Caspar Institute logoitinerary   < 23 October Vallelunga, Sicilia   28 October Catania, Sicilia >

Enna, Sicilia 25 October 2011

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Villa Romana & Enna

With Loretto at the wheel, we ventured away from safe harbor in Vallelunga back into the wilds of Sicilia. After half an hour we had moved about 25 kilometers on the map, and after one particularly jarring passage, Loretto (who has little English) said, (in Italian) "the roads in Sicilia are brutalissima." There is no English equivalent for either the roads or the word. By adding "-issimo" or "-issima" in Italian you max the word out.

For us, aside from the jarring, it was a beautiful ride: more of the picturebook countryside, parts fertile and utilized, other parts derelict and rugged. The middle part was on Sicilia's PA-CT superhighway, from Palermo to Catania. We bailed at Enna and threaded our way through Pergusa (with its racetrack around a reedy lake) and Piazza Armerina (with its intricate scramble of narrow, congested streets) to Villa Romana del Casale, Sicily's Roman crown jewel. 

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mouse over to see what we saw

Villa Romana & Enna

Villa Romana del Casale

If indeed this is Sicilia's "Roman Crown Jewel" than the Sicilians do not have the vaguest clue how to take care of precious things. 

Some time in the first quarter of the IVth Century (as the Italians like to write centuries) some Roman toff, probably a petty ruler of Sicily, built a hunting lodge. Not long afterward, it was buried by a mudslide and forgotten. Sometime before 1950 a column stuck its capital above the ground, and an enterprising owner started digging ... and found wonders.

The floors of the many rooms -- the lodge is something like 35,000 square feet -- were richly decorated in wonderful mosaics, many of the finer ones made with tiles no more than 10 millimeters (3/8") on a side.

One guide identifies the image at left, the Queen of Sheba, as the finest bit -- the jewel of jewels. Mouse over to see what we saw of her.

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After spending most of a day getting to this place (it must be said, along with a thousand plus other people) the seeing is disappointing. This is a large site with abundant riches, most of which cannot be seen. Of those that can be seen, sloppy design and thoughtless crowd control make the seeing difficult and/or unpleasant while putting the treasures at risk.

In the hands of the city fathers of the nearby town, Piazza Armerina, this is a prime cash cow that they are milking for all it's worth. If there has ever been professional curation, it is long gone. The coverings over the treasures are the cheapest and ugliest possible greenhouse structures. The fee was reduced "due to construction" to 5€, but the lazy construction could be much less obtrusive, and a great deal more care could be taken to allow visitors to see "the goodies." 

The Queen of Sheba (Q) is badly lit and impossible to get close to; only one person can see her at a time. Other notable images (below) are the Bikini Girls (B), the Heirophant (H) and the marble floor (M) in the "Basilica." There is much more to see -- you can buy a book that tells you ... but you could get the same effect from an armchair in Caspar.

mouse over to see what's accessible

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Villa Casale is better now...

July, 2013: An email from Julianna, who writes "Our experience at Villa Casale, Piazza Armerina could not have been more different from yours – you were not very lucky!  We saw just about everything, admired the new constructions ... saw almost no other visitors" and then shares pages and pages of wonderful photos. Thank you, Julianna!



Rereading my account of the day, I see that my pique at seeing so little and so poorly overwhelmed my homage to the original art. Since 2011 there has been great progress. 

<p class="sml" align="center">The...

The boar bristles with vitality and menace
... but what's with the fellow in the foreground?
This is in "The Hall of the Small Hunt,"
one of many rooms closed to us but now open for viewing.

Photograph by Julianna Lees - used with permission

more of Julianna's pictures of Villa Casale

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The biggest fuss is made over the "Bikini Girls" -- in the guidebooks, and by the structure of the walkways, the guides and visitors (telling us a little about where their heads are at.) They're around the corner from the Queen, and a sharp contrast: poor modeling, exaggerrated musculature, black outlines that detract from any naturalism ...but here's the key: the "winner" is being crowned with laurel, the conventional honor accorded to victorious generals. This imagery is probably satire of the rawest kind. Watching the tour group circus, though, one would think that these, on the floor of a bathing room, are the crown jewels.

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Along the magnificent "Corridor of the Great Hunt" all manner of beasties and huntsmen may be seen. Here, a Rhinoceros. Many of the beasts are African, and there is speculation (because nothing is really known) that either the owner, or the mosaicists, or both, were of African extraction or experience. The pards and lions are particularly vivid and graceful in their motion.

Note the (not very) careful placement of the semi-permanent scaffolding foot obscuring part of this animal. Above it is a cheap metal staircase that moves when it is walked on (by half a million people a year.)

I have tinkered with these images, correcting the contrast and enriching the colors slightly; the whole is covered with a dusty film, and the light admitted through the cheap greenhouse glazing is harsh and fraught with shadows. Try to go on an overcast day.

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The image at left is uncorrected. The Italian-speaking guide had thrown a cupful of water onto the floor minutes before to show his group the true brilliance of the mosaics. 1,700 years after the mosaics were laid down, and after 16 centuries covered with mud, the colors are rich and bright.

Getting to this place is not easy, and so most of the visitors arrive by tour busses from Siracusa or Catania, accompanied by a guide. They move through the site in great loutish boluses, pushing each other around and leaving little room, and less consideration, for other visitors. But that's the way it goes in Italy. I shudder to imagine what this place is like in the heat and crowding of August. Yet, even with the miserable curation and crowding, these floors are magnificent.

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Part of the construction effort is erection of a massive steel and wood cover for the "Basilica" -- nevermind that the idea of a basilica was unknown in 325 CE -- to protect a (to my eye) indifferent marble mosaic floor, while people (those are my feet) are allowed to wander around on superb mosaics of beautifully limned exotic animals. Yet again I must say, seeing the little bit accessible, one must wonder at the beauty that must have been here when the Romans walked these floors.

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After the polished excellence of so much of what we have seen in Italy and Croatia, the simple-minded cheapness of this site is shocking. It is easy to see that for the good ol' boys of P. Armerina protecting and displaying such treasures is daunting ... and they have another Magna Graeca treasure at Morgantina too! But when faced with such wealth, doesn't it make sense to call in the pros and spend everything you take in until the presentation is as good as the treasures being presented? Part of the story of Villa Romana, sadly, is that the archaeology and curation have been second and third rate from the beginning, and doubtless at great cost to the beauties that are here.

Treasures like this are cultural capital. Rather than protecting and enhancing that capital, it feels to me as if the boys from P. Armerina (and we have seen this elsewhere in southern Italy) are living off the capital without plowing any of the income back into upkeep and preservation. The EU has participated by financing part of the present "improvements," but apparently the second and third stringers have retained control. 

We came away from Villa Romana baffled, disappointed, and yet moved by the beauty and wealth that once was here. I hope that in future years some of the faults are corrected, so that visitors can appreciate the whole site and all its richness.

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Enna perches on top of its crag, billing itself as the highest provincial capital in Italy at just under 1,000 meters (3,200 feet). When we arrived, the clouds were gathering, and the forecast was for rain, but I didn't take that seriously enough, and only got one picture from the Belvedere, across the valley and autostrade to the little town on a neighboring hill, Calascibetta. Both towns, and many surrounding hilltops, have hosted settlements going back into the third millennium Before the Christian Era (BCE, the politically correct abbreviation for what is commonly called BC.) Enna's perch, and its pride, have put it in the way of marauders from the beginning.

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By morning, the rain had settled into a slow drizzle, and Enna was engulfed in cloud. Its narrow streets manage cars, trucks, buses, and pedestrians in improbable concord, and we have been perfecting our Italian walking style (to wit: set a course, and bravely proceed.) Dodging buses and hiding in doorways, we made our way to the eastern hilltop, where the Castello has been being built and rebuilt by successions of Enna-holders since the Sicilian Greeks in the IVth Century BCE. The Castello is mostly famous for its reconstructed Torre Pisana, that tops out at just over 1,000 meters and, according to the "free guide," "on a good day you can see all Sicily!" We could barely see the cars parked far below through the fog.

Little can be known about the excavations in the picture , but according to the EU's archaeological findings, they may have been dug by Arab slaves imprisoned here during one of the Castello's many renovations. 

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One thing we could see clearly despite the fog is that accepted restoration protocol here in Sicily (and in fairness I confess to having seen it elsewhere) is to tack electrical wiring willy-nilly across ancient stone walls no matter how decorative or archaeologically relevant. The practice of repurposing ancient structures has been going on in these parts for a very long time -- witness Diocletian's Palace in Split -- and so what's a few wires among admirers?

Good news for authenticity: when the grandstand that Enna's city fathers added for plays and musical productions in the early 1900s was removedin 2001, it had preserved some findings from the weather.

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While the bozoes drive spikes into prehistoric mortar, Nature is also busily working to reclaim anything that will stay still long enough to be colonized. On this superbly foggy morning, this seedpod had amassed, with the help of an industrious spider, an impressive amount of water, and let me take this moment to (once again) acknowledge the excellence of my mighty little camera, a Canon PowerShot S95. While my eyes get less acute as I age, I am often able to capture what I think I see, and bring it home to my desktop, to be examined more minutely than I can ever do "in real life."

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Beneath the Castello there is (apparently) a network of tunnels now used for drainage but attributed to generations of slaves and others who required an escape route. The semi-legendary character Euno (You know?) is memorialized here with a plaque that says something to the effect that 200 years before Abraham Lincoln, this fellow engineered a Great Escape from the prison complex here -- the Castello has seen more service as a prison than as a defensive fortress -- thereby establishing the European principle of everyone's right to be born, live, and die in freedom. 

Shortly after achieving the topmost keep of the Castello, a large and sweet tempered guide attached himself to us "absolutely free," he said several times. He was a funny guy. He asked "Where are you from" and we said California. "Ah, Arnold Schwartzenegger." He offered a few other such trans-cultural chestnuts along with a little bit of almost intelligible guidance about the place. For a foggy day, he was pretty amusing. Finally, at the end, he offered, "If you would like to make a small contribution for my guidance, I can accept." We debated briefly then offered him a couple of 2€ coins. "At least, a good cup of coffee," he cheerfully observed.

We walked out again in the late afternoon, stopped for cappuccini and shared a tiramisu, then walked west along the other horn of Enna's hill. At the far belvedere the clouds were lifting slightly, revealing one of the sinuous roads down the hill and the fertile valley beyond.

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This side of town, less touristy and the site of the huge provincial hospital as well as the Palace of Finance and the Palace of Justice -- both huge imposing buildings -- actually has some sidewalks, a United Colors of Benetton, and many of the modern amenities as well as some of the ancient ones, such as this enormous cemetery.

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Dinner at Ristorante Centrale was as delicious as one could want. In stark contrast to dinner the night before, we were graciously served exactly what we ordered, and it was delicious: the primi del giorno of tagliatelle e funghi, a superb minestre of lentils, and contorni of artichoke, eggplant, onions, and mixed salad.

I want to heap opprobrium on the night before's dinner (and will, on TripAdvisor): the lamentable Ristorante La Trinacria. Seems the owner's brother doesn't like to talk to foreigners, so instead of the risotto we got penne; instead of the lamb we got who knows? (Rochelle was sure it was horse.) Instead of roasted potatoes with hazelnuts and rosemary we got french fries. And our order for mixed salad came out as butter lettuce -- nice butter lettuce, true, but nothing mixed about it. Insult to injury: we had fallen for a Stupor Mundi City Pass scam, 5€ each for discounts on meals. La Trinacria's "discount" was to add a 10% "service charge" -- something we haven't seen in 70 previous meals in Italy -- and then calculate the discount, for a big savings of .42€.  

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After a typically unsatisfying Italian breakfast -- Italians don't DO breakfast, we are told -- we walked up to the Varasano Archeological Museum, which is full of ancient delights that are -- this is a bit of a breakthrough -- identified as to WHEN they were likely created. Very rich in IVth century BCE Magna Graeca pieces, particularly funerary materials. The gracefully coiffed lady at right stands commandingly in the middle of the first room by way of our hostess. 


We particularly liked this delicate little bowl. Imagine, this lasting 2,300+ years!

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After wallowing in ancient beauty for long enough, we rejoined the present in the crowded and always challenging streets of Enna, where Nonnas dodge speeding cars (and vice versa) and everything somehow manages to squeeze past buildings built centuries before cars were thought of.

One of Enna's landmarks, dominating the northern skyline, of which the city has little pride, is the Palace of Government Mussolini built for it, following a phallic plan he duplicated across Italy. The city fathers have scraped Little Benny's name off the plaque, but it can still be seen.

We found a butcher who made us a delicious panino, and wandered some more with no particular purpose. Back to Catania tomorrow morning.

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Why not Taormina? Why Enna?

Attentive readers may have noticed that Taormina has been removed from our itinerary. We are always asking about our plans, and we were surprised by the unanimity of the answers about that little town: "It's really expensive." But was it fun? "Not especially ...but it was really expensive!"

We asked our Sicilian informants, and they hemmed and hawed. Finally, one said, "it's a bomboniere, you know a little useless nothing wrapped up in satin with a ribbon and some glitter that you get as a favor at a wedding." 

So we cut it from the itinerary and added an extra day to Catania and to Enna instead.

The other question, "Why Enna?" I don't have an answer for. It was on our list from the first, something I read about an "undervisited hilltop gem" that sounded good at the time. It is not over-visited, at least not in late October, and its gemlike qualities don't shine through fog. But when you are on the road for as long as we are, you have down-time and destinations that aren't stellar, and this is fine. 

<p>a bomboniere</p>

a bomboniere

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