On an evening in June 2012, I tuned in the local PBS TV station, WGBH Channel 2 Boston. A musical program featuring three singers was in progress. The performers were singing in Italian with uncommonly good voices, I thought right away of The Three Tenors. In the 1990s famed opera singers, Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, and Jose Carreras performed with great success touring and recording several albums. The Three Tenors sang a range of Broadway, Opera, Contemporary, and Neapolitan songs. The three men I was watching were still teenagers, but with mature voices of a singer twice their age. One of them was awfully cute (Ignazio Boschetto), one of them had gorgeous wavy hair (Gianluca Ginoble), and one of them wore red eyeglasses while strutting about with his shirt tails out (Piero Barone). Ignazio, introduced Piero as being from Agrigento Province in Sicily: or Sicilia. The audience enjoyed that as well as the playful banter between them about it being where the Godfather came from. However, Piero was quite adamant that Ignazio pronounce the name of his home town properly. Naro, Naro he corrected with some cross Italian grumbling out. He went on to sing an Italian classic, “Non Ti Scordar di Me”, which in English means Do Not Forget About Me. What a gorgeous tenor voice! He won a bit of my heart in that moment with his spiky black hair and tender tremolo. As he sang his solo, a video screen showed photos of a volcano and ancient ruins. Almost three years to the date after seeing these images, I found myself, in close proximity to the sites shown that night. I even made a trek into Naro. Inspiration came from the most unlikely source. A song well sung by a cheeky Sicilian gave me the idea that I ought to visit this mysterious island.
The idea of traveling to Italy came about after a year of continued enjoyment of the trio known as IL Volo. I attended a concert in Boston that September and was excited to see Piero moving about the stage. He’s charismatic and loves the spotlight. He is not a traditional pop star and with every year has further developed a good tenor voice into an arresting dramatic one. IL Volo are artists who sing in the bel canto style which in English means a beautiful song. There has been some criticism that the songs chosen are reinforcing a stereotypical norm of Italian music abroad. They performed similar songs like the Three Tenors and have had some difficulty distinguishing what genre they belong to. They are not pop singers. They are not opera singers. IL Volo cover established hits in English, Spanish and Italian. However, each CD does include new songs as well. IL Volo found an audience and success in North, South and Central America. IL Volo might benefit from an Artistic Director. They have gotten far on their own talents and support from superstars like Barbra Streisand, Placido Domingo, and Eros Ramazzotti. Sometimes I think if they found someone like a Marvin Hamlisch or Burt Bacharach, a songwriter and director who could steer their particular talents skillfully their success may be more broad. They don’t fit in but have so much talent and positive energy, in the right hands, well who knows what could be achieved. However, a win at the prestigious San Remo Musical Festival 2015 in Italy with the song “Grande Amore”, has brought acclaim at home with concert dates this summer in Italy.
My major in college was International and Comparative Studies, so it is not surprising that I took an interest in Italian culture. When I become curious about a culture or philosophy, I immerse myself as much as is possible. I took a conversational Italian language class because I could not understand the words to the songs being sung by IL Volo. I continue a home-study program. I managed to secure a pen pal in Italy and struggle to acquire some basic skill in reading and writing. Not satisfied with language study, I started cooking in Italian style, planting Italian herbs and vegetables in the garden, drinking Italian wines, watching Italian films, and frequent reading of books set in Italy. I even went so far as to take several music appreciation courses in opera and can now boast slightly that there is nothing finer on earth than Mozart’s great opera buffa: “Cosi Fan Tutte”.
The final step has been to come to Italy. Travel in Sicily requires some thought before boarding a plane. Where to go? When? Costs? Oh it took two years of full-time dreaming, planning, stumbling and believing until it happened. I boarded the 10:50 pm. flight from Boston to Rome and from Rome to Catania. I came to Sicily really on a dream. I originally thought to visit Lucca, Florence and Assisi. But, being a fan of IL Volo, and Piero’s consistent promoting of Naro and Sicily shifted my focus. I have an old fascination with the island. Sicily is a mysterious cross of many cultures.
Sicily ~ She Who is Awake
My first night in Sicily was spent at Casa Cuseni in Taormina. This was a famous locandiera or boarding house for acclaimed writers, poets and artists from 1950s until 1990s. They were drawn to the house by Daphne Phelps who inherited the property in 1947 from her Uncle Robert Kitson. Ms. Phelps was a vivacious personality and one of the many reasons I traveled here. She was an independent, educated, and curious woman. She revealed a warmth of character through her memoir titled, “A House in Sicily.” I simply had to stay at this house for at least one night. I believe I absorbed something of Daphne’s spirit of adventure. Every day in Sicily was better than the one before. Of course, there were obstacles and awkward moments with language, a recalcitrant driver and cultural differences. But, I went in to Sicily with a sense of having organized as well as I could from afar.
Shortly before I left on this trip, a stranger commented that I would find my true nature in Sicily. He said it wasn’t possible in America. The land was too vast and the energies too unbalanced. I knew there was a spiritual aspect to the travel. I have a strong interest in pre-Christian philosophies which include cultures that promote women, honoring different aspects of the feminine. I knew Sicily had many archeological parks and reserves with structures centuries old. But, I was not prepared for how strong those influences would be. I was changed by several encounters at ancient temples and what they represented. The energy of the feminine was still vibrant. I had mystical experiences in Taormina, Ortygia, Comiso, Selinunte, and Erice. Yes, I have an empathic ability that at times opens up to the spiritual echoes of a place. I discovered the nature of Sicily is feminine. She is awake and now so am I.
Naro ~ La Citta Del Barocco
Naro is settled high up on a hilltop. Many Sicilian cities are situated in this manner partly because of the topography. This is also a defensive position allowing the guards to sound an alarm should invaders be on the march. Sicily has a right to be wary of foreigners. All the powers of the Mediterranean and even the Normans, have put their boot on Sicily. Why? The island is a paradise. The land is fertile. The hillsides throughout Sicily are cultivated with grape vines, olive, citrus and fruit trees, grain and vegetables. The crops are planted in neat rows encased by stone walls or shrubs defining each plot of land. The size of the plots varied with the landscape. Wild flowers of poppy and broom are abundant and often cling to the edges of the fields. The climate offers two excellent growing seasons. The wind is constant allowing for pollination and air circulation around crops. Most windows do not have screens in them which is common in the United States. I found a marked lack of insects that bite, sting and other wise harass a body. The rains are plentiful in their season and the sun is strong.
Naro is about an hour’s drive from the coast. In Sicily, the majority of people live in cities. It was a lovely moment to watch Naro appear in the distance. The road in wound and swopped like the swallows, gracefully swirling to the top. Up and up the car climbed arriving at Piazza Municipio, a small square that is home to the Town Hall, Chiesa di San Francesco, a barber shop, a bar and several other shops and residences. The city is not accustomed to outsiders I thought. The streets are narrow and buildings tight up next to each other. Everything is quite old. Everything was quite quiet. I had traveled several thousand miles and wondered that Piero came from here. His home is here somewhere. Being a private person, it struck me as way outside the norm for me to do such a thing. I traveled with the purpose to see Sicily, to take this day and visit Naro. Was this a bit odd? No, people seemed welcoming and quite curious.
I actually was fortunate that day to meet his Mother, Signora Barone. A man named Enzo became a part of the small group I was with and he was able to help with translation as Signora spoke no English and my Italian is light. She was very patient to take a few minutes away from her job to say hello to a fan from America. To look at her was to look at Piero. She is slender, willowy, well-dressed, dark, dark eyes with an almond shape that turn down at the corners. When she spoke, she was lively, bright, courteous and engaging. The eyes were Piero’ s. I’d had the opportunity to shake hands with him twice during the finale at two concerts. The second time, I was brave enough to look straight at him and absorb a bit of what made him so special. He has vivid, speaking eyes. They flash and while the face may be still, the eyes reveal the many thoughts skittering across the mind. A lot of his Mom is present in him. A lot. The meeting lasted about 15 minutes, I stumbled along in light conversational Italian, I found I could understand a great deal of what was said but speaking back was not so easy. She is a brave woman to accept her son’s gift of song and share it with the public. She does it all with ease. She seemed a content woman, secure and graceful in herself.
After this meeting, a man appeared and took me in towards the mayor’s office. I did not wish to intrude and was concerned about a meeting. No, I was only shown about the town’s public chambers, an assembly room and the mayor’s meeting room with a dazzling painting up on the ceiling. The building had been a part of an old convent attached to the Chiesa di San Francesco. This man was very clearly wanting me to see something important to the town and understand that in Sicily, there is art everywhere to be appreciated.
I was a bit dazzled coming out of the hall and back into the streets. Enzo brought me into the Feliciana Municipal Library where I met Anna Maria Morello. She showed us a 15th Century fresco on the wall of the Death and Assumption of the Virgin Mary. Apparently the fresco is typically Byzantine and one of the few examples of this style in all of Sicily. I had been raised a Catholic and commented that I had been taught she never died and sort of floated up to heaven at the Assumption. They said this was artistic interpretation of what may have happened. One thing I discovered about Catholic Churches in Sicily, is that it is common to have a relic of a saint or person who may have traveled to the Holy Land during the Crusades or on a pilgrimage. They had fragments of their body and clothing kept on view in a glass case or under an altar. There is no more firm demonstration of faith than such a display. These people truly believed, lived, and died in their faith. Sicilians have a more sensible grasp of life and death. Of course she died, all humans do. In that moment, I realized I had lived with a myth for years. It was not a mystery, just a misinterpretation of reality.
Somehow it got mentioned I was a writer and the librarian gave me two booklets from the library. One is, “I gioielli discreti di Naro” by Matteo Collura and Gianni Provenzano which in English is The Subtle Jewels of Naro. The other is, ”Naro: Kalos – Luoghi di Sicilia” or Naro: Places of Sicily. Both are published by the Commune di Naro. I was beyond delighted to receive such gifts. One of the booklets contained a print of Chiesa di San Augustino. If I read the liner notes correctly, this is one of only 250 printed in 1999. The lithograph by Provenzano that came with the booklet bears a stamp of authentication. How generous to give such a precious document!
I went on to visit with a contact I had made through social media. Luxottica Minio Naro’s optical shop was only a few steps down the Corso Vittorio Emanuele. I always think so highly of this man who manages three shops, is raising a family, has his own life to lead but takes the time to support Piero and IL Volo. The families of Barone and Minio seem to be neighbors and friends. Signor provides all the eyeglasses that Piero wears. He is a bit of a collector and must have a dozen or two to choose from. Piero always wears red glasses on stage. This is his favorite color. It’s this that made him stand out to me from the start. Most performers are highly conscious of their appearance. There are very few entertainers who would be seen wearing glasses at all. Yet, Piero is rarely seen without them. He’s a handsome young man but appears most comfortable and not concerned with appearances. Or, is that his public mask? He has that quality in his voice to move me emotionally. He is an artist, as with a poem, or painting, the viewer sees and hears something beyond the presentation of just the music, the words or the brush strokes. The quality of an artist can be that they reveal something inside each of us, to ourselves. The song has been sung for you, but there are thousands of others watching or listening too. He is the vessel from which the form can flow. The form is what the listener hears. He gives to the listener a pathway for expression. He is doing his best but only each of us can interpret what is felt. It is natural to want to be close to someone who helps us find our emotional self. He does it in a most poignant way. The glasses may be a shield of sorts, a deflection from his inner being. Everyone needs their privacy, perhaps this is a mask to hide behind.
I found Signor Minio’s shop to be a smart little store, spotless and trendy with the latest Italian eyeglasses for sale. The staff was kind and entertaining while we waited for Signor Minio to appear. How dynamic was his personality. He spoke no English but welcomed me in his brisk, efficient way. Signor Minio is a busy man, has great energy and moves about like a boss does. We exchanged some gifts and did take that coffee he had mentioned. Signor’s version of take a coffee is walk to the bar, wait for the espresso and down it in classic Italian style of one great sip. In America, taking a coffee could last an hour. This was as fast as the espresso. What a day and it was only the beginning.
Chiesa’s, Crypts and Castles
A guide was found who had a smart phone app that helped during the tour of Chiesa di San Francesco and Chiesa di Caterina d’ Alessandra. The Baroque Chiesa di San Francesco, reconstructed in the late 1600s, was small and felt worn. Oh, it was clean and well-kept, but the floors seemed as if a thousand footsteps had passed over it. The walls where pure white with elaborate scroll work, paintings and statuary everywhere. I was shown a relic of a pilgrim, bones and all, hidden behind a false door on a side altar. The guide took me behind the main altar at the front of the knave and into a room that smelled strongly of old, warpy wood. It’s a musty sort of aroma. On three sides of the wall were heavily carved wooden cabinets elaborately embellished. There was a font that the priests used to wash their hands before giving Communion. He showed me a cupboard that kept the most sacred objects of this church. There was a statue of Jesus I believe, a crown of some sort and a carved object that looked like a sun burst with an eye in the center. The eye I had seen before in other churches in another city. The All Seeing Eye.
Chiesa di Caterina d’Alessandra was constructed in the Norman style. The interior was far simpler with classic Norman arches. It had at one time been a mosque. The app recounted that when the Plague arrived in Naro, it reduced the population from 18,000 to 12,000. This is difficult to understand. I think, I have no idea about death and misery. Naro has 20 churches in all. The only thing that was certain was perhaps the Church. No matter what troubles came with life, the Church prevailed. It offered constancy and a chance for redemption in this life and the next. The Church gave hope.
We were taken down a staircase into the old crypt. The wealthier members of the community were put to rest here. There were several stone chairs around the room with a hole in the center. This is going to sound downright ghoulish, but the body of the deceased was sat upright in the chair. The gases or liquids of the body were drained out. In order for the body to sit upright, it was pinned to the iron bar sticking out from the top of the chair. I didn’t quite understand what happens next but the bodies were dropped into a hole in the floor. If the body didn’t quite fit, a mallet bashed the head until it did. Ugh!!! So, my writer’s mind immediately leaps to the rest of us. Where are the rest of the inhabitants buried? I never saw a cemetery in all of Sicily in my travels. I have no idea how the dead are buried. Sicily has been supporting civilizations going back to the days of the Minoans. This is a curiosity. Morbid but a part of the cycle of life and death.
The app talked about how the wealthier patrons were separated within the church by some sort of barriers between their section of the knave and the rest of the attendees. All that were left was cutouts on the columns of the arches to hold the curtains or whatever served as the panel between the groups. The wealthier patrons sat right in the middle, the rest of the crowd sat on the left or right sides. This description would make no sense unless I had been inside several churches in different cities. I noticed this most particularly in Ragusa, that the center pews, although all made of simple unadorned wood, were highly polished and pleasing to the eye. The seating of the same material, on the outer edges of the knave, where definitely more worn and not as well cared for. It was obvious that even in the seats, status was being established.
Also common in each church, is a comfortable, cushy, king size, highly embellished chair of the finest quality. The chair is always situated on the right side when you are facing the altar. The guide pointed out this chair in the church. He put my attention to the photograph above the chair. There was Pope John Paul II seated in it! OMG. The Pope has been to Naro. In May of 1993, on Apostolic Voyage 58, John Paul II visited the Valle dei Templi in Agrigento. This is one of the finest archeological sites in the entire world for Greek art and architecture and is perhaps a ½ hour drive from Naro. Is the chair than always saved for the most prominent member of the Catholic Church? There is no equivalent in America. IL Volo had traveled to Rome about one year ago and attended a public audience with Pope Francis. Piero and Gianluca are photographed meeting him in the public line. They were talking casually and gave the Pope their latest CD. I noticed how at ease Piero had seemed throughout the entire event. He just kept going with his goal of spreading the music. No wonder he was so calm, it was nothing out of the ordinary for him to meet a Pope. He would have been just getting born in 1993, but it must be common knowledge that his city was blessed with a visit. Amazing, Sicily is absolutely an amazing place.
We took a long, uphill road up and up to the very top of Naro. Here is the Castello Medievale built in the Chiaramonte style. It occupies the highest point in the town. The castle is in superb condition and plastered inside and out in a soft, honey and cream-colored stucco. The walls are as thick as the length of my arm. There are very few windows in the walls. This is a fortress meant to keep someone in or someone out. The door and gate, as all gates are in Sicily, are in excellent condition, polished, straight and strong with a well-oiled lock. We walked up the ramp and into the courtyard. There were several rooms on the right that formerly housed the horses. The rooms wound around and up into a display area for gowns and accoutrements from the Baroque Period. The pictorial display showed the last inhabitants of the castle.
The castle may have been built around 900 AD. At one time it was a prison. We were taken up into a chamber with deep slotted windows. The walls were covered with graffiti from former inhabitants. What had they used to carve their names into the stone? As with every site I visited in Naro, a person would become part of the group that knew quite a bit about the place. He sorted out I was keenly interested and started pointing out the markings. He showed me a carving of a mother and child. We found dates and names from so many years ago. Apparently, the light from the windows had been blocked. How many people had been in here? What was their crime? Did they ever get out? He also showed me what was left of several frescoes on the ceiling. We also saw the dungeon, a cold, dank, dark large room with its stone bed and imposing silence. I took a long slow climb up a tall staircase to the ramparts of the castle. What a view! We could see far out into what is locally called Paradise Valley. The artificial lake is clearly visible. An old abandoned mosque was pointed out nearby. Overlooking the City of Naro, is a statue of the Virgin Mary.
I became aware during my time in Sicily, that these people are artists by nature. The old cities, the churches, squares and fountains are a reflection of the true Sicilian. Everything, be it the sea, flowers, birds, clouds and babies, are beautiful, casually, simply beautiful. The beauty of the land is replicated in the cities. As nature adorns simply, man adorns purposefully. The architecture is so old. The decorative facades, window frames, doors, steps, porticos and even the water drains are works of art. Many churches have a large screen carved of wood that is meant to block the sun’s rays at the church entrance. Even in the functional furniture is exceptionally made. It’s everywhere. It’s in everyone. The cherubs, gremlins, angels, saints and spirits look out at us from every corner.
The Sicilian people apply equal skill to their modern crafts such as ceramics and textiles. Sicilian citrus, olive, nut and grape are renowned for superior quality. They have a tradition of storytelling through puppets that is still part of the islands charm. The people of Sicily are painters, writers, poets and musically gifted. I don’t know, but I came to the idea that Sicilians are gentle people. They just want to have faith in something. They were not an aggressive culture to start with. What they do, they do the very best. There is great pride in what is produced in Sicily. The cuisine is superb. It is not possible to have an ordinary meal anywhere in Sicily. If you do find yourself in Naro, stop at the La Vecchia Lanterna on Via Palmiro Togliatti. They are known for their ravioli. The ragu is to die for.
I am still learning the meaning of “fulgentissima”. The literal translation is most brilliantly radiant. This is the term the people of Naro, the Narese, give to their city. The name Naro is derived from the Arab word Nar. Nar can be translated to mean flame. I believe that when the light of dawn or sunset or perhaps even the moon reaches the structures below, it might give off a golden glow. The city is perched so high on the hillside, it may be vivid for miles around.
When Piero Barone returned home after the triumph in San Remo, he was toasted by the city and sang this song “Canta Fulgentissima”‘, in the Chiesa di San Francesco to the assembly. Clearly, the residents consider their city to be a shining jewel, a hidden pearl just waiting for the discerning person to discover her wealth of art, history and beauty. I did not see half of what Naro has to offer that day. I will return, better prepared in language to mix in and understand what history is available for the visitor. I hope to once again be in these places and feel the bones of the antiquities. The city has many secrets, many winding dark lanes and a sense of being under heaven. Because of one young man’s persistence, I came to this place. He showed me the way to a place I barely could understand. Piero was named Ambassador of Naro to the World in December 2014. Va bene. If hadn’t been for his promotion of Sicily and Naro as a destination for vacation, I would have missed out on this great adventure. Grazie tante Piero!
As written by Frances Wychorski
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