Dear Blog Readers– I had the honour of being invited to visit Sicily the last four days of August to take part in a book presentation in the medieval town of Erice. I accepted immediately not even knowing what the book was about because the only times I’ve been to the enchanting island of Sicily have been for work and I’ve always wanted to spend more time there.
When the book arrived in the mail, I was taken aback. It was something I knew very little about. The title, translated from Italian, is “The Voyage of the Romantics in Search of Happiness”, and is an in-depth look (over 400 pages) into the lives, voyages and poetry of the British Romantic poets by Italian author Luigi Giannitrapani. At first I panicked and then scratched my head and tried to remember the last time I had read a poem by John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Samuel Coleridge or Lord Byron. Fortunately, I had the entire summer to read the book, go back and read some of the poetry and prepare my questions.
More on the book and the presentation later. First a few words on how I was immersed in the incredible sights and culture of Sicily.
I arrived at the Trapani airport a few days ahead of the presentation and was met by my friend and author Lynn Rodolico (see Blog Post “Small Change – A Novel of Parenting and Love”). She immediately whisked me off for a seaside drive and a visit to some interesting local sites.
On the Salt Road (Via del Sale) between Trapani and Marsala we saw workers using wheel barrows to haul salt crystals from saline flats. The long pinkish colour squared off pools are interspersed with windmills that look like they came straight from Holland. People have been producing salt here for centuries. Apparently the salt flats were first established by the Phoenicians around 800 BC, and eventually taken over the by Normans, Arabs and Spanish.
Over my few days in Sicily, I realized everything seemed to have a dramatic history –changing hands between different populations who took control of that area of the Mediterranean. Near the salt flats we found a gorgeous group of pink flamingos hanging out enjoying the sunshine.
Lynn and I made several stops along the spectacular coast — in an around the mountain known as Cofano (which means “Trunk”) and which looks like a gigantic traveller’s trunk sitting on the edge of the sea just waiting to be opened to reveal all sorts of useful items inside.
We hiked down to the Scopello shoreline where Sicilian fisherman once launched their famous Tonnara Mattanza, an annual Tuna catch–a dramatic, bloody event, rich with cultural traditions. The fishermen no longer do the catch there but the old Tonnara building and boat launch are still there along with aging, rusty anchors from fishing boats. Further on we passed through the forlorn town of “Purgatorio” (Purgatory) which is famous for its red light that never changes. We were lucky enough not to be held forever in “Purgatorio” by the red light.
Another stop was at the stunning Temple of Segesta, built in 430 BC by the Elymians (ok, I humbly admit I had never heard of Elmyians before I visited Segesta) It is a majestic Temple with 36 Doric columns. And a short hike up the hill from the Temple is a spectacular Greek theater with a view out to the sea.
Since I am too lazy to do my homework here, I will quote the brochure: “The ancient city of Segesta, probably founded by the Elymians, was certainly the most important in the Mediterranean Basin….Segesta was destroyed by the Syracuse tyrant Agathocles (end of 4th century BC). At the start of the first Punic war the city was reborn, allying itself with Rome…Settled by Byzantine, Arab and lastly Latin communities, the city was progressively abandoned from the Suevian period onwards.” (Ok, I already admitted I know nothing about Elymians, now I have to admit I have no clue what the Suevian period was, and who was Agathocles. A quick google search reveals that Agathocles was the Greek Tyrant of Syracuse and the Suevians were an ancient Germanic tribe )
Despite my ignorance of history, I thoroughly enjoyed the magnificent temple and the striking Greek Theater. There it suddenly dawned on me why all those British Romantic poets left the gloomy British climes to romp around the ruins of Greece and Italy in the sunshine in search of inspiration for their poetry.
Finally — up, up, up to the town of Erice, 750 meters above sea level. I loved the oddly cobblestoned streets winding through the town making it nearly impossible for anyone in heels to walk around. At the top of the town there is the Castello di Venere (Venus’ Castle) with its intriguing history. It was built in the 12-13th century as a Temple to Venus and became a destination for sailors from around the Mediterranean region. In an unusual pilgrimage, the sailors made their way from the port, up the steep slopes to the Temple where they reached for the Goddess (of fertility and love) through the Priestesses, who were more or less “Holy Prostitutes” who, according to the brochure dispensed “sensuality and passion”. Apparently when the area was taken over by Christians, they built churches at all the entrances to the town to dissuade the eager sailors from visiting the Temple of Venus. I’m not sure how successful that endeavour was, or perhaps the visiting sailors covered their bases by kneeling before both the Christian and Pagan Gods.
And finally on to the presentation, one cannot but be charmed by the utterly erudite Luigi Giannitrapani– although he is 80 years old, he exudes enthusiasm, energy and passion for his subject matter that leaves listeners much younger reeling in awe. We met before the presentation to go over some of my questions and he filled me with delicious details of the lives and works of the romantic poets. During the presentation the audience was enraptured as he described the lives and works of these men. First, I learned a lot about the travels of the romantic poets. They were not tourists — they were dreamers in search of beauty, of freedom, of truth– they did not want to arrive– the attraction was the journey, not the destination. The Romantic Poets were intellectuals, narcissistic, egotistical, sometimes arrogant, infantile and naive– but each, in their own way, was a genius.
In particular, I loved all the details that Luigi shared both in his book and in his talk. I didn’t know that Lord Byron was a “celebrity” poet equivalent of our Hollywood stars. A sort-of George Clooney of poetic verse. When he went to France he had a carriage built that was similar to Napoleon’s pulled by two pairs of horses with inside a bed, a library, a chest with a set of porcelain dishes and his coat of arms emblazoned on the door. I loved Giannitrapani’s quote from Lady Caroline Lamb, lover of Lord Byron who said he was “mad, bad and dangerous to know.”
Samuel Coleridge wrote “Kubla Khan” after waking up from an intense nap (probably after smoking opium) and was busily writing what he imagined in his dream when he was interrupted by a guest who stayed for an hour and broke off his train of thought, impeding Coleridge from properly finishing the poem.
Percy Bysshe Shelley got kicked out of Oxford for writing a pamphlet promoting atheism. He later died on a shipwreck off the coast of Italy and his friend Lord Byron was called in to try to recognize the three bodies that washed up on shore a few days later. Byron fished in the pockets of one cadaver and found the poetry of Keats in one pocket and the tragedies of Aeschylus in the other and declared that man was Shelley.
I have seen the gravestone of Keats (next to Shelley’s) in the Non-Catholic Cemetery in Rome on which is written, “Here Lies One whose Name is Writ in Water.” But I did not know about Keats’ miserable life fighting off illness and constantly in search of love. Luigi Giannitrapani gave us a moving explanation of his poem “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” — in which a Knight is left by a mysterious “Belle Dame” with a sense of alienation, desperation and fear. Keats could be referring to his failures in love or his poetic inspiration that carries him away and then deserts him.
If Italian readers want to get a copy of Luigi’s book, it can be found on Amazon.com.
From high brainy thoughts about the romantic poets I have to descend to the stomach and mention the Sicilian food. While these poets were pursuing happiness, by any chance did they find the time for some happiness-inducing food? Sicilian food is fabulous. Just to mention a few of my favorite items: ricotta-cream stuffed Cannoli, fried rice balls stuffed with meat sauce, mozzarella and peas called Arancini, the Siclian Cous Cous made with fish, the eggplant dish known as Caponata– but I will leave the description of these delicious items to the Food bloggers.
This is when, where and why I have visited Sicily in the past for work. Many of these trips were before I started this blog, so there are no posts about them, but I am attaching some related posts and reports for anyone who is interested.
Palermo — Former Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti’s trial on charges of Mafia Association (see Blog Post “Divine Julius – An Italian Politician“)
Catania – Mount Etna — Explosions and lava flows on Sicily’s active volcano
Lampedusa — various visits to this small Sicilian island for reports on the arrival of migrants (See Blog Posts “Lampedusa, Europe’s Port“….)
Corleone- A visit to this small town for a ceremony in which the home of a sequestered Mafia boss was being given to a group called a non-profit group called Libera (see Blog Post “The Catholic Church and the Mafia“)
Near Trapani–Donna Fugata — A visit to film the night harvest in the Donna Fugata vineyards. Here is my video report: Sicilian Winery Harvest Grapes at Night