass Milazzo, where you can catch the boat to the Aeolian Islands – a trip for another day – and where I did yet another environmental audit 20 years ago for another struggling industrial complex, which mercifully has not closed – yet. We hum along until we arrive at the small town of Cefalù, nestling under the mighty headland which gives it its (Greek) name. We head, yet again, for the Cathedral, constructed by the Normans in the first half of the 1100s. There, some beautiful mosaics still cling to the apse and the last bay of the choir.
The Pantocrator gracing the apse is “for many the greatest portrait of Christ in all Christian art”, in the words of John Julius Norwich (I am quoting from his history of Sicily).
The style is clearly mature Byzantine, a style we’ve already seen in Istanbul as well as in the lagoons of Venice, and would have seen in Daphni and Saint Luke in Greece had we made the detour from Thessaloniki. The Normans got Byzantine artists, or artists trained in Byzantine workshops, to make the mosaics.
It’s time to go on to Palermo, which is our final destination on this leg of the journey. We hug the coast, coming into the city on its seaward side. Once we reach the port, we swing up Via Vittorio Emanuele (there’s one of these in every village, town, and city in Italy, along with a Via Garibaldi), which is the main thoroughfare through the city’s old center. When we get near the Martorana church, we miraculously find – free! – parking (this is a dream, after all) for our little MG and head over to the church.
The church has been much modified over the centuries, not least of which by a brutal Baroque make-over in the front part of the nave in the 17th Century. But once we get past these horrors and enter the upper nave, we are greeted by some lovely mosaics: Christ in majesty in the dome of the church
the dormition of the Virgin Mary
As we leave, I want particularly to see these two mosaics. In this first one, we have the greatest of all the Norman kings of Sicily, Roger II, having himself cheekily crowned by Christ himself, as if he were a Byzantine emperor
It was he who first brought this Byzantine art form to Sicily.
And here we have the original donor of the church, George of Antioch, Roger II’s admiral, humbly offering his church to the Virgin Mary (much like we saw in Cariye Kamii in Istanbul)
A final note about this church: it belongs to the Italian-Albanian community in Sicily, the remnants of the Albanians who fled to Italy in the 15th and later Centuries as the Ottomans methodically went about conquering their home country. So it is not just geographical proximity which led the modern Albanians back in late 1990s to escape by their thousands to Italy as Albania imploded after the collapse of Communism (with many of these new arrivals squatting in and around Otranto, as it so happens).
We go back to the car and continue up Via Vittorio Emanuele to the Palazzo dei Normanni, the Palace of the Normans, which actually was originally built by the Arabs. This rather severe building houses the Cappella Palatina, which was built by Roger II as the King’s private chapel. It houses some magnificent 12th Century mosaics.
This last one shows also the ceiling, a wonderful piece of Arab carpentry work, an example of which we last saw in the Alhambra palace in Granada.
Roger II understood that in this island with large Greek and Arab populations, he had to be open to their cultures if he was going to maintain the peace. Indeed, he welcomed this mixing of cultures. It is part of Sicily’s tragedy that later rulers did not continue this practice of toleration and openness.
We are not finished yet! We vault into the car (after constant badgering by our children we’ve taken to doing a lot of exercise recently, so I can imagine ourselves vaulting jauntily over the doors and dropping into our seats) and we keep on going up Via Vittorio Emanuele, which has now morphed into Via Calatafimi. We go on and on until we hit the hills behind Palermo, at which point we start climbing and finally find ourselves in Monreale, once a village on the outskirts of Palermo but now a suburb. We head – of course – for the cathedral and casually park the car in front of the cathedral. We walk into this late 12th Century church and I suddenly feel that I am back in the church of Sant’Apollinare in Ravenna, where we started our dream journey.
Biblical scenes on fields of gold unfurl along upper tiers of the nave
to reach the theological high point in the apse, with its assembled saints and angels presided over by a rather severe Pantocrator.
But how the styles have changed in the intervening six centuries! Then, it was still Roman art, although of a rough-and-ready sort. Now, it is early medieval art in all its stiff, hieratic splendour.
After all that gold, we go up on the roof of the church and drink in the astringent blue of the sky, which is rather like eating a lemon sorbet after a heavy main course so as to cleanse the mouth of all that richness. We gaze out across Palermo and over the “wine-dark” Tyrrhenian Sea beyond (to borrow Homer’s rather strange description of the sea’s colour).
Tonight, we will catch the ferry and cross that sea to Naples – another Greek colony long, long ago – and from there drive up to Rome, our last stop on this exhaustive, and mentally exhausting, tour of early Christian mosaics.
Lecce: https://youthfullyyoursgr.files.wordpress.com/2013/05/lecce-it.jpg (in https://youthfullyyoursgr.wordpress.com/%CF%80%CF%81%CE%BF%CE%B3%CF%81%CE%AC%CE%BC%CE%BC%CE%B1%CF%84%CE%B1/get-up-stand-up-be-healthy-guys-youth-exchange-lecce-%CE%B9%CF%84%CE%B1%CE%BB%CE%AF%CE%B1-22-29072013/)
Otranto-mosaic-1: http://www.paradoxplace.com/Perspectives/Sicily%20&%20S%20Italy/Puglia/Otranto/Cattedrale/Images_Mosaics/800/Mosaic_Floor-Nov06-DC9997sAR800.jpg (in http://www.paradoxplace.com/Perspectives/Sicily%20&%20S%20Italy/Puglia/Otranto/Otranto.htm)
Otranto mosaic-2: http://www.swide.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/Reasons-to-travel-puglia-apulia-italy-mosaics-Otranto.jpg (in http://www.swide.com/food-travel/reasons-to-travel-to-puglia-apulia-italy-top-20-things-to-do/2014/06/30)
“Pythagoreans celebrating the sunrise”, by Fyodor Bronnikov(1827–1902): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pythagoras#/media/File:Bronnikov_gimnpifagoreizev.jpg (in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pythagoras)
Palermo-Martorana-1: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/c/c0/Chiesa_della_Martorana_cupola.jpg/640px-Chiesa_della_Martorana_cupola.jpg (in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martorana#Interior)
Palermo-Martorana-3: https://classconnection.s3.amazonaws.com/848/flashcards/3299848/jpg/palermo_chiesa_20martorana_mosaic_nativity-13F311CF74763DF1FB7.jpg (in https://www.studyblue.com/notes/note/n/ecb-final-review/deck/8598474)
Palermo-Martorana-4: http://www.wga.hu/art/zgothic/mosaics/8/2martor2.jpg (in http://www.wga.hu/html_m/zgothic/mosaics/8/2martor2.html)
Palermo-Martorana-5: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/b3/Chiesa_della_Martorana_Christus_kr%C3%B6nt_Roger_II.jpg (in http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chiesa_della_Martorana_Christus_kr%C3%B6nt_Roger_II.jpg)
Monreale-duomo-3: http://giazza.se/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/pal-dome-2.jpg (in http://giazza.se/?p=1506)
Monreale-panoramic view: http://media-cdn.tripadvisor.com/media/photo-s/07/87/3f/dc/panoramic-view-from-the.jpg (in http://www.tripadvisor.it/LocationPhotoDirectLink-g666663-d4470498-i126304220-Norman_Cathedral_of_Monreale-Monreale_Province_of_Palermo_Sicily.html)