After 5 weeks of travelling in Southern Italy, I ended my trip in Palermo, Sicily, where I was due to get on a flight to Rotterdam. On arriving there, I wandered from the bus station down a busy road, looking for a place to stay the night. Most of the hotels were booked out. I finally found a small hotel in a narrow side lane off the main road.
I didn´t know anything about Palermo and it didn´t matter; it was a stop on the way to the airport. But Palermo turned out to be far more than that.
It was memorable experience – and a quintessential Italian experience.
And it all happened within 24 hours………..
It began with the print was on the wall in the passage leading to my room.
It was of a painting done by Giovanni Bellini in the 15th century entitled ‘Dead Christ Supported by the Madonna and Saint John’.
The hotel had an old section, probably dating from the late 19th century, and a new one, built during the last decade or so. The rooms were in the old section, the reception desk and restaurant in the new.
Bellini’s painting of that apocryphal scene of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ was like none that I had seen before – and I had, during all my journeys around Europe seen many of them, especially during visits to Cathedrals and churches, as well as art galleries and museums.
In the soft light and the silence of that old passage, Bellini’s painting was mesmerizing. The tiredness after long bus trip and the hours of trapsing around a busy city miraculously dissipated. Jesus, Madonna and Saint John were portrayed as real human beings with emotions; troubled, sad, and stricken with grief. Here was a powerful universal symbol of the sufferings of the human race. There was almost a sense in which the painting was suggesting that there was nothing divine about Christ as the son of God but rather as a victim of a terrible injustice.
This was a painting in the true sense of the word. It was not an icon, an object of worship. It was not sacred. It was meant to be looked at, not blindly revered.
After a shower and fresh clothes, I had lunch in the restaurant. There were prints on the walls here too but they were of scenes of coasts and beaches.
Whilst I was waiting for my order – the place was quite busy – I checked my notebook for emails and possible translation projects. After the meal and two glasses of wine, I googled Bellini and downloaded images of his paintings, including his rendition of the crucifixion.
Later, I set off outside to take a look around Palermo. I wasn’t expecting much.
Over the preceding weeks, I had travelled along the coast of Calabria, swimming on the beaches and taking local buses into the hinterland – often hilly – and visiting small villages and towns which were not on any kind of tourist trail. In Sicily I had spent most of my time in the mountainous areas in the centre of the island.
The bus trip to Palermo had been long and tedious, much of spent in endless traffic jams in the outskirts of town which were dominated by soulless high rise apartments.
But Palermo had an old centre and my hotel was near it. Departing its inauspicious entrance, I followed the back lane in the opposite direction to the main road. I had no idea where I was going. I was surprised by what I found. The old center of Palermo was beautiful, replete with grandiose Baroque era buildings; churches, statues, halls and squares.
Quite unexpectedly, I found myself in one of Europe’s classic historic centres. I suppose if I had had a guide book, I might have known about Palermo´s historic centre. Then again, experience on the basis of serendipity is more intense than knowledge beforehand.
The historic area of Palermo was also memorable because of its inhabitants, many of them non Italian – Arabs, Africans and Indians – refugees who had arrived in Sicily on boats. Many of them must have legal residence permits and no doubt many of them didn’t. It was in any case a strange combination: the elegance of Europe’s past dramatically juxtaposed with the drama of the modern age.
I walked around thronging backstreets and lanes, got lost, and reveled in the experience of the new and unknown and strange.
That evening, sitting outside on a pavement restaurant, I noticed a long stream of men filing passed on their way to a back street mosque.
In the early hours of the morning I woke up thinking about Bellini´s painting meters away from my room. It was a fine example of Renaissance art and as such, marked a stark divergence from Medieval Christianity. It was a precursor for our whole idea of the modern world.
In medieval Christianity, a religion grounded in dogma, artists were bound by strict rules for the portrayal of biblical scenes. They were craftsmen more than artists. Religious images were objects of worship; they were holy and hence absolute consistency was required. Anything deviating from the norm was heresy.
Then came the Renaissance and it was in northern Italy where it began before soon spreading to the rest of Europe. In painting, sculpture, music, architecture and writing, famous Italian artists and scientists including Donatello, Da Vinci, Michelangelo and Dante appeared. The straight jacket of medieval Christianity gave way to the portrayal of human emotions. Bellini’s Christ, Madonna and Saint John would have unthinkable a century before.
Explanations abound for why the Renaissance began in (northern) Italy. There were thriving independent city states competing with one another and whilst this competition was often murderous (and so graphically portrayed by Machiavelli), it was also a contest for prestige in the arts and sciences.
But crucially, there was the role played by the rediscovery of the ancient past.
Italian artists and scientists began looking back at the Roman empire – and in turn, ancient Greece – and studying its artistic and intellectual achievements. In Medieval Italy, the physical ruins of that old empire lay around all over the countryside but for centuries they were ignored as the symbols of pagan folly; heresy. Now the medieval era was being challenged by new ideas whose source lay ironically not in the future, but rather, in the past.
In the other European nations, these ideas were also appearing, their source somewhat different. The Orthodox Church, whose lingua franca was based on Greek, had preserved the texts of ancient Greek scientists and philosophers. It was based in Constantinople and when this once great seat of the Orthodox Church was conquered by the armies of Islam, these texts found their way west into Catholic Europe. Their effect was profound. One of the first scholars to reflect on their meaning was Erasmus of Rotterdam.
The Italian Renaissance triggered off a European Renaissance which in time, made way for the Enlightenment and later, the scientific/industrial revolution.
In Bellini’s painting, much can be read.
The next morning I got up late.
By the time I got to the restaurant it was crowded.
I went to one of the few tables where there was a spare seat.
There were three Italian men busy discussing something. I asked if I could sit down and one of them turned me and answered in perfect American English ‘Sure! Why not?’
In the meantime I went to the smorgasbord area, stood in line, and returned with a plate piled up with bread and cheese, and a cup of coffee.
The voluble discussion between the three men continued.
On my second round, I came back to the table and found that only the American speaking Italian was still there.
‘How do ya’ like Palermo he asked.
I told him how much I’d enjoyed wandering around the old center.
‘Yeah it´s nice alright, but Palermo…well ya know it’s got an unsavoury reputation…’
Did he mean the immigrants?
‘This is where two famous anti-Mafia judges Falcone and Borsellino were assassinated by the Mafia…and these days well…the city politics and administration are still pretty well in their hands…’
Even living in Australia at the time, I could remember the Falcone and Borsellino murders being in the news.
History, art, music, culture, beautiful language – that was Italy.
And so was organized crime.
The next installment of my Italian experience in Palermo was about to unfold….