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.