My Winterreise through southern Italy began with a huge mistake -- Naples on Christmas Day. The city was closed down, and adorned by mountains of garbage bags. I did not know that the accumulation of uncollected garbage has been for months, or years?, an acute scandal and a hazard, an object of concern even at the level of the European Union. Calls for military intervention to solve this national emergency are heard as the situation gives rise to street battles.
I heard a sermon from the Archbishop at midday mass, in which he quoted Vatican II, rather an encouraging sign these days. A Chinese choir sang -- part of the cosmopolitan hybridism one expects of good Catholic liturgy, despite the traditionalist fanatics.
I attended a play billed as Goldoni's "Il feudatorio" -- which contained not a word of Goldoni's text, replaced by a frenetic choreography supposed to represent proletarian revolt and the deconstruction of power. The audience seemed enthusiastic. The similar treatment of Lessing's "Emilia Galotti" by a Berlin troupe two years ago leads me to believe that there is no appreciation of the power of articulate discourse that was the glory of classic European drama and that remains an invaluable political resource in the age of image, spot and spin.
Messina has the voided feel of all bombed cities, though the earthquake of much earlier seems to be the trauma that counts most for the citizens. With a cheap paperback edition of the Tourist Club Italiano volume on Sicilia I visited the Cathedral and the Museum -- Antonello da Messina is the star.
Of more note was Taormina -- stupendous views from the "terraces" high above the sea, something like the vertical vistas on the Lee from Montenotte or on Cork Harbor from Passage West, multiplied a hundredfold. The center is touristy and twee, though the Tourist Club Italiano dutifully informs one on the historic tissue of its various houses and churches and Roman remains; yet the Greek amphitheater has the cachet of authentic antiquity.
A wonderful novel, Luigi Capuana's "Il Marchese di Roccaverdina" (1901), beguiled the hours -- it is "Crime and Punishment" with a twist, its composition calm, authoritative, quietly stylish at every turn.
In Catania I met Giuseppe Ruggiero, the historian of Vatican II, amid his books (including vast encyclopedias) in the spacious rooms he occupies in what he claims was the largest monastery in Christendom, now a university building, located on the very site of the ancient Greek acropolis. The neighborhood is studded with interesting baroque churches and palaces, alas in a degraded state. With an infusion of millions it could flourish and glow. The diocesan museum was rather touching, as it included the chapel of the former seminary, preserving in amber an epoch of ingenuous piety and holiness.
The birthplace of Bellini, immortal melodist, was not open, but I saw his grave in the Cathedral, inscribed with the notes and words of "Ah, non credea mirarti si presto estinto fiore" (one of those "long, long melodies" admired by Verdi, which makes up a little world in itself, unfolding with wondrous freedom which is also wondrous necessity, in the sense that you would not dare change a note of it, except for the coloratura flourish at the end; I've heard the 1906 recording of Patti, famous in the role; a 1935 recording of the spirited Claudia Muzio; two 1957 recordings of Callas, suffused with melancholy ardor; and Joan Sutherland). Also closed was the house of Giovanni Verga. Frederic II's fortress has a batch of exuberant religious paintings and some chunks of antique sculpture.
Syracuse in wind and rain had its impressive aspects. The "Fountain Arethuse" is just a duck-pond. I got more of a Ulyssean atmosphere looking down on the crashing waves from a belvedere, or sipping wine in a restaurant amid a terrific downpour. Sitting in a civilized literary cafe, in which the circles of conversing young people may be hatching the next great epoch of Sicilian literature, I read a book by a philosopher and a biologist called "Sante Ragioni", a devastating account of how Italian democracy has been undermined by the heavy presence and pressure of the Vatican. The DICO legislation is on the back burner, and the Church has also scored political victories on the terrains of assisted birth and living wills. A certain Senator Paola Binetti is the Joan of Arc of this onslaught.
Ragusa has spectacular qualities with its chasm of a valley spanned by viaducts of various styles and its picturesque descents from the upper to the lower city. I visited the archeological museum and tried to summon some interest. Modica, charming and compact, strikes me as a happy city. My hotel was a palazzo, and amazingly cheap. On this earthquake island the churches are mostly eighteenth century constructions, but the three main ones in Modica have immense and luminous interiors. The birthplace of Salvatore Quasimodo was closed, but the poet has a message for the passing viator: "Ognuno sta solo sul cuor della terra/trafitto da un raggio di sole:/ed e subito sera" (Everyone stands alone on the heart of the earth, struck by a ray of sun: and it is immediately evening). I think he wrote that when he was about twenty, and he used the last line as the title of a volume when he was forty-two; he lived on to sixty-seven, pocketing the Nobel Prize on the way. Goethe, despite his mortality-lyric "Ueber allen Gipfeln," has a brave way of curbing such moroseness: "Die Zeit ist unendlich lang" (Time is infinitely long; quoted with enthusiasm by the zealous pedagogue Matthew Arnold); in other words, "The man who made time made plenty of it."
A long bus ride through extraordinary landscapes, volcanic and virginal -- scarcely a sign of human habitation, far less the pastoral revels poets dreamed up -- brought me to Palermo, fifth city of Italy. I visited the Museum: Antonello da Messina's L'Annunciata, busts of Eleanor of Aragon and of a youth, works of the Master of Pentecost, the Malvagno triptych, and the grisly Gothic "Triumph of Death". Next day, the Cathedral -- with the tombs of the great Frederic II and other royals, and a host of episcopal sarcophagi in the crypt --, the diocesan museum, of more artistic prestige than the one in Catania, the "Cuba" -- a strange reconstructed palace --, and the Norman Palace, its Palatine Chapel only partly visible and its Royal Apartments closed until tomorrow; I had a glimpse of the dungeons used by the medieval Inquisition (which are not the ones mentioned in Leonardo Sciascia's stirring "Morte dell'Inquisitore"; the Inquisition was in the Palazzo Chiaramonte from 1605 to 1782). There are lots of shabby streets and markets off from the main arteries of the old city; the newer extension has bright broad boulevards, which led me to a cinema where I saw a splendid film of Marquez's "Love in the Time of Cholera" -- superbly dubbed in the language of opera, which surely suited its extravagances better than the original English soundtrack can have done, removing from it the taint of Hollywood falsness.
President Napolitano's new year message rightly affirmed that Italy is in good shape, a country of immense creative potential. The heavy weight of the Vatican is painfully felt in daily clamorous interventions, such as Cardinal Ruini's call to rewrite the abortion law, timidly seconded by the head of the Italian Episcopal Conference, Bagnasco. Italians seem irritated at this repetition of old battles and confident that the clock cannot be turned back. The Vatican thinks in centuries and will keep up its integrist battle forever, unless a new Council effects the shift to modernity and respect for freedom and pluralism. (The brouhaha about the papal lecture at the University of Rome was almost predetermined by this string of provocations. Pastoral dialogue rather than aggressive politicking would take both Italy and the Church forward.)