Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Italian journey, 11: Mozia

Tuesday, May 18—

SORRY TO LEAVE Tràpani, but eager to get on to the next sights, we drove out of town south today toward Marsala — but did not get very far. We were heeding our dear friend Richard:
…you must go to the isle of Mozia, to the Whitaker Museum, which has one of the most phenomenal sculptures I have ever seen, 5th century BC. It's a short boat ride and I think you will agree that this is simply an amazing accomplishment, perhaps the most original piece ever produced in ancient Greece.
Since Richard's a sculptor himself this meant something, and though I'd already meant to visit the island my curiosity was redoubled.

We had no trouble finding the place; the GPS we rented with the car took us right to the boat landing on the Stagnone, a good-sized lagoon that made a fine protected port for the Phoenicians. We left the car by the side of the road and waited ten minutes or so, across a narrow canal from the extensive salt ponds with their characteristic windmills; then sailed another ten minutes or so across the lagoon and walked up a short road hedged with agaves to Mister Whitaker's Museum.

The son of an English wine-merchant with little taste for the business himself, Whitaker bought this whole little island in the late 19th century simply to indulge his enthusiasm for archaeology. It quickly became clear that the 19th-century wine warehouses had been built on top of the remains of settlements going back millenia; Motya had been an important Phoenician city six hundred years before the fall of the Roman Republic. (It goes back well beyond Phoenician days, in fact, into the Bronze Age; but that's not yet as well researched; to dig back that far would involve destroying a great amount of more interesting stuff.)

(Motya is apparently the preferred transcription of the Phoenicia name; Mòzia is the Italian equivalent; the ruins are on the island of San Pantaleone.)

Alas, Whitaker didn't live to see the sculpture that so impresses Richard, the so-called Mozia Youth, a life-sized standing young man carved in marble in the 5th century BC, found only 40 or 50 years ago — I'm not able to get the facts just at the moment. It is indeed a glorious work of art, lacking only its arms, feet, and hat. There's a hint of contrapposto to the figure, an intense realism invigorating the idealism of the youth's beauty, an absolutely masterly achievement in the slight depression of the fingers of the left hand in the soft flesh of the hip, in the details of the folds of the tunic, in the slight lift of the right shoulder. No Italian renaissance or baroque sculpture manages this degree of mastery, I think, not even Michelangelo.

The sculpture was found near the north gate to the city, itself an impressive achievement. A double street leads down to the water; perhaps traffic was directed to one-way lanes even then. The city walls were reinforced a number of times over the years; by the 5th c. BC they were a couple of meters thick, made of huge stones taken, I'd bet, from buildings already present on the Sicilian mainland — some show mortise-and-tenon details that seem to serve no purpose in their use as wall material.

San Pantaleone is a small island; we walked around it in an hour, even stopping to look at ruins like this — you can actually stroll among these stones in places — and to take innumerable photographs. (I've posted some of them at gallery.me.com/cshere#100283.) The island is still farmed: olives and grapes, principally the Grillo varietal; and around the museum it's nicely landscaped, chiefly in agaves and pines.

The entire island was walled by the Phoenicians, mostly in loose stone and rubble; these walls have been overtaken for the most part by wild fennel, pomegranates, thistles and such. Walking the sandy road between these walls and the lagoon, even on a warm, windy day, was a great pleasure after the last few days of walking on stone streets.

But then it was time to move on. We stay tonight in an Agriturismo, recommended by more than one of our guidebooks though with the warning that it might be hard to find. Understatement. Even the GPS was no help, as the listings place the establishment in a suburb of Marsala whose name is variously spelled Spagnola, Spagnolo, Spagnuolo, Spagnuola, none of which the GPS allowed to have a street by the name of Via Vajarassa.

We drove up and down looking for the street; then finally began asking people. No one we spoke to spoke English, and some seemed to have trouble with Italian. One of my favorite guidebooks tries to encourage its readers to learn a little Sicilian, but I haven't managed to do that — I lack the discipline. In the end I found a souvenir-peddler near the Mozia boat-landing who set me off in the right general direction, and after driving up and down there I found another man who said he'd take us to the street, follow him. He even telephoned the place to find out exactly where it was.

Even that didn't resolve everything, though; it was unclear exactly which of several farmhouses would be the right one — none seemed to have signs or number-plates. Finally we came to a farmhouse with a woman standing in the driveway looking expectantly down the road, blocking a minuscule sign to Baglia Vajarassa, and we were home. Only then did I look again at the GPS and discover that it knew exactly where we were — Contrada Spagnola 176, Marsala.

Not however until I'd listened to a long discussion of the shortcomings of the Sicilian peasantry from my helpful guide, who turned out to be a retired thoracic surgeon from Palermo, retired to the west coast of Sicily where it was more tranquil — perhaps precisely owing to the absence of commercial signs and the traffic they encourage.

Baglia Vajarassa is a beautiful place. The exterior is plain and unpromising, but the large, nearly cubical bedrooms are nicely furnished with period beds, armoires, and dressing-tables; you have the feeling you've stepped back ninety years in time. We're completely in the country, surrounded by pines, grapevines, and the wind from the lagoon. If dinner is half as good as the rooms and the setting, I'll be very happy indeed.

Campania, including Caserta, Herculaneum, Amalfi, and Paestum: gallery.me.com/cshere#100239
Palermo: gallery.me.com/cshere/100241
Tràpani, Erice, Segesta and environs: gallery.me.com/cshere/100275
Mozia: gallery.me.com/cshere#100283

As always, our meals are recorded at Eating Every Day

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