Folco Quilici, "L'Italia vista dal cielo: Sicilia"

Sicilia (Folco Quilici & Leonardo Sciascia)

The film begins with the question "Cos'è la Sicilia?" (What is Sicily?) which several Sicilians attempt to answer. (Notice the absence of women in this scene and most of the other scenes in this documentary.)

From the sky, Sicily becomes a world of extremes. Surrounded by several seas, but without any major waterways, it is both fertile and arid. Some of its coasts consist of granite and lava cliffs, whereas others consist of quiet beaches and harbors. The latter have made Sicily accessible to people, nations, and civilizations from all parts of the Mediterranean for three thousand years.

From Capo Murro di Porco, the southern most part of Sicily, Quilici moves along the coast to the Necropolis of Pantalica. These prehistoric burial grounds built into the cliffs overlooking the sea are the earliest traces of the Siculi, an indigenous population which came from the north and settled here between the 12th and 11th centuries B.C. These prehistoric people, from whom the name "Sicily" derives, were later assimilated by invaders from the seas, including the ancient Greeks. The Greeks first came to Sicily in the middle of the 8th century B.C. Later, in the 5th century B.C. many of these Greek colonies were conquered by other Greeks and Carthaginians. From the helicopter we can see the ruins of several of the most famous Greek cities on this island:

1. Segesta with its unfinished temple from the 5th century B.C.

2. Selinunte with its theater on top of Mount Barbaro. This town had begun to flourish in the 7th century B.C. before it was destroyed by the Carthaginians in 409 B.C. Several centuries before the Carthaginian conquest, Selinunte was struck by an earthquake which destroyed many of its temples, several of which were the biggest in the Mediterranean.

3. Agrigento with its temples dedicated to Concordia, Hercules, Hera, and Zeus. The giant-like figure on the ground beside the temple is a "Talamone;" it was probably meant to serve as a buttress for the inside of the temple. The rocks with which these temples were built came from nearby quarries.

4. Tindari with its gymnasium and theater.

5. Syracuse, the city of the mathematician Archimedes (287-212 B.C.) who died in his hometown when the Romans conquered it. The castle of Eurialo consists of a series of fortified walls and embankments. It is said that in order to resist the Roman attack, Archimedes transformed all the gorges and gullies surrounding Syracuse into deathtraps, and designed mirrors which set ablaze the Roman galleys. This city became Roman after 212 B.C. (it still has a Roman amphitheater). After the fall of the Roman Empire it passed into the hands of the Byzantines who in turn lost it to the Moslems in 878 A.D.

The Moors (North African Moslems) began their conquest of Sicily on June 16, 827 and consolidated their empire over the next 200 years. Although they were later conquered by the Normans (Vikings who settled in northern France) they continued to come from the sea to pirate the coastal towns. In order to protect the coast against their attacks, numerous castles were built along the coast throughout the Middle Ages. The presence of Moors and Normans on this island during the early Middle Ages gave birth to a hybrid culture which may best be seen in the 12th century Arabic-Norman architecture of the following cities:

1. Erice, once a Greek city and the center of an important temple dedicated to Venus, clearly reveals the influence of Islam.

2. Trapani with its old windmills. The Moors introduced the windmill to Europe along with other irrigation techniques which transformed Sicily's grain fields into lush gardens and orchards.

3. Monreale: its cathedral combines both Moslem and Northern European architectural styles. The cathedral was built in 1174 by William II. Under the Norman dominion Christians, Moslems and Jews were allowed to worship in what was considered at that time a fairly free state.

4. Palermo, once the capital of the Moslem empire in Sicily, had a population of almost half a million at the height of the Moslem dominion. It also had over 500 minarets, some of which were transformed into belfries when the mosques were converted into churches by the Normans. A good example of this is the Martorana (the name of the belfry) and the church of San Cataldo (1160) adjacent to it.

San Giovanni degli Eremiti, built by King Ruggiero II around 1120, is another example of the perfect union between Arabic and Norman architecture.

The Cathedral of Palermo, in which Frederick II is buried, was begun in 1185.

The Palace of the Normans (Palazzo dei Normani) was first the palace of the Moslem emirs, then of the Norman kings, and later the seat of the Bourbon kings who governed all of southern Italy.

Palermo is also filled with Baroque piazzas and palaces which recall the time when this city was the capital of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.

Quilici moves from the "Conca d'Oro" (the "golden shell" where the city of Palermo is located) towards Mount Pellegrino in the background where some prehistoric graffiti have been discovered. On the outskirts of Palermo there used to be innumerable gardens which both the Moslems and the Normans had cultivated. Many of these ancient parks (some of which were described as terrestrial paradises by medieval Arab chronicles) have recently been lost to ruthless real estate speculation. A few examples survive:

1. Parco della Cubula (Arabic-Norman).

2. Castella la Cuba (1180) once a harem, this big building consisted of a single enormous room--a pleasure dome for the Norman kings. Today it is a warehouse for the adjacent barracks, and still waits to be restored (the roof is missing).

3. Zisa (from the Arabic word for "noble," Aziz) was built between 1154-60.

4. The villa of the Gattopardi (where Lampedusa's novel Il gattopardo is set). The late Renaissance construction combined elements typical of Italian villas in the north with Moslem elements found elsewhere in Palermo.

From Palermo, Quilici brings us to Catania. The entire city was covered with lava when the Etna volcano erupted in 1699. Over 15,000 people died during that eruption. The only structure that survived the eruption was the medieval castle of Ursino (1239-50) because, like so many other Sicilian castles, it was built right on the water's edge. Immediately after the eruption, the Duke of Camastra rebuilt the entire city, giving it that Baroque style which has made the city famous. This is best seen in the straight roads, beautiful palaces, piazzas, and gardens (like the one dedicated to the composer Vincenzo Bellini, a native of that city). Unfortunately, however, like so many other Sicilian cities, Catania too has suffered at the hands of real estate speculation, as witnessed in the endless rows of condominiums and high-rise housing complexes.

From Catania Quilici moves up the coast to the towns of Aci Reale and Aci Trezza. In the piazza of Aci Reale one can still hear the "Cantastorie" (singer of tales) engaged in a profession which dates back several thousands of years.

At Aci Trezza, the town where Verga's famous novel I Malavoglia is set, one can still find people who, like Verga's protagonists, are attached to customs and traditions which date back centuries. The "faraglioni" sticking out of the sea were believed to be the Cyclops that Ulysses came across in his long journey home after the Trojan war. (The very same coast of Sicily is mentioned in Homer's Odyssey.)

From here, Quilici goes out to sea to show us some of the islands off the Sicilian coast: the Lipari islands.

From these islands we move inland to the heart of Sicily:

Calascibetta a medieval hilltop town.

Enna, another medieval hilltop city. Here Frederick II built one of his castles. The castle reflects the northern Italian style of the Lombards who settled here in the thirteenth century to form a colony.

The castle of Caccamo is one the biggest in Italy, and the most imposing castle in Sicily.

The castle of Mussomeli (end of the 14th century).

From the castles inland, Quilici brings us back to the castles along the sea:

The castle of Colombaia in Trapani (the city was once an important naval base for both Cartheginians and Romans).

Off the coast of Trapani are the Egadi islands with castles of their own.

Quilici returns to the Greek city of Agrigento, Luigi Pirandello's hometown. The city had no castle, but its cathedral is fortified much the same way castles were.

Randazzo, a city at the foot of Mount Etna, with its medieval church of San Martino.

Noto, the birthplace of many of Sicily's leading Baroque architects, was rebuilt after the earthquake of 1699: it has a uniform Baroque style throughout its historic center.

Ragusa with its churches of San Domenico and San Leonardo.

Modica, just south of Ragusa, and its Baroque cathedral dedicated to San Giorgio (1702-38).

Always following the coast, Quilici brings us to Cefalù on the northern coast of Sicily. It is the site of the oldest Norman cathedral in Sicily; and like so many of its counterparts this cathedral was also built around a mosque and minaret.

Off the coast of northern Sicily we find the Eolie islands with the volcanic island of Stromboli. These islands, like so many of the other islands off the Sicilian coast are international tourist resorts (as are some of the towns on the coast itself).

Taormina: first Greek, then Roman, and now an international center for the arts. Its ancient Greek theater is probably the best preserved theater of its kind in the Mediterranean.

Sicily's inland transportation was limited to a few narrow roads and one track railway lines at the turn of the century. In recent decades this too has changed, and next to the ancient Roman aqueducts we now find modern bridges which link the coast with the more isolated towns inland.

Sicily's countryside is solitary and archaic. In the fields just outside of Calatafini, Garibaldi and his Mille (one thousand soldiers) began their conquest of Sicily in 1860. From here Garibaldi and his troops moved north to Messina where the first part of his campaign to unite Italy came to an end.

The city of Messina was destroyed by two earthquakes: one in 1908 and another in 1968. At the time this documentary was made, the poor of that city were still living in barracks while waiting for their houses to be rebuilt.

Grammichele, with its hexagonal piazza and urban planning, was built in this unique manner after an earthquake had leveled the city in the 17th century.

Sicily has had to contend with the forces of nature just as it had to contend with invaders from foreign lands. Quilici concludes by showing us some of these still active forces: the volcanos of Stromboli and Etna (the latter is the biggest active volcano in Europe).