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Occasional harmonies

In the northern quarter of old Palermo, Sicily’s capital, similar businesses are found in clusters—bicycles, ironmongery, leatherwork. The Via dei Giudici is given over to babywear—clothes, prams, strollers. All these shops use the same signage—Tutto per l’Infanzia—Everything for Babyhood. Jammed between them is another business. It has large plate glass windows, behind which, well to the front of the shop, sit eight coffins.You’d never see such a juxtaposition in Australia. I kept being confronted by left-field disjunctions, and unexpected unities. I went to the Palazzo della Posta one Saturday afternoon at 4pm to buy some stamps. Only two windows were in operation, but that was sensible because there was only one other customer and she was being served at the first window. So I went straight towards the second, rounded the barrier and came face to face with a child of about eight, sitting up behind the counter. She had her schoolwork spread out in front of her. She was very obliging and got down off the stool and went and called a woman who I presumed was her nonna, and who then sold me my stamps. I felt this was workplace practice at its most family-friendly, but it was not what I’d been used to in Australian public institutions.

The island is amusing, sometimes. At least as frequently it’s depressing and infuriating. In other words the island is full of voices, and it’s not easy to respond. I’m an open-minded liberal traveller, I thought. I want to find a new note, a new expression added to my range. I want to feel lifted onto some new plane of vision. Sicily doesn’t make that easy.

The post office scene was charming, but what if the sense of public responsibility is not just laid-back, but actually diminished, even corrupted? Even when allowances are made for the annoying effects of tourists and people who refuse to try, or make a hash of, the language, public officials in Sicily seem abnormally brusque, rude, unhelpful and contemptuous. And outright dishonest. ‘How much to the airport?’ I ask, in my best Italian, the ticket clerk in the Palermo railway station. ‘Seven seventy,’ he tells me. I hand him a ten-euro note. He gives me the ticket and thirty cents change. I look at it. ‘How much?’ I repeat. ‘Seven seventy,’ he says. I stare at him. He waits, watching me. I don’t move away. He plucks a two-euro coin from his rack and tosses it to me.

I seethe. I assure myself that no doubt he’s ill-paid, and his people have been oppressed and kicked around for millennia by foreigners, but my outrage doesn’t diminish. Later in the day I return to the station, and seek out an office designated Customer Services, and I try to explain, again in my best Italian, how one of the railway’s employees has tried to rob me. The concentrating but puzzled official jots down figures on his pad and draws lines and does computations, and I can see that he believes I’ve presented him with a mathematical problem. So I assure him I haven’t lost any money, and the exact
figures are not important, but that this kind of barefaced larceny (but of course I don’t know the Italian for that) is not good for Sicily. I can see that he understands me, and he rises from his chair and shakes my hand, and says, ‘Scusi’. I am happy, even elated. I don’t expect him to take any action (although I’ve very precisely identified the culprit), but all the pleasure of reparation comes from that admission and apology. Ah, the deep-souled satisfactions of justice.

I began to see a pattern emerging in my dealings with Sicilian officials—shock/abrasion and then harmony (though not necessarily my harmony). For example I come through the portico of a gallery or museum or archaeological site with my poor language skills, and am immediately intimidated by the welter of officials crowding around the ticket booth or room. After a while I deduce that there must be a requirement that when all these places take on employees they do so primarily as an exercise in interpersonal relations. But not relations with the visiting public. For it’s a totally predictable rule that the front office or the sunniest portico corner will at all times be crowded with the entire attendant and security staff. And yes, I feel, how could any employer with any heart condemn these obviously gregarious people to sit by themselves, mute, while the odd visitor wanders past the superfluity of potsherd. Weigh the security risk against the psychological health of the staff, and there’s no argument. Yet I remain uneasy. A man with a small hammer could entirely destroy the cloister carvings at Monreale in five minutes, or 30 if he wanted that length of time—he’d certainly remain unseen and undisturbed.

I find the unembarrassed yen for company startling. To the Australian eye, overemployment is rife. Retail businesses in Sicily seem to be small. Yet a bookshop, say, where one person might enter every half hour, probably not to buy, is likely to have a staff of three. And the most common sight in Palermo is the proprietor, or a member of staff, standing just off the pavement at the front of the shop; he is being sociable or curious rather than touting for business. (How the businesses are surviving is another matter.) The fact is that Sicilians seem abnormally fond of company, yet paradoxically they are not noticeably considerate of others, not in the public sphere. On the roads they live by a code of such opportunistic aggressiveness that it is impossible to believe they are going to change their spots entirely the moment they dismount. No sermon on the text ‘Blessed are the meek’ will be a goer in Sicily.

Largely due to the earthquake of 1693, the face of Christianity in Sicily is almost entirely baroque. It is a language of large gesture, proto-Romantic effusion, flowery ornateness, emotional shrillness, empyrean vacancies. The Italian language, regrettably, can easily attune itself to this hollow orotundity; Italian politicians, for example, are particularly good at airy nothings that at first blush have a philosophical profundity to them—but only because lots of abstract words are being used. (Australian pollies steer clear of such vocabulary; it would be wankery, and, in any case, alienating.) Gesture is easy, but I became doubtful how much was behind it. In the via Vetreria, a part of Palermo that’s more or less as the Americans left it after their 1943 bombings, a new large marble slab on a house wall marks the birthplace of Paolo Borsellino, the prosecutor murdered by the Mafia in 1992. He is lauded in extravagant terms. But a couple of metres directly across from the building is a large vacant lot. It is given over entirely to rubbish, and is clearly an alternative to the municipal tip so copious is the scattering of often splitting white plastic bags. I hold my breath and hurry past and don’t take too much notice of Paolo Borsellino.

Green public spaces are one of the things you don’t see in Sicily. Others are golf courses, cinemas, indigenous trees, playing fields (except on television), grand country houses, police patrols—and animals dead by the roadside. The sort of public parks mentioned by the guidebooks to Sicily would rightly be sneezed at by the citizens of Bathurst or Ballarat. The impression is of a pinched, depressive (the incidence of smoking says as much) society—without many of the facilities taken for granted by Australians. And with a decrepit, disintegrating past no longer of much relevance. The churches, properly relieved of their better works of art, are abandoned, permanently closed, or sparsely patronised—largely by the elderly. In a few cases desperate attempts have been made to outdo the grossness of the past with new tawdriness. It’s as though the baroque horrors have lost their punch. Instead, a platform that could be a giant musical box or perhaps miniature boxing ring, featuring technicolour pageantry, has been pushed out into the nave, more directly into the sightlines of visitors. In San Domenico in Palermo the Virgin gives Dominic the Rosary, in San Stanislao Kostka she plucks from sand a mature naked youth with a bit of towelling across his loins. Other heads peer from the sand, waiting their turn. For all the macho culture of Sicily there is a very marked homoerotic presence in its art. Sicily’s Renaissance pride and joy, Antonello da Messina, is the most overtly homosexual pre-20th century painter I’ve come across. His ‘Portrait of a Man’, the so-called Sicilian Mona Lisa, is not enigmatic at all; it’s a cheerful gay come-hither look.

I know. No people would like to be pinned down in this way. In the last chapter of di Lampedusa’s The Leopard there is an incident involving a painting. Concetta, the aged spinster, has it in her chapel; it shows a young woman holding up a piece of paper. Concetta says the subject is ‘Our Lady of the Letter’—the Virgin presenting a petition to her son on behalf of mankind. The Cardinal Archbishop of Palermo, on a crusade to extirpate inauthenticity and superstition, says it’s obviously a depiction of a desperate young girl with a love letter. Di Lampedusa’s sympathies are equally divided.

I’d like to know the Cardinal’s views on a monument installed in San Domenico, one of the churches of his archdiocese, in 1930. The sculptor Cosmo Sorgi did a piece in white marble to honour General Eugenio di Maria di Alleri-Medaglia D’Oro who had been killed in 1916. The work is pan-erotic. A naked figure, flat against a slab on a low relief of an outline of a cross. The pressure shown on the buttocks suggests a horizontal setting, but the figure is now raised to the vertical—and indeed the stomach is concave and the rib cage raised and distended in the classical crucifixion pose. The final result, however, is a woman’s hourglass figure—rounded thighs and hips, nipped-in waist, swelling chest. Yet the elbows are tucked to the side and the forearms and hands are clasping the chest. What exactly is under them? The toes are pointed down at a 180-degree angle. There is a slight genital bulge (in spite of the nakedness) as though a film of very light cloth has been invisibly laid. The genitals are probably male, but only probably.

Strange unities. I’m more used to the kind of definite clarity I overheard from a group of elderly English tourists in Siracusa. Their tour leader was blathering on, a bit inaccurately, about Proserpina, whom, she said, had a child. ‘Who was the father?’ asked a very old man, and answered himself, ‘Pluto, I suppose.’ A woman in the group remarked, ‘Well, she didn’t go down there to knit.’

It’s moments of unification that, at least for the tourist, redeem Sicily. The Duomo of Monreale on the hills outside Palermo is the most perfect church. The Normans with their structure, the Arabs with their designs and the Byzantines with their mosaics finished this together in 1182—as they had just finished Monreale’s miniature counterpart, Palermo’s Capella Palatina, 40 years earlier. The works represent one of those moments, such as the meeting of the Irish and English languages, when utterly different cultures fused and fired something new and magical. The rest of the vast acreage of Sicilian churches has little future; in less than a hundred years there will be a glut on the market of baroque polychrome marble side altars. Seventeenth and eighteenth-century Catholicism, gorged with the gold and silver of the New World, is now a sorry witness to Christ.

Monreale must have cost plenty, and competitiveness was there in spades, but the cathedral’s clarity of Christian purpose, its biblical richness, its easy legibility, its lack of clutter, makes it so much closer to what we now regard as core, purified Christianity. It’s the conversation that does it, and the conversation is in heaven. There is nothing to distract below the line of the capitals on the pillars, nothing except the non-figurative, simple rectangular, triangular, shafts of mosaic, deep green, red, white. They are so modest and subdued. Above, in the apse, Christ Pantocrator and his archangels, and, a little less than the angels, the saints, dozens of them. They are not in self-absorbed groups, none of them is in ecstasy (or is it agony?), all face the viewer directly, their expressions calm rather than impassive, nearly all in ecclesiastical vestments because that gives the variety and colour. In the nave, and high on the fortress walls surrounding it, a selection of clear dramatic scenes, all captioned, from Genesis, the Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, the Apocrypha. Noah’s nakedness is covered, Christ raises Lazarus, Paul is lowered in a basket from the walls of Damascus, Simon Magus plunges to earth. The designer has had an eye for the dramatic scene rather than the moment of central theological significance; Noah’s life is given in five scenes, but Christ’s Passion and Crucifixion do not appear. Crosses are visible in the cathedral only as decorative items on the vestments of the great communion of saints. Christianity is a faith of personalities, of a great interlocking sequence of stories.

No Sicilian would want to be justified by the presence of an 800-year-old cathedral. Not even one emblazoned with colourful identities who love to be seen in public and in company. One midday when I was coming out from the cathedral in Monreale to sit for a while in the broader sunlight of the Piazza Guglielmo Secondo, a youth strode through the piazza wearing headphones and shouting angrily. He came to a moveable No Parking sign, and gave it a kick, and then another kick till it toppled over. I had no idea whether he was deranged or high, but I kept my head down. He paced about, then returned to the fallen sign and leapt on it and jumped up and down with fierce cries. A few people came out of bars and tabaccherias and watched from a distance. Two young women in a nearby doorway giggled with only slight embarrassment. A young man came up to one of them and kissed her and ran his hand down her bottom and in under her thigh, turning as he did so, with perfect detachment, to watch the vandal in action.

A policeman came round the corner, and the shouter yelled all the louder and yanked off the disc from the top of the No Parking pole and heaved it with a mighty discus swing far into the middle of the piazza. The policeman paused and spoke into his phone. The vandal yanked the pole itself away from its base and hurled both pieces out after the disc. Then he strode around again. The policeman approached him, and he shouted and made complicated gestures with his fingers and his groin and the policeman backed off. A second policeman arrived and the two consulted and then withdrew and spoke into their phones again. The young man made no attempt to leave but walked with the same fierce purposefulness around the piazza. Then a jeep arrived and five policeman got out and all seven surrounded him and an officer spoke to him and he went without a word into the back of the jeep. Of all the spectators only I seem to have stayed till the denouement. Then, with the contemporary drama over, I went back into the cathedral.

Another late afternoon, of rain, I was again going to Monreale, on the suburban bus, when two men got on. Both wore beanies, and saggy sports jackets and pants, and worn runners. One was in his seventies. He had thick white hair. The other was perhaps forty, but he could have been much younger for he had some five days growth of beard and it was totally black. It was hard to tell because he wore his beanie right on his eyebrows. This younger man was in some way disabled and limped very badly. The elder helped him into a seat next to the window and then wedged himself in against him. In time with every breath he took, the younger man let out a groan or a bellow that filled the bus. His chin and head would jerk up like an animal’s. The face of the older man registered nothing and he seemed to make quiet remarks, pointing things out to his companion. It was possible to distinguish some embryonic control or variation in the cry the next time the younger man breathed. But when the sound, always painful, took on a particularly anguished, desperate note, the older man would readjust the other’s beanie, pulling it higher on his forehead, then he would put a water bottle to his lips and tilt it. Most of it seemed to be swallowed and only a small amount trickled down the chin. Then the cries would be less anxious for perhaps another half a minute. Before we got to Monreale the two men got off, disappearing behind the misty windows, the older leading the younger by the hand. Things you don’t see in Australia. 

Gerard Windsor’s most recent book is The Mansions of Bedlam.



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