Wednesday, October 22, 2014

On Sicily: Tears


What is the purpose of suffering?

If you are considering this question while on vacation, among pleasant people in a beautiful place, of course, something is seriously wrong. In Sicily, I didn’t attend to the news, didn’t follow the spread and progression of Ebola or the course of the various wars and rebellions and insurgencies raging in the world. Intelligence of a sex scandal back in my hometown reached me, but only remotely and as an abstraction. Traveling immerses you in immediacy: the taste of certain foods, weather, the relative hardness of mattresses, the efficacy of air conditioning, humidity, traffic, the logistics of passing from one place to another, the location of toilets. If you are fortunate, you are blissfully unaware of the larger significance of events or experiences. The world presents itself as a buffet wonderfully replete and close at hand. Later, if you reflect upon your travel, however, other questions arise and, although those questions may be unanswered – all truly important questions have no single answer – patterns, perhaps, are discernible.



For instance: once upon a time, in Siracusa, a husband and wife yearned for a child, but they were infertile. At last, the wife became pregnant. But, as her pregnancy progressed, she suffered from toxemia and convulsions. One of these convulsions left her totally blind. After many hours of blindness, the pregnant woman’s sight returned and she saw an image of the Madonna on the wall of her bedroom shedding tears. The Madonna was a cheap terra cotta plaque, bas relief, from Tuscany, a devotional image that had been mass-produced, painted in blue and white with a garish sacred heart clutched like a tumor under breast. The plaque had been a wedding gift to the couple, Antonin and Angelo Iannuso. The little statue protruding from the plaque wept for four days, although she withheld her tears when in the custody of the police summoned to investigate the phenomenon. The priest of the local parish in Siracusa collected a vial of tears, one of several samples taken. It was said that the tears accumulated in a hollow above the sacred heart displayed on the figure’s chest. Tests on the fluid in the vial supposedly demonstrated that the liquid was comprised of human tears. Pope Pius XII declared that the miracle was authentic and asked rhetorically: When will men come to understand the Madonna’s mysterious language of tears? The woman was cured of her convulsions and, apparently, delivered a healthy child.

One might imagine this story to be something told about the Age of Faith, a miracle from the Middle Ages. But, in fact, the plaster-cast Madonna shed her tears in late August, 1953 and the Pope confirmed the miracle in a radio address broadcast on September 9, 1953.

The miracle’s location was a humble street in Siracusa, the Via Deggli Orti II. In 1967, a great church was built at that site, a construction project that lasted many years. The church is called the Cathedral of the Lachrymosa and it towers over the skyline of the white city of Siracusa. The church was built next to the ruins of a Byzantine chapel, a broken facade and some stone walls squatting over a large and labyrinthine catacomb. The new cathedral is supposed to look like a teardrop falling from heaven to moisten the earth, but the architectural style is Brutalist and the structure, if conceived as a falling object, crashes earthward like a meteorite, seeming to obliterate the humble neighborhood in which it is located. Curiously, the church is impressive when viewed at close quarters – the interlocking piers of pre-stressed concrete rise like folded hands above an intricate pedestal of ramps and terraces – but its scale is all wrong and its silhouette risible: to me, the church looks like a Plains Indian teepee, a wigwam twenty stories tall, and incongruously plopped into the elegant old Mediterranean-style apartments encircling the building.

In the church, a vitrine holds the holy relic: a vial of tears. They have crystallized and glisten like a dust of silica and salt. When will men learn the mysterious language of tears?



Residents of Palermo (Palermitans) call the intersection dividing their city into four quadrants, "the Theater of the Sun." This name identifies a characteristic of the monumental architecture at that intersection: as the day progresses, the sun illuminates, in turn, each of the four Baroque facades forming an amphitheater around the intersection between Via Roma and Via Vittorio Emmanuel. The crossroads is a busy place at the bottom of a sort of cistern or well made by the curved facades frowning down upon the intersection. Each facade forms an arc of about 90 degrees, towering over the meeting of the streets: a sculptural ensemble of columns and figures – at eye-level the feet of four patron saints, all of them women, stepping forth from deep, dirty-looking niches over a fountains that vomit water from the flayed faces of giants; above the impassive saints, there are more columns and pediments, architraves over pedestals where heroes in armor survey their city, and, then, yet higher, against the sky, four more women, allegorical figures representing the four seasons, swathed in swirling drapery and arms bearing baskets of flowers or fruit, staring at one another across space framed by the Sun-theater. Traffic and smoke has soiled this Baroque city-center and, at the street-level, it is gloomy within the amphitheater where lost trucks are making u-turns and Vespas spinning in tight, spiral pattens, and the architecture has been stained grey with grime, the color of an old, battered metal garbage-can.

One of the Palermo neighborhood, a quadrant to the northeast, is called Kalsa and this is where I walked, a day before the guided tour began, looking the Palazzo Abatellis. This renaissance palace houses an art collection and a notable work, a great and maleficent fresco called the The Triumph of Death. In Kalsa, some of the streets dead-end at the harbor where the claustrophobic maze of narrow alleyways and small, filthy piazzas opens to the sea entrapped in the harbor, under beetling cliffs across the bay. I passed some ancient churches, more like geological phenomena than buildings, tiers of gesturing martyrs and stone torches, palms cut into the stone and vases holding big pine-cones, grimy rock encrusted with battered-looking ornamentation that seemed to have grown in place like the formations in a limestone cavern. Some of the alleys were scarcely wide enough for a single car to pass and the buildings seem to nod together overhead to roof the passages so that they were like underground tunnels. Africans stood in small suspicious-looking groups on the corners of the rubbish-filled plazas – the men were either resplendently clean in white smocks and tunics or filthy, wearing stained soccer shirts and torn jeans. I passed a miserable-looking little obelisk in an piazza the size of a small bowling alley, an old church squatting in a corner like a mangy dog, some taverns with men standing in front of them operatically waving their hands at one another and crying out in tones of histrionic abuse and grievance. The high walls of the palazzos were windowless, festooned at their cornices with grotesque animal spouts and gutters. I came to a kind of college or high school and young men stood bickering on the street and, behind them, there was the sea, caught under a kind of mud-colored stone curb.

I found the building that I thought to be the Palazzo Abatellis but was afraid to approach too closely. Six or seven men in casual clothing were standing at the threshold, engaged in some kind of bellicose disputation. I couldn’t tell who was defending the door and who was just visiting for the purpose of the debate. The men embraced one another and, then, pushed apart and someone’s voice sang out like the tenor in an opera, a high crying sound with laughter fluttering around it. Although it looked to me like a fist-fight was about to erupt, in fact, the men were merely entertaining one another with arias of discontent and abuse and they were all friends. At last, I screwed-up my courage and pressed through them to the door – one of the men blocked me, said something in Italian, and, then, slapped a ticket into my hand. Inside, it was hot and sweltering as is the case with all public buildings in Palermo – there is no motion of air and the confined atmosphere is muggy and smells of plaster dust and effort of climbing the clammy marble stairs is enough to drench your hair and ribs in sweat. The place was completely inscrutable, empty rooms with fading frescos decorating the walls between 12 foot high windows, an interior courtyard filled with rubbish, a tower like the structure from which Jimmy Stewart fell in Vertigo, open colonnades looking down on the maze of tenements and alleyways. Some teenage girls were picking at the scabs on limestone figures lying recumbent on sarcophagi and fans were whirling, pushing hot air around in the room – it seemed to be some sort of high-school project involving the restoration of medieval tombs, dragged out of the crypts and lining the wall of the 18th century ballroom. Putti leered at me and big mirrors all foamy with dust cast distorted reflections. If this was the Palazzo Abatellis, there was no art inside, just fragments of sculptures, tombs with abscessed figures carved into eroded limestone, vaguely salacious gods and goddesses roving the tops of walls and the ceilings that were painted as if to open upon the faded blue of the sky. After ten minutes in the stifling building, entirely ignored by the teenage girls bent over the dead princes and princesses, I fled the place. I went to a church on the waterfront, a little mound of statuary and pillars under a crescent-shaped dome. I thought to sit down on the steps of the church and look across the water to the cliffs, big escarpments such as I imagine the Rock Gibralter to be. But there was a woman at a desk sitting in front of the church, well-dressed and with a friendly smile, and she beckoned me to approach her. She sold me a ticket to the church interior and I went inside.

Again, it was hot and the air was motionless and suffused with water – my face was soaking with sweat and my eyes stung with that moisture. The inside of the church was white with freshly cleansed marble walls, but plain. Some big sarcophagi mounted on porphyry clawed-feet stood along the sides of the nave. Putti incongruously slumbering on skulls like pillows sat atop the sarcophagi. After a couple minutes, I wanted to leave and so I went to the door and pushed on it, but it didn’t budge. It was like pushing against the marble wall. An complex sort of lock with various latches and levers and handles presented itself to my touch – it was dark by the door and the lock seemed to present an insoluble problem. I rattled the lock and pushed at the latches, shoved levers up and down and between, but the door didn’t open and the great wooden panels at the threshold were immobile. Panic overcame me briefly. I was trapped in the empty, suffocating church where innumerable marble skulls were grinning at me and there was no way out. I slumped in an uncomfortable pew and, at last, I saw a sort of armoire shoved against the back of the nave, a kind of closet with a small wooden door like the entrance to a confessional. I went to the dark cherry-wood box and pushed on the door and it creaked inward and, then, I saw that the woman at the desk was sitting outside, guarding the door and so I was freed from my confinement.

Later, with the tour, we were guided through some of these same airless alleyways, slot canyons in the ancient masses of buildings. Of course, with a guide leading us we saw more and better. In one small piazza, we stood on irregular, ankle-cracking cobble-stones in front of a Baroque church, a dowdy affair like decomposing wedding cake, studded with handless and noseless martyrs. The church was the color of concrete stained by road kill and a modest obelisk on a fat, grafitti-smeared pillar of stone thrust its thumb up to the sky. Storm clouds, blue and intense with watery shadow, were scudding over the domes and spires of the city. Ms. Accardi told us that more than 3,000 Frenchmen were buried in a mass grave under the unprepossessing monument. The French were the victims of an episode called the Sicilian Vespers, a massacre that occurred on Easter evening in 1282.

At that time, Sicily was ruled by the Normans and the king was Charles of Anjou. After evening mass, some French soldiers groped Sicilian women in front of a church on the outskirts of Palermo. One of women’s husband used his dagger to kill the Frenchman pawing his wife. This triggered a general slaughter – mobs churned through the narrow medieval streets hacking to death any French-speaking person that they encountered. A shibboleth was used to discern who should be killed – the Sicilian word ciciri means chickpea. French tongues and lips can’t pronounce that word; there is something about the repetition of the "c’s" and the "r" embedded in the word that thwarts proper pronunciation, at least when ciciri is voiced by a Norman. People who pronounced the word incorrectly were summarily butchered. In the end, as is always the case, the savagery proved contagious – not only men, but, also, Norman women and children were killed and, at last, Sicilian women, as well, known to have consorted with the French were slaughtered. One woman, it is said, had her womb ripped open by a knife-thrust so that the fetus protected within, claimed to be half-French, could be dashed against a wall.

In the neighborhood of the monument to the dead French, bomb craters from World War Two were visible. Atrocity, it seems, is eternal. On some of the shops and taverns, there were orange-yellow stickers announcing that the proprietors did not pay pizzo – that is, protection money to the Mafia. The window decals said Addiopizzo. (Pizzo means "a beak-full.) Verdi composed an opera on the subject of the massacre of the French. In The Siclian Vespers, a princess of Austria, Helene, sings an aria Sorte fata! Oh, fier cimento ("Fatal destiny! Oh fierce conflict!). The French governor of Sicily, Monfort, announces that Helene may be married to her beloved, the Sicilian rebel, Procido. As bells toll, Sicilians storm into the garden of the Monfort’s and kill the French.



At Siracusa, the ancient Greeks chiseled their theater into living rock, limestone benches stepping down an arid sunbaked hill from low cliffs crowning a stony ridge over the harbor. Silt accumulates with time and the theater was erected above a stream flowing down to the water and so the sea is now remote from the theater, a quarter-mile away, beyond an ugly industrial development of small metal buildings and fuel tanks. The theater is large – crowded, it would have held 18,000 people and, from this capacity, a census can be established for ancient Syracuse: assuming a ratio of seven slaves for each free citizen, the city was probably inhabited by about 125,000 people, the second largest city-state in the Greek world.

Greek theaters are remarkably beautiful and elegant, although they must have been miserable places to attend: uncomfortable and exposed to the glare of the sun. A great semi-circular of elegantly sculpted benches forms a huge curved stairway leading up to the white cliffs. In the center of the cliffs, a round cave overlooks the theater, an empty socket like the Cyclops’ ruined eye glaring down at the pale tiers of seats and the stage and the blue sheet of sea beyond. The cave seems to be artificial, a grotto excavated into the cliff above the center of the last, and highest, row of seats. A spring is captured within the grotto, held within the deep, wet rocky niche, and water surges from stone, then, spills downhill beneath the theater. The top of the cliff is musical with flowing water and, indeed, the center of the theater also whispers with stream flowing through cool channels under the hot white benches. This theater sighs with mysterious rippling water, concealed in the rock, a sort of literal inspiration for the plays that were presented here, a sort of divine afflatus. Along the hilltop, the cliff has been hollowed into arched openings for Christian burials, and ten yards from the cave overflowing with water, a tiny cascade sluices down the escarpment, the stream embedded in a shaggy emerald growth of moss. The sun is hot and it glares against the white benches and the stage undercut with deep, rectangular pits – these were innovations of the Romans who later occupied the site and favored spectacular effects in their blood-and-thunder productions, animals and ghosts and monsters arising on elevators from underground. But despite the heat and the blinding light, the air in the theater is fresh with the scent of flowing water and its remote music tremulous under the chiseled benches.

Next to the theater, there is a quarry, now abandoned, with spikes and pillars of rock swathed in vine, cup-shaped hollows filled with water and flowers, luxuriant shade for the paths that wind over the irregular terrain, ground that seems toppled and tumbled as if from rockfalls and landslides from the sheer cliff backing the garden. Solemn, sacred-looking cats prowl the green corridors of the garden. There is a kind of monumental calm about the garden, great monoliths of stone rising from the dim, verdant shadows, pillars left half-carved in situ. A large cave, forty-five feet high and opening into a lofty L-shaped space within the rock, stands like a colossal, shadowy presence at the rear of the park. A rippling fold in the stone at the peaked vault of the cave seems vaguely anthropoid, human-shaped, the color of flesh, like the ear of Dr. Spock on Star Trek or a satyr. And, in fact, the cave is dubbed "the Ear of Dionysius," named after one of the tyrants of ancient Siracusa, a potentate said to have imprisoned political dissidents in the big, echoing cavity in the escarpment, poising his spies overhead to listen to the whispers below funneled up from the darkness under the cliff. In the Ear of Dionysius, tour groups are engaged in competitive singing: German and French and English voices all intermingled, the echoes reverberating endlessy against the stone-walls textured with innumerable chisel marks.

During the Peloponnesian War, Athenian forces attacked Siracusa. The background for the conflict in complicated: the city-state of Segesta, another Sicilian kingdom, was allied with Sparta and the Athenians threatened them. The inhabitants of Segesta successfully petitioned Siracusa for assistance. An Athenian armada was launched against Siracusa to punish that city for supporting Segesta, an ally of Sparta. Alcibiades led the expedition, a military adventure inaugarated under bad auspices – someone, it seems, had mutilated the phallic herms defending Athens and the Greek general was accused of that wrongdoing and, indeed, later sentenced to death in absentia for treachery. (Indeed, when Alcibiades was summoned back to Athens on charges of having desecrated the herms, he blithely switched sides and began to assist the Sicilians against his home-city.) The Athenian army fought the Syracusans for several years and there were several bloody battles. At least, the Athenians were routed and seven-thousand prisoners were taken. The prisoners were dragged in fetters to the quarry at Siracusa and forced to labor there in appalling conditions – they were granted one cup of water and one bowl of rice a day. Within a few months, almost all of the Athenians were dead, killed by starvation, thirst, and over-work. A dozen or so escaped to bring the news of the catastrophe to Athens.

The quarry is now a beautiful garden, lush with flowers and fruit trees and vine-entangled piers of unfinished columns. "This place," the guide says, "was a kind of concentration camp." On a pathway, a cat has maimed a small lizard. The lizard’s back is broken and, it seems, only one of the little creature’s legs is still sufficiently articulated to move. The cat is smooth, silky, inscrutable. The cat drops the lizard on the hot stones, lets it scuttle helplessly slinking sideways and spinning on its one intact leg. Then, the cat bats the lizard, lifts it gently in its teeth and carries it another twelve or so feet, before dropping the animal so that it can again attempt escape. Several German tourists film the cat torturing the lizard with their elaborate cameras, clever optical instruments that they brandish.

Each Spring, before it becomes too hot, Greek tragedies are presented in the ancient theater. The tragedies are about atrocities so remote and grotesque that they have become the occasion for art. The Greeks displayed no violence in their theater, although every horrific act was lovingly and graphically described by actors or the chorus. The tour guide at Siracusa notes that Greek plays arose in a matrix of civic responsibility and that they educated citizens in the values of their city. "When the chorus denounces Medea for butchering her children," the guide said in her sweetly accented and reasonable voice, "they are explaining that the heroine is a bad mother." This seemed a bit of an oversimplification to me.

Beyond the Greek theater, a Roman amphitheater is gouged into the stony soil. The amphitheater is a caldera and the site still seethes with implicit violence – at the center of the crater, there are pits where gladiators and wild animals were concealed before making their entrance in the sand-covered arena. The Romans, by contrast, showed every form of violence on stage as realistically as possible – it is said that they killed criminals in the course of plays by Seneca to mimic the murders enacted in his tragedies. The law-abiding, totalitarian, spectacle-seeking Romans, hypocrites all, are our forebears – the Greeks are too remote, too religious, too weirdly abstract and, even, oriental for us to claim as ancestors.

A glad was a short sword used in gladiatorial spectacles. When a gladiator was wounded, the victor turned to the audience and the imperial box for advice as to whether the disabled man should be killed. People held out their hands – if their thumbs were aligned with their forefingers, this meant that the losing gladiator was to die. If the thumb was curled back into the palm, this gesture signified sheathing a blade: in that case, the verdict was mercy.

In the evening, I wandered alone the hot streets of Siracusa. I became completely lost. The alleyways narrowed to tiny passageways, stifling and hundreds of feet long, wormholes between malodorous tenements, balconies almost touching overhead, wet laundry dripping onto my head, bleach-scented, like the limestone-infused water sliding from overhead stalactites in a cave. The passageways were strewn with trash and damaged-looking dogs trotted here and there and, sometimes, I encountered groups of women who glared at me as an outsider, an intruder in this subterranean labyrinth. A couple of men shoved past me. They had the bruised and sorrowful faces of gladiators. I felt the same panic that I experienced in the church – there seemed no way out of this stony and dark maze. But, then, the narrow passage opened on a street wide enough for cars to be parked along the curb and I saw a restaurant with tables set under an awning and the city’s fortified mole thrust out into the sea and, from these landmarks, I could navigate my way home.


The Museo Mandralisco occupies a nondescript structure built into the stucco wall of a street in Cefalu. The place was originally the home of a 19th century nobleman, Enrico de Mandralisco, and it displays his collections. The walls are white and the galleries small and airless, opening into a tiny courtyard concealed within the closely-packed houses comprising the block.

Mandralisco was an indefatigable antiquarian and naturalist. There are cases crowded with small, embalmed songbirds. The bright feathers of the little creatures have faded into a uniform and dowdy drabness. Most of the birds look alike as do the ancient coins, no longer glittering but scuffed and abraded, the tyrants adorning the little irregular and twisted shields of metal disfigured, noses rubbed away and crowns (or, perhaps, laurel-wreaths) worn to indistinct filth on their brows and in their curly hair. In this museum, everything is fading and half-erased. The hot picture galleries are full of martyrdoms and tortures, but the pictures are so eroded and dark that the horrors displayed in them are close to illegible. A shadowy figure flays a howling satyr; his blood has darkened to a trail of grey-brown slime extruded from his faded yellow wounds. St. Lucy with dark craters where her eyes should be displays her eyeballs on a silver tray. In another faded picture, St. Agatha richly dressed presents her amputated breasts, presented like hors de ouevres on a platter that she holds in a slender white hand. (In Catania, under Aetna’s peak, Sicilians eat minne di virgine – Virgin’s breasts, a dense sugary cake armored in white frosting with a maraschino cherry nipple.) Antiquity has blurred the paintings and you see them as if from a great distance.

The museum’s greatest treasure is an enigmatic portrait of a man, apparently a seafarer. The picture is small, gemlike, and it has been lovingly restored – the flesh tones on the little canvas glow as if lit from within. The canvas is by Antonella de Messina. The man smirks very slightly. The smile on his lips is very faint, but his eyes, which seem cruel and remote, are merry. The martyrs, with their palms, were tortured and died so that pictures could be painted of their sufferings. The unknown sailors indecipherable smile is indistinguishable from a grimace.




Example: Herodotus recounts that the Persians punished the rebellion of the Ionian Greeks by dispatching an army to destroy the city of Miletus, a large and beautiful Greek city built where the River Maeander flows down from the mountains of Asia Minor to the sea. The inhabitants of Miletus defended their city courageously, but the Persian army was persistent, undermined the city’s defensive walls, and destroyed it. The men were killed, the strongest and handsome boys were castrated and sent to serve as eunuchs in the imperial courts of the Persians, and the women and girls were deported as slaves.

A Greek poet, Phrynicus composed a tragedy called The Sack of Miletus, presented in Athens only a couple of years after the city was destroyed. Miletus was a patron of Athens and the Athenians thought of the city as a colony. Phrynicus was an innovator – he is said to be the first writer of Greek tragedies to deploy female masks in this theater. Before Phrynicus, the choir commented and a single actor declaimed the play’s narrative. Phryinicus established a second character in the presentation, thereby, in effect, inventing dialogue. Greek tragedy was intended to achieve catharsis – that is, the purgation of powerful emotions of pity and fear by the representation of terrible events. Phryincus seems to have succeeded all to well with his productin of The Sack of Miletus. The Athenian audience was moved to tears to the extent that Phrynicus, who won the Olympiad competition for playwriting, was also fined 1000 drachmas for disturbing the peace. After Phrynicus, Athenian theater shifted largely to mythological themes, eschewing historical events from the recent past.

Suffering, it seems, is an occasion for art. Tragedy and grand opera are a kind of remote and abstract mourning. The meaning of suffering is that it provides the raw material for a certain kind of artistic endeavor important to human beings.

This answer is insufficient to the question.

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