Although we are almost ready to embark on our second major field trip of the semester I am still reflecting and processing the things that have stayed with me from our trip to Sicily. It is impossible to recount the numerous sites we visited on the surprisingly fast-paced tour; every day brought a new city or town with beautiful churches, archeological sites and museums.
This highly saturated visit was at times exhausting, but ultimately enabled us to realize our true interests among the things we saw, and edit to our preference the experiences that we retain and that have come to influence our work and perspectives since we have been back.
Visiting Sicily truly allows us to understand the cultural diversity that Italy has both embraced and struggled with throughout its history. The island is exposed to a variety of cultures on all sides, from Greece through Northern Africa and of course mainland Italy. The impact of this exposure is tangible as one explores its expansive influence on art, architecture and culture in both modern and ancient Sicily.
We began our visit in Palermo where we visited the Palazzo Abatellis, a beautiful museum of fine art dating back to the 12th century. The museum galleries were designed by Carlo Scarpa in the 1950’s after parts of the Palazzo were destroyed in the second World War. It was a truly beautiful space to move about and experience the collection, or simply spend time sketching in the courtyard.
From Palermo we travelled to another of my favorite sites, Alberto Burri’s monument to the town of Gibellina, known as the Cretto di Burri. The old town was destroyed in an earthquake in 1968, and Burri created his land art installation in the late 1980’s. The site traces the streets of the ruined city so that one can still walk about a sort of concrete maze. This gives a spectacular sense of the absence of the city structures, while simultaneously preserving a trace of civilization. From above the city now reads like the cracked surface of Burri’s paintings, nestled in the rolling hills of the Sicilian countryside. Walking through the Cretto di Burri is a truly meditative experience, without being oppressively solemn or formal as many monuments can be.
As we travelled farther south we were never far from the ocean; we visited many archeological sites and through these visits were able to explore the geography of Sicily. We climbed mountains to visit amphitheaters and sketched in Greek temple ruins situated on seaside cliffs. For each temple we saw there was also an equally interesting museum housing the collections of artifacts collected from the various sites. We spent nights in Agrigento and Siracusa, where we traveled to the little peninsula of Ortigia in the evenings to enjoy the beautiful piazzas and seaside restaurants.
Finally our trip took us to Catania, another of Sicily’s larger cities. There we visited what we could before boarding the night train back to Rome. My favorite site by far was the Benedictine monastery of San Nicolò l’Arena, which is now a school for the humanities, having been somewhat recently restored. We were given tours of the vast and beautiful monastic complex and learned about its different spaces, from the gardens where the monks served hot chocolate to visitors, to the basement which houses different tools for monitoring seismic activity. The monks once saved their monastery during a volcanic eruption by building barricades to divert the flow of lava. Unfortunately they could do little to prevent the damage from an earthquake later on, and were forced to abandon the complex.
Of course any visit to Catania is incomplete without a quick trip into one of the many famous pastry shops which offer all manner of Sicilian specialties, among them wild strawberry tarts, cannoli and the rich cassata which is shaped like a breast for the patron saint of Catania, St. Agatha.
While the trip was at times overwhelming, ultimately the things that I have kept from it have formed a very fond impression of Sicily in my mind, and I hope to continue to pursue some of the interests I developed during our visit.