All images © by Roberto Piperno, owner of the domain. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Page added in February 2023.
All images © by Roberto Piperno, owner of the domain. Write to email@example.com.
Page added in February 2023.
The paintings shown in this page are by Alberto Pisa, an Italian painter who lived and worked in London. They were published in 1911 to illustrate Sicily
by Spencer C. Musson, one of the Black's Beautiful Books, a series of illustrated books published at the beginning of the
XXth century by A. and C. Black, Soho Square, London W. The price of the books ranged from 5s. to 20s.
The books were embellished with full-page illustrations,
which at the time were reserved only to very expensive books.
The books were dedicated to London and the British countryside, foreign countries, birds and a few contemporary painters. Italy was represented in the series by seven other titles: Florence and some Tuscan Cities, The Italian Lakes, Naples, The Riviera, Rome, Pompeii and Venice. The illustrations of Pompeii, Rome and Sicily were commissioned to Pisa.
If it be asked why this entirely uncalled-for addition to an immemorial and immeasurable literature (on Sicily) should be made, I have no answer, unless it be that Signor Pisa's sketches are sufficient raison d'etre for any book that contains them, and that an unintelligible convention requires such works of art to appear with a certain padding of print, which no one takes too seriously; few explore it beyond the dipping that enables them to find - or not to find - an account of some scene or subject that has charmed them in the pictures. Yet I shall never regret that this wholly unneeded accompaniment has been written. For, often as I may open it, I shall see, through blurred bars of print, a far-stretched sea and crowded hills overarched by sunny sky, a land of ancient enchantment that still weaves round all who know it a charm spun from many strands, old and new, elemental and complex, simple and subtle.
Spencer C. Musson.
The illustrations by Pisa are followed by a short excerpt from Mr. Musson's text. He wrote two other Black's Beautiful Books, namely The Upper Engadine (1907) and La Cote D'Emeraude (1912).
Palermo: Cappella Palatina (left) and the Martorana (right)
On first entering, one is conscious of nothing but an overmastering sense of colour, that seems not only to cover arch, wall, and roof, but to lurk in every shadow, to palpitate in the air. Then, piece by piece, we realize a wealth of decoration, a profusion of costly material, a prodigality of exquisite workmanship that, I should say, can be nowhere else found crowded into a similar space. (..) It is here that Wagner is said to have conceived the mystic chapel of the Holy Grail, which was as an arching forest - glade, wrought over with gold and precious stone. (..) The floor and the steps that rise to the chancel are of inlaid marble, so is the pulpit, which is supported by columns of peach-flower marble, some of which are also in the side apses, and are almost unique. The chancel enclosure is of perforated and inlaid marble; balustrades of crimson porphyry enclose the side apses. (..) The marble paschal candlestick seen beside the pulpit in the sketch is, in its bold, harmonious, decorative effect, its quaint figures, its classical and oriental detail, a fine example of the burst of sculptural exuberance that marked the eleventh century. (..)
The lower part of the walls is throughout panelled with the grey-veined marble known as cipollino, and each panel is edged with an inlay of coloured marbles, rich and delicate as oriental embroidery. Above this panelling, the whole surface of the walls and arches is covered with deep-hued mosaic on a golden ground, representing the sacred history of the world.
The Martorana was founded by George of Antioch, Grand Admiral of the two Rogers. (..) An endowment deed of 1143, in Greek and Arabic, is typical of its character, for, while the original plan shows that it was raised for the Greek ritual, there is an evident Saracenic feeling throughout its workmanship. (..) The beautiful pavement of mosaic and marble in involved geometrical design shows the dimensions and plan of the original church. (..) The decoration, too, was wholly Byzantine, and all the inscriptions are in Greek.
Palermo: (left) S. Giovanni degli Eremiti; (right) southern portal of the Cathedral
Close to the royal palace is the singular church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti; its five domes - plastered over outside, and daubed with rain-washed red, irresistibly suggesting a crop of giant fungus - are a striking illustration of the Saracenic building of the Norman churches in Sicily.
The southern porch, the fine-pointed Gothic of the west front, and, indeed, all the earlier work in the Cathedral, cannot be classed with any other architecture in Europe; it can only be styled Sicilian.
Cloister of the Cathedral of Monreale
A delightful feature is the fountain courtlet in the south-west angle, shown in a sketch; arcades of three arches form with those of the corner a little quadrangle; marble steps on the four sides descend as though to a bath. In the centre a mosaicked column rises through a broad marble basin, and terminates in a sphere round which are grotesque heads, from whose mouths water pours into the basin below.
Men of every creed known in the Mediterranean have worshipped on this mountain; on the rock on which we were, had stood for ages the most widely venerated temple of the ancient world, sacred to "Erycina ridens" the goddess that under various names - Ashtaroth, Astarte, Aphrodite, Venus - and under aspects as many and anomalous as the moods of human nature, was worshipped by all the populations that fringed the great landlocked sea. Some remains of the temple have been traced within the castle, the tattered crumbling shell of a great stronghold perched on a buttressed and pinnacled rock that seems built up of huge slabs of limestone.
Trapani and the Aigadian Islands from the Castle
The hill we were on, and the region below, were the most classic ground in Sicily, famous in earliest history, peopled by the poets before history began. Wrought for all time into the great Roman epic, is that indented, gleaming shore, now fringed with houses, or laced with the lakelets and causeways of the salt-works, and that blue, hazy sea, between which and us clouds floated like fleecy islets; below them loomed the dark bulks of the Aigadian Archipelago.
View of Golfo di Bonagia and Monte Cofano
Behind us, and to our right and left, stood the tumbled hills and battered cliffs of Sicily, the ancient cynosure of three continents, where their selectest peoples have met and fought and mingled, till its rocks seem fossil history, and its soil the dust of many nations.
The town, which is well worth wandering about, and affords constant surprises of view, contains three other churches: S. Orsola and the Carmine, retaining something of original Gothic, and on a little gardened terrace, S. Giovanni Battista, with an oriental-looking dome and a hoary tower of the early Renascence.
(left) Porta Spada; (right) a garden
We passed through a shadowy gateway in a monstrous wall, wound up wet, melancholy streets, and found ourselves in a space above, roofed and walled with dripping gloom.
S. Francesco de Paolo is one of those saints who are specially occupied about rain - at least, he ought to be. Every spring priests and people escort his image through orchards and gardens, and in time of drought processions with banners, candles and fireworks, supposed to be dear to the saintly heart, implore his good offices. If this have the desired effect, well and good: but sometimes the saints are unaccountably negligent, and have to be reminded that they cannot expect candles and fireworks for nothing.
The Greek remains in Sicily are the only buildings that can compare with the Norman churches in beauty and interest. The shortest visit to Palermo should include a day at Segesta. (..) The glory of Segesta is its temple. Either from wealth or devotion, the Sikeliot cities were much more given to temple-building than those of the Hellenic motherland; indeed, the Greek chapter in the history of architecture would be very fragmentary without the temples of Sicily.
Ruin of Selinunte (Temple G?)
All that remains of Selinous lies strewn and piled upon three long dunes running north and south, their inland ends rising in an easily defensible slope from the plain, their seaward ends standing in bold bluffs above the narrow strip of sand that here forms the coast. Between them are now two swampy dells, along which little streams creep and ooze to the sea, but the lower ends of which must evidently have once been creeks, which have been gradually choked with the waste of the land. (..) I doubt if there be any spot on earth that has such an immanent mournfulness. Most ruins with all their pathos have a suggestion of calm content; the tender grace of a day that is dead lingers on them as they yield to the beneficent forces that are ever renewing the face of the earth. (..) The spectacle of ruin culminates in the piled and scattered remains of the vast temple known as G, which an inscription proves to have been dedicated to Apollo. The great squared blocks, the huge drums, moulded capital and sculptured architrave, are not only overthrown, but heaped and flung about as though in titanic devilry.
Sunset at Cefalý
A visit to Cefalu is one of the most interesting excursions to be made from Palermo. (..) The view as you issue from the station of Cefalu is one of the most striking in Sicily. In front rises the great ruin-strewn rock, its huge bulk seeming hewn out of a single stone rather than built up of the corpses of lowly sea-things, whose remains are manifest on inspection. Below it, the present city slopes gleaming to the sea.
North-east view of the Cathedral
The cathedral towers above the houses on the upper part of the slope, the yellow stones of which it is built glowing in golden relief against the hoary cliffs behind. The sketches show the principal features of the exterior. The tawny stone is ornamented with lava in rebate and relief, and great dignity is given to the higher parts by a deep cornice of interlacing arches with chevron mouldings; this is continued round the piers that strengthen the walls at the spring of the transept-vaulting, but is interrupted at the main apse, which is the full height of the choir, and has tall, slender, attached, coupled columns, with foliaged capitals, and projecting abaci, from which spring small twin arches that fall to corbels in the centre.
An enterprising hotel-keeper may some day (..) make Cefalu a place of resort. He could offer delightful air and unlimited sunshine on the hill, boating in the bay, an inexhaustible field for pottering among the ruins and in the town, and numerous interesting and pleasant excursions in the neighbourhood.
La Caldura a beach east of Cefalý
The Temple of Concord from S. Nicola
The superb temples on the south were the glory of the city in its prime, and still, in their ruin, its main attraction. Along the whole length of the lower boundary they stand, on the edge of splintered cliff, looking across the plain to the sea. The vast area enclosed by the ancient city is now seamed by watercourses, and covered with miscellaneous cultivation, amid which lie scattered numerous remains, of streets and buildings. (..) The ruins, no doubt, owe much of their present charm to the worn and crumbling surface of the warm-tinted stone, which in the sunshine seems lit to gold. (..) The temple of Concord, with the possible exception of the Theseion at Athens, which it resembles, is the most perfect Doric temple in existence, probably owing its preservation to its having been used as a Christian church.
View of Girgenti (Agrigento) from S. Nicola
Girgenti, the Akragas of the Greeks, the Agrigentum of the Romans, "the most beautiful city of mortals," as Pindar sang of it in the days of its prime, though sadly fallen from its old estate, is still one of the most strikingly situated towns, set in one of the loveliest regions of Sicily.
Giardini (Naxos) and SchisÚ from Taormina
Taormina is pleasantly situated on a hill, some 600 feet above Giardini, its railway station, which is by the seaside. Behind is a ridge of rock, a notch in the northern end of which is filled with the rosy ruin of the theatre. (..) In the wide prospect from Taormina the eye is continually drawn to a little promontory, dark almost to blackness, that juts into the sea between two long white curves of beach. This, now known as Schiso, has peculiar interest as the site of Naxos, founded by Theokles of Chalkis, who first led Greeks to Sicily.
The considerable ruins of the theatre stand outside the town to the north. Like all Greek theatres, it enjoyed a splendid view, which the Romans did their best to shut out, which time and spoliation have done their best to open again, and which a band of artists and photographers may generally be seen exploiting. The marble columns, the old red brick and grey stone of the dilapidated buildings, are very beautiful against the background of sea, land, and sky. Etna, the salient feature, is far less imposing from this northern side than from the south, but, like all mountains, is capable of triumphantly silencing the carping critic.
One of the largest shops is on the ground floor of the Palazzo Corvaia, the courtyard of which is shown in a sketch. On a remnant of the marble balustrade of its stairway is seen a quaint relief of the temptation and expulsion from Eden, and the sacrifice on Mount Moriah. (..) Another sketch gives the Palazzo S. Stefano, standing in its charming little garden, at the other end of the town.
Spring at Syracuse. View of Etna and the coast north of the town
Augusta is built on a little peninsula running due south from the northern bend of the bay of Megara, with deep water on either side, the midmost of the three fine natural harbours with which the eastern coast of Sicily is endowed. The bay of Megara takes its name from Megara Hyblaia, the fourth and last settlement that Lamis of the elder Megara led from Greece. The several attempts of this little community to found a city are an unedifying example of Greek methods between themselves and with outsiders. The same may be said of the destruction of Megara, 250 years after, by Gelon of Syracuse. With the exception of a possible fragment of its wall, built into a modern house, it has wholly disappeared.
The Theatre and Street of Tombs
Soon after we come to the view given in the sketch of the Greek theatre and the street of tombs beyond it. (..) In spite of time and barbarism, the noble ruin remains a very impressive monument of one of the most characteristic features of Greek life in its most glorious days. The traveller should try to see it in some of the more dramatic hours of the twenty-four. The prospect is very beautiful, and strangely different, at sunrise and sunset, very lovely, too, on moonlight nights, when the limestone gleams white, the destructions and additions of time alike share the erasure of the day, twinkling lights are massed in the island city, and scattered over the great harbour. The theatre being hewn in the living rock, ruin is a slow process; the defacements of twenty centuries appear little more than superficial, and imagination conjures up the great days that are passed.
Convento dei Cappuccini from Villa Politi
A sketch shows the largest, the most historically famous, and, on the whole, the most beautiful, of these latomie, that of the Capucini, a vast irregular pit, with arms, bays, and windings. (..) The main entrance to the latomia is by a charming time-worn, verdure-clad terrace that slopes down to it in leisurely zigzags from the Capuchin convent, now an almshouse. The Villa Politi has a private stairway that descends to it from amid beds of delicately odoured stocks, and banks of marguerite, rosemary, and geranium.
(left) Latomia dei Cappuccini; (right) S. Maria dei Miracoli
In places the sides of the latomia have been variously fashioned by man when the depth was less than it is now: high in the face of the cliff we see tombs with stony bed and pillow, deep-cut recesses, stranded stairs. Vegetation of some kind has taken advantage of every ledge and fissure; the ubiquitous prickly-pear has established itself wherever it can get a footing; fig-trees grasp the precipice with snaky roots, and suspend broad-leaved garlands; ivy, rose, honey-suckle, clematis, hang their variegated tapestry.
Below, the paths wind through a maze of exuberant vegetation, amid archways, caverns, bold buttresses and deep bays, huge fallen fragments and piled masses of rock. The ground beneath the wide-flung branches is carpeted with wild-flowers, and casual patches of vegetables.
Many noble relics are in the poorer churches of Syracuse, which have been preserved by a happy obscurity and neglect, as (..) the squalid, but noteworthy, chapel of the Mother of Miracles, shown in the sketch. The name commemorates the staying of the plague by the Blessed Mother on the intercession of S. Corsado, who arrived in the city when the epidemic was at its height, and, while it lasted, made his bed on a board on which is painted one of the begrimed and faded pictures in the little church.
The crumbling western gable, with a fine rose window, of the dilapidated Church of S. Giovanni, once the cathedral, rises conspicuous above the lemon and orange groves that border the Catania road. A sketch shows its southern porch, a beautiful specimen of Sicilian Gothic, so little appreciated by its curators that in the course of repairs a capital has been put on upside down.
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