In and around Palermo – The Great Byzantine Mosaics of Sicily

In and around Palermo – The Great Byzantine Mosaics of Sicily

Mosaics are one of the greatest bequests to western art to come out of the Byzantine Empire. Although mosaics made with cut cubes (tesserae) of stone, ceramic and glass had `evolved from earlier Greek and Roman practices dating back to the 3rd century BC, it was the craftspeople of the Byzantine Empire that developed it into a powerful religious expression.

Historical Context

Scenic wall mosaics began conveying the Christian message.

Constantine, Roman emperor from 306 to 337 AD, adopted Christianity early into his reign and subsequently moved his capital from Rome to Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul), at the eastern frontier of the Empire. Christianity flourished and gradually supplanted the Greco-Roman gods that had once defined Roman culture. This religious shift prompted the building of Christian basilicas, where in addition to the mosaic floors with typical Roman geometric designs, scenic wall and ceiling mosaics became a prime medium to convey the Christian message.

King Roger II of Sicily commissioned some of the greatest Byzantine mosaics ever.

By the 6th century, with the reign of Justinian I (527 to 565) the Byzantine Empire had flourished into its first golden age. In 537, Justinian completed the construction of what was to become the global center of the Orthodox Church and the epitome of Byzantine architecture: Constantinople’s  Hagia Sophia. While virtually all of the early Christian mosaics were subsequently lost to political and religious conflicts, the mastery of the craftsmen who had created them endured, as did the demand for their work throughout the Christian states around the Mediterranean. In the 10th and 11th centuries, even states actively hostile to Byzantium, such as  the Republic of Venice and the Norman King Roger II of Sicily, imported its craftspeople to create the greatest Byzantine mosaics the world has ever seen.

Sicily’s Norman Legacy

The Norman rulers integrated the best of Byzantine and Islamic elements in their architecture.

Following the decline of the Western Roman Empire in the 3rd and 4th centuries, Sicily endured a succession of invaders throughout the remainder of the first millennium. The Ostrogoths, Byzantines, Arabs and Saracen all left their mark on the island. But it was the Norman conquest in the 11th century that transformed Palermo into one of the most brilliant and enlightened courts in Europe. As they established the seat of their power, the Norman rulers wisely integrated the best elements inherited from the Byzantine and Islamic cultures.

The Palatine Chapel

The Palatine Chapel features carved Arab wood ceiling.

The side walls of the center aisle depict scenes of the Old Testament.

The most spectacular example of this synthesis is La Capella Palatina, built in 1132 by King Roger II within the vast royal palace of Palermo. The chapel is an exuberant blend of artistic styles: an elaborate Norman basilica with a three-aisle nave topped by a Byzantine cupola. Pointed Arabic arches are set on 10 antique columns of Sicilian marbles and the interior is covered in glittering Byzantine mosaics, capped by an elaborately carved Arab wood ceiling. The dazzling, predominantly gold mosaics, enhanced with deep blues, greens and reds, and the figures outlined in black, cover the upper portions of the walls. There are three typically Byzantine representations of the Christ Pantocrator: in the apse of the right nave, in the central apse and in the dome of the cupola, where it is surrounded by a ring of angels attired in the sumptuous robes of Byzantine emperors. Meanwhile, the Old Testament cycle set along the side walls of the center aisle follows the Roman church tradition. Laid out on two levels (or registers) of multiple panels, its pictorial narrative runs chronologically from the Creation to scenes from the lives of the apostles Peter and Paul.

La Martorama

The traditional Byzantine interior decor of the Martomara was modified over the centuries.

Roger II in Byzantine dress is represented crowned by Christ.

A 10-minute walk from the Palatine Chapel, Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio (the church of Saint Mary of the Admiral, a.k.a. La Martorama) was founded in 1143 by George of Antioch, the Syrian christian admiral (or ammiraglio) and principal minister of Roger II. Originally intended to serve the Italo-Albanian community, who although part of the Catholic Church followed the rituals and spiritual tradition associated the Byzantine rite of the Orthodox Church. In subsequent centuries, the church became absorbed by an adjoining convent of Benedictine nuns (originally established on the property of Eloisa Martorana, hence its moniker). While the nuns extensively modified the structure and interior decor in the 16th through 18th centuries, a series of significant 12th century Byzantine mosaics remain. On the south side of the aisle, King Roger II – George of Antioch’s lord, is depicted receiving the crown of Sicily from Jesus. This depiction of Roger is politically significant in terms of its iconography. In Western Christian tradition, kings were customarily crowned by the Pope or his representatives. Here, Roger is shown in Byzantine dress, being crowned by Jesus in the Byzantine fashion. Meanwhile, on the northern side, George himself sits at the feet of the Virgin.

The Cefalù Cathedral

A majestic bust of the Christ Pantocrator fills the dome.

Consecrated to the Savior and to Saints Peter and Paul in the coastal city of Cefalù, 70 kilometers (43 miles) east of Palermo, Il Duomo di Cefalù was started by Roger II in 1131, just a few month after his coronation. Here, the main decorations are the mosaics in the choir, which cover only the apse and the bay in front of it. A majestic bust of the Christ Pantocrator fills the dome. Beneath it, the mosaics are divided into three registers, with Mary occupying the centre of the top one, where she is pictured as an intercessor. In the two lower sets, the apostles are pictured on a smaller scale.

Mary occupies the center of the top register.

The pictorial cycle in the bay in front of the apse consists of single figures, with no scenic depictions. The side walls present figures from the Old Testament, depicting sainted deacons, warriors and Latin and Greek teachers of the church. Angels of various orders are distributed across the caps of the cross-ribbed vault.

 

 

 

The Cathedral of Monreale

One of the main motives of the apse is an enthroned Madonna and Child between archangels and apostles.

The nave sides recount episodes of the Old Testament.

The sumptuous Duomo di Monreale, consecrated to the Assumption of the Virgin, was erected by King William II (a successor of Roger II from 1166 to 1189). Built in a royal park on the site of an earlier Greek sanctuary some 10 kilometers (6 miles) above Palermo, its interior is impressive for its spaciousness and rich decor.  Not only are there mosaics throughout, but also large antique columns with decorative capitals, marble paneling on the lower wall surfaces, and an elaborate ornamental floor in the sanctuary. The mosaics cover all the upper portions of the walls of the sanctuary and the nave, in all a surface area of roughly 7.600 square meters (82.000 square feet). The Monreale Cathedral thus represents one the most extensive mosaic decors in Italy, on par only with Venice’s San Marco (about 8,000 square meters or 86.000 square feet). On the vault of the main apse, the central focus of the multi-figured design is the majestic bust of Christ Pantocrator. The main motif in the lower part of the apse is an enthroned Madonna and Child between archangels and apostles. The apse’s vaults hold large enthroned images of the apostles Peter and Paul, and the walls present scenes from their lives. An extensive cycle on the life of Christ unfolds on three registers across the walls of the crossing and the transepts. The mosaic decoration continues in the nave where forty-two scenes from the Genesis are depicted in two registers and  the side aisles depict Christ’s miracles.

Good to Know

  • Mosaic techniques — Like other mosaics, Byzantine mosaics were made of small pieces of glass, stone, ceramic, or other material, which are called tesserae. However, during the Byzantine period, craftsmen expanded the materials that could be turned into tesserae to include gold leaf, silver and precious stones.They also perfected the construction of their mosaics. Before the tesserae could be applied, multiple layers of foundation were laid, the last one made of a mix of finely crushed lime and brick powder. On this moist surface, artists drew images and used strings, compasses and calipers to outline geometric shapes before the tesserae were carefully cemented into position to create the final image.
  • Getting there — Palermo’s international Falcone-Borserlino Airport offers daily flights to and from most major European cities as well as the Italian mainland. It is located some 30 kilometers (20 miles) from the center of the city, with frequent train and bus connections between the city and the airport from 5:00 am to midnight. Monreale is served by Palermo’s urban bus service (AMAT). Bus 389 runs from Piazza Indipendenza, in Palermo to the cathedral in Monreale. Cefalù is easily accessible by train or car from Palermo. Trains to Cefalù run approximately every hour, and the journey is about 50 minutes.
  • Visiting — The Palatine Chapel, Piazza del Parlamento, 1, 90134 Palermo PA, is open year-round, Monday through Saturday from 9:00 am to 4:15 pm and Sunday and holidays from 8:30 to 9:40 am and 11:15 am to 1:00 pm. The Cathedral of Monreale, Piazza Guglielmo II 1, 90046, Monreale PA, is open daily from 8:30 am to 12:30 pm, and from 2:30 to 5:00 pm. The Cefalù Cathedral, Piazza del Duomo, 90015 Cefalù PA, is open daily from 8:00 am to 1:00 pm and 3:30 pm to 6:00 pm.

Location, location, location!

Palermo

Cefalu

Monreale

Archeological Journey in Western Sicily — Agrigento

Archeological Journey in Western Sicily — Agrigento

Day Four—It’s an easy 15-minute drive from the beachfront outskirts of the modern city of Agrigento, where we have spent the night, to the most impressive site of Hellenic architecture in Sicily.

The Valley of the Temples

The Valley of the Temples overlooks the Mediterranean shore.

Once known to the Greeks as Akragas, Agrigento was founded around 580 BC on a plateau overlooking the southwestern coast of Sicily by settlers from Rhodes and Crete. Surrounded by fertile land ideal for agriculture, the city soon prospered into one of the leading trade and cultural centers in the Hellenic world. Its importance is demonstrated to this day by the extensive remains of the grand 5th century temples that still dominate the site.

The ancient Greek city of Akragas stretches across a ledge.

Now one of the main archeological attractions in Sicily, Agrigento, in spite of its ridge-top location, has acquired the moniker of Valle dei Templi (Valley of the Temples). In addition to its seven honey-colored Doric temples in various stages of conservation, the complex also includes a necropolis and sanctuaries located outside the city walls. As is frequently the case on the island, it is not possible to establish to which god or goddess a given the temple was devoted, so that the attributions are merely a tradition established in Renaissance time.

Notable Temples

The Temple of Concordia is the largest Doric temple in Sicily.

The giant bronze of Fallen Icarus was donated in 2011 by Polish sculptor Igor Mitoraj.

Named for a Latin inscription found nearby, the Temple of Concordia, the largest and best preserved Doric temple in Sicily, was completed around 430 BC. It owes its exceptional state of preservation to a 6th century AD bishop of Agrigento who converted the temple into a Christian basilica, thus protecting it from the destruction of pagan places of worship. Although the spaces between the columns had been walled at that time, and a series of arches added along the nave, the Christian alterations were removed and the temple returned to its Doric grandeur in 1785. Since 2011, an oversized bronze statue of a fallen Icarus lies on the ground nearby, giving the impression of having been abandoned ages ago near the front of the Temple of Concordia. Originally part of the temporary exhibit of 17 works by Polish sculptor Igor Mitoraj, it was subsequently donated by the artist to remain permanently in place.

 

 

A total of 30 columns remain of the Temple of Hera Lacinia.

The nearby Temple of Hera Lacinia (or Temple D) on the southeastern corner of the Valley, 120 meters above sea level, didn’t fare so well, having been damaged by fire following the siege of Akragas by the Carthaginians in 406 BC. Dated around 450-440 BC, all that remains today is an impressive row of 30 columns, of which only 16 have retained their capital, and a long altar, originally used for sacrifices.

 

The Temple of Heracles is the most ancient in the Valley.

The Temple of Heracles, the divine hero, son of Zeus, was one of the most venerated deities in Akragas. Dated to the final years of the 6th century BC, it is the most ancient in the Valley. Destroyed by a long-ago earthquake, it consists today of only eight columns.

 

 

The Temple of Zeus was the largest Doric temple ever built.

The Temple of Olympian Zeus was the largest Doric temple ever constructed. Built around 480 BC, it is characterized by the use of large scale Telamons (or Atlases), sculpted figures in the form of a man, which could take the place of a column. This temple was never completed and now lies in a jumble of ruins.

 

 

The Temple of Castor and Pollux is a reconstruction.

The Temple of Castor and Pollux (or the Dioscuri), the legendary twins born from the union of Zeus and the Queen of Sparta, is reduced to a corner consisting of four columns. It is in fact an early 19th century reconstruction achieved by repurposing pieces from various ruined temples nearby.

An Early Christian Necropolis

The cliff’s edge is lined with early-Christian sepulchers

The cliff-line served as a natural defensive wall during the Greek period. Then during the late Roman and Byzantine times, the living rock was hewn to accommodate early-Christian sepulchers, known as arcolosia, characterized by their single arched recess. Today, this ancient necropolis also affords a lovely view of the Mediterranean below.

The Archeological Museum

The Ephebe of Agrigento, is dated about 470 BC.

Just outside the Agrigento city center, the Regional Archeological Museum illustrates the history of of the region from prehistory to the stage of hellenization. Its rich collection of local archeological finds notably includes the Telamon from the Temple of Olympian Zeus, an early sculpted column in the form of a man that stands over 7 meters  (23 feet) high. Another exceptional piece is the so called Ephebe of Agrigento, a 102 centimeter meter (3.2 foot) high white marble nude of an adolescent youth, represented in the severe style and dated about 470 BC.

The museum showcases a large collection of craters.

It also holds one of the most impressive collection of Greek pottery I have come across anywhere in the Mediterranean world, including a number of both red-figure and black figure vases and craters.

Good to Know

  • Getting there—Agrigento is 130 kilometer (80 mile), two-hour  drive south of Palermo via highway SS121 and SS189. Then a five-minute drive to the Valley of the Temples.
  • Visiting—The Valley of the Temples, is open daily, year-round from 08.30 am to 7:00 pm. The Archaeological Museum  (Museo Archeologico Regionale “Pietro Griffo”), Contrada San Nicola 12, Agrigento, is open daily, year-round from 9:00 am to 7:00 pm.

Location, location, location!

Valley of the Temples

Archeological Journey in Western Sicily — Into the Hellenic World

Archeological Journey in Western Sicily — Into the Hellenic World

Day Three – We leave behind the Phoenician world to travel eastward into Hellenic country and the ill-fated seaside city of Selinunte. Some 15 kilometers inland before we reach the city, we arrive at the western Mediterranean’s most overlooked archeological site.

Cave di Cusa

Some blocks remain in nearby olive groves.

Gigantic columns intended for Silenunte’s Temple G still lay in as they were originally abandoned.

Stretched across a 1.8 kilometer (1.2 mile) long ridge, the ancient limestone quarry of Cave di Cusa was actively mined beginning in the first half of the 6th century BC, its stone used to construct the temples of Selinunte. It was precipitously abandoned in 409 BC when the city was captured by the Carthaginians. The blocks of stones in their various stages of completion have remained exactly as they were some 25 centuries ago. Along with the column sections (or drums), there are also some capitals and square incisions for quarrying square blocks, all intended for the temples of Selinunte. Some the drums that had already been extracted were found ready for transport. Others, already on their way, were abandoned on the road. Some gigantic drums, definitely intended for what is now known as Temple G, the largest in Selinunte and one of the largest in the Hellenic world, are found on the western side of the quarry, also in the state in which they were originally abandoned.

 

 

The Quarrying Process

Some massive drums were in the process of being detached from the stone mass.

Thanks to the many column drums scattered in various stages of completion, Cave di Cusa provides a clear idea of how the temples at Selinunte (and presumably elsewhere) were built. In a nutshell: a circle of a specified diameter was traced on top of the stone mass. The quarriers then chiseled downwards around the circumference until they reached a depth of the specified height of the drum, which varied for the different structures, to a maximum of 2.5 meters (8 feet). The result was a perfect cylinder surrounded by a gap in the stone of about 60 centimeters (2 feet). Finally, the base of the cylinder was chipped away until it could be levered from the mother stone underneath. These drums were then pulled by oxen to the construction site, to be hoisted into position and embellished as needed.

The Cursed City

The fortified city of Selinunte overlooked the sea.

Founded in the mid-7th century BC, Selinunte, or Selinos as it was called by the Greeks, was once one of the richest and most influential cities in the Hellenic world. At its peak, it is estimated to have been home to 30,000 citizens and at least twice as many slaves. Beautifully located on a plateau overlooking the sea, it was the western-most Greek colony in Sicily and consequently often came into contact – and conflict –  with the Phoenicians and the native Elymian people of Segesta in the west and northwest of the island.

The city was reduced to a pile of rubble in 409 BC.

Then, almost overnight in 409 BC, Selinunte went from being one of the most progressive and eminent cities in Sicily to a vast expanse of rubble. The Carthaginian, who for many years had seen this powerful Greek city as a hindrance to their own influence in Sicily, took advantage of a conflict between the Greeks of Selinunte and the Elymians of Segesta to intervene. They sent some 100,000 men to lay siege to Selinunte, which was only able to hold out for nine days. The subsequent sacking involved the massacre of some 16,000 of the town’s inhabitants while most of the remaining citizens either fled to Mazara or where taken into slavery.

Selinunte Archeological Park

The Acropolis is surrounded by the ruins of several temples.

Today, abandoned for nearly 2,500 years, Selinunte is one of the largest archaeological areas in Europe, a 270 hectare (667 acre) treasure trove of remains of one of the most flourishing classical civilizations in the Mediterranean. The park is built around a vast fortified acropolis overlooking the sea, and surrounded by the ruins of several temples dedicated to Zeus, Apollo, Athena and Hera among others. Because of the difficulty of defining most of the deities they honored, the temples are designated by letters.

The Acropolis

Only the rocky basement and the altar remain of Temples A and O. A row of columns from Temple C stands in the background.

Situated on the highest point of the site, the Acropolis revolves around two perpendicular axes. In addition to the remains of five temples in various stages of preservation, it also includes a Punic sacrificial area with the sign of the goddess Tanit (Carthage’s main deity) found on the slabs. The most southerly Doric temples, O and A, dated from around 490, are dedicated to Castor and Pollux (Dioscuri), the legendary twin brothers, born from the union of Jupiter and the queen of Sparta.

Temple C stands out at the edge of the Acropolis.

Temple B and the Megaron (or great hall) show remains of Ionic columns and a Doric frieze. On the esplanade of the Acropolis, Temple C, with a peristyle of 6 by 17 columns is dated 6th century BC, and estimated to have been dedicated to Apollo. Beyond Temple D, similar to the previous one, the Agora, or business area includes a market, houses and workshops. 

The Eastern Zone

Temple E, dedicated to Hera, is the only one on the site to have been reconstructed.

Some 700 meters (half a mile) east of the Acropolis, the Eastern Zone holds three major temples. Temple E, tentatively dated around 450 BC, is the only one of the entire site to have been re-erected (in the 1960’s). This Doric style temple with a peristyle of 6 by 15 columns, measures 25 by 67 meters (82 by 220 feet). An inscription indicates that it was dedicated to Hera, the goddess of family and childbirth. Temple G was dedicated to Zeus or Apollo. With a peristyle of 8 by 16 columns 16 meters (52 feet) high, and dimensions of 50 by 110 meters (165 by 360 feet), it is one of the largest anywhere in the Hellenic world. Started in 530 BC, it was still unfinished when the city was destroyed. One of its columns, restored in 1820, still stands guard over the majestic ruin.

Temple C, believed to have been dedicated to Appolo, dominates the horizon.

Good to Know

  • Getting there — From Palermo: It’s a 90-minute, 120-kilometer (75 mile) drive via road E90/A29 from Palermo to the Castelvetrano exit. From Mazara del Vallo, it’s a 30 minute, 30 kilometer (19 mile) drive to the Castelvetrano exit.
  • Visiting — Archaeological Park of Selinunte, via Selinunte, Castelvetrano, is open every day including holidays from 9:00 am to 7:00 pm. Contact: Tel. +39 0924 46277. Cave di Cusa: via Ugo Bassi, 37, 91021 Campobello di Mazara is open daily from 9:00 am to 7:00 pm – however at the time of my visit (September 2021) the site was accessible by appointment only. Contact:  Tel. +39 0924 46277.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Cave di Cusa

Selinunte, Sicily

Archeological Journey in Western Sicily — Marsala to Mazara del Vallo

Archeological Journey in Western Sicily — Marsala to Mazara del Vallo

On Day Two of our Sicilian adventure, we linger at the western tip the island to explore the small coastal towns of Marsala and Mazara del Vallo. Originally settled by the Phoenician over 2,500 years ago, their unique character has been shaped  the diverse cultures that have succeeded them throughout the centuries.These days, Marsala is mainly known internationally for its fortified Marsala wine. But its present name, derived from the Arabic “Marsa Allah” (Port of God) gives an idea of how strategically important the town once was.

Marsala

The shaded fountain of the Old Market retains a Moorish flair.

Marsala has retained thenrich facades of its Baroque heydays.

First known as Lilibeo, it was settled in 396 BC by the Phoenician survivors of the lagoon island of Motya, which had been razed the previous year by Dionysus I of Syracuse, and soon grew into a prosperous fortified port. It became Lilybaeum when it was conquered by the Romans in 241BC, and remained a tributary city of Rome until the Empire started falling apart. Next came the Vandals, (440 AD) followed by the Byzantines (535) and the Arabs (827). Then from the end of the 11th century onward, the area was conquered successively by Norman, Angevin and Aragonese troops. Though it all, Marsala remained a thriving trading center – until the 16th  century when Emperor Charles V blocked its harbor to stop the forays of Saracen pirates. Today’s Marsala is a sleepy sun-drenched small town that has retained the shaded piazzas and streets lined with the stately buildings of its Baroque heydays.

 

Museo Archeologico Baglio Anselmi

A Carthaginian liburna from the Punic war times is it one of the Museum of Archeology.

The museum features remarkable variety of Roman amphoras.

At the edge of the old town, a well-preserved ancient Baglio (winery complex fortified around a vast central courtyard) holds Marsala’s main attraction: the partially reconstructed remains of a Carthaginian liburna (warship) sunk off the nearby Egadi Islands during the First Punic War and discovered in 1969. Displayed alongside objects from its cargo, the ship’s bare bones provide the only remaining physical evidence of the Phoenicians’ seafaring superiority in the 3rd century BC, offering a glimpse of a civilisation extinguished by the Romans. Among the objects found on board the ship and displayed here are ropes, cooking pots, corks from amphorae, a brush, a sailor’s wooden button and even a stash of cannabis. In an adjacent room, the impressive wreck of a Roman merchant vessel dating to the 3rd or 4th century AD is also displayed. A third room showcases other regional archaeological artefacts including a superb marble statue known as La venere di lilybaeum (The Venus of Lilybaeum) and some mosaics from the 3rd and 5th centuries AD.

Mazara del Vallo

The North African influence still permeates the Casbah. neighborhood.

Some 25 kilometers (15 miles) to the south, the city of Mazara del Vallo, founded as a Phoenician outpost in the 9th century BC, evolved through the familiar tide of invaders that shaped the history of Sicily. It prospered as a port facility for the nearby Greek city of Selinunte, but it is under the Arabs that it realized its full potential. Located barely 200 kilometers (125 miles) from the Tunisian coast, it flourished not only in its traditional maritime and commercial activities, but also as a major political and cultural centre second only to Palermo. The North African influence permeates the streets of Mazara to this day, especially noticeable in the warren of narrow alleys of the historic Casbah, where a sizable community of Tunisian descent lives and works to this days.

Cathedral del Santissimo Salvatore

The cathedral is an harmonious blend of Byzantine, Romanesque and Baroque styles.

In the center of the city, the Cathedral del Santissimo Salvatore (of the Holy Savior) is uniquely evocative of the cultural journey of Mazara. Originally built by the Normans in the 11th  century on a site where a mosque previously stood, it evolved over the century into a harmonious mix of Byzantine, Romanesque and Baroque styles. The adjoining Bishop’s Palace with its distinctive two-tiered arched Baroque facade is connected to the western transept of the Cathedral by a high Tocchetto (arched bridge covered by a loggia).

Il Satiro Danzante

Il Satiro Danzante stands 2.5 meters high.

But the jewel in Mazara’s crown can found an easy 5-minute walk away in the deconsecrated shell of the Chiesa de Sant’Egidio (Church of Saint Egidio), repurposed as the Museo del Satiro Danzante (Museum of the Dancing Satyr). The museum revolves around its central exhibit, a magnificent overlife-size bronze statue known as the Dancing Satyr, hauled from the depths of the Mediterranean by local fishermen in the late 1990s.

Detail of the Hellenic bronze casting masterpiece.

This rare original casting from the Hellenistic era (3rd and 2nd centuries BC) depicts a bacchanalian satyr in mid-leap, dancing wildly, arms outstretched, back arched, hair swinging with the movement of his head. The facture is highly refined, with the white of his eyes rendered in alabaster inlays. Although two millennia in the depths have taken their toll and the arms are well as one of the legs where not recovered, the power of the work remains intact, and in itself would warrant a visit to Mazara.

Good to Know

  • Getting there — Palermo: The most convenient entry point to the Western part of Sicily is Palermo. The international Falcone-Borserlino Airport offers daily flights from most major cities in Western Europe as well as the Italian mainland. It is located some 30 kilometers (20 miles) from the center of the city. From there Marsala is an easy 125-kilometer highway drive west. Mazara del Vallo is located 25 kilometers south of Marsala via SS115. Driving time can vary from 30 to 45 minutes depending on traffic.
  • Visiting — Marsala: Museo Archeologico Baglio Anselmi, Lungomare Boeo 30, Marsala (TP) is open Tuesday through Sunday 9:00 am to 6:30 pm. Mazara del Vallo:  Museo del Satiro Danzante, Piazza Plebiscito, Mazara Del Vallo, is open daily from 9:00 am to 7:00 pm.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Marsala

Mazara del Vallo

Archeological Journey in Western Sicily — From Segesta to Motya

Archeological Journey in Western Sicily — From Segesta to Motya

On the southern tip of Italy, Sicily, the largest of the Mediterranean islands, has been since ancient times a melting pot for a number of ethnic groups whose warriors and merchants sought its shores. 

The Phoenicians left enduring marks on the Sicilian landscape.

The Greeks were the first to leave their mark when, between the 8th and the 6th centuries BC, they founded  a number of important cities on the eastern and southern coastline of the island. Meanwhile, the Phoenicians and later the Carthaginians settled along the western and northern coast, establishing trading communities around Palermo and Marsala. The dividing line between the Greeks in the southeast and the Carthaginians in the northwest shifted frequently, following the vagaries of alliances with the local tribes. These fluid associations and ensuing conflicts have left an enduring stamp on western Sicily, the destination of a recent road trip.

Segesta

The Doric-style Segesta Temple is remarkably well preserved.

It is 80 kilometers (50 miles) from Palermo, where we landed the previous night, to Segesta, once a major city of the Elymian nation (said to be descended from Trojan settlers who took refuge here after the fall of Troy in 1183 BC). Hardly any traces of the original town remain, and what little there is has yet to be unearthed. But what Segesta does have is one of finest and most impressive Doric temples to be found in Sicily, and one of the best preserved anywhere in the West.

The temple’s Doric entablature has remained intact.

The Temple dominates an isolated hilltop.

Perched on a 305-meter (1000-foot) high hill a 15-minute walk from the entrance to the Segesta Archeological Park, the 5th century BC temple commands an impressive view of the surrounding countryside. Construction began around 420 BC on the site of an earlier cult building, Raised on a three-step base, the 26 meters (85 feet) by 61 meters (200 feet) structure consists of six columns on each facade and 14 columns along the sides. The columns are 9 meter (30 foot) high. Why an Elymian site would replicate so precisely the architecture of a Greek Doric temple is much debated amongst scholars. So too is to which god or cult the temple may have been intended. What is known, however, is that following the sacking of the Greek city of Selinunte to the south in 409 BC by the Carthaginians, the construction of the Segesta temple came to a halt and was never resumed. Meanwhile its imposing colonnade has remained intact through the ages, harmoniously integrated to the bucolic surroundings of its isolated hillside.

The Theatre

The  theater could accommodate close to 4000 spectators..

Another 1.5 kilometer (one mile) uphill to the top of Mount Barbaro (shuttle access available), the Hellenistic-style theater commands a spectacular view of the countryside and the Gulf of Castellamare. Built in the 3rd century BC, it originally had 29 rows of seats (of which the lower 21 rows remain) and a capacity of approximately 4000 spectators. The amphitheater-style structure is supported by a containing wall of limestone blocks. It now hosts theatrical  and musical performances throughout the summer months.

Motya

The sea-salt harvesting tradition endures on the lagoon.

After lunch, we resume our westward journey to the very tip of Sicily: Lo Stagnone, the largest lagoon in Italy. Now a marine reserve, Lo Stagnone is home not only to the time-honored tradition of sea-salt harvesting, but also to the ancient city of Motya. First established by the Phoenicians on the smallest of the four islands of the lagoon in the 8th century BC, the settlement gradually flourished into one of the most affluent cities of its time, naturally protected by the lagoon as well as high defensive walls – until it was razed to the ground in 397 BC by the Greek Tyrant Dionysios of Syracuse. Motya never recovered. Even after the Romans conquered Sicily (265-241 BC), it seems to have altogether disappeared from history.

The recently excavated Temple of Kothon overlooks the lagoon.

Then in 1902, the island, which by then was known as San Pantaleo, was purchased by John Whitaker, the archeologist heir to a British family that had settled in Sicily and made its fortune in the trade of Marsala wine. His studies and archeological digs brought back to light the Phoenician grandeur of Motya, including the Temple of Kothon, dedicated to Baal Addir (which the Greeks identified with Poseidon), part of an archaic necropolis and the fortifications of the North and South Gates. Also recently excavated are the remains of a 4th century BC residential complex with elaborate black and white mosaic floors that earned it the moniker of House of Mosaics.

The Whitaker Museum

The Motya Charioteer is the most notable exhibit of the Whitaker Museum.

Now housed in the former residence of the family, the Whitaker Museum showcases a fine collection of these archeological finds including a remarkable display of Phoenician stele as well as domestic and religious potteries. The most spectacular piece of the collection is the Motya Charioteer,  a unique 1,80 meter (70 inches) tall white marble statue of the Greek Classical Period (fifth century BC), which was discovered in the area of the Northern Gate in 1987.

 

Good to Know

  • Getting there — Palermo: The most convenient entry point to the Western part of Sicily is Palermo. The international Falcone-Borserlino Airport offers daily flights to and from most major European cities as well as the Italian mainland. It is located some 30 kilometers (20 miles)  from the center of the city, There are frequent train and bus connections between the city and the airport from 5:00 am to midnight. Segesta: It’s an easy one-hour drive from the center of Palermo via highway A29 (direction Trapani) to the Segesta exit and the Segesta Archeological Park. Motya: It’s a further 30-minute drive west on highway A29 from Segesta to Marsala and the edge of the Lo Stagnone Lagoon. 
  • Visiting — Segesta: The Archeological Park consists of two separate areas, the temple, easily accessible on foot, and the theatre, located on top of Mount Barbaro. While the theatre can also be reached on foot, a private shuttle bus service is available at a cost  of 1,50 € round trip. The park is open daily starting at 9:00 am. Closing time varies with the seasons. See the official website for details. Motya: There are frequent water shuttles from the small pier at the Saline di Ettore Infersa waterfront for the pleasant 10-minute ride across the lagoon to the Whitaker Pier on San Pantaleo island. Cost is 5 € round trip. The island and the Whitaker Museum are open daily from 10:00 am to 2:00 pm and 3:00 pm to 7:00 pm. There is an entrance fee of 9 € to visit the island and the museum.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Motya

Segesta

A Time Capsule of Ancient Roman Life – Herculaneum

A Time Capsule of Ancient Roman Life – Herculaneum

While ruins left by the inveterate builders of the Roman Empire abound throughout the Mediterranean basin, what makes the archeological site of Herculaneum unique is the swiftness of its total disappearance. Buried under 50 feet of lava for 1,700 years, Herculaneum, just 200 kilometers (125 miles) south of the capital, became a time capsule of the daily life of a typical Roman city of its time.

Darkness at Noon

Herculanum-Ercolano_Vesuvius..

Herculaneum with the contemporary town of Ercolano and Mount Vesuvius in the background.

For people living around the bay of Naples two millennia ago, Mount Vesuvius was just a fertile mountain of olive groves and vineyards. Although it had been an active volcano some eight centuries before, it had remained dormant ever since. In spite of violent earthquakes around 63 AD, which we now understand to have been caused by gases building within the cone and trying to force their way out, the local population still entertained a false sense of security.

Herculaneum-Excavation.

Herculaneum is an archeological excavation site in progress.

By late August 79 AD, the pressure had built to a point where the thick layer of hardened lava that was plugging the crater could no longer contain it. There were several days of earth tremors, which nobody recognized as a warning of imminent danger. Finally, one day around midday the volcano exploded, sending an “umbrella pine” cloud of overheated gases and rocks some 20 kilometers (65,000 feet) into the sky and plunging the area into darkness.

Pompeii-Temple of Jupiter.

The Temple of Jupiter in the central plaza of Pompeii.

The eruption was the first ever to be documented in detail by an eyewitness, Pliny the Younger (61-113 AD), who observed the entire chain of events from his mother’s villa high on Cape Misenum (now Cape Miseno), some 40 kilometers (25 miles) northwest across the bay of Naples. The prevailing winds at the time blew this first wave of poisonous gases and debris toward Pompeii, 10 kilometers (6 miles) southeast of the crater. Over the next eight hours, ashes and pumice stones rained down on the city. Roofs began to collapse under the weight. The process was gradual, allowing a relatively large number of its estimated population of 12,000 to 15,000 to escape. But eventually people were trapped as the city became buried under 4 to 6 meters (12 to 20 feet) of volcanic materials.

The Vanished City

Herculanum-frescoed room and patio.

The richly frescoed walls and vaulted ceiling this private home open onto an interior patio.

Since Herculaneum lay on the shoreline, 7 kilometers (4 miles) to the west of Mount Vesuvius, it was little affected by the first phase of the eruption. Only a few centimeters of ash fell on the city, causing only minor damage but nonetheless prompting a majority of its 4,000 to 5,000 inhabitants to flee. During the following night, however, a succession of pyroclastic surges (mixtures of intensely hot gases and ashes) and lava flow overran the entire city. The extreme heat of the first surge instantly reduced any remaining people to skeletons and carbonized all organic matters. By morning the thriving coastal town had vanished, fossilized under 25 meters (80 feet) of volcanic material that gradually cooled into solid rock. And there it remained until the 18th century.

Herculaneum-Marcus Nonius

Central square with the marble statue of Marcus Nonius, a benefactor of the city.

By then, all memory of Herculaneum has been lost, the only indication of its existence and fate coming from antique records, without any information as to its exact location. Settlements had developed on top of the volcanic crust. It was not until 1709 that traces of the antique city were accidentally revealed. During the digging of a well, a wall was discovered that was later found to be part of the stage of the Herculaneum theater. Treasure hunters started tunneling the site and a number of artifacts disappeared before official excavation began in 1738 under the patronage of the King of Naples. The work continued intermitently until 1874, with the finds documented and carted off to museums, most notably the National Archeological Museum in Naples but also to Rome, London and Paris.

Herculaneum-Nymphaeum.

Alcove in the nymphaeum of the House of Neptune.

Serious archeological work began again in 1874 and continues to this day. But with much of the ancient site abutting or still buried under the modern town of Ercolano, excavation is a slow process. To date, only a quarter of the ancient city has been brought to light. However, the unique conditions of its instantaneous extinction make it a fascinating site for archeologists and visitors alike. By allowing the conservation of the wooden framework of houses, furniture, writing tablets, fruit, bread and even the content of sewers, it offers a detailed snapshot of everyday life far more intimate than has been achieved in other antique centers.

Herculaneum Highlights

Richly colored detail of fresco in an opulent private home.

Visitors enter via an elevated boardwalk that offers a bird’s eye view of the entire excavated area and gives a clear idea of how deep it was buried. Herculaneum, which was known in its time not only as a fishing town but also a seaside resort where wealthy Romans built their summer villas, is laid out in a standard grid and easy to explore. The streets are lined with a mix of businesses, apartments and fine private homes where it is possible to wander at will. Many of the grander homes have shops built into their façade, so that the exterior doesn’t always announce the refined atriums graced with central pools, exquisite walls frescoes and ornate mosaics within.

Because this is a working excavation site, some buildings may occasionally be closed to the public. The highlights of my visit include:

Herculaneum-Black screens.

House of the Wooden Screens.

The House of the Wooden Screen – This superb villa boasts a soaring atrium and a central marble pool that catches rainwater falling through an oculus in the ceiling. Its vast reception area could be screened off from the remainder of the residence by a set of sliding wooden panels that have survived to this day. The walls are decorated with frescoes of architectural fantasies enhanced with grapevines and birds. It gives an interesting insight into life of affluent society of the time.

Herculaneum-Black salon.

House of the Black Salon.

The House of the Black Salon – This luxurious house features a small courtyard garden, interesting mosaic flooring and unusual frescoes with a black background covering the walls and barrel ceiling of its main hall. Said to have been the home of a former slave who had achieved the status of Roman citizen, it is also singled out as out as an example of the social mobility that could occasionally be possible in Roman society.

Herculaneum-Augustales frescoes.

The frescoes in the Hall of the Augustales relate the final scenes of the Herculean myths.

The Hall of the Augustales – Dedicated to the cult of Augustus, the College of the Augustales was an organization offering training, services and support to its members, freed slaves who were making their way as full citizens. Although they were not allowed to hold traditional political offices or become Roman priests, the members were able through this association to contribute to and impact the society and culture of the city. The hall is located in the center of College building.

Herculaneum-Neptune_Amphitirite.

Mosaic of Neptune and Amphitrite.

The House of Neptune and Amphitrite – Located behind a wine shop with a wooden balcony and a rack for the storage of amphorae, the dining room of the residence is decorated with stunning mosaics including the famous image of Neptune and the nymph Amphitrite.

 

 

 

Good to Know

  • Getting there – It’s a 20-minute train ride on the Circumvesuviano line from the Naples Garibaldi central station to Ercolano Scavi stop,then a 15-minute walk down to the bottom of Via IV Novembre to the archway entrance to the Herculaneum Archeological Site. Trains run every 30 minutes from 6:00 am to 9:30 pm.
  • Visiting – In theory, a map of the site and an information pamphlet should be available at the ticket desk. However, there were no pamphlets when I visited and maps were only handed out with the audio guide, which could be rented for €6.50 in addition to the €11 entrance fee, and came with the requirement to leave an ID at the desk as guarantee until return of the device. This extra cost and hassle may be avoided by downloading the map and the pamphlet free of charge from the official site prior to the visit.
  • UNESCO designation – The archeological sites of Pompeii, Herculaneum and the nearby villa of Torre Annunziata were collectively declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997.

Location, location, location!

Herculaneum