Throwback Thursday

The brave knight Astolfo rides the hippogrif over the heads of the audience in Luca Ranconi’s 1969 theatre piece Orlando Furioso.

While looking through the Tulane University Carnival collection I found designs by Carlotta Bonnecaze for Proteus in 1897 that brought back memories of an obsession I had in my late teens. Her subject was Orlando furioso the great Italian epic poem of the 16th century by Ludovico Ariosto. It retells the exploits of Roland (Orlando) during the Crusades and was to be the source of many opera libretti during the baroque era. But what got me interested in this obscure (for North America at least) work was a review in one of the many theatre magazines I subscribed to at the time.  It spoke of a remarkable Italian environmental theatre production that was touring Europe in 1969-70. It was directed by a young Luca Ranconi, who had his audience move from area to area as the tale unfolded.  Often the spectators found themselves surrounded by brave Christian knights battling Saracens, sometimes fighting each other and often dealing with beautiful, but evil, sorceresses.  The brave English knight Astolfo even made his voyage to the moon on the back of the hippogrif to regain Orlando’s wits.  (As a sidebar according to Ariosto the moon is where all things that are lost on earth end up????). It all sounded fascinating.  I had to read this story.

Imagine my surprise (and indignation) when I discovered that my local library didn’t have a copy of this epic on it’s shelves!!  Fortunately a friend managed the W. H. Smith Bookstore at the airport where I worked and she ordered a copy – it was not amongst the material favourite by air travellers of the day!!!!!!  It proved to be a heavy tome of some 780 pages which in all honesty I made a brave attempt to read but stopped at page 320 when Ruggerio tethered his steed to a talking myrtle tree (Astolfo transformed by the evil…. oh never mind).

So what you ask, o gentile lettore, does this have to do with Throwback Thursday.  Well aside from various opera I’ve seen based on Orlando Furioso I was to run across the good Christian knight on several visits to Sicily and the rod puppet theatres in Palermo and Siracusa.  And with the often circuitous logic in what passes for my brain I went from the Tulane Collection to my teenage obsession to trips to Sicily to a post I did back in February of 2011 on the Teatro dell’Opera dei Pupi.  I thought perhaps it would be worth a revisit to see how these incredible puppets are made and a bit about their history.

A left click on my darling Emanuele Luzzati’s colourful Orlando astride a dragon will take you there:


On this day in 1923: Greece becomes the last European country to adopt the Gregorian calendar.

Throwback Thursday

In looking over drafts for posts I’d always meant to publish I found a few that seem to have been completed. Now I’m wondering why I haven’t put them up. This particular item was written just was after our two week holiday driving around Sicily in May of 2011. We had been to Palermo several times during our four years in Italy but never beyond. Our trip took us to Trepani on the western tip of the Island and along the south coast to Catania on the east.  A stop in Agrigento included a stay at a wonderful bed and breakfast with a terrace view of the Valley of the Temples.

The view from the breakfast veranda of the strange little bed and breakfast we stayed at in Agrigento. Beyond the sprawl of the modern town lies the 2000 year old Valley of the Temples.
The owners were a funny old man and his daughter who gave us the “bridal room” and worried constantly about our comfort. The view alone was worth the (very reasonable) price of the room.

A New Antiquity

A New Antiquity

It may seem strange for this ancient and fragmented site to be the venue for an exhibition by a modern artist but given both his style and medium it came as no surprise that the late Igor Mitoraj’s mammoth bronzes both fitted and matched their surroundings. I’ve spoke once before of Mitoraj’s San Giovanni Batista in Chiesa di Santa Maria degli Angeli e Martiri in Rome, a beautiful but disturbing piece. There he was working with the whiteness of marble – in Agrigento his work was in bronze.

A New Antiquity


A New Antiquity

A New Antiquity

The shades of the metal – burnished browns, dull greens and earth shades – reflected and melded into their surrounds. Like the flowers around them they were highlighted by the intense southern sun or silhouetted against a bright blue sky. Mitoraj’s subjects, style and use of bronze again seemed to be at one with the surroundings.  .

A New Antiquity


A New Antiquity

A New Antiquity

Though his figures were all mythological his chief inspiration was the Icarus myth – the failed attempt by man to fly brought down by his own foolishness.

A New Antiquity
A New Antiquity
A New Antiquity

But Mitoraj’s Icraus figures had a certain majesty to them and often they seem to have been brought to earth by the failure of the world around them to understand their aspirations more than their own foolhardiness.

A New Antiquity
A New Antiquity
A New Antiquity

Most of Mitoraj’s work have what has been termed “echos of antiquity” and he himself acknowledged that he looked back at the roots of Classical sculpture and painting in his work. But he maintained that he saw them through modern eyes and as the fragments that they have often come down to us in.

A New Antiquity
A New Antiquity

Looking back on the photos and remembering the visit it’s hard to believe that these are not remnants of one of the many civilizations that colonize, built, fought over, destroyed and rebuilt Agrigento over the past two thousand years.


On this day in 1956: Fortran, the first modern computer language, is shared with the coding community for the first time.

Sicilian Ceramics

It seems that no matter where you go here in Italy there is a regional style of ceramics: though many of the items – particularly those made for mass consumption in locations far removed from Italy – bear striking similarities there are colour, themes and designs that are specific to Umbria, Tuscany, the Veneto, Napoli or Sicilia.  Its hard to avoid the shops crammed with wall plaques, holy water stoops, pots, Christmas ornaments, jars, urns or table wear of dubious provenance.  However it is still possible to find the work of local artists that reflect the tradition of the region but with a twist that also reflects the approach of the creator.

Though, god knows, we don’t really need more things in the past four years the household inventory has been augmented by a few items, particularly the Christmas ornaments – yes I know as if we really need more Christmas ornaments.  However a wall plate, a Beaulieu-Hobbs name plaque and a large jar, all created by Valentina Pietrosanti in Sermoneta, will also be making their way back to Canada come July.

I’m pretty sure that Nicky thinks the sunshine that he loves so much comes out of this ceramic pot – and Nora is willing to let him do the ground work and she’ll just bask in the rays afterwards.  The pot itself shows the distinct style of ceramics from the Lazio region – particularly the lemon branches.  It was created by the very talented Valentina Pietrosanti at Labratorio Uscio e Bottega in Sermoneta.

And they will be kept company by a few little items that were picked up on the trip to Sicilia. The style there seems to be a bit more naive and colours at times more primary than in many of the other regions.  Having said that I saw a plate in Erice and a platter in Ragusa –  though both are the work of artists in Caltagirone, a town famous for its ceramics, on the east side of the island – that had subtle colourings and simple almost primitive designs but still, I find, had echos of some of the antique patterns of Siciliana.  

I bought this plate in Erice however it was produced by Giacomo Alessi in his workshop in Caltagirone near Catania.  The town is renowned for its ceramics and Alessi is one of the better known artists in the field.  What attracted me was those pomegranates – they are as exuberant and as light hearted as the island itself.
This piece is also from a studio in Caltagirone though again bought in another part of the island.  Francesco Boria is perhaps better known for his pieces in the antique baroque style so this subtle use of the green and simple line drawing is surprising when compared to much of his work.

Equally fascinating are the ceramics of Agosto Fiorito who works in miniatures as part of an artisan collective on Via Bara all’Olivella in Palermo. His ceramics have a charming naivety and his creation of presepi has led him to adapted the multitude of small items that fill the scenes of these traditional Nativity scenes and turned them into, of all things, fridge magnets.  Taking his inspiration from the rich world of the Sicilian kitchen he has platters of sea food, pasteria trays of dolci and paper cones of the fresh vegetable on the shelves of his clutter corner of this wonderfully atmospheric shop.

Agosto Fiorito’s miniature ceramics – a left click will show them in actual size – are tiny representations of the riches of the farms, seas and pastry shops of Sicilia.  Those vegetabls would made a wonderful caponata and the casatte and canoli look good enough to eat.

Fortunately Fiorito’s little gems will pack easy and may well find their way into various Christmas stockings as a reminder of the time spent here  The other pieces are going to require some special handling so I’ll have a few words with the movers and Sant’Anna, their patron saint, to make sure they arrive back in Canada in one piece.

28 maggio – San Just

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Sicilia or Bust

Coat of arm of Sicily
Well after months of anticipation and planning the vacation to Sicilia has come and gone. Its been a busy – at times maybe too busy – 16 days: food, wine, sights and sites. I’m not sure how many kilometres were clocked up on the car but its probably more in that two weeks than have been put on it in four years in Italy. And I’m not sure that even driving in Mexico City, Cairo and Roma had prepared Laurent for the singular style of driving that we encountered in the towns and road of Sicilia. Ah well we’re in one piece which says more about him than it does the local drivers.  One thing: I wouldn’t have wanted to do it without the help of a GPS – that smarmy British voice telling us to “bear left” may be irritating at times but damned he knows the roads – or a least the ones that haven’t been changed and not updated. Note to TomTom – there’s an entirely new subdivision on the main road in Gela that nobody told you about!

The overnight crossing (12 hours) from Civittavechia to Palermo was smooth sailing however the good ship Splendid was not – splendid I mean. Grandi Navi Veloci should either update their website or their fleet.

The first and last legs of the trip were on car ferries – Roma to Palermo/Catania to Napoli. The Grandi NaviVeloci to Sicily was, to put it kindly, an interesting experience. Shabby would be too polite a word. Let’s just say that the boat had seen better days and I was afraid of walking barefoot on the carpeting.   The TTT ferry back from Catania to Napoli, though smaller, was clean, cabin at the bow spacious and staff helpful – too bad they don’t do the Civettavecchia to Palermo run.

The first part of our travels took us from Palermo along the Tyrrhenian Sea to the West and than eastward along the Mediterranean Coast.

Laurent has written extensively on his blog about the various stops on the itinerary and I’ll be posting a few items on thing that caught my fancy as we travelled from Palermo to Trapani, Erice, Marsala, Mazara del Vallo, Agrigento, Ragusa, Siracusa, Noto and Catania. Looking at that list – and a general sense of fatigue at the end of the trip – make me aware that this is a trip that should have broken into two trips; in fact I said only the other day that had we been wise we would have spent a week in a different area of Sicily each year that we were here. But should, would and could are all conditional verbs – and in this case conditional past – so no point in labouring over what we should have done; just sit back and enjoy the memories of what we did.

Continuing on from Agrigento we headed a bit inland to Ragusa and then back eastward to the Ionian coast and the two major seas ports of Siracusa and Catania.

And the memories are varied.  Wonderful music – an emotionally charged performance of A Greek Passion in Palermo; wonderful food – an unexpected lobster fest at a local trattoria in Marsala were the room was filled with groups of men sharing a meal with their friends and only three women in the whole place and no it wasn’t a gay restaurant; great wine – quite a few Enoteche but particularly Michelle’s in Trapani and Salvatore’s in Marsala; over the top baroque churches – the Duomi in Mazara del Vallo takes the prize with Ragusa running a close second; antiquities galore – the Valley of the Temple leading the pack; and friendly, warm, welcoming, if at times slightly suspicious of strangers, people.

The departure from Catania and the trip up to the Straits of Messina on TTT’s Partenope was a bit on the rough side but once into the Tyrrhenian it was a smooth sail up to Napoli and then on to Roma by road.

The one thing that struck me the first time I went to Palermo and was confirmed on this trip as I saw more of the island is that Sicily may be part of Italy but it isn’t really Italian. It shares a common language and some history but the people, the food, the landscape has been molded by the influences of the Mediterranean in a way that makes it a place unto itself.  A succession of occupiers – the Greeks,  the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Arabs, the Normans, the French and the Spanish – have left their mark. As it always is Nature has been both kind and cruel: the sea, earthquakes and volcanoes have formed, enriched and scarred the terrain making it both welcoming and hostile. Religion – Pagan and Christian – has molded the architecture of cities and minds. And a wry sense of survival on the part of the inhabitants has taken all these things – the good and the bad – and created a place that is Sicilia.

24 maggio – Santa Maria Ausiliatrice

Lunedi Lunacy

One of the features of a stop in any town in Sicily is a visit to the Duomo or a church of note. Now I’ve stated before that I am not a fan of the baroque but Sicilian baroque is so overloaded, so over stated, so over the top that its beautiful. What is so often ponderous in Roma here has a light-heartedness and beauty that reflects the devotion of the people. That is not to say it isn’t sincere just that there is sometimes a slight tongue-in-cheek air to it all.

And in Ragusa I’ve seen two examples of that strange mix of the serious and the wry that gave me a chuckle.

This morning in the beautiful Cathedrale di San Giorgio (the Patron Saint of Ragusa) in Ragusa Ibla I came upon this devote woman kneeling in prayer. She was addressing her requests to the Almighty in a strong loud voice.

It wasn’t until I heard her say, in a slightly testy tone, “Ascolti me!” that I realized she was talking on the cell phone. I only wish the picture had been clearer but there she was on her knees, in the Cathedrale and giving proper hell to someone about something.

Now I know some American evangelists have maintained they have a direct line to God but so it would seem does some little Lady in Ragusa Ibla. And she knows Him well enough to put Him in His place.

And yesterday the quiet of a sunny Sunday afternoon was broken by the sounds of organ music coming from the Chiesa del Anime in Purgatorio in Piazza Republica. Listening to the soothing sounds of church music seemed like an appropriate way to end the afternoon and a nice pause before climbing the 800 odd steps that would take me from Ragusa Ibla up to Ragusa Superiore. What I got instead was this little display of virtuosity which surprised even me, who thought he had heard everything in the way of music in church.

I honestly didn’t know that church organs had all those percussion stops but I guess this one does. I was reminded of the story about one of the Pope’s in the 19th century banning popular music in the church as it was becoming too raucous. Obviously the ban has been lifted or never made it this far south.

16 maggio – Santa Gemma Galgani