Sicilian Baroque Architecture

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Sep 12, 2020

Europe entered the Baroque period at the turn of the 16th century. In January of 1693 Sicily endured an catastrophic earthquake that changed the Eastern side of the island forever. As the trembling earth quieted, many towns and villages faced the challenges of re-building or, in some cases, moving the entire town and starting over. Hence, Sicily entered the Baroque era in a MAJOR way.

Sicilians, so dramatic, exuberant and “baroque” by nature, embellished the architectural ideas from the north to create a style that became known as Sicilian Baroque. Elaborate balconies, curvilinear facades, and ornate relief work were created with gargoyles, cherubs, animals, mermaids and heads with uniquely expressive faces and personalities.

With its ubiquitous honey-colored tufa stone, the town of Noto is known as the Stone Garden. Bathed in sunlight throughout the day, its buildings look like spectacular sand castles. The architect Rosario Gagliardi did much work throughout the Noto Valley. One of Galgiardi’s masterpieces is the majestic Cathedral of San Giorgio in Ragusa Ibla. It became the model for rebuilding in the entire southeastern part of Sicily. Another influential architect was Giovanni Battista Vaccarini who worked principally in Catania, rebuilding the Cathedral of Saint Agatha on what was originally a Roman site. The Palazzo Biscari, Catania’s most important, took 100 years to reconstruct after the earthquake.

In 2002, the entire Val di Noto, including the towns of Noto, Modica, Ragusa, Scicli, and Catania, received a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation. Such dazzling fanciful beauty — the by-product of a natural disaster — proving once again that Italians really know how to make limonata from limoni! And, Sicilian Baroque architecture is just one of the fascinating components of Sicily’s delicious layer cake of complex cultural history.

Many thanks to Karen La Rosa of La RosaWorks Sicily Tours & Travel for this informative post and many of the featured photographs.

“Dog Days of Summer” Explained

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Aug 24, 2020

The popular expression “dog days of summer” has exactly zero to do with the effects of intense summer heat on our canine friends. Both ancient and celestial in origin, the phrase was translated from Latin to English about five hundred years ago and has since morphed in meaning—a common tendency when people don’t know the true origin of a phrase and seek some plausible explanation … perhaps it comes from a day when the weather is so hot that dogs lie around panting and acting lifeless and lazy; or a day not fit for a dog; or a day so hot even mad dogs and Englishmen can’t handle it. The phrase lives on but the original meaning has been long forgotten.

During Roman times (and back to the time of the ancient Greeks as well) there was a period when the dog star Sirius, the brightest star in the constellation Canis Major, rose and set with the sun. This phenomenon occurred for about forty days between early July and mid-August. The Romans thought the combination of the brightest light of the day, the sun, and what was normally the brightest star at night, Sirius, was responsible for the most extreme heat of the summer season. The star sometimes seemed to glow with other colors, and they believed its reddish radiance augmented the heat of the sun.

Geminus, a Greek astronomer from Rhodes, in 70 BCE had a more accurate view: “It is generally believed that Sirius produces the heat of the ‘dog days’ but this is an error, for the star merely marks a season of the year when the sun’s heat is at its greatest.”

Still, the contemporary interpretation of “dog days” has a certain resonance, maybe even appeal, especially in non-pandemic times when one could venture to the ball park on a summer afternoon: hot dogs anyone?!

Anacapri . . . The Hidden Side of Paradise

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Jun 28, 2020

Ah, the Isle of Capri, as in Sinatra’s tune from his “Come Fly with Me” album. A playboy’s and playgirl’s paradise known for its marina, piazzetta of fashionable sidewalk cafes, and “Capri pants” of the ‘50s and early ‘60s—made a fashion sensation by Grace Kelly. But take a public bus just three kilometers to the other side of the figure-eight-shaped island to the higher elevations of Anacapri and you’re in another world. “Ana” is a Greek prefix that means “above” but it could just as well mean “hidden” Capri.

Located on the slopes of Monte Solaro, Anacapri offers walking and backpacking trails that lead to rocky pine-and-brush covered terrain where residents still scratch out vegetable gardens and lemon groves amid the sunlight and fragrances of the Mediterranean.

You’ll also find a nineteenth-century architectural beauty: Villa San Michele. Swedish physician Axel Munthe built his villa on the ruins of an ancient chapel dedicated to Saint Michael, with the desire that it be as filled with Mediterranean light as a Greek temple. And indeed it features a loggia, pergolas and columns leading to a magnificent circular viewpoint overlooking the Bay of Naples. Munthe lived there for fifty-six years and created a sanctuary for migrating birds on Barbarossa Mountain. Today the villa remains as it was when he loved and lived in it; you must visit if you have not done so already.

Also not to be missed is the Chiesa Monumentale di San Michele, a jewel of Baroque architecture that’s one of the most delightful small churches in the region. Its simple white exterior keeps its charms modestly hidden inside where you’ll discover a hand-painted majolica tile floor with a splendid representation of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from a luxuriant Garden of Eden.

But the walking and picnicking, with views everywhere of Mediterranean macchia and white-walled houses spilling over with bright purple-pink bougainvillea, is for me the joy of Anacapri. And should you continue climbing—or just take the funicular—ah, the views from Monte Solaro!