ISLANDS have always had for me a magic charm. As I have cruised among them along the coast of Maine and the shore of Dalmatia and in the Ionian Sea, often I have wished to stop at some beckoning sea-girt place, sure of latent adventures there. Islands seem more individual than great continents, more full of personality in their isolation, more certain to have had the past that makes romance. Think of the islands that have been the settings for great stories : Cythera whither came Venus born of the foam and blown by the winds; Delos, the wandering, tethered by Zeus’s chains to become a stable birthplace for another great deity; Scyros where Achilles, in the garb of a girl was hidden by his war-dreading mother among the daughters of the king until Odysseus discovered him and carried him off to Troy; Lemnos with tragic Philoctetes left alone and sick, to eat his heart and talk to rocks and woods; all the enchanted Homeric isles, Circe’s AEaea with the singing of the goddess and the grunting of her victims, Calypso’s fair close, the Phaeacian Scheria where exquisite Nausicaä gave the uncouth, shipwrecked Odysseus royal hospitality, rocky Ithaca where faithful Penelope spun and unravelled and waited for her lord, and then other isles of Greece Lesbos, where burning Sappho lived and sung, or Salamis over against which the king sat on the rocky brow counting by thousands his ships soon to be destroyed. Scores of these famous islands press their claim on memory, and above all rise the Islands of the Blessed with their beautiful mystic Elysium. The stories throw a glamour over geography and make the word ‘island’ a magician’s wand to summon delight.
Some such spell I felt cast over me when I took boat for Sicily in the spring and my mood of eager anticipation was crystallized by lines from a great poem I had been reading, an ode in which Pindar writing for a Syracusan who had won a chariot-race paid high tribute to Sicily and the goddess of the spring:
“Sow then some seed of splendid words in honour of this isle, which Zeus, the lord of Olympus, gave unto Persephone, and bowed his head toward her in sign that this teeming Sicily he would exalt to be the best land in the fruitful earth, with gorgeous crown of citadels. And the son of Kronos gave unto her a people that wooeth mailed war, a people of the horse and of the spear, and knowing well the touch of Olympia’s golden olive-leaves” (Nem. 1, Myers’ translation).
As the boat from Naples neared Palermo in the early morning and I saw in the light of dawn the shell of gold, that rounded valley girt by mountains, yellow with fruit, in which Palermo lies, I could see why Pindar called Sicily “best land in the fruitful earth.” Over the Concha d’Oro towered too one of her great citadels, for the huge rock at the right was the height that Hamilcar Barca held and Pyrrhus stormed, and that hour as I saw Monte Pellegrino all rose, gray and green in the golden haze of early sunshine, I determined that before I left Sicily, I too would scale the height of Ercte.
I felt like Pippa with her one day as I faced only three weeks in Sicily. I wished at the moment that my luggage was a library instead of a portmanteau and that I was going to live there instead of to travel. Books on Sicily all seemed so bulky and heavy that I could not carry those I had looked over; E. A. Freeman’s scholarly histories, Pitrè’s “Feste Patronali in Sicilia,” Paton’s “Picturesque Sicily,” Louise Caico’s “Sicilian Ways and Days,” Crawford’s “Rulers of the South,” Cecilia Waern’s “Mediaeval Sicily,” H. Festing Jones’s “Diversions in Sicily,” and the beautifully illustrated “Sicily” of Alberto Pisa and Spencer C. Musson. I was carrying with me a few indispensables, the remarkable 1919 Guida of the Touring Club Italiano, Hare’s “Sicily,” Trevelyan’s “Garibaldi and the Thousand,” Thucydides, Pindar, Theocritus and Vergil. I thought that those would serve to lead my feet, refresh my memory, and give me joy.
Memory needs special aid in Sicily. So many civilizations have claimed the island and left their stamp. What an historical pageant the procession of occupants would make ! Legendary Cyclopes and Laestrigonians first, then those mysterious early peoples, the Sicanians, the Elymi, and the Sicelians, bearing the long bronze lances now exhibited in the Syracuse Museum, magnificent Greek tyrants, crowned with the laurels of victories in the great athletic contests of Greece, swarthy Phoenician traders, Roman empire-builders, hordes of barbarian Goths, then Byzantine captains, Christian missionaries, Saracen conquerors, Norman kings and Germans, rulers from Provence and from Aragon, English generals and last Garibaldi and the Thousand, marching by in their red shirts. No wonder that after such a history, Sicily is bewildering in the multitudinous and overwhelming impressions she makes. You will see the purest of Greek Doric columns from the fifth century before Christ and the most gorgeous of brilliant mosaic chapels from the twelfth century after Christ. You will pass from Museum rooms filled with classic sculpture to street-scenes of gay carts decorated with Saracen stories. You may look at the beautiful little coins adorned with four-horse chariots which were struck by Greek tyrants and at the mammoth porphyry sarcophagi where Norman kings were entombed. At noon you may stand alone on the top seats of the Greek theater at Segesta looking off to the sea, and in the evening you may listen to Grand Opera in the Teatro Vittorio Emmanuele of modern Palermo. From the heights of Epipolae you can see how the Greek fort Euryalus protected the great ancient city of Syracuse and from the Gibilrossa Pass you can look down the road by which the Thousand descended to capture Palermo. And in the quiet of the siesta hour you will be reading the Homeric Hymn to Demeter or the chant of the Garibaldini.
Palermo, the first city I visited, had all this bewilderment and fascination. I stayed a week and hardly began to know the city and the treasures near. I will confess at once that I selected the Hôtel des Palmes because it was near the Museum, wishing to get daily a little time with the sculpture from Selinunte, but I found myself very comfortable with a window opening to green palm-trees, delicious food and a most courteous Italian proprietor. I made the mistake of following my usual habit of walking about the city first to get orientated, but Palermo is too large and too much a business city. The Via Maqueda and the Corso Vittorio Emmanuele did not please me, nor did the octagonal piazza where they cross, the Quattro Canti, with its heavy baroque façades of Seasons and Holy Maidens interspersed among homely Spanish kings. I found myself looking in shop windows for bargains in Sicilian drawn work, counting the number of banks I passed and studying Palermitan millinery. So I gave up walking, hailed a small carrozza whose horse had a peculiarly high feather waving from the top of his head and whose driver had the richest of Sicilian coloring and directed that I should be taken to the Cathedral, the Palazzo Reale and San Giovanni degli Eremiti.
The Cathedral is as strangely composite as Palermo itself for little is left on the outside of the twelfth century foundation and century after century of additions have made a curious medley with an excrescence of a dome topping it all, but I liked its brown color, its length, its delicate towers and its entrance portal. I understood better the simplicity of the crypt, with its cool granite columns, unadorned walls and early sarcophagi, one that of Walter of the Mill, the English Arch-bishop who founded the church for William the Good. But the tombs of the Kings are by far the most impressive part of the Cathedral, those great porphyry sarcophagi where lie five great monarchs and two queens. Such magnificent sepulchres ought to insure repose yet in 1781 the sarcophagi were opened and you may see now in the treasure room of the Cathedral the precious objects taken from them, the jewelled crown of Constance of Aragon, a bit of the rich robe of Henry VI, and a magnificent Spanish pallium. Verily after death divinity does not hedge a king.
From the tomb of Roger II I went to two of the beautiful creations of his reign, the Cappella Palatina in the Palazzo Reale and San Giovanni degli Eremiti. No room ever seemed to me more gorgeous than the Cappella Palatina, but in its Arab-Norman style, it is Oriental and remote from me, not so much in the lines of nave and aisles and pointed arches and cupola, but in the blaze of color of the golden mosaics and their rich splendor. It is not a room in which I could pray. It made me excited and eager to study the mosaic pictures that caught my fancy, Jacob’s ladder, Adam and Eve, Noah’s Ark, Abraham wrestling with the angel, all the stories of my childhood wrought on gold. A room as perfect and more sympathetic to me is the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia at Ravenna, where golden light filters through alabaster windows on mosaics of a dark blue ground instead of gold.
These older mosaic pictures on blue like those of S. Prassede in Rome appeal to me more, yet, when I think of St. Mark’s in Venice and its subdued golden harmony, I am not sure. The larger interior seems better suited to such magnificence or perhaps one’s mood determines one’s taste. In Palermo, I know I found more satisfaction in Roger’s other beautiful structure, San Giovanni degli Eremiti. It may have been because I wanted air and sunlight and was so content to look at two rose-red domes under pointed arches of a little cloister where a trailing rose flung its saffron blossoms over a stone well. A black cat rolled happily in the sunshine though she was tied by a cruel rope. The Custode’s grave, thirteen-year-old son explained that the gatta if allowed to roam at will, ate lizards, and this food made her very ill so she could not have her freedom. Alas ! When I returned to Palermo three months later, la gatta had broken loose, eaten her prey and died, and two black and white off-spring, who had inherited their mother’s tastes, were languishing resignedly at the ends of their chains in the exquisite fourteenth century cloisters while the lizards darted safely by. Even in a garden as beautiful, as Eden life may have its cares and the Custode had his rheumatism and the Son his English exercise to write for school and the cats their cords, but my sympathy for them all could not darken my joy there in golden fruit of lemon and orange trees, peach-trees in pink blossom, trailing white roses and ground covered with freesia, mignonette and violets.
After such a morning I chose to loaf and invite my soul through a long siesta time, then later went to the Piazza Marina and walked out under the Porta Felice, the great sixteenth century gate, to the sea, a pleasant place in which to dream if Palermo gave one time. I started to dream about how the high car of S. Rosalia must have looked as on her festa it passed through the Porta Felice left open at the top for it, but my feet were aquiver to be off and soon I was investigating famous inns in this old quarter and finding with delight the beautiful Renaissance portal of Santa Maria della Catena, the tiny church named from the chain which once, it is said, was fastened here to close the mouth of the harbor. Tea in the English tea-room in the Piazza Marina gave refreshment with a look over the Giardino Garibaldi and then later a chance of seeing the treasures of the gift-shop, ancient Byzantine ikons, Assisi embroidery, book-racks made of parts of painted carts, conversation-beads of flame-colored amber.
I have no intention of chronicling stupidly all my itineraries or all my teas, but perhaps a few of my first experiences. will speed the introduction of others to Palermo. Another morning I went over to the Piazza Bellini to see La Martorana and San Cataldo. Incidentally on the way I was lured into the church of Santa Catarina on the Piazza Pretoria to see Jonah. Santa Catarina is so magnificently baroque that one gasps for breath in the oppression of such heavy gorgeousness, takes a hurried look at Antonello Gagini’s statue of the saint, and then finds on the first pilaster at the right the joyful Jonah story, the capsized ship, the floundering prophet, the gaping whale, all wrought in high relief and brilliant color. Such use of baroque bordering on the humorous treatment of the sacred seems to me the most pleasing, for beauty I have not yet seen in that style of decoration in spite of the fact that a delightful young architect tried to educate me to it during one whole half day in southern Greece. I remember as we walked up the flowery hills towards Messene’s old stronghold how eloquently he maintained that the baroque style which had made most of the great palaces in Rome and the villas near must be judged by its best and not its worst and in the light of the truth that it had saved for us the Renaissance.
I admit my narrowness of architectural sympathy and confess that La Martorana’s beauty was sadly marred for me by the baroque additions and the gaudy little chapel opening out of the apse, with its priceless lapis lazuli altar. One has to hunt in La Martorana for the original lines of the building and the few old mosaics remaining, but one mosaic picture in the vestibule is worth a morning’s stay, the severe spiritual Christ in his simple robes, crowning Roger the gorgeously apparelled little earthly monarch. There is a delightful mosaic of the nativity also, two happy animals peering into the manger, the Child ready for his bath, but with golden aura about his head, the saint pouring a tentative hand into tub to test heat of water. How naive and blithe are some of these early Christian pictures! The most beautiful architectural part of the church now is the delicate campanile and I stood looking at it long before entering S. Cataldo. This little Norman church has been restored to all its original beauty of line. Three rose domes, pointed windows, an Arabic inscription for a frieze, rectangular plan, it shows without; within three apses, six ancient columns, the old mosaic floor giving the only color and under the cool severity of unadorned walls, the lovely old marble altar carved with the symbols of the evangels about the Lamb.
It is wiser to see La Martorana, S. Cataldo and the Palatine Chapel before going out to the perfection of Monreale. Tram 9 from the Piazza Bologni takes you up and up for an hour or more, past hedges of gray-green cactus and scarlet geraniums over the Conca d’Oro to the lovely height where Monreale’s cathedral flowers. One needs a day to begin to enjoy this most perfect Norman monument in all Sicily, and after that day, one will return. What is the charm? Partly the natural beauty of the setting on the hill over the golden plain and the sea; partly the proportions of the structure outside and in, the basilica with three apses, the Byzantine sanctuary, the great rectangular cloister; partly the joy of the mosaics which paint on the walls all the story of the life of Christ, and the sculptured capitals of the columns from some of which pagan Ceres and Proserpina look out; partly the varied fascination of the cloister’s carvings and the delight of hunting for such personal touches as the capital whereon William II the Founder offers the Duomo to the Madonna, or that other where a Roman marble-cutter inscribed his own name. Then you may climb about the roof for one view after another of the adorable island, and you may sit in the cloister listening to the water falling from the exquisite column of the fountain, and all day you drink deep of beauty until you are fairly weary of your senses.
Then it is time to go down the hill and relax in café or tea-room and here I have a merry warning: remember if you are making engagements that there are three cafés called Caflisch. I shall never forget how a distinguished English lady and I in an attempt to have tea together “at Caflisch’s” chased each other from one place to another like kittens in a circle until I finally sat down at one on the Via Maqueda, ordered cakes and cups and let her catch up with me.
You will wish to go out to Cefalù soon after seeing Monreale for the sake of comparisons and new impressions of mosaic decoration from the great cathedral there. We had a great disappointment on entering the Duomo, for the apse was entirely hidden from view by a network of wooden scaffolding that had been erected for the restoration of the famous mosaics. My spirits sagged until I conceived the idea of this being a great opportunity for studying the technique of the mosaics at close range and was able to convince a reluctant priest that I was steady of head and foot. Then guided by a little lame Custode with large gold rings in his ears, I ascended shaky ladders and walked around six unsteady stories of scaffolding. It was absorbingly interesting to see the details of these Greek-Byzantine mosaics and in spite of my nearness to them, I was greatly impressed by their simplicity and dignity, the remote face of the ascetic Christ, the gentle Madonna in mauve, the angels of the six folded wings, the glorious company of the Apostles. Here I seemed to sense real religious feeling, and the effect on me was like that of the Russian church music.
Later with a small-boy guide I climbed to the top of the gray promontory on which ancient Cephaloedium stood and saw on the crest of the hill the most remarkable prehistoric ruin, temple or tomb or private house, Phoenician, Sikel, or Pelasgic, who knows? But there it stands, high, broken wall gray on the green hill, its lower part of magnificent polygonal blocks and in them a huge entrance door with sculptured portal, leading into vestibule from which two other similar doors open. Here is that familiar motif of drama which might be called “the mystery of the door,” for the magnificent door in polygonal wall stands unexplained, compelling study and conjecture.
I have left what meant most to me in Palermo until the last, yet there was nothing to which I went so often as the Museum, for in the peculiarly beautiful setting of the old monastery with its two courtyards green with palms, ivy, and papyrus under the fountain are assembled great treasures. I did not have time to get any idea of the Saracenic art from the Arabian Room, nor much feeling for Sicilian painting from the pinacoteca although I went upstairs twice to see the famous Flemish triptych with its exquisite miniature fineness. I often walked about the well-arranged rooms of the Greek vases and the room of the bronzes where are the little Pompeian group of Hercules and the stag and the amazingly lifelike ram which once lay over the great entrance door of Castello Maniace in Syracuse. The mosaic room too demanded a classical glance at the great floor picture of Orpheus charming the animals, but the room where I sat for many a half hour was the room of the sculpture from Selinunte. It was a disappointment that I could not get to the site of Selinunte itself to see the chaotic ruins from which these great reliefs came, yet I knew the best of Selinunte today was here. The fascination of the hall is the chance to study the development of decorative relief sculpture from such primitive work as the grotesque Hercules killing the Gorgon and stiff, timid Europa riding her bull to the four fifth century metopes where rectangular spaces are filled with such varied and beautiful compositions. As I sat before them, I became absorbed in studying details of technique, the red paint still visible on Athena’s robe in the Medusa metope, the attempts at foreshortening in the primitive quadriga group, and the varied arrangement of two figures in the later me-topes and the way in which the heads, hands and feet of the female figures are made of a finely worked, white marble, very different from the porous stone of the rest of the reliefs. The art of Greek sculpture seems to be developing before one’s eyes in that room; and leads one’s thoughts to the next stage, the final triumph of Attic art on the Parthenon.
I did not leave Palermo without fulfilling the vow I made on my approach, to ascend Monte Pellegrino. Hamilcar Barca was in my mind, the great Carthaginian commander of the first Punic war with Rome, fought so largely on Sicilian soil, and I kept thinking of Sir Roger Casement’s sonnet to the “Eagle of Eryx,”
“Thou that didst mark from Hercte’s spacious hill The Roman spears, like mist, uprise each morn, Yet held, with Hesper’s shining point of scorn, Thy sword unsheathed above Panormus still.”
But when I climbed old Hercte I found that the mountain brow is given over to the memory of a Christian saint instead of a Punic conqueror. From the sea, ships entering the harbor see the colossal Statue of Santa Rosalia on the northeast side of the mountain, but the sacred cave where this niece of the Norman King, William Second, was metamorphosed from noble maid to hermit lies on the back side of Monte Pellegrino and the ascent is long for the pilgrims, especially on rainy days like the one on which I walked up. Yet I saw a very heavy, lame woman painfully walking back down the slippery road and a young father and mother laboriously pulling a carriage containing a tiny crying child. So efficacious is believed to be a visit to the shrine. The cave where Santa Rosalia lived and died has been transformed into a little chapel and here service is held three times a day, the priest told me, near the beautiful recumbent marble statue of the young saint, clad in stiff golden robe and crowned with gold. A little Museum full of magnificent gold and silver votive offerings testifies to the devotion of pilgrims who believe they have been healed here.
I kept thinking of the miracles of religion and of war as I walked down the mountain, and almost equally strange seemed the freshness of the path worn by pilgrim feet, and the boldness of the venture by which Pyrrhus once stormed this bare gray limestone ridge. Then I forgot all history, as stopping in a rocky pasture, overgrown with sparse low cedar and golden genestra, I saw the silver-gray, misty-green view of the harbor encircled by Cape Zaffarano, and at the edge of the Conca d’Oro the low red city of Palermo on the shining bay.
Even a pilgrim may have tea and I found the Villa Igiea very conveniently near the base of the mountain and in its flowery garden above the ships riding at anchor I planned how on my next visit I should go to Selinunte, Segesta and Solunto. Segesta only have I yet achieved and that shall be the end of my Sicilian story.
I had hardly found spring in Sicily in my city life in Palermo so the long day on the train from Palermo to Taormina was joyful in giving me a sight of the country. It was a rainy day, of mists and clouds and leaden sea, but through its grayness the gold fruit of the lemon groves shone all along the northern and the eastern shores. The north of the island seemed very fertile, an irrigated country of vegetable gardens, olive orchards, peach trees all abloom in deep rose, high hedges of prickly pear or pink geraniums. At my left was the sea, on my right green wooded heights, row after row, cloud-wrapped, and in the valleys between them the dry, pebbly beds of torrents. I read history as the train stopped at one station after another. Here at Termini-Imerese are the hot springs which a nymph showed Hercules for his refreshment on his trip with Geryon’s cattle, but I saw from the train no bagni, their modern successors. Neither could I see any trace of Himera, home of the poet Stesichorus, and site of the terrible revenge that Hannibal, son of Gisco, took here for the death of his grandfather, the destruction of the town and the sacrifice of three thousand citizens to his grand-father’s shade. Soon I saw again picturesque Cefalù, a warm, brown city stretching out on a point into the sea, the golden brown cathedral with its two towers rising high above the houses, and on the great towering mountain above, the proud prehistoric ruin. Later the Lipari islands rose, dim-blue silhouettes from a silver ocean, only a remote line for the home of Aeolus, god of the winds, but looming nearer “close to the Sicanian coast and Aeolian Lipare, a lofty island, with smoking rocks,” where is heard a mighty anvil chorus on the forges of the Cyclopes, “the home of Vulcan and the land by name Vulcania” (Aen. 8, 415-22). Then all the afternoon there were tunnels, tunnels, tunnels as we ran under the mountains that descend close to the sea. Perhaps the intermittent view of hills and water seemed more picturesque in their sudden beauty after the dark.
Milazzo’s long slender promontory brought to mind together Agrippa who won the battle of Naulochus off the coast and Garibaldi’s advance. Finally there was one long tunnel and we came out upon Messina, lying low in her curved sickle line by the sea between two ridges of hills, all her houses looking very new, from the rebuilding after the earthquake. As the train rounded one ridge and ran out into the town, I saw the shore of Calabria across and realized that I was facing Scylla and Charybdis tamely and safely from the land.
Here at Messina one changes to the train for the south and presently we were passing through more fragrant lemon-groves, and by pebbly torrent beds, and along green hills, and always on the left was beating the sea. It was dark when we reached Taormina and I saw nothing as we drove up, up, up to the city on the rock, but I was out early the next morning and had an hour alone in the most beautiful ruin I had ever seen. I say this in retrospect, for I was bitterly disappointed in the theater when I entered it in the orchestra : it seemed so small, insignificant, colorless. I felt the mistake of my position and went at once up the stairs at the left to the very top and there had a view that held me for an hour. I realized as I lingered that the ruin is probably more beautiful than the original theater, for the back of the stage, broken as it now is, frames a view with stiff cypresses in the foreground, then far below the turquoise sea, and the white surf, and beyond in the distance Mount Etna’s snow-capped peak. All this magic setting intensifies the color of the ruin, the dull red of old bricks, the gray of the Corinthian columns of the scena. My eyes wandered off to the craggy hills over the town, Mola with its Castello, Monte Venere, Monte Ziretto, and then I turned to the north and had another sea view, the coast to Cape Alessio and its fort and across the water Calabria’s long point. All my precious hour I heard the surf below and against its music now and then the song of a blackbird.
When other forestieri began to arrive, I descended to explore every part of the theater, trying to trace Hellenistic structure and Roman additions. Back of the scena part of the Greek wall remains, massive marble blocks, and some marble columns are embedded in the later Roman brick-work. Details to notice are the niches for statues back of the gray columns of the scena, the reservoirs for water under the stage, the entrance doors to stage and to orchestra, the excavated seats cut in the native rock, the large room at the left of the stage as one enters the orchestra. There is a tiny one-room Museum above the theater but there is not much of interest, architectural fragments found in the theater, a headless torso of an ephebus, Hellenistic work, a Roman sarcophagus with a Bacchic scene. I enjoyed more the genial Custode who while he sold me a coin of Tauromenium told me that the reason why the stemma of the city is the minotaur is because the first colonists thought that the three hills back of the city had the shape of a bullman.
All the rest of the day I roamed about the little town, looking for its Roman and its mediaeval treasures.
The one central street, the Corso Umberto, is not long from the Porta Messina to the Torre Mediaevale so one can be leisurely. I hunted up the Palazzo Corvaia with the picturesque entrance gateway, court-yard and staircase with the delicious fourteenth century reliefs of the Creation, the fig-tree, Eve spinning and Adam delving, the Odeon, a little Roman theater, half excavated, the Duomo with one beauty, its entrance portal, the diverting fountain where various beasties spout water, and atop sits the Minotaur crudely restored as a maiden queen or saint, crowned, San Domenico’s lovely cloister where the convent bell now summons not monks but hotel guests to dinner, the Badia Vecchia, a ruined Gothic tower with exquisitely delicate pointed windows traced against the sky, the chiesa del Carmine with its nice Latin couplet over the door:
Ingredimur veluti portam nos virgo sacelli Te porta caelos ingrediamur ita. “As we enter the door of your shrine, maiden, so by you as a door may we enter heaven.”
I do not wonder that Taormina is a haunt of artists for besides the beauties of site and theater, there are many picturesque street scenes : a group of old men sitting in the Piazza weaving chair bottoms; a woman in a green skirt, lavender apron, pink waist and yellow kerchief, leading her goat; a gray stone archway with a mass of orange-honeysuckle above and under it an old wrinkled crone with a red kerchief over her head. But much as my eye was caught by all this, I had the feeling that there were too many picture postcards in little shop windows to make these effects unsophisticated. Taormina is too full of English-speaking artists and tourists to let it keep a real simplicity that would befit its rock. Yet its charm and its accessibility make exploitation almost unavoidable and I with the other Anglo-Saxons long to return for the blooming of the almond blossoms and for the flush of dawn on Etna’s white face.
Theocritus and Ovid, the Odyssey and the Aeneid are the proper companions for the train between Taormina and Syracuse for they best tell the stories of the Cyclops which haunt this shore. The tale of the uncouth Polyphemus in love with the delicate nymph, Galatea, you will find in two charming idyls (Theoc. 6 and 11) and then as you near Acireale you may read in Ovid (Met. 13, 750-897) how here Acis, the young lover of Galatea was transformed into a stream that he might escape the jealous vengeance of his giant rival. Near Aci Castello you will see off shore the Rocks of the Cyclops, those great missiles which the blinded Polyphemus hurled after Ulysses when he escaped him so craftily, and in the ninth book of the Odyssey and. the third of the Aeneid you may read the story of Polyphemus in anger. Then as you near the end of the four hours’ train-ride, you will forget the Cyclops’ Idyls and Epics for Pindar’s greeting to Siracusa.
“O resting-place of Alpheos, Ortygia, scion of famous Syracuse, thou that art a couch of Artemis and a sister of Delos, from thee goeth forth a song of sweet words” (Nem. 1, 1 sq.).
Taormina is superlatively charming, Siracusa is superlatively splendid. Yet something of the exquisite haunts too this historic harbor where so much of ancient history was made, and it is well to begin a stay in Ortygia, that fourth of the ancient city which is now modern Syracuse, with a visit to the spring of Arethusa and a thought of the story culled from Vergil, Ovid and Shelley, how amorous river-god Alpheus pursued shy nymph Arethusa through Greece even under the sea to this island and when she at last was transformed into a spring, here their waters mingled in happiness. The Syracusans with the Italian sense of beauty have made the fountain of Arethusa, in the very heart of the city, a lovely thing. The great, clear, bubbling pool lies deep below the city streets surrounded with high ivy-covered walls. Feathery papyrus grows thick in half of it through which white ducks swim in and out, and through the clear water pearly-gray fish dart. It is the head of Arethusa surrounded by dolphins that graces many of the beautiful coins of Syracuse, those artistic monuments, miniature but magnificent, of her splendor.
To study the coins of Syracuse is to study her history, for one great Greek tyrant after another struck pieces of money to commemorate his power and his victories. Here is the silver Damareteion struck by Gelo after his defeat of the Carthaginians in 480. For the victory of Hiero I over the Etruscans at Cumae we should see the famous inscribed votive helmet in the British Museum. This Hiero is one of the monarchs who proved that peace has her victories no less renowned than war by gathering to his court the great literary geniuses of his time, Aeschylus, Pindar, Simonides, Bacchylides. The defeat of the Athenians in 413 B. C. is signalized by another great silver medallion with a suit of Athenian armor under the victorious quadriga. Timoleon’s altruistic restoration of the free life of the city 343 is symbolized in a coin bearing the head of Zeus the Liberator. Pyrrhus’ victories over Sicily 278-5 B. C. produced a gold coin with the head of Athena on the obverse and a victory on the reverse. We know the face of Theocritus’ patron, Hiero II, from his coin-portrait; we know too the likeness of his wife Philistis, whose name is carved on the theater. Another coin gives us the profile of Hieronymus who by allying himself with the Carthaginians, brought on the Romans’ siege of Syracuse and Marcellus’ victory. Then the glorious days of the city were over and it was the prey of the vandalism of a Verres and of the con-quests of Byzantines, Arabs and Normans.
All this tremendous history is recorded in great monuments and one needs days to visit Ortygia, Neapolis, Epipolae and Achradina. I began with Ortygia and after visiting Arethusa hunted next the ruins of the so-called “Temple of Diana,” more probably of a Temple of Apollo as a dedicatory inscription carved on the stylobate shows. When I wished to enter the iron gate which barred my study here, a small girl of about ten informed me that she was the Custode and as proof for my incredulity produced a huge key and maintained a pompous air of oversight during my investigations. Yet she allowed two playmates to set out tiny doll’s furniture and play house-keeping on the marble steps while I looked at the two mighty Doric columns remaining from this most archaic of Doric temples on the island.
Next I sought the temple of Athena. Never was Doric more strangely metamorphosed than here into this baroque Duomo. Zosimus, the bishop of the seventh century after Christ was the one who embedded the magnificent old columns in the church walls where his own resplendent portrait now hangs. Athena has given way to a silver Santa Lucia who does not scorn wearing a beautiful Greek cameo upon her bosom, and to the loveliest of girlish madonnas by Gagini who stands timidly under the tremendous Doric columns near the font, which is an ancient vase of marble. The Duomo in spite of all changes retains something of the magnificence of the temple which Cicero celebrated, and is a hall where one feels the worship of centuries.
The Museum of Syracuse is a delight both in its wealth of treasures and in the excellent arrangement of them made by the care of Professor Orsi, the Director. It is due to his scholarship that here may be studied the prehellenic antiquities which reveal four periods of the hitherto little known Sicilian civilization. Here too are well-arranged collections of pottery, terra-cottas, and coins, architectural fragments from the old temple of Athena and part of a great red altar that stood before it. Then there are magnificent terra-cotta sarcophagi from Gela, of the sixth and fifth centuries, with the inside beautifully decorated in relief and color, one with exquisite little Ionic columns in the four corners. The halls of sculpture aroused that wild desire for possession which comes over me when I see the perfection of small works of ancient art. Intellectually I disapprove severely of private ownership of any great works of art; aesthetically I covet beautiful little statues, and here the small ones were marvels: a little niche relief of a seated Cybele, two small reliefs of horsemen, and above all, a marble statuette of Hercules with even the exquisite head perfect. This appealed to me more than did the magnificent bust of Zeus or Poseidon. Of course, the most famous statue here is the Venus Landolina and she is very beautiful, but no goddess at all though posed in the conventional Anadyomene way, just a very individual woman, tall, long-waisted, broad-hipped, two dimples at the base of her back, tiny hollow at the base of her throat, and long slender fingers on one exquisite remaining hand.
Another afternoon I drove to see the sights of Neapolis: theater, street of tombs, Ear of Dionysius, amphitheater and altar. Leave the theater till last for the sunset there and disregarding chronology go first to the great Roman amphitheater of Augustus’ time. The building seemed as large as the Colosseum as I looked down into it but it is far from that though larger than those of Pola and Pompeii and only a little smaller than Verona’s. It is very beautiful, for the arena is carpeted with emerald grass and overgrown with flowers so that I carried away a great bunch of nameless darlings in pink, purple, white, yellow, as well as some dear familiars like white clover, mignonette and a sprig of spearmint. The plan is much like that of the Colosseum, but it is a sunken bowl and one looks down into it all, seeing it first from above. There is a great entrance passage and portal, and opposite that another gate to the city, a little side door too for the carrying away of the dead. In the center is a cistern, in which end two canals, perhaps to be used in flooding the arena for naumachiae, around the arena a parapet and underneath a crypto-corridor with doors on the arena for the entrance of men and animals. The whole ruin is most impressive and so is the “altar of Hieron II,” near. The great platform up to which three steps lead is clearly large enough for the sacrifice of four hundred and fifty bulls offered to Zeus the Liberator who had freed Syracuse from the tyranny of Thrasybulus. Opposite the altar is the Latomia del Paradiso, an immense quarry over a hundred feet high, curiously named when one thinks of the slavery of labor which must have gone on there. The collapse of the rock-roof makes it a great cavity with only one tall, rock-pillar standing and over these fallen rocks and walls and floors run riot masses of trailing green vines and bright flowers. The most interesting part is the grotto called “the ear of Dionysius” because of the tradition that at the little aperture at the top Dionysius could hear even the whispers of his captives imprisoned there. Its curving shape makes it a megaphone so that the low words of the Custode reverberated in the depths, and his blow on the iron lock of the door was increased to the noise of artillery. As quarry and prison, the Latomia del Paradiso has its horror and I was glad to go on to see the Nymphaeum and its water-course back of the theater and the street of tombs with the huge wagon-ruts in the road and the rock-hewn chambers on either side. Then I went to the theater and sat down on the upper seats for the great view over the city, the plain and the harbor. The theater itself is one of the largest of the Greek world and once had sixty-one tiers of seats though now only the forty-six lower remain. They are cut in the rock of the hill, divided by two praecinctiones around the wider of which runs a rock-wall with inscriptions of the names of Hiero II, his queen Philistis, Nereide, daughter of Pyrrhus and wife of Gelo II, and Olympian Jupiter, names apparently used to mark the different sections of seats. I could not see the ancient stage, for workmen were busy preparing the setting for a performance of Aeschylus’ “Choephoroi,” putting up a small temple and Agamemnon’s tomb, but I sat long with thoughts of the great ancients whom those seats had held, Aeschylus, Pindar, Aristippus and Plato; and of how Timoleon, old and blind, spoke here to his fellow citizens; and how here perhaps was given the Persians of Aeschylus after the victory of Hirnera.
Another great day at Syracuse took me to Epipolae and Achradina with Thucydides. The Sicilian expedition is almost too terrible a narrative to read upon the scene of its enactment, the horror becomes so manifest. Yet on “that long high ridge back of the city,” I had new thoughts of the significance of the facts. Perhaps it was because it was spring and Persephone returning to the upper air had brought with her a wealth of yellow daisies and white thistles that starred the hill-side and the sense of her recurrent power made me muse on the part that Alcibiades’ travesty of the Ceres-Proserpina mysteries played in his recall. A certain terrible divine nemesis seemed to have pursued his countrymen for his imputed sacrilege. More than that, not only did the tragic drama of the expedition seem to have worked to its logical religious conclusion, but here on the ridge overlooking all the magnificent plain which ancient Syracuse occupied, I asked myself what right greater nations like Athens and Sparta had to make this coast the battleground of their ambitions. On Epipolae, the sympathy which had always gone before to the Athenians shifted in the balance.
That was the effect of the scene, not of the Greek historian. Even without the great fort Euryalus, this height commanded the plain and from it one can see why the Athenians rushed to take it and one can trace the lines of the walls and counter walls which they and the Syracusans built. Below too lies the harbor with the projecting-points within which the ships of the second Athenian expedition were imprisoned by the chain of their enemy’s vessels. And there back inland must have begun the sad retreat of the defeated army which was to end in capture. Thucydides’ narrative is too poignant for rehashing.
Well, Syracuse with the help of Sparta, saved her independence and learned wisdom about her own defence for the next wars, and when the struggle with Carthage came, Dionysius was ready with this magnificent fortress of Euryalus which today crowns the old hill of Epipolae. The walls converging here he built also in an amazingly short space of time, 30 stadia of them in 20 days by the use of 60,000 men and 6,000 pairs of oxen. The Fort of Euryalus is an amazing example of the strength of a Greek fortress. The Custode took me all over it with careful explanations so that I saw the three fossae, the piles of masonry on which the drawbridge over the third rested, the towers which supported the catapults, the staircase cut in the rock for exit towards the city and how it was protected by windows for archers opposite its entrance, the complicated system of corridors and galleries, some with trap-doors for speedy exit, the courtyard for the cavalry, the rings to which to tie the horses, the four under-ground storerooms. The position and the strength of the walls even now make the Castello seem impregnable.
I was glad to get absorbed in the Italian Custode’s technical descriptions of methods of defense to relieve for a while the tragedy of the Athenians, but worse moments came on my drive back when I went to the Latomia dei Cappuccini, the quarry-prison of the seven thousand captive Athenians. The ravishing beauty of the garden at the bottom of those sheer stone walls did not lessen the horror of Thucydides’ story (Thuc. VII, 37, Crawley’s translation). “The prisoners in the quarries were at first hardly treated by the Syracusans. Crowded in a narrow hole, without any roof to cover them, the heat of the sun and the stifling closeness of the air tormented them during the day, and then the nights, which came on autumnal and chilly, made them ill by the violence of the change; besides, as they had to do everything in the same place for want of room, and the bodies of those who died of their wounds or from the variation in the temperature, or from similar causes, were left heaped together one upon another, intolerable stenches arose; while hunger and thirst never ceased to afflict them, each man during eight months having only half a pint of water and a pint of corn given him daily. In short, no single suffering to be apprehended by men thrust into such a place was spared them. For some seventy days they thus lived all together, after which all, except the Athenians and any Siceliots or Italiots who had joined in the expedition, were sold.” The Athenians were left there for six months longer. Then those who survived were sold as slaves or put to work in the public prisons. Traditidn says that a few gained their freedom by reciting to the aesthetic Syracusans the plays of Euripides, and of this story Browning has made a great poem in “Balaustion’s Adventure.”
In the quarries, my sympathy went back to the Athenians and I would have been most terribly depressed in the midst of the fragrance of the flowers and the singing of the birds had it not been for a very sprightly Custode. Italian-like he could not bear the menace of tears and, a Sicilian, perhaps he did not wish me moved by the fate of an enemy. In any case, he first attempted to divert me by a most idyllic description of the love-making of nightingales with imitations of the bird-notes and then he tried a story, his own innocuous version of the rape of the Sabine women. “You are going to Greece, Signorina? I should like to go there because I hear the Greek women are the most beautiful in the world. Oh 1 Yes! Of course, some Italian women are handsome, at least in Rome. That is because the Roman women are descended from the early Sabines. Rome had no women at first and at a festa the Romans said to the Sabine men : ‘Go away, go away. Your mother and your sister shall remain here.’ And the Romans were much larger and stronger than the Sabines so the Sabines had to run away leaving their handsome female-relatives for the Romans. So when-ever you see a very beautiful woman in Rome, Signorina, you know she is descended from the early Sabines !” The Custode appeared much pleased with his success when he saw me smiling. Perhaps he did help restore my judgment, for l said severely to my emotion : “Such brutalities as this quarry-prison are the remnants of barbarism that war evokes. Think of the conduct of the Athenians at Melos.” Yet I was glad to leave the beauty of the Latomia and I would never stay in the Villa Politi near its haunting gloom.
As I had begun my days at Syracuse under the auspices of the water-nymph Arethusa, I had hoped to finish them with a visit to another, and to see Cyane’s famous pool, but I had to postpone the trip up the Anapus through the feathery papyrus. I should like to see the place where the nymph boldly rose from the water and with waving arms tried to stop Pluto in his carrying off of Persephone. I was thinking much of that Sicilian story on the long day’s journey from Syracuse to Girgenti, perhaps because the train passed near the vale of Enna and Castrogiovanni’s long ridge. I had decided not to stop, for there are no traces of the temples of Demeter and Persephone, and sulphur mines have laid waste the flowery meads, yet, perversely when we passed the station, I was disappointed not to alight and ascend the hill for the magnificent view from this umbilicus of Sicily and for a sight of Lake Pergusa where Proserpina one day was gathering flowers when in a moment Pluto saw her, fell in love and carried her away. But it was not only Castrogiovanni-Enna that reminded me of Demeter and Persephone. I was leaving Syracuse, a city where many men like Hiero had done “honour to Demeter whose footsteps make red the corn, and to the feast of her daughter with white steeds” (Pindar, Olym. 6) and I was going to Girgenti, “lover of splendour, most beautiful among the cities of men, haunt of Persephone, who by the banks of Akragas’ stream that nourisheth the flocks, inhabitest a citadel builded pleasantly” (Pindar Pyth. 12). I opened my Theocritus and read bit after bit about the goddesses : the shepherd’s prayer to Demeter of the threshing-flour : “Ah, once again may I plant the great fan on her corn-heap, while she stands smiling by, with sheaves and poppies in her hands” (Idyl 7, Andrew Lang’s translation) ; the Lityerses song of the reapers, beginning: “Demeter, rich in fruit, and rich in grain, may this corn be easy to win, and fruitful exceedingly I” ; and then the prayer that Hiero may drive the Carthaginians from Sicily a passage most Sicilian : “O thou Maiden that with the Mother dost possess the great burg of the rich Ephyreans, by the water of Lusimeleia, would that dire necessity may drive our foemen from the isle, along the Sardinian wave, to tell the doom of their friends to children and to wives messengers easy to number out of so many warriors! But as for our cities may they again be held by their ancient masters all the cities that hostile hands have utterly spoiled.
May our people till the flowering fields, and may thou-sands of sheep unnumbered fatten ‘mid the herbage, and bleat along the plain, while the kine as they come in droves to the stalls warn the belated traveller to hasten on his way. May the fallows be broken for the seed-time, while the cicala, watching the shepherds as they toil in the sun, in the shade of the trees doth sing on the topmost sprays. May spiders weave their delicate webs over martial gear, may none any more so much as name the cry of onset!” (Idyl 16.) Once more I took out of my hand-bag a new treasure, a silver coin with the head of Persephone on it, and all the postcards I had found of representations of Demeter and Persephone in art. It was the familiar relief of Demeter, Triptolemus and Persephone in the Athens Museum that started my mind to Eleusis near Athens and to the mysteries that went on there in the great temple. From the little that is known of them we can understand their appeal and their comfort, for the great nature myth of Demeter and Persephone, which grew out of the succession of the seasons, the return of the spring after winter’s gloom, came to have a larger significance of the immortality for which man craves, and the mysteries seem to have presented to the votaries a blessed assurance of life continuing. I never shall forget my day at Eleusis and how as I sat on the steps in the ruins of the great temple I pictured the ceremonies connected with the shrine: the procession out from Athens along the Sacred Way, and the baptism in the pools, the night of mourning for the lost Persephone, ‘the day of joy over her return, then the sacred drama of the story and the mystic words of explanation uttered by the hierophant. It was not only the road on which I had walked as far as Daphni that seemed to me sacred, but all the stones of the great temple and the sculpture from it in the little Museum above. And as if to make a memorable day more significant I witnessed in the town a modern Carrying Off of the Maid.
The drama was set in front of a little house painted sky-blue, with a huge pink geranium flowering over the door. A group of maidens in holiday dress, white kerchiefs draped around dark faces, stood at the right in the shade of another house, eagerly waiting. Soon we heard the sound of music and three men playing guitars and mandolins strolled down the road ahead of a mule which drew a long wagon, a sort of hay-rick, painted like the house, light-blue. The mule too was decorated with silk handkerchiefs pendant from his ears, topped by little bouquets of pink flowers. The cart stopped in front of the house and then the ceremony began for out of the house was borne by young girls all the equipment for a bridal bed, each article held sacredly aloft on upstretched arms: first four square pillows with elegant covers of linen and lace, two over blue silk, two over pink; then two long bolsters also thus elegantly decked; next linen sheets, woven wool blankets in brilliant colors, and spreads of white and old rose. Mean-while a huge chest of drawers and a great trunk were laden on the cart and then the Maid (I knew her at once for Persephone) herself got in and with her husband, blue-eyed and blind, and the help of three of his war-mates, two sailors and a soldier, arranged all her beautiful bedding on the cart, and saw it tied securely with the pillows atop. Persephone was in spring yellow, a saffron-colored silk slip over full skirt of pale gold; her stiff outer jacket was black embroidered in silver daisies, and over her head was a tiny creamy scarf, bordered with fine old lace. Under it her eyes shone very dark, her hair very black, her olive-skin very pale. Strangely, it seemed to me, her mother was there helping her, but it was surely Demeter for she was all in corn color and russet and gold. When the ceremony of the cart-loading was finished, the procession started down the road, the musicians ahead playing, a sailor leading the mule, all the townspeople escorting the cart, the husband following and last of all, just behind her girl-friends, on foot on the dusty high-way, walked little, slim Persephone turning back one wistful, friendly smile to me as she was carried off to her new home.
The old grandparents who stayed by the little blue house, now invited me in, for the old man spoke a little English, having been in Chicago many years before. So there in a bare room where the only decorations were two long white candles, white bridal wreath and veil on the table, I was gravely given candy and mastika and drank the health of Persephone, praying that Pluto might be kind. Then the old grandfather told me that her real name was Sophia Moira ‘ Wisdom ‘ and ‘Des-tiny’ ! It was as if for me the Hierophant had spoken the sacred words that explained the drama of spring and of love and of the modern carrying off of the maid.
Now I must return to Girgenti. The trip from my hotel in Syracuse to the Hôtel des Temples lasted from 9 :45 A. M. to 11:45 P. M. although I was on a through train, and perhaps the length of that journey was the reason why in my one day I never ascended the Rupe Atenea or visited the modern town, even though I did wish to see the Roman sarcophagus decorated with the Phaedra-Hippolytus story. I think I must confess though that what really kept me away from the city was the intoxicating beauty of the country. I had breakfast and tea in the hotel’s terraced garden under pepper and mimosa trees, by a wall festooned with saffron roses, and amid beds of calla lilies and white stock, orange wall-flowers, freesia, crimson anemones, pink-tipped daisies, snapdragons, nasturtiums and geraniums and roses of all colors. From the midst of this wealth of flowers I looked down and across to a green ridge crowned with two golden Doric temples and beyond to the shining blue sea. Sitting in that loveliness I thought again of Pindar’s apostrophe to Acragas “lover of splendour, most beautiful among the cities of men.
So intoxicated by beauty I went off for a day alone with Doric temples. A foot-path winds down from the hotel garden to the Church of S. Nicola, and after entering it to see a curious marble font and some quaint little votive paintings, I found in the garden back of the church the “Oratorio of Phalaris,” a characterless little ruin which had nothing but the name to suggest the cruel sixth century tyrant and the brazen bull in which he roasted human sacrifices. More attractive is the fragment near of a beautiful rounding section of carved marble cornice above a brown wall. A vigorous little old woman, with the nicest weather-beaten face showed me these, ruins and while her eight-year-old grand-daughter picked lavender blossoms for me, she told me about her son lost in the war, “non mai trovato, vivo o morto.”
Then I went to the wonder of the temples. The facts about them are so fully given in the Touring Club Guida that I jotted down only little details and my emotions. (You remember the story of the Iittle girl who wished to have in her diary two pages for each day, one for events and the other for “Feelin’s”?)
The Temple of Zeus, once the largest Greek temple of antiquity, seems at first an inchoate mass of huge ruins, then becomes sublime from the great dimensions, from the size of one capital lying in two great fragments, and from the Caryatid giant prostrate in the center of the whole as though he were the fallen Titan Spirit of the building. A courteous old Custode showed me a book of architects’ drawings of plan and possible restorations (with the giants inside the nave, supporting the roof) but more he voiced in eloquent Italian the greatness of the Greek genius that conceived the building, the labor of the Carthaginian prisoners who built and the pity of the vast destruction.
The Temple of Castor and Pollux was especially beautiful to me because for years I had lived with a photograph of it in my study and now I was face to face with the original, a golden corner of four columns and architrave, exquisite from every point. I was sorry to learn that the corner had been set up, reconstructed from the pile of ruin, for that fact made it somehow less real, and yet I rejoiced inconsistently that it stood there, so, perfect amid the olive trees. I sat a long time with it looking at the traces of white stucco on the columns and the rich color of the steps all black and white with a yellow incrustation.
When I went on, a horribly ragged and unkempt woman enticed me to pass by her miserable home and through a ploughed field under olive-trees to look down into the vast basin of the piscina and across to the two columns that mark the site of the Temple of Hephaestus. I did not take the long walk to that ruin or to the so-called “Tomb of Theron” which I saw below in the plain though I would have gone had I believed the high, heavy structure to be the tomb of the great tyrant who with Gelon’s aid defeated the Carthaginians in the battle of Himera and gave his city such new power that Pindar called him “the pillar of Acragas.” In the Temple of Heracles I photographed the one standing column and while tracing the plans thought of Cicero’s dramatic story of how Verres’ men when they tried to carry off the statue of the god were indignantly re-pulsed by the Acragantini.
The dusty road led me now to the Temple of Con-cord, but wishing to have its most perfect beauty last after one deep draught of the joy of it I went on to the Temple of Hera Lacinia. The site is the most magnificent of all, more isolated and high on the ridge than Concord’s and its more utter ruin makes its golden columns a frame for pictures of the Temple of Concord against green hills above turquoise sea and of modern Girgenti on the hillside below the Rupe Atenea. The temple is massive in length and height, yet delicate because in its ruin it is so open to sunshine and wide vistas. The color is a deep ochre. Everywhere little flowers were growing in the crevices, candytuft, dandelions, star of Bethlehem, and the whole hillside under the olives was covered with such a wealth of starry blossoms that again I thought of rapt Persephone and how it was no wonder that gathering Sicilian flowers, she was easily stolen.
Going back towards the Temple of Concord, I decided to eat my lunch facing the view of it, so camped on a bed of fragrant white clover, in hot sunshine and cool sea-breeze. It is a more perfect Doric wonder than anything I have seen except at Paestum and more magnificently placed. The perfection of it made me reverent so that when I entered later I felt like kneeling in spite of a talkative little old vendor of post-cards on the front steps. The Christians had altered and metamorphosed it into the church of S. Gregorio delle Rape (so unpoetic!) and traces of their work are visible in rounded arches cut through cella wall, but I could not be bitter since undoubtedly it had been saved by the Saint of the Turnips from being carried off block by block to build the port of Empedocles. I went up one of the old winding stairways in the wall to the superb view at the top, then walked over the cella and the colonnade before dropping down between two columns just to sit a while facing the sea and here I thought of all the history of the city: its tyrants, bad and good, its sixty years of democratic government, its famous philosopher Empedocles, its strict neutrality during the Athenian expedition, the terrible sack by the Carthaginians, Timoleon’s restoration, its fate of capture and recapture in the first Punic War and its final prosperity under the Romans. The crowning beauty of the day came when I had climbed the hill to the hotel-garden, for suddenly a rainbow arched over the green ridge with the temples to the blue sea.
And now for the last day in Sicily which I wish to record. Sometimes I think that day in Segesta was the best of all the spring. I went out from Palermo (having returned from Girgenti in a six hour trip in a through train) and it had taken courage to start at five-thirty in a pouring rain alone. But the adventurous spirit finds its own reward and mine was a day of brilliant sunshine, blowing clouds and marvellous effects of light and shade. One leaves the train at Segesta station, takes auto-bus to a bridge below the old Acropolis, then walks or rides a donkey, getting back for the re-turn bus at the bridge at one. I chose to walk in spite of deep mud that sucked my rubbers off and so much water in the Scamander that I had to ford the tiny stream on the Custode’s horse, but even in spite of his horror I insisted then on having the day to myself.
Of old Egesta there is nothing left but a Doric temple and a Greek theater, but that ‘nothing’ is much : so marvellously are these ruins placed on the mountains. The temple lies gold in a circle of a green hill, and is lovelier and lovelier as one gets nearer views. It has a certain lightness of aspect though Doric from never having been finished, is a mere shell without a cella, four sides and pediments, the columns unfluted, the great stone steps still showing projections used to tie ropes for hauling the blocks in place. Close at hand the color of the travertine shows a variation from rich ochre at the top to gray at the bottom. The interior was peculiarly beautiful, all carpeted with green turf, across which slanted long shadows of the columns and between the columns were framed glorious views of the mountains round about and of the Acropolis hill!
That old Acropolis ridge lies opposite the hill of the temple and the theater is on the very top, built with a high retaining wall though the hillside too was utilized for the cavea. What views there are from the top of the seats! The bowl of the theater itself as I looked down seemed small with very steep sides and the orchestra’s arc nearly a circle. There ahead to the north I saw between two promontories the blue sea at Castellamare, at the right a hillside of red-brown ploughed fields, to the west the green hill with the golden temple and beyond a dim suggestion of Monte San Giuliano, old Eryx, to the south a hint of Calatafimi.
Here on the highest seats of the theater, I reviewed the story of Segesta, first of all the Aeneid coming to my mind. If I had had a yacht, I would have rounded the island as Aeneas did. You may remember his ship’s course from Ortygia to the harbor of Drepanum (Aen. 3, 692-708), and how coming down from a high hill-top Acestes, born of a Trojan mother to the river-god, Crinisus, welcomed the strangers with rustic wealth. Near this shore Anchises died; here a year later the funeral games were celebrated in his memory; and here when the weary women had burned part of the ships, Aeneas left with Acestes part of his followers to found a city called from his name Acesta (Aen. 5).
So the Romans in later days proudly claimed the Trojan origin for the Segestans, but another tradition spoke of the prehistoric Elymi as the original inhabitants. Whatever their origin, the Egestans early and long were rivals of their neighbors, the Selinuntines, and their appeal to the Athenians for aid against them caused the fateful Sicilian expedition. After its failure Egesta looked to Carthage for aid and found it, but remained for many years a dependent of its new protector. Next it sought an ally in Agathocles of Syracuse but was destroyed by his treachery when he was a guest, and had to be repopulated. During the first Punic War it was on the side of the Romans who changed its name to Segesta since the ‘connection of Egesta with poverty seemed a bad omen. Scipio Africanus restored to it the bronze statue of Diana which had been removed to Carthage, but later the corrupt Verres carried it off again.
A rather weak and unheroic history, these struggles of Egesta, I thought as I sat there in the theater, perhaps such as to justify the tradition of the founding from the faint hearts of Aeneas’ gallant band, “those who have grown aweary of thy great emprise and of thy fortunes” Nautes bade him leave, “the old men full of years and sea-worn matrons, and all of thy company who are weak and fearful of peril, and grant that the wearied find their city in this land” (Aen. 5, 712-717, Fairclough’s translation). But such romantic judgment was stayed by the visible beauty of the Segestans’ monuments that have survived them and which attest achievement in art, whatever their political dependencies and struggles. Then by one of the mind’s kaleidoscopic turns, I suddenly left Trojan legend and ancient history and thought how Garibaldi and the Thousand won their first great Sicilian victory storming the hills of Calatafimi near, and how on the next day after that terrible fighting “many of the Thousand tired as they were with battle,” Freeman records, “went three miles out of their way into the wilderness” to admire the lovely temple of Segesta on the hillside. In the face of such Italian reverence for beauty, I too was ready to honor the Segestans for their monuments.
It was springtime at Segesta again as it was when Garibaldi passed. The Acropolis hill was covered with thousands of orange marigolds under the fennel’s feathery green leaves. A lark was singing in the air. I took one last look at the gray bowl of the theater, the golden columns of the temple, the distant green hills, the blue sea. Came rushing over me all the history of Sicily, from Aeneas to Garibaldi and the high coloring of it, all the epic quality, the springtime freshness made me repeat once more Pindar’s song :
“Sow then some seed of splendid words in honour of this isle, which Zeus, the Lord of Olympus, gave unto Persephone.”