A visit to Segesta–secondhand.

I have yet to visit Sicily, though a couple of my favorite books about Italy take place there. (See the book reviews here and here.) Today I’m sharing another writer’s experience visiting one of Sicily’s premier ancient sites, the Greek temple at Segesta.

The ancient Greek temple at Segesta. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

The ancient Greek temple at Segesta. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Honestly, I just read about Segesta in another book yesterday. I was reading aloud to my mother as we sat in the car, waiting in line for a ferry across Puget Sound.

Then I saw that the Sicilian Housewife has a guest post about a visit to Segesta, along with wonderful photos. The journey to Segesta is as entertaining as the photos. So sit back and enjoy a mini trip to Sicily today! Just click here.


Agrigento’s Almond Blossom Festival

Blossoming Almonds by Hungarian painter Tividar  Kosztka Csontvary (1853-1919). Image in public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Blossoming Almonds by Hungarian painter Tividar Kosztka Csontvary (1853-1919). Image in public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Do festivals appeal to you? Agrigento’s Almond Blossom Festival is relatively new in Italian terms–only about 70 years of celebration so far. Many Italian festivals have several hundred years of history.

But even though the festival is young, the almond has been in Italy hundreds of years, since its introduction by the Arabs (who brought many other delicious foods with them, too). And the almond trees around Agrigento accent the city’s ancient Greek temples.

Temple of Concordia in Agrigento. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Temple of Concordia in Agrigento. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Debra Santangelo ofSicilian Connections has a blog post with great photos of the festival just now concluding, and from earlier years.

Of course, almond based foods accompany the celebrations, and here’s another link to a recipe for cassata, a Sicilian cake–and what a beauty!–from Manu’s Menu, a blog by Manuella whose Sicilian heritage figures heavily in her blog. The visual archive of recipes will make your mouth water.

Tell me, readers, you have a wide range of interests. What would have more appeal to you in Agrigento–the almonds or the temples? 

Ski on an active volcano!

“Welcome to Sicily!” Here’s some eye-popping video of skiing on Mount Etna in Sicily (and some other local activities). Technically, yes, a ski company ad–but it will give the daredevil skiers among you an idea of winter sport opportunities in the far south. What would you think about skiing on a volcano while it is actively erupting?

Guest Post: Sicilian Puppets, a Living Tradition, by Tinney S. Heath

Tinney S HeathI’m delighted to welcome Tinney Heath to the blog today. Tinney is the author of A Thing Done, a novel set in 13th century Florence, and a fellow blogger at http://www.historicalfictionresearch.blogspot.com. Today, Tinney takes us to Sicily.

“We might have been in the Nuovo Cinema Paradiso, but instead of flickering images projected in black and white, we watched knights in shining armor stride across the stage, less than 3 feet tall, their colorful plumes bouncing and their shields clanking.  Backstage a tenor sang out ‘Allarme, allarme, allarme,’ gruff voices challenged menacing Saracen warriors, and the puparo’s [puppeteer’s] wooden sandal stomped out a battle rhythm, as one by one the pupi [puppets] crossed swords with the infidel, lopping off heads and splitting torsos, or took a swipe at a passing dragon to rescue a damsel in distress.”

Charlemagne's knights

Charlemagne’s knights

That’s Mary Taylor Simeti, longtime resident of Sicily and the author of On Persephone’s Island and Travels with a Medieval Queen, describing a traditional puppet show in Palermo in 1964.

The show that night was one of 271 installments of the Paladini di Francia, a serialized story loosely based on the 11th century French epic poem “Chanson de Roland.”  It tells of the adventures of Charlemagne and his knights as they battle against Saracens, sorcerers, dragons, devils, monsters, and occasionally each other.  The Charlemagne tales are the mainstay of this art form, though other traditional stories can also be seen, including shows based on Shakespeare, Homer, and the Bible.

The Franks, ready for action.

The Franks, ready for action.

The handcarved puppets, of dense chestnut or cypress wood, have expressive painted faces and realistic glass eyes.  Each puppet character has its unique clothing, armor, coat of arms, and a distinctive style of movement, making them easy to identify.

Shows are played against elaborately painted backdrops, and to the accompaniment of music, often from a barrel organ or a player piano.  Dialogue is spoken by the puppeteers and usually improvised; certainly there were moments while watching a show in Palermo that I wished I could understand Sicilian dialect, because judging from the reaction of the locals in the audience, I had managed to miss something very funny.

Commedia d'arte, with puppets

Commedia d’arte, with puppets

Simeti observes that each show includes two things.  One is a council, to show characters talking together and let the audience get to know each one and the values he or she personifies.  Once we know who the good guys and the bad guys are, it’s on to the second element:  the battle scenes, which occupy most of the show.  Battles are vivid, colorful, and violent, and characters are slain, often spectacularly.  Puppets doomed to this fate are constructed so as to lose limbs or a head in battle, or even to split completely in two.

Depending on which Sicilian tradition they come from, puppets can be around 3 feet high (Palermo) or closer to 5 feet (Catania).  Palermo’s smaller puppets have articulated knee joints, which the Catanian marionettes don’t, and they are capable of sheathing and unsheathing a sword, thanks to an ingenious and intricate system of strings, rods, and wires.  It can take years to learn to manipulate a marionette to its full potential.

A peek backstage.

A peek backstage.

Although Sicily’s tradition of marionette theater took on its present form in the 19th century, Sicilian puppetry actually goes much farther back.  The chivalric legends may have been acted out by puppets as early as the 16th century, and in fact Simeti tells us that Sicilian puppeteers performed in Athens in Socrates’s day.  Sicilian puppets are said to have fascinated Goethe, Anatole France, George Bernard Shaw, and Mario Puzo, and the great Italian semiotician and novelist Umberto Eco was appointed to serve on the board of Palermo’s Museo Internazionale delle Marionette (where all the photos in this post were taken).  This traditional art form has a venerable past, but the question now seems to be, does it have a future?

It’s been pronounced dead before.  First the cinema, then television, were said to herald its demise, and indeed, many theaters have closed over the years.  Families boasting multiple generations of proud puppeteers have had to go into other lines of work.  It is probably the tourist trade that keeps the remaining theaters in business.  But in 2001, UNESCO declared Sicilian puppetry part of the “Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity,” and has set in motion training programs for puppeteers, festivals, and awards, in an effort to keep this rich tradition alive.

Laurel and Hardy in Palermo.

Laurel and Hardy in Palermo.

When my husband and I visited Palermo, our rented apartment was part of the magnificent palazzo that had been the final home of the great Sicilian novelist Giuseppe di Lampedusa, author of Il Gattopardo (The Leopard).  The palazzo is now owned by the author’s adopted son, Gioacchino Tomasi, Duke of Palma and a well-known musicologist and theater director, and Tomasi’s wife, Duchess Nicoletta Polo, a renowned expert on Sicilian cuisine who teaches cooking to tourists and whose recipes appear in cookbooks and cooking magazines.

The Duchess told us that when her husband was in New York as a cultural attachė, they decided to import both puppets and puppeteers and produce an authentic Sicilian puppet show for a small New York audience made up mostly of diplomatic personnel from many different countries.  Children were, of course, especially welcome.  A Chinese diplomat who was unable to stay for the performance dropped off his small daughter, a tiny porcelain doll of a child, and anxiously asked Nicoletta to keep a close eye on the little girl in case she was frightened by the clamor of the swordfights.  The child settled comfortably on the Duchess’s lap at first, but once the action began, within seconds the porcelain doll was bouncing up and down excitedly, screaming, “Kill him!  Kill him!”

We saw another puppet-child interaction in Palermo that charmed us.  After the show, members of the small audience – only seven or eight of us – were standing backstage watching while a puppeteer demonstrated his marionette for us.  A little boy, maybe four or five, was utterly fascinated, and Puppet Orlando was just about his height.  The puppeteer made Orlando draw his sword and wave it about wildly while the child giggled, and then suddenly Orlando dropped his martial posturing, lurched up to the boy, and gave him a big hug, to the delight of everyone.

You can find many videos of Sicilian puppet shows on YouTube.  Some are quite slick and professional, with educational commentary.  To give you a taste, though, I’ve chosen this one, taken from the audience, because it captures the feeling of being at one of these shows, and makes it clear how much the audience is enjoying it.

Tinney Heath’s historical interests can best be described as
Dantecentric: if Dante lived it, wrote about it, or consigned it to the
Inferno, it’s fair game. When not writing about Dante’s Florence, she
spends a lot of time playing medieval and early Renaissance music with
her husband on a variety of early instruments. She loves to travel to
Italy for research (not to mention art, music, and pasta). Her
background is in journalism. To learn more about her work, see her
website: www.tinneyheath.com

Stupor Mundi, Wonder of the World

One of the most fascinating people in the history of the Italian south, Frederick II, is a figure of contradictions. An orphan, emperor, crusader, excommunicate, expert in falconry and author of an innovative legal code. Born in 1194, Frederick’s father was Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI, and his mother, Constance, was heir to Sicily, a kingdom which at that time included the southern half of the Italian peninsula.

Here are a few things Frederick is best known for:

His birth:Frederick was born in a public square near Ancona, Italy as his mother traveled south from Germany. She chose this public birth to forestall any doubts about her son’s origin. His father died when Frederick was two years old, and his mother died when he was four; Pope Innocent III became his guardian, overseeing his education and his kingdom during his childhood.

The birth of Frederick II

Crusading: In 1228, after several delays which resulted in his excommunication, Frederick went on crusade. Because he was excommunicated, the local authorities and military orders refused to help him, but Frederick opened negotiations with the sultan Al-Kamil. The two agreed to a truce, and to Frederick’s coronation as King of Jerusalem in March of 1229. Though he never established an effective rule over Jerusalem, his success was admired by some leaders in Europe, though the church was further antagonized by his actions taken without church support.

Legal reforms: The Liber Augustalis, also known as the Constitutions of Melfi, which Frederick promulgated in 1231, set in place a great reform from the feudal system previously used in his kingdom and much of Europe. The reforms made the king’s rule sovereign, required royal permission to carry a weapon, restored Roman “equality before the law” for all citizens, forbade independent city-states which were common in the north of Italy, and set up provincial governments answerable to the king. Although the new laws also made heresy illegal, at the request of the pope, the church frowned on the statute putting the clergy under civil authority.

Castel del Monte, Apulia

Castle design: In 1229, Frederick commenced the construction of a castle of his own octagonal design. Castel del Monte was completed shortly before his death in 1250, and remains the source of some debate as to its intended purpose. Many say it was built as a hunting lodge. It remains today a beautiful landmark in the Apulian countryside.

Writer: During the 1240s Frederick wrote a treatise on falconry, a scientific book with detailed illustrations, dedicated to his son Manfred. Titled (in Latin) “The Art of Hunting with Birds”, the book includes Frederick’s own observations and experiments, and is organized with scientific precision. 

Frederick loved Sicily and spent little time in his German realms. He is known as a patron of the arts and sciences, and a man ahead of his time. If all this has whetted your appetite, there’s plenty written about him. For a historian’s view of his life, I recommend David Abulafia’s biography, Frederick II: A Medieval Emperor. If you prefer fiction, you might try Cecelia Holland’s book Antichrist: A novel of the Emperor Frederick II.



Book Review: That Summer in Sicily

In this atmospheric, evocative memoir, Marlena de Blasi draws us into a mysterious Sicilian villa, a world apart and a world with its own secrets. Ultimately, its own love story.

De Blasi went to Sicily with an assignment in the summer of 1995: Write an article about Sicily’s interior, for a scholarly magazine. She and her Italian husband venture forth, with appointments and plans in place, for several weeks in the south. There, they hit a wall of silence. She was stood up for every appointment. In the heat of summer, baking in the Sicilian highlands, the assignment was abandoned. They decided to seek a couple of days’ refuge, an inn or pensione, and rest befor returning to Venice.

A policeman directs them to Tosca, the owner of the Villa Donnafugata, the house of the fleeing women. A world apart, where black-garbed women chant while washing their laundry against stones. Where crenillated towers and juliet balconies stand guard over wheatfields and goatpens that would have looked the same a hundred or a thousand years ago.

And there, intending to leave nearly every day, but drawn or induced or wooed to stay for weeks, de Blasi hears Tosca’s story. You should hear it too, and I can only urge you to read this book.

I read it during the first couple of days of a vacation to the tropics, and I’m glad I did not have a work schedule to maintain, as it would have gone by the wayside for the higher priority of Tosca’s story. Her transformation from nine-year-old starving peasant girl to mistress of a villa supporting dozens of laborers who are her closest friends is a journey worth taking.

Italian Roots: Some ideas for finding them

Josephine and Francesco Arcuri, my great-grandparents from Calabria

Tracing Italian ancestry can be a challenge, and records online for genealogy in the Italian South are sparce. The subscription research website Ancestry.com recently added new records for Italian genealogy in America: records from the Sons of Italy (Order of the Sons of Italy in America, or OSIA). These new records are added to others already on Ancestry, which include civil registrations (birth, marriage, death) from several cities in Sicily, and a few southern cities on the mainland.

An internet search turns up thousands of references to Italian genealogy, and connecting online is a great way to pool research efforts with distant family members. I’ve recently been corresponding with a distant cousin across the country who is digging into our Italian roots. I’ve been able to share results of my past research, even though I am not actively researching at this time.

Who would have imagined a few years ago that today we would have a television series dedicated to genealogy? A couple of episodes of “Who Do You Think You Are?” may set your own genealogical wheels in motion to learn more of your heritage–whether it is Italian or not. And this week PBS launches a new series by Henry Louis Gates called Finding Your Roots. His previous shows, African-American Lives and Faces of America are available for viewing online at PBS, and might stoke the fires of your own search for your roots.