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?!

Sardinia’s Talking Walls

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Aug 2, 2020

Sardinia, a land of contrasts, intense colors, and bold flavors proudly boasts its own special artistry and priceless cultural heritage. In ancient Rome is was called graffiti; today we call it street art or murals. A unique pleasure of exploring this stunningly beautiful island is to discover captivating and varied murals, even in some of the tiniest villages. These are true open-air masterpieces gifted to us by talented local and international artists, some famous and some completely unknown.

Whatever name we use for them, and whatever the technique used by the artist to decorate a public space, Sardinia’s murales serve as something of a collective memory for the community and a way of expressing the personalities and character of these quiet yet warm and hospitable people.

In surprising and colorful vignettes—often depicting historic scenes of village life 100 years ago, featuring the men’s hard work in the fields, the women’s domestic pursuits, and a menagerie of farm animals—the essence of daily life and the connection the Sards share with their beautiful land, their customs and traditions are all touchingly conveyed.

You will also discover murales with subjects that are more whimsical (even cartoony), riffs of famous paintings, or more serious depictions of political events … which is how the tradition of mural painting first began on the island: as a form of political speech in 1969 and the early 1970’s. Artistic styles vary from community to community—Naive, Realism, Impressionism, trompe l’oeil (e.g., windows, verandahs; lines of wash). Some works depict childhood paintings as well as more contemporary and abstract subjects.

Top mural towns include: Serramanna, San Sperate, Villamar, Tinnaura, Bosa, and the town where it all began, Orgosolo, which I have yet to visit. And even if you miss some of these, be sure to look around closely in any the small towns you visit … more often than not, you’ll discover lots of interesting, individualistic artistic treasures.