Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Monreale 1: mosaics

Dresden's baroque treasures are still glinting in my mind's eye, clamouring for the attention they'll eventually get, but Palermo and surroundings haven't been dislodged since our March visit. To whit, I've just finished reading  John Dickie's Cosa Nostra, which places the city unequivocally at the centre of 150 years' mafia hell recently brought to light. So much for the legend that what turns out to be a precisely rooted secret society, a kind of horrifying shadow state with murder as its main tenet, has been part of the Sicilian mentality for time immemorial.

Dickie - that rare bird*, a scholar capable of writing an impeccably researched book that reads like a series of high-level thrillers - mixes savage indignation with celebration of the heroic men and women who laid down their lives in the hope of a better future, among whom Borsellino and Falcone stand only as the most conspicuous because the most recent.

In every one of the western Sicilian territories there have always been these brave souls, including courageous priests to counter the corrupt ones. Don Gaetano Millunzi of Monreale is merely listed in one of Dickie's remember-this roll calls, but he helps redress the balance of mafioso skullduggery in that town so discrete from Palermo, and yet so inextricably linked with it.

Monreale's greatest glory was born of rivalry at the highest level. Building on the old establishment of a modest bishopric away from Arab-invaded Palermo before the Norman conquest of 1072, King William II created Monreale's supremacy in a power struggle with the English Bishop Walter of Palermo, his former teacher and would-be master.

Walter 'of the mill' (Offamilias) was still having Palermo's cathedral built when William quickly outstripped it with the duomo of a new monastery in his Monreale hunting grounds, finished by the time of the  young king's death in 1189. Without, it's far less remarkable than Palermo Cathedral. What make it one of the wonders of the world are both the mosaics - similar to those in the Cappella Palatina of WII's grandfather Roger II, but on a larger scale if less refined - and, above all, the no-two-the-same capitals on the 216 marble columns in the massive cloister. Since those truly are unique, they'll get an entry on their own in due course.

What stunned about the interior on our arrival at around 4pm was that the sun was blazing in through the west window, passing straight through the nave to ligh up the eastern apse with its colossal half-length figure of Christ.

Below the giant figure (13 metres across and seven metres high, if you want to know) are the Virgin and Child, flanked by saints and angels.

Just like the cycle in the Cappella Palatina, the Old Testament narrative in the nave runs first in one strip along the top of the south and north walls, from the seven days of creation to Noah receiving the command to build the ark, and then below in the same sequence, from the construction of the ark to Jacob wrestling with the angel. Thus close to the twin beginnings on the south wall,

a detail of Noah building the ark,

part of the north nave wall

and a segment with Adam, Eve, serpent, God and fig-leaf shame above, angel preventing Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac and Rebecca offering Isaac water below.

and that's only a fraction of the nave's riches; scenes from the New Testament up to Mary Magdalene's washing of Christ's feet similarly enrich the outer arcades. There's even the first known representation of St Thomas à Becket, murdered at the command of William II's father-in-law Henry II of England. The two side apses are mosaic-ed to the respective glories of Peter and Paul; here's one final glimpse of Christ from Peter's side.

But clearly I should have bought at the time a lavishly illustrated, reasonably scholarly volume on the mosaics I found in a bookshop in Palermo; I briefly tracked it down on the internet back home and lost it before I decided to splash out. Anyway, this marks the tenth of 12 'chapters' on the year's Sicilian experience and I am duty bound to see it all through eventually (unlike the Bach cantatas project which, some of you will have noticed, lapsed dismally as soon as we started spending Sundays away. Next year, I promise).

By the time we came to catch our bus back to Palermo, the whole of Monreale was out for a Saturday evening promenade, just like in any Italian town. It seemed so impossible to believe in a population cowed. Nor elsewhere - except, perhaps, for the smashed-up hotel in the Madonie mountains - did we catch a glimpse of mafia consequences. Only in a good way, perhaps, in the results springing from the numerous stickers applied by Addiopizzo, a Palermo organisation fierce in gathering together to refuse to pay the pizzo or mafia 'tax'/protection money. The text reads (if my translation is correct): 'an entire people which pays the pizzo is a people without dignity'.

Many shops now bravely sport the Addiopizzo insignia.

If you have anything to say, do leave a message of support on the website linked to above. And bear in mind the splendid couplet quoted in Dickie's superlative study, written about the lethal Don Calò of Villalba who 'rebirthed' the dormant Cosa Nostra at the end of the Second World War. It might just as well apply to Berlusconi, whose supposed connections with Italy's secret society may yet come to light: 'Cui avi dinari e amicizia, teni 'nculu la giustizia' - 'He who has friends and cash, can take justice up the ass'. Fortunately there's quite a movement in the new Italy, for all its seeming chaos and systematized corruption, which is trying to make sure that doesn't happen. Though it looks as if Berlusconi will never serve his prison sentences.

While I'm on my high-horse campaign to set the world to rights, finally, can I urge you to sign in solidarity with magnificent teenager Malala Yousafzai, about whom I hope I don't need to tell you, in her tireless fight for worldwide children's education? A woolly-liberal old friend of mine, when I sent the petition out to a select few, said 'but I don't know that we in the west should be interfering in other cultures'.

Goddamn it, does a girl have to be nearly killed for wanting the noblest thing in the world? Does one third of the world's married women have to suffer abuse within their relationships, as a recent survey pointed out? Such shame has nothing to do with a truly evolving Islam. Away with false scruples and parallel universes/centuries on the planet we share, please. And it's so easy to offer your name at the click of a button.

LATER: one big wrong in the world righted, 83 year old Edie Windsor and the late Thea Spyer vindicated. Susan Scheid broke it, to me at any rate, giving  the pith of the judge's summing-up before I could check the news. One extraordinary aspect I hadn't realiased was that Clinton introduced the iniquitous DOMA (Defence of Marriage Act - to which I would add, with no idea whether it's been written a thousand times already, there's dumb and then there's DOMA)  now quashed. But I'd rather celebrate with this picture history of a 'great American love story'. Now got to get the above DVD from Bless Bless Productions.

*no wordlink was consciously intended between 'Dickie' and 'bird' when I wrote that.


Laurent said...

Thank you and well said David.

P.S. the mosaic in Monreale (Montreal my native city) are sure impressive and more so for me as they were Normand a connection to my ancestry.

wanderer said...

Ignorance is the great weapon. Done. Loving The Leopard, a delicious slow travel read, and now another one for the stack.

David said...

At least some wrongs in this crazy mixed up world of ours do get righted: see what shouldn't really be a footnote, but which seems to fit in best here.

After The Leopard, wanderer, I expect you'll want to read David Gilmour's Lampedusa biography The Last Leopard. I believe Sue and Laurent are ahead of you there...

Susan Scheid said...

I will be back for Monreale, but of course, but just had to pop over right away to say: I LOVE the Edie/Thea picture gallery, which I hadn't spotted. It's sort of fun that you learned of this news from me; reminds me a bit of learning the Mali news from Sophie, who, of course, always gets there first! You may be amused to know that, while I knew the decision was likely to come down yesterday, I actually learned that it had from (drum roll) my hairdresser (who is, yes, gay).

David said...

I hope you replied to him/her, twisting the Marschallin's famous turning-point lines to her hairdresser, 'Mein lieber Hippolyte, heut haben Sie ein freuliches Weib aus mir gemacht!'. Gotta love blogworld, where one can get away with arcane references that will be understood by at least a few...

Howard Lane said...

As much as I envy your frequent globetrotting I can at least match your mosaics this year with those of the Basilica San Marco, only seen once before by my schoolboy self. This time I dragged Rowan around the Basilica and The Doge's Palace to the point of near exhaustion on the way to our performance!

Eagerly awaiting more Sicilian reports. Corsica, and Sardinia too for all I know, has a vicious and entrenched culture of banditry and vendettas, but doesn't seem to have acquired the notoriety of the Cosa Nostra, no doubt partly because of its US connection and Hollywoodisation, but also maybe their violence is more tribal, anti-authoritarian and less about extortion?

David said...

Ah yes - Rowan's steel band at the Biennale. I hope it was a huge triumph, and how could she not love Venice? Her first time?

The other big nasties are 'ndragheta in Calabria and the Camorra in Naples. Apparently one's sprung up in Puglia too. If Sardinia and Corsica have an organised 'shadow state' I don't know its name. But of course this is very different from your common-or-garden Italian corruption, which is everywhere.

Piala said...

On the Malala Petition:

"but I don't know that we in the west should be interfering in other cultures"


Meanwhile, Toxic Woolly, scores of young girls who also died recently in the Bangladesh clothing factory collapse: they have to go to work to support their families, often even maybe helping to pay for their brothers' education while they are denied. Who do these young girls work for? GAP HENNES RALPH LAUREN to name a FEW who YOU buy your clothes from.

Astounding and amazing Bollox.

Sign the bloody petition.

Howard Lane said...

Oh yes Rowan's first time also mine as an adult! Here is a picture of us all in rainswept Abbey Road with a link to film of us in much sunnier Venice.

I forgot to say earlier, thanks for the Malala Yousafzai link, signed and shared.

David said...

Don't worry, Piala, he signed first and raised the objections afterwards, poor old Toxic Woolly, whom I love dearly but who sometimes raises points, I can't help feeling, for the sake of a debate. And I reckon understandably, I was very rude to him on his birthday as a result.

Most shocking thing I ever saw was girls aged 6 to 13 working in a carpet factory in Erzurum on a trip round Turkey in 1986. Why only to 13? Because, said the local taking us round who thought we'd like it, they go blind and are then no use to anyone. And what did their fathers do? Sat around drinking chay and playing backgammon all day.

Now I'm off to look at Howard's film. I wrote it on someone else's blog the other day, but I think the three cities in the world no reasonably well-heeled westerner should die without seeing are Rome, Venice and (could I have believed it until I went) Palermo.

David said...

Howard - now I've found it, and it's wonderful, truly. Gave me goosebumps to hear a steel band playing the opening of Vaughan Williams's Romanza from his Fifth Symphony; goes so well with the melancholy Bowie, too. And another splat in the myopic eyes of UKIP which would claim VW and Elgar as its own. I love it that all three are 'songs'.

Could only see you in the photo, though, and unless Rowan has changed beyond recognition I didn't spot her in the film.

I still didn't get much sense of what the whole exhibition was about. Is there any way of seeing the film with the soundtrack?

Howard Lane said...

I'm so glad you like it. The show is coming to the UK in January.

Rowan and I were almost edited out and Rowan's face is mostly hidden by her long hair, but here is a longer cut of the film with interviews:

and this the film which is part of the exhibition and contains the full soundtrack, released on a 12" vinyl record:

It was a wonderful project to be involved in, and Jeremy Deller is now my hero, not least for him giving me a warm hug at the end of the evening's performance.

Willym said...

As so often happens you take me to or often back to a place I love. I don't think I've made any secret about my love for Palermo and my great fondness for Sicilia - looking at your photos of Montreale had me running back to my own collection for a reminder of the wonder of it all. I'm eagerly awaiting the cloister post!

Speaking of Dickie, have you read his "Delizia!" A wonderful time travel through Italian food. So different in tone - and subject of course - from his Cosa Nostra.

Though you hear repeatedly about the Mafia in Sicilia - not sure but wasn't that the title of a Pacini opera buffa???? - other than the signs that were appearing fighting the "tax" I honestly only felt uneasy in Agrigento. There was an undercurrent there that was slightly toxic. I can't honestly put my finger on it but it was unsettling. But in all my visits to Sicilia it was the only place I felt that.

David said...

Thanks, Howard: I'll investigate those in good time. Jeremy Deller seems like A Very Good Thing. Inspired choices of music, didn't you think?

Will - Dickie would be worth reading about anything. So I'll take that as a pearl on the seabed of Italian food chronicles (and a look on the shelves in Waterstones bewildered and confused me).

I suppose Agrigento, though I haven't been, would reveal the mafia undercurrent simply because of all the indiscriminate and horrible building there, though I know you mean something else. The same goes for Palermo west of the old town - the thought of all those fin de siecle villas just pulled down and replaced by high rises is sickening.

Susan Scheid said...

I’m so pleased to be getting back to this post again at long last. (I, too, signed the petition immediately when I saw it and sent it on to the Edu-Mate, who shared it further.) The mosaics are extraordinary, and the play of light you had on your arrival stunning and beautifully captured in your photograph. As for the Cosa Nostra, how wonderful that people feel they can at last stand up to it. I grew up outside Chicago, and the mafia was a shadowy presence throughout my childhood. They were active there at the time and long after, though I don’t know the situation now.

After our recent excitement here a la Edie Windsor (who was among those who led the Pride Parade in NYC today), I’m back to reading The Last Leopard, now about half-way through. It’s heavier on fact than evocation of time and place—The Leopard itself is the thing for the latter, of course—but still a fascinating read, and Lampedusa is himself the stuff of novels, to be sure. Here’s but one “fun fact” I’ve run across: “The Piedmontese king, Victor Amadeus, who briefly ruled Sicily in the early eighteenth century, used to talk about Palermo’s ‘ice-cream parliament’ because eating ice-creams was its members’ most conspicuous activity.”

Last not least, if only (!) I had had the Marschallin’s lines on the tip of my tongue when visiting my own Hippolyte. As it was, I had to look up the German to see what it meant, then trace back in my memory to the scene in question. Of course, once I understood the reference, you had me laughing out loud, not only because the line is perfect, but even more so because you knew the libretto—in German—so completely that you could make the match on the spot.

David said...

Yes, Sue, Gilmour had a difficult task in that large swathes of his subject's life were a blank (we know better now that some of the very entertaining letters from London and Paris back to Palermo have come to light). And there's too much summing up (three chapters' worth). Still, it's good to get any other words Lampedusa wrote about himself. Is it time for another biog or has everything been said?

Dickie is fascinating as always when he crosses over to America and shows Cosa Nostra as only one mafia among many (the Russian, the Jewish, etc), dog often eating dog so that it was never quite so hard on the working poor.

Rosenkav is probably my only Bible libretto; and even then I don't know half of it. Astonishing, for example, what parallel texts are going on in the Trio (Sophie's lines especially).