The Watcher: Sicily continued VI

Although Piazza Armerina was rather out of the way, Andrea insisted that we make a detour. Most people went there for the girls in bikinis decorating the mosaic pavement, so modern yet centuries old. But I discovered other things there as well. The male torso in the ruins left me breathless, so strong and beautiful that I wanted to run my hands over his buttocks and abdomen, down, down….

Piazza Armerina 1956

Like most we came

to see the Roman mosaics

of bikini girls playing ball.

But what I now remember,

is the nude torso

that stood neglected

by a half-ruined window.

Roman, or Greek,


the right arm had been raised.

No  Greek hero, muscular, imposing

but softer, more sensuous, almost adolescent.

Absolutely beautiful.

In the fullness of his youth

Perhaps Dionysos.

Not cold marble

but real palpitating flesh

demanding, in anticipation

of that primal thrill,

to be touched

by fingers lightly stroking

the taut curves of his abdomen.

This for me is

Piazza Armerina.

A row of sun-struck columns patterned the hard-packed earth with bars of shadow. It was now the ghost of a villa that had once been humming with life, had been loved. The owner in this distant outpost must have filled his home with friends, for the rooms of the house were many. He had been the master of his surroundings, now ceded to the sun and silence.

One small Sicilian town after another, on roads meant for men and beasts, not cars. At dusk the tide reversed its flow as everyone returned home. Donkeys and mules and horse-drawn carts passed by, all with a small light swinging underneath the wagon. A dog generally trotted along, protected by the cart above. A mule with swaying bundles of hay on either side of its haunches was topped by a pyramid of blanket-wrapped peasant. We had to move slowly along the sharply curving road, for without warning dark shapes of man and animal would loom up with the constancy of a dream. The rain set in and kept coming down relentlessly.

We finally reached Ragusa and Ragusa Ibla. They were no longer simple accumulations of stones but had what one could call architecture with a baroque cathedral and with wrought-iron balconies that brought to mind the playful doodles of an absent-minded architect. A buck-toothed grotesque sported a pair of spectacles.

By the time we got to Siracusa, the rain had stopped, but the wind had pushed open all the doors. Cypresses, a Greek theater. A statue of Venus, grinning polychrome Gorgon heads, a small terracotta relief of a woman leaning down from the clouds and stretching out her arms to a warrior, ever so tender. The Duomo. The great Doric columns of the temple that once was still stood with dignity in their Christian setting. Graceful papyrus plants in a pool of water. Egypt. Greece. The Romans seem somehow never to have been here. Light and space and the rush of time.

At MessinaAndrea went his way and I took the train along the coast to Cefalù. Even wet and cold, Cefalù had a warm intimate kind of beauty. The streets were paved with sharp round cobblestones and larger flat stones in between in diagonal and herringbone patterns. Premeditated or not, their best function was that of providing a good surface to walk on. Closed doors, question marks, lined each street. In a lower corner a small round hole was for the cats, here not as scrawny as in Palermo, seemingly more loved. Along the beach the houses seemed part of the cliff rising behind them. It occurred to me that I might like to live here, forever, with the sound of waves submerging, being part of, me. The great cathedral lay at the base of the cliff, swallowing up the thin baroque decorations on the inner walls in a late attempt to be stylish. But what I remembered most was the mosaic in the apse, the Christ Pantokrator, looking down with a heart-breaking gentleness and an overpowering pity. For how long had he been looking down?  And as always there were the lions. This time circling a great baptismal font, two of them with tails curled round their bodies, the other two nonchalantly stretching their tails behind them.

I loved Cefalù, but the tall blonde Torinese hated it. He was very obviously northern and one of the unhappiest people I had ever met. Even when he smiled, his eyes asked desperately for sympathy. In the month that he had been in Sicily he had not really talked to anyone. The Sicilians were full of contradictions and untruths. It was impossible for him to talk to a girl without having the whole family lead him immediately to the altar. And the men, . . . impossible. He was used to talking in simple yes and no terms. I smiled and pictured to myself the Sicilian way of saying no by raising the eyebrows and the tip of the nose ever, ever so slightly. In a way, I could see his point. And as far as the weather went, never had Sicily had such a winter. At least in Torino, there was heat. And one could talk to a girl and take her to the movies without being hounded by relatives. 

When I wrote il Dottore about him, he knew what I meant. “It’s quite clear that in Sicily that man from Torino felt as if he were in exile. The Piedmontese are perhaps the least open-minded of all Italians, incapable of understanding others, unable to adapt to a different mentality. After all it is the Piedmontese who are at the base of the military class with their fundamental qualities of honesty, discipline and sense of duty. But there are also the disadvantages that arise from an exaggeration of the good qualities … so that you will find them narrow-minded, limited in their discernment, stubborn, etc.  In general of course – there are also outstanding exceptions but I don’t know of many…”

To be continued . . .

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