To Persephone's Island.
May Heaven grant that, on my return, the moral effect of having lived in a larger world will be noticeable, for I am convinced that my moral sense is undergoing as great a transformation as my aesthetic. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Italian Journey
1. Toward Transformation
Ancient ruins are monuments to the passage of time, which ordinarily makes me feel small and vulnerable; yet in their presence I'm also aware of a largeness: the enduring presence and power of humanity on the earth, and our enduring interaction with nature. Still here, still here, say the ruins, and in this moment you are the inheritor of our mute testimony. Perhaps this sense of inheritance, in the face of universal mortality, is what gives them their value and meaning. The flourish in the face of death, as Virginia Woolf said of the Parthenon.
Where that flourish occurs, however, is not incidental. Not only does this all still exist, it exists precisely here, in this place, with its accumulated weather and memories. A place is like a body: its experience is physical and irreplaceable, and its ruined objects testify to that experience, no matter the modern nation currently occupying that soil. The culture of Sicily, J. Paul Getty Museum curator Claire Lyons was explaining to me, is in some sense continuous with its Greek past, even though the region was absorbed into modern Italy--as the British who founded the Jamestown colony are part of American heritage.
It was the spring of 2008, and we were discussing why the colossal statue of a goddess then in a gallery in the Getty Villa was going to be taken down from its seismically correct pedestal and sent to a small town in central Sicily called Aidone, a modern town just outside archeological excavations at Morgantina, the last Greek town on the island to hold out against the Romans in the third century BC. With its lively clinging limestone drapery and cool marble flesh, it was a remarkable survivor from the Classical period. Like nothing else in the United States, it also arrived at the Getty in 1988 with inadequate documentation of its journey. Still, it was difficult to accept that the great figure of Aphrodite, or perhaps Demeter, was really going to be sent off to a small regional backwater, as the New York Times had characterized Aidone. It wasn't even clear that was where it had come from, although the trail from looted tombs there led through dealers with whom the Getty Museum had indeed done business. And how magnificently, how satisfyingly, it was now displayed at the Villa.
Then Lyons told me of an unused fifteenth-century church also in Aidone, a once majestic space that was now, like the ancient settlement of Morgantina, a monument of past life there. Her face was lit with affection for the town, and with pleasure at the possible continuation of the narrative in the local tongue should the colossal goddess find her home in that church. What a display of cultural evolution it would be, of the use and reuse and reimagining of human creativity and reverence. Such relics from the past, she said, give meaning to group identity--an inherited identity that's attached to place.
This conversation on a terrace at the Getty Museum was part of my ongoing exploration of why we argue so passionately over the broken fragments of the ancient world. I did not know what made the past more fruitful and lively in one place than in another, but in that moment I knew I wanted to see the Greek heritage in some of the places of its own distant empire, to see a Greek world enduring outside Greece. The afternoon breeze scattered the screw-off top of my water bottle and the paper wrapping from Claire's teabag across the little table, and I wanted to see the church, and to see Aidone and Morgantina. I wanted to see the struggle with time among the ruins the Greek empire had left in Sicily, and post-Greek Sicilian life. I wanted the island where Persephone had disappeared into the underworld to be a real place for me, to show me its local surprises of water, and earth, and air.
In The Golden Honeycomb, his book about Sicily in the 1950s, Vincent Cronin describes the rubble and ruin of the temples at Selinunte--gigantic stones overthrown and pulverized by an earthquake--and the vanished glory of Acragas (Agrigento, today) sacked by the Carthiginians. There stands an age-mate of the Getty's goddess, the Temple of Concordia, as inevitable, he says, as an Aristotelian syllogism, yet lilting as a Pindaric ode. And even as he recalls Aristotle's logic and Pindar's poems, his encounter with the fragments of the past is entangled in the local context. Among the ruins his Sicilian spring appears as a symphony of animal and vegetable life: animal instinct is handed on like a magic baton from one line of partners to the next without ever being dropped or distorted, without ever becoming worn or frayed, he says. That would be less extraordinary were not the constituent parts so complex and intangible, he goes on, composed of innumerable little graceful actions and flights.... The performance is so complicated and extended, the artist so delicate and untutored: it is as though a child prodigy were executing flawlessly and at sight a continuous recital of all the Beethoven sonatas.
Was it Sicily itself that had inspired this lush flight of astonished laughter? For there as well was the magic baton of a fertile succession of culture: the island seemed to concentrate into itself Greek, Roman, Byzantine, and Muslim pasts. It was ancient and baroque. It was a place where Christianity became continuous with ancient Greece, and Saint Lucy merges into Persephone, as in the Burial of Saint Lucy, in which Caravaggio's painting shows Lucy being lowered into church grounds. It was the only place where papyrus occurs naturally other than along the Nile. I wanted to mingle my short story with its complicated and extended one.
To this end I bought a map of Sicily and a guidebook in which I read a thought-provoking account of car travel that began, "What at first seems murderous anarchy turns out to have an impeccable logic to it." I consulted more recent experiences than Cronin's of those who had gone before: sobering photographs by Letizia Battaglia of Mafia bloodshed and intimidation; a town where the writer Francine Prose and her husband had fled the silent hostility of the inhabitants ("Don't go there," I noted next to its name). I bought a book by Tobias Jones called The Dark Heart of Italy--a book in which love of place struggles with political and social realities so painful and complicated that reading it literally gave me nightmares.
Nonetheless, I reserved nights in a string of hotels, bought an unlocked cell phone, and printed out the schedule of the Circumvesuvio train line that goes from Naples to Herculaneum and Pompeii. (1) I took my traveling companion to REI, where we bought the kind of clothing you can wash out in the sink at night and it will be dry by morning. Then we put these things into a couple of suitcases and consigned ourselves one spring evening to the henceforth unpredictable.
2. First Fragments
Outside the main train terminal in Naples an apparent acre of taxis spread out, oddly wedged in before, beside, and behind each other in a way that defied circulation. Opting for the subway, we were shortly stumbling along a hacked up sidewalk, inquiring lamely of passersby, and in due course making a circular tour back into the station, where a very small sign cleverly concealed behind newspaper kiosks and billboards indicated the presence of an underground train. Our hotel, too, was cleverly concealed, on a street whose facades presented a uniform and rather grubby inscrutability; it was only by chance that we found our way through a set of iron gates to a wooden door at the back of an expansive courtyard and into a smaller courtyard, with palm trees and swimming pool and a short flight of marble steps into an actual hotel entry.
Based in this pleasant spot we visited the nearby National Archeological Museum, and took the Circumvesuvio train to Herculaneum and Pompeii. In these places, too, the Greek empire had left its aesthetic and cultural traces, and the museum offered an almost casual intimacy with the works on display, their freestanding presentation encouraging visitors to come close. In the Farnese collection a girl posed on an empty pedestal between two marble goddesses. A bit later I watched one of the women in an Indian family place her hand high on the thigh of a delectable life-size Apollo, adjusting her sari and laughing guiltily for a photo. Beneath the famous Farnese bull sculpture, the guide with a Spanish tour group laid his hand familiarly on one of the small deer grazing along its lower part as he expounded on the energetic scene of animal taming going on above. Interaction between the mortal and the timeless seemed so ... casual. At the other end of the gallery a couple was taking a break sitting against the feet of the massive and improbably bulging Farnese Hercules leaning on his club.
Rome is threatened with a great loss, wrote Goethe on January 16, 1787. The King of Naples is going to transport the Farnese Hercules to his palace. The sorrow of this loss, he added, was somewhat mitigated by the recent discovery of the lower part of the statue's legs, from knees to ankles, and as a result we are going to see something our predecessors never saw. These limb bits had been missing when the statue was first excavated two centuries earlier from the Baths of Caracalla. At that time new ones to complete the heroic figure were fashioned with great skill by Guglielmo della Porta, but while Goethe was in Italy, Porta's legs were removed and replaced by the recovered originals.
Though everyone up till now has been perfectly satisfied with the statue as it was, there is a hope that we may be going to have the pleasure of seeing something quite new and harmonious, Goethe says. He does not mention the fate of Porta's work, but here, all by themselves in a spacious corner behind Hercules, was that extra pair of lower legs. Evidence of comparable modern artistic achievement, they were not discarded and are now on display in their own right. Detached from antiquity, however, the Renaissance prosthetics seem as curious and decontextualized as a medical specimen in a Wunderkammer. How possibly to appreciate the art, given the comical loss of purpose? Fragments of nothing, they are a skillfully wrought image of a now superseded longing for wholeness.
That longing remains in full flower centuries later in the still-broken town of Pompeii, an immense work of restoration continuously in progress. In the following days we walked for hours through its ruins, filled our water bottles at a faucet in the long back garden of the House of Octavius Quartio, and were caught in a brief shower in the Amphitheater. The mummified city left us with a curious, rather disagreeable impression, wrote Goethe, after his first visit, struck by the spectacle of obliteration and the smallness of the houses; they reminded him of a mountain village buried in snow. Today it was alive with tourists and the ebullient vegetation of May. The lopsided peak of Vesuvius rose green and benign, a distant vision beyond the columns and pedestals of the Forum.
In a small blue notebook I scribbled my own brief descriptions and observations on its past and present; I copied graffiti and sometimes the overheard remarks of other visitors; all of it to be amplified at leisure later. At Herculaneum we descended into the excavated city, into an eerie grid of unburied streets and houses now open to the sky and the laundry lines of the modern town built on the hardened lava of the past. I photographed a bird framed in the fragmented architecture of a roofless room in the public baths. Back at the hotel we took long hot baths ourselves in the evening, and like Goethe ate a frugal meal in a restaurant around the corner. When our time there was up the taxi driver who took us to the airport chuckled that in Naples the traffic lights seemed often to be simply for decoration.
3. Just a Charade
The morning after our arrival, in a drenching rainstorm, to the salt flats on Sicily's west coast, I woke to a dazzling view of water and sky, unearthly reflected light. Below the window a level sweep of grasses shone a brilliant watery green, studded with bright yellow and orange wildflowers. It was not at all what I had expected of Sicily, this Dutch landscape with windmills and the rectangular cuts of salt pans like canals beside the sea. To the east clouds drifted behind the steep rise of Erice--Eryx, reaching for the stars, says Virgil--where Aeneas founded a temple to Venus and buried his father, and where, having abandoned Dido to her unfortunate emotions, he later returned to hold Anchises's funeral games.
What I wanted to see first was the never-finished temple at Segesta, mysterious and isolated on a slope of nearby Mount Barbaro. Rather than a ruin, it seemed almost an abstraction of Doric style: limestone against blue sky, thirty-six unfluted columns surrounding an empty interior space, and triangular, undecorated pediments at either end. One of my guidebooks suggested that the temple had been "just a charade," a dissimulation built to impress the Athenian envoys who had been invoked to help defend fifth-century BC Egesta against nearby Selinus, then abandoned once the Greeks, defeated by Syracuse, had become useless as allies.
Sicily's history is full of such border disputes, alliances forged and broken, sacked cities, little local narratives running side by side while in the larger story the island became steadily more Greek. The temple stands so clearly in its landscape--a turbulent landscape like a stormy sea, says the architectural historian Vincent Scully--attesting quite firmly to its particular history, which no one actually knows. A temple built to no particular deity, but whose unroofed elements, Scully suggests, combine to create an effect of ponderous, uncivilized power.
No one knows if it had been intended to house a god, to offer sacrifices, to be part of a community, or if it was an elaborate trick, a beautifully located simulacrum of religious practice and architectural character. It hardly mattered now, I thought. It certainly evoked the idea of ancient worship with as much authority as anyone could wish. As Scully notes, with his unflagging sense of antiquity's drama, from the approach up the slope the temple's pediments seem to echo the shape of the mountain behind it; as one walks inside it from east to west, he says, the distance between natural and manmade seems further diminished. Stepping through the columns on the western side, however, suddenly the terrible and unexpected occurs, he says. The ground drops precipitously away before one's feet, and a gulf, tremendous in depth and width, opens between the temple and the mountain. For Scully, all the elements combined to make the temple's structure and positioning appropriate for rites intended to celebrate some insatiable goddess of the earth.
The week before our visit, however, a chunk of stone had fallen from the architrave onto the base, and it was no longer permissible to come upon the terrible and unexpected by walking through the temple. The solidity and shock of its ancient presence had been distanced by a low wooden fence, and the great gulf was no longer linked to the architectural experience. A walk around the temple now reveals the wide valley below as an apparently fertile bowl of fields and a few farmhouses. All around it that day were distracting tangles of waving yellow blossoms, olive trees, agave plants.
Scully describes the effect at Segesta as not wholly of the Greek gods. Its columns crown the hill with solemn grandeur, he says, but, rearing up at the edge of the abyss, it is the only Greek temple that screams. All the details of the scream are still there--the heavy unfluted columns, the bare, undecorated metopes, the swift and tensile arc of the stereobate--but the overwhelming experience of the sudden abyss has been mitigated by the nervous gods of safety.
I stopped wandering the periphery and sat with my traveling companion on a bench in the shade where he was sketching the facade. We watched birds settling on the capitals or under the pediment until a group of schoolchildren surrounded us, and a boy sat down between us, bold and curious about the sketch, a young member of the local culture distracted from the unchanging object he'd been brought to look at by the little spectacle of the moving pencil.
After a while we left the children to the exploration of their heritage and went higher up the hill to see the Greek amphitheater, its stone seating now warm in the midday sun, the center of its stage area still somewhat muddy from yesterday's downpour. Signs that had once explained the layout and history here were faded or washed away entirely, relics themselves of a doomed effort to create captions for the unfolding of time in this place. Added now to the outlook of its endless vista was the highway curving like a river far below, lifted on its cement pylons past the woodlands and fields. It seemed at once a technical feat like an aqueduct and a natural waterway snaking its way toward the sea in the distance.
The countryside broods in melancholy fertility, says Goethe, admiring the site but struck by its isolation. He directed his attention to the butterflies on the thistle, the profusion of last year's fennel, the howling wind through the temple's columns. As we descended the hill, the temple appeared below us, a deliberate element in the landscape, a shapely geometrical testament to human presence in this place. From here it did not seem like a military or diplomatic ruse, nor did it seem to scream, nor the wind to howl through it. Its sturdy roofless architecture was a long steady note of endurance through linear time, while all around us were poppies, bugloss, fennel, yellow broom, and wild grasses, the happiness and careless cyclical display of spring.
4. A Larger World
In the following weeks we visited Selinunte, Agrigento, Morgantina; a beach and abandoned ruins near Noto, and Siracusa, with its long relation to the sea, and its long history of prosperity and power. In my blue notebook I wrote down details of the local scene, of antique citadels and museums of antiquities. We took hundreds of photographs to help the later shaping of these surprises into language: temple perspectives, museum signage, to-be-identified wildflowers, objects that would never make it onto a postcard; close-ups of ancient rubble and long shots of sea or volcano; a self-possessed bird with a long curved beak and a sweeping brown-and-white, backward-arching crest, at rest on the ledge of an abandoned tuna factory on the south-eastern coast.
"The most westerly of all Greek colonies," said the guidebook, Selinus, Selinunte, was named for the wild celery still growing there. Selinous, brutally destroyed by Hannibal in 409 BC, but once a grand and gleaming vision of greatness on fertile hillsides, facing over the water toward Africa. Here I had expected temples overlooking the sea, but mist and fog made the shore below invisible. The unromantically designated Temples A and O were set back from the edge in any case, and the enormous reconstructed columns of Temple C. Fluted drums lay in heaps, their scarred surfaces rough and porous looking, heavy tumbled rocks in the high grasses. There were poppies, always, and the tall brilliant yellow daisies.
The temples to the east on this vast site, entered from a point lower down, were called E, F, and G, like notes on a musical scale. The aerial view of them on a postcard I bought at the information desk showed E like a roofless cage, F a scattering of crushed rock, and G, once standing with columns ten feet in diameter, looked like a small bombed city, with bits of the massive columns sticking up like broken towers from the impressive mess. We climbed into E, into the shadow and sunlight on stylobate and column capitals, and waded through the blooming brush to the rubble of F, and the colossal fallen columns of G.
At Agrigento the temples are sited in a valley, not on the coast. The guide who escorted us through them had played among the ruins as a child and now generously offered us their golden stone, leading us through the afternoon down to strange circular pits where young pigs had once been sacrificed to Demeter. The temples did not make me think of Aristotle or Pindar, as they had Vincent Cronin; instead I was entranced and entertained by the forthright familiarity of their living descendent as she brought the lovely scattered line of ruins into orderly formation for us. She carried a small umbrella covered with little images of Mickey Mouse to shade her from the sun as she talked of Zeus and Hera. I put in my notebook the particular pleasures of her polyglot syntax and of her ease with the ritual of viewing ancient monuments. She bequeathed us a native assurance that lingered the next morning as I swiped my ticket through the entry to the museum.
Calm resolution, sureness of aim, apt and precise method, good grounding and scholarship, wrote Goethe, ... I lack them all.... So I cannot blame myself for trying to gain, by stealth, storm and cunning, what my life has so far not permitted me. He too was grateful for the instruction of a guide, although his had studied with Winckelmann while I was now dependent on museum signs as I studied a white-ground krater where Perseus was chilling after slaying the sea monster. The hero stands with an elbow on one knee, chin propped on his hand, contemplating with a contented smile the still-chained Andromeda. Like Perseus, we took our time among these painted Greek cups and vases, the marble and terra cotta, the pleasant rooms with their occasional glimpses out to the enduring landscape. It was Sunday; the museum closed early, but the cafe in the garden was still open and we sat for a long time in a space somewhere between antiquity and our traveling life. The next day we drove away from the coast, inward toward Morgantina.
Aidone, which I had imagined as a dry and dusty countryside, turned out to be an old hill town in a part of interior Sicily where there were forests and an extensive nature reserve. The main road led up through shadow and sunlight, a speedy modern highway with a relatively easy-to-spot exit. The road leading into the town itself was slightly more mysteriously marked, but there was no mistaking the large billboard displaying the immense, bare-headed figure of the Getty's goddess, her right arm extended before the landscape of Morgantina, the foundations of the ancient marketplace at her feet.
We made our way up through orange-colored, cube-like, and probably Mafia-built housing on the outskirts and into the old town, where narrow stone streets wound into the historical center. The little piazza in front of the former convent that housed the Regional Archeological Museum was deserted, but the ticket desk at the future home of the statue was open, and the guard graciously waived the entrance fee for the scrittore americana.
The rooms were high and cool, the walls covered with large-font explanatory text in Italian and English. Glass cases held small votive figures of Persephone and Demeter, vessels, limestone and terracotta antefixes of maenads or a lion's head, Iron Age bowls, a platter with three surprised-looking fish, a small horse in flight around the edge of a chalice. In one case a fly had expired among the ruins, musca museica, a visitor deceased in the act of archeological investigation. I wrote down the names of things I was surprised to see, and of things I recognized from my accumulating time in this pre-Roman, slowly emerging world.
I could not see where, though, in the quiet, light-filled space, there would be a place for the great statue pictured on the billboard. They are preparing a special room for it, said the guard at the entrance. In this former convent of course there were still spaces to be renovated for display, to be readied for aesthetic and scientific pilgrimage. It would not be in the abandoned church, he said, but here. I got directions to the church nonetheless, the usual imprecise but heartfelt assistance.
We set off between silent old walls, emerging after some uncertainty into what had to be the piazza municipale, and inquired again for the via Roma. From one balcony on this narrow thoroughfare a small and furiously barking dog announced us; from another, a silent ceramic one watched from behind a row of potted vines. An old woman leaned out the ground floor window of a dark room, marking our progress with suspicion or disgust.
Then I saw it ahead of us: the church of San Domenico, its unmistakable, unimaginable white facade a screen of white pyramid-shaped stones that defied visual understanding. Before it the street widened to a small square overlooking a view enormous, varied, and utterly pleasing in every aspect. In the distance were mountains, valley and lake, clouds and haze, fields and wild areas; just below were the staggered rooftops of the town. All of it was the very definition of panorama, and ourselves the only spectators in this fifteenth-century world.
I went up the terracotta steps to the wooden door of the church, where a broken panel allowed me to see the interior: unrenovated, long abandoned, bare and dusty, the space inside was purely lovely. Undecorated except for what seemed to be two plaster swags under a brick archway, one wall stripped to stone, and the floor rough with fallen plaster, it was majestically simple. Light entered through high windows; on the east wall at this moment fell one brilliant square of sun.
Clearly this would be a glorious place to see the Getty's goddess figure. Matters concerning legal possession or regional economic benefit or even local ancestry slipped away into the distant haze; the strange, abandoned authority of this quattrocento ecclesiastical artifact was counterpart to that of the marble-fleshed, limestone-clad deity. To my left the view extended into the air. To my right a small truck clattered down the street past the church, and passed on into the unseen life of modern Aidone. Time briefly, invitingly, unfolded its magic carpet.
5. The Local Tongue
Visitate Morgantina e i suoi tesori, said the billboard with the goddess's image (or rather half the billboard; the other half displayed the ubiquitous treasure of Heineken beer). Now I was here, where the spring landscape unrolled green and tawny, dotted with olive and cypress. Just beyond Aidone a road of stone and pinkish pavers led to a modest gateway and a small wooden hut where once again the entrance tickets for the scrittore americana were date-stamped at no charge.
The excavated part of the city lay under a hot blue sky; a group of schoolchildren were standing in a grove of dark green trees beside a scattering of foundation stones; near the great kilns on the other side of the site, workers were mowing down the high grasses with gas-powered scythes. All around was laid out the evidence of governing and philosophizing and shopping and brick-making and grain storage and theatrical performance. In the rooms of the houses along the eastern side a riot of morning glories grew over the opened walls. In the foundations of a residence called the House of Ganymede was a mosaic that still showed the young cup-bearer's legs floating skyward.
My notes became imprecise, with clumsy little sketches, as the old past kept melting into the blue distances and the smell of cut hay. I photographed the patterns and shapes of the ingenious kiln--I'd puzzle it out later, I thought. I caught a snatch of the instruction being offered to the students, more young citizens obediently learning (in the local tongue) the Greek heritage that was theirs by virtue of living in this place.
Now that I was here, I was finding it difficult to think of the scandalous tomb robberies that had removed ancient treasure from the site--and perhaps the goddess as well--or if it was important to return the treasures, or even know the vanished community life that had once occurred in this place. The men mowing down the high grass had stopped for a break and we sat under a tree while I translated out loud from an explanatory pamphlet put out by the agency charged with promoting tourism in the province.
At the heart of this city was the macellum, the market complex. Nearby was the Ekklesiasterion, an oddly shaped trapezoidal arena with three flights of steps where it seemed people had gathered to decide on their laws. The author of this explanation pointed out that the fifty magistrates who administered the laws in Morgantina only stayed in office for thirty-five days. In questo modo, he noted, si preveniva ogni possibile forma di corruzione o de malgoverno. Term limits, then, and very short ones, were the answer to all forms of corruption and misgovernment back then. In the present, of course, Italy's prime minister was well into his second decade of self-aggrandizing mismanagement.
Another contributor confessed that when he first discovered this ancient archeological spot, he'd had the sensation of being pulled onto a great stage where nature and archeology were giving life to a great waltz of colors and lights hard to find in other places, a rare and beautiful archeological site, he said, going on to wax equally lyrical over the imagined daily life that went on in this place, a fantastica citta del 3 secolo a.C. We wandered slowly, then, through the fantastic third-century Bc city, into the semicircular theater on the western side, where, thanks to the unvarying Greek design, the seats held a commanding view over the next valley.
My traveling companion napped lightly under a tree while I made my way into the wild gardens of the western stoa, and then into a fenced off area where high above me two men were digging, filling a wheelbarrow with dirt. How patient is archeology, I thought, a truly manual labor, year after year mining by hand for the past, in order to stage the waltz of imagination that will link it with a particular place, tell a particular story. Morgantina is now an autonomous national monument, and the repatriated goddess, whether she represents love or agricultural abundance, may cast a wide net, drawing to this remote theater enchanted visitors, to the local museum generous collaborators, to this landscape of stunning silence and patient excavation a modern world in search of what was lost, or in search of what might have been.
6. Seeing and Unseeing
In fact, I was troubled by the partialness of my vision: the buried city was clearly so much vaster than the piece we'd seen. Everywhere we'd been in Sicily was so much evidence of vanished culture, so many excavated objects and broken columns and worn paving stones. I felt unsure of my own experience, of what I had written in my notebook, or photographed. My traveling companion compared the trip to a rough draft, the way groping toward language feels partial, he said, only vaguely in touch with what needs to be said.
After weeks of travel, reality seemed slightly suspended; even the blithe or impatient passing on Sicilian roads--cars zipping by each other, ignoring the solid center lines on curves or in the face of on-coming trucks with no margin for error--was no longer a source of astonishment. The road culture suggested a world where the physics of driving, of road space, were somehow not operative. We came to appalling evidence to the contrary when a traffic backup stretching a kilometer and a half led in due course to a car utterly smashed and blackened, police and firemen standing around: a horrific, clearly fatal accident.
Shaken, we continued on toward our destination, a small hotel overlooking what is now a wildlife reserve--Helorus' rich, marshy fields says Virgil--and once again the glittering Mediterranean. Ancient Helorus, a city possibly established by the Siracusans to defend the entrance to the Tellaro River, had not been part of my plans; in fact, I'd never heard of the city--now called Eloro--until we saw the lone, mysterious sign pointing toward it as we searched for our hotel near the Gulf of Noto.
Toward evening we steered slowly down a rutted track and past collapsing villas to the edge of the wildlife reserve, parked under a sign advising against doing so, and walked through the woods to a cove of fine soft sand, bordered on one side by a high bluff, on the other by a quiet green river. By the river time ran by unheeded, unnecessary; idly we attended to the birds, the unseen fish, and in the distance two hikers involved in the comic performance of crossing the river, one of them finally stumbling bare-bottomed onto the beach. Quiet now after the freefalling unexpectedness of Sicily, we wandered back through the clear ripples of the tide, back through the brushy woods and crowds of tiny gnats. After all the ruins of lost time, we were again in the present.
A day later we followed the little sign to Eloro; by a gate padlocked with a chain we parked beside a discarded washing machine and dryer. A sign indicating that this was indeed a parking area was scrawled over with crude lettering indicating that it was severely forbidden to take a motorized vehicle into the site. Obediently on foot, we skirted the perimeter of the iron fence until it simply gave out. The hill inside was entirely overgrown with high wild grasses, tall yellow thistles, morning glories, purple and yellow blooms. We picked through this, up to the top, looking for ancientness, for shaped blocks of limestone or granite. In the distance, toward the edge of the bluff, was a mound surrounded by a low stone wall, and beyond that the sea. There was no sign of the pre-Christian seventh century, just a small shuttered cottage labeled Giro d'Ispezione, where we sat for a while looking toward the cliff edge and the sea. In the near distance was a feeble looking fence with an open entryway, and when we waded toward it through the colorful vegetation on an improvised tour of inspection, there proved indeed to be some sort of excavation--a wall of large fitted blocks, a cistern, a stone roadway marked with the ruts of ancient carts.
Later I read of the remains of a theater, and of a column of stones on a square pedestal erected over a burial chamber, and that the rutted road led from a north gate to the city. Days later, in the museum in Siracusa, I examined a display case of small objects labeled Eloro and tried to understand a plan of the site. Had we been to Eloro? Had we seen the marketplace? We had walked back through the missing fence, down to the beach, and then up along the cliff to the far edge of the site where a couple were fishing on the rocks below, and came to the strange circular mound that might have once been part of a temple to Demeter.
Here now were the thistle, a patch of red poppies, purple vetch, and the endlessly moving water, foam against the rocks. We were right beside the circular mound, and could have squeezed around the fence to explore it, but ancient Helorus seemed truly vanished. The iron bars of the fence were white with salt, and tall clumps of wild fennel lined our way back toward the more recently abandoned laundry machines of our own time. Thin clouds veiled the sun, veiled the past.
On the steps of the Duomo in Siracusa one evening we sat eating peanuts from a nearby cart watching a series of brides being photographed in their trailing wedding gowns, the white silk trains turning black as the photo sessions had them promenading from point to point across the ancient piazza. "Auguri!" cried the children running past, congratulating the nuptial pairs. The cathedral's facade had been rebuilt in the eighteenth century with double Corinthian columns and other, even more baroque, elaborations, but originally it was a Greek temple to Athena. Enormous Doric columns still line the nave, incorporated into the Christian architecture and thus beautifully preserved in their antique simplicity.
In the fifth century BC Pindar was here, and Aeschylus, at the court of a culturally ambitious ruler named Hieron I. Later in that century the Siracusans defeated a great Athenian naval force in what Thucydides describes as the greatest action that we know in Hellenic history--to the victors the most brilliant of successes, to the vanquished the most calamitous of defeats.
Our own smaller defeat occurred on the viale Cadorna, in Sicily's major regional museum, named for the great Italian archeologist Paolo Orsi. Sprawling and comprehensive, it offers a survey of cultural links to Greece that are inextricable from Sicilian history. The grandeur of this modern repository of the island's archeological testimony, however, refused to reveal itself on the rainy Sunday we puzzled among the maze of display cases, the votive figures, the contextually assembled material taken from sites at Selinunte, Gela, Megara Hyblaea, and Eloro. The museum was under renovation and whole sections were closed. The lighting was intermittent, and somewhere in the distance a security alarm rang forlorn and insistent, like somebody else's crying child.
In the archeological park the next day, however, the air was once again full of sunlight and promise. Near the massive cave called the Ear of Dionysius, with its high and eerie cochlear walls, we wandered beside abandoned gardens created in the old stone quarries, where the defeated Athenian prisoners had been held. We sat high up in the Greek theater, eating little rolls filled with ham and cheese cadged from breakfast at the hotel. The stage below was prepared for a reenactment of ancient tragedy; beyond spread the spectacular maritime landscape. In the park as well were the flower-engulfed arches of the Roman amphitheater, but it was the heritage of Greek drama rather than of Roman spectacle that was still living in this place.
Our days on Persephone's island were almost over; my notebook and camera were now full of unsorted surprises. We drove up the glittering coast from whose cliffs the Cyclops had tossed rocks at the cheeky departing Odysseus, past Mount Etna and Taormina, to the port town of Milazzo, where we got on a hydrofoil for four hot beautiful days on the Aeolian island of Panarea. Our last glimpse of Sicily was a fiery spurt from Stromboli, reflected in the water as we passed the volcano on the overnight ferry back to Naples.
7. Some Precious Things
Through the early morning streets a taxi took us directly to a hotel high on a hill overlooking the jumbled city. "Why are you staying here?" the driver asked, as we passed the gates of Parco di Capodimonte, honking the horn at each turn in the narrow street, climbing perilously around blind corners to the gates of the hotel. "If you go to the park," he advised, "take a taxi."
That afternoon, disregarding the taxi driver's advice, we walked to the park, once the grounds of a vast eighteenth-century palazzo. Today we paid a visit to the Prince of Waldeck in the Palazzo di Capodimonte, which houses a large collection of paintings, coins, etc., not too well displayed, but including some precious things, wrote Goethe on March 9, 1787. His observation about this experience was that in order to learn the intrinsic value of such things it is important to see them in profusion, so as not to confuse value with rarity (as one might do in a northern country with a lemon tree or Etruscan vase).
I did not share Goethe's cool appraisal. The palazzo is now a national museum whose vast galleries and salons hold acres of astounding, unexpected paintings by masters of the art whose work I was used to seeing in less curiously located great national museums. Titian, Bellini, El Greco, Caravaggio ... I wasn't spotting the lemons among the profusion. In delight I took out my notebook and wandered from one high beautiful room to the next, pausing at random and at length before a Madonna and baby by Bernardo Daddi, a portrait of Alessandro Farnese by Raphael. My traveling companion stood for a long while sketching a profile portrait of Francesco Gonzaga by Andrea Mantegna, listening to Bach on his iPod.
At seven o'clock we were ushered out in the peculiar way of Italian museums. Rather than announcing that the museum is closing, the guards begin quietly following patrons, looking at them significantly while closing doors and window shutters. In this way we found ourselves out in the park, which had come alive with children playing and families walking in the evening light. In the gelateria across from the park gates we ordered a flavor called nocciola we had not previously sampled. It was so good I was in despair that it was our last night in Italy, and only the first time we'd had it.
Slowly we wandered back down the street toward the hotel. Like the park, it was full of local life. All the shops were open: meat shops and bakeries and housewares and toys and pizza. When the street turned, opening out onto the far view of the city, we stopped by a low wall to look out at it, a bit dreamy from the art and the ice cream and the fact of having spent the previous night on a boat crossing the Bay of Naples. In this dangerous moment, this sliver of time between Sicily and our flight to Athens in the morning, our present reality suddenly filled up with four young toughs on two motorcycles who pulled up behind us, silent, hostile, serious, utterly out of sync with the mood. One of them dismounted and pulled out what, incredibly, appeared to be a small gun and shoved it at my traveling companion's neck. Another grabbed at the small gray shoulder bag where I kept the notebook. I fumbled clumsily with the catch, my former command of Italian quite gone, trying to get it out as he tugged roughly at the strap.
"Let him have it," said my traveling companion's oddly steady voice, and in an instant the motorcycles were gone, the gray bag flying away, the two of us standing breathless and unbelieving, looking at each other, stuttering the names of the losses: wallet, iPod, camera. The sketchbook with the pediment at Segesta and the stone carving from the museum at Agrigento, this evening's Gonzaga profile. Sunglasses, cellphone, little wads of Euros. My notebook. My photographs. My notebook.
In the morning we collected our passports from the deeply apologetic hotel and flew to Athens. Very quiet now, we checked into a hotel near the New Acropolis Museum, and went out for lunch across from its hovering and complex presence. When the shops opened I bought a new notebook.
That night I woke suddenly, shocked by the memory of the gun pressed up against the body beside me in the bed. It wasn't a clear image, just a fragment from a context that had come and gone in less time than it took to order an ice cream or snap a photo. Like the disappearing flash of my little bag with its pages of scrawled specificity and context-evoking images, all now more useless than Porta's superseded legs for Hercules. This, then, was being there: a stripping of control, a disappearance of purpose, a reformulation of seeing. My encounters with the past would indeed be an excavation of loss, past observation now hijacked by a sudden present most sharply defined by its feeling of unreality.
Like the history of Sicily, or the history of the colossal goddess, the narrative of my time among the fragments and reconstructions of the ancient world would emerge from erasure, and from the imprecision of retrieval, remaking the past from a distance. Mingling my short story with the ruins of Herculaneum and Pompeii, with the long weather and memories of Sicily would be indeed a struggle with smallness and vulnerability. The abduction of my notes on Sicily's Greek past into the Italian underworld was a forceful demonstration that all the tricks invented to hold onto the moments as they pass are doomed to fail. Still here, still here ... but it felt as if our whole time there had been stolen, as if it was quite gone--which of course it was.
The abducted moments would come to be drenched in sweetness, charged with an emotion distinct from the actual experience. Sicily. Siss-il-lee. The softness of the word like a child's mouth, the deceptive innocence of a golden past. Sunday afternoon at a garden table in Agrigento; the stunning prospect from the church in Aidone; the evening beach by the river delta near Eloro. A hillside of cactus, a rainy day in Siracusa; leaky showerstalls, pesto Trapanese, Segesta, Panarea. All of it utterly changed by our absence the moment it was over, and now changed again as memory testifies to our vanished and enduring presence there.
(1) This of course proved to be a merry fantasia on the theme of the twenty-four hour clock.
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|Article Type:||Travel narrative|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2012|
|Next Article:||2012, David Nathan Meyerson Prize for Fiction.|