Drawing a wobbly line from the travel writing of Robert Byron and D.H. Lawrence to the Sitwells (that remarkable trinity of Sacheverell, Osbert, and Edith, who styled themselves the ne plus ultra of eccentric creativity during the 1920s), we arrive at the Sicilian Baroque.
It’s a tenuous line for sure, but I am always amazed when writing about the places of the Mediterranean how a cast of improbable modernist characters converge in unlikely places.
When reviewing Byron’s book about Mount Athos, The Station, in 1928 for Vogue magazine, D.H. Lawrence proclaimed that “Byzantium is to Mr. Byron what Baroque is to the Sitwells.” Meaning that if Robert Byron felt that Byzantine art was in many ways more representative of what Western art became (and not merely a decadent version of classical Greece), the Sitwell’s felt the Baroque was the embodiment of the true spirit of Mediterranean Europe. The Sitwell’s did not see the Baroque as a meringue frothily topped over classicism but as a complex, exuberant expression of the drama and grandeur of the South. The play of light and dark, chiaroscuro, is one of the defining characteristics of life in the Mediterranean--white hot landscapes and cool dark interiors. Even the countryside reflects the contrast. In Discursions on Travel, Art, and Life, Osbert Sitwell not only praises the cities of Sicily but the beauty of orange trees and the landscapes in which they grow. He argues that where one finds the golden fruit and dark glossy leaves, one also finds the best climate, the loveliest art, and “the most beautiful of European buildings.” While this is clearly hyperbole, I would have to say I agree.
The Baroque beauty of southeastern Sicily is particularly striking, and though all angles of that mad triangle of an island are magical, the provinces of Ragusa and Siracusa are probably my favorite. As I mentioned in my previous post, the Commissario Montalbano series is filmed in towns scattered across these two provinces, and this is clearly because of the region’s visual sumptuousness.
The books are set in the fictional town of Vigata, modeled on Porto Empedocle in the province of Agrigento, where Andrea Camilleri was born. Named after the Greek philosopher Empedocles, the town clearly didn’t think that the eclectic thinker—over-thrower of tyrants, founder of the idea of the four elements, philosopher of nature and the cosmos, and inspiration for the poet Matthew Arnold—was enough of a tourist draw.
So, in 2003 Porto Empedocle changed its name to Porto Empedocle Vigata, but the decision was revoked in 2009 under a new administration that did not like to be associated with the criminality represented in Camilleri’s fiction.
The television series glories in the Baroque locales of the Val di Noto, and the landscapes of the two southeastern provinces are the perfect backdrop for the morality play of detective fiction, where even the solution to the crime doesn’t correct the motivations that give rise to it. There is a theatricality and movement to Ragusa, Siracusa, Noto, and Modica that is difficult to express in words, just as the creamy, honey color of the local tufa stone that seems to emit a golden light cannot be conveyed in print. The facades of the churches undulate like waves, as the towns themselves run up and down hillsides. One can get dizzy just standing still, dazzled by the light and the action of decoration and stone.
Though history is thousands of years deep on the island, the pivotal moment for the Sicilian Baroque was 1693, when an earthquake devastated the medieval versions of these towns. They were rebuilt, according to UNESCO, through a collective undertaking that included the highest levels of engineering, architectural, and artist achievement of the late Baroque in Europe.
Osbert Sitwell describes Noto, as a model of early 18th-century urban planning, in Platonic terms; it is the ideal city, “… no other city has been planned more as a work-of-art.”
Another exaggeration, but Sitwell, who himself was as close to a Baroque effusion as a human being can get, rapturously captures how the architecture in these towns is “planned for those strong effects of light and shadow only to be obtained in the southern climates, where recesses have a mystery and solemnity, their surroundings a gaiety, lacking in Northern Europe.”