Thursday, 11 February 2016

Abduction in Aidone

Tuesday 9th February, 2016

Eventually, despite fear of marauders and a nagging sense of technical ineptitude, I did fall asleep. Neither of of us slept soundly though, and I was already stirring when the alarm went off at 7.15. It had been a chilly night and the temperature in the van had dropped to 6 degrees. Reluctant to put any more strain on the partially charged leisure batteries, we avoided using the blown air heating. The cold did encourage a prompt departure and we sailed through the raised barriers well before the 8.00am. deadline. 

As we drove through the outskirts of of Piazza Armerina Sicila was rubbing her eyes and getting-up - crusty old guys manoevring Apes loaded with fruit and veg as impromptu street-side stalls: park-up rather than pop-up retail. Groups of men gathered outside cafés to down swift a expresso and a pastry before work. As it was Shrove Tuesday, the little girls heading for school were all dressed in flouncy frocks or Disney Princess outfits. Maybe there was a carnival later on, or just a fancy dress day at school.

We stopped in a car park overlooking the old town. In the golden light of early morning the pale stone took on an bronzed tinge. Maisy looked very handsome under the bright blue sky with Piazza Armerina's domed baroque duomo as a backdrop. I snapped a photo with my phone and uploaded it to Facebook. It scored over 70 likes, a few people noting the resemblance of the church to one appearing in the opening credits of Montalbano. My writing buddy, Janet, from Queensland, revealed herself to be a Montalbano aficionado. It's a funny world we live in, swapping experiences of morning in Sicily instantaneously with someone halfway across the globe.

Early morning - Piazza Amerina
Our plan was not to stay in Piazza Armerima, but to drive to the nearby town of Aidone and visit the archaeological museum. We first heard about the place in 'Sicily Unpacked', the TV programme made by the chef Giorgio Locatelli and the art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon. They visited this remote town and recounted how an Ancient Greek statue excavated in secret near Aidione had been sold illegally and ended up in the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. By analysing the mineral content of the stone, local experts proved it was from this part of Sicily and the statue was returned by the American museum in 2011 to be displayed in Aidione's tiny museum. 

When we decided to visit Sicily I made up my mind that I had to see the statue even though it involved a tricky drive on a narrow mountain road. The route did prove a little hazardous, but the wooded hill country was very beautiful, and the statue itself rather unique.

Aidone - a small, somewhat workaday hill town - with an amazing hidden treasure.
The figure of the goddess is monumental, about 2.5 metres tall. Its wind-blown draperies are deeply carved; it exudes the inner energy typical of early 5th century Athenian sculpture. It reminded me of 'The Nike of Paionis' we saw in October in the museum at Olympia. I really like these animated Greek statues. The sculptors achieve astonishing vitality from inert lumps of stone. Such technical virtuosity was not really achieved again for almost 2000 years. Only in the 17th Century did Baroque sculptors like Bernini recapture the verve and vivacity of their Greek antecedents. Ancient Greek sculpture in this style is almost exclusively depicts goddesses, for the simple reason that until the Hellenistic period, whereas gods were displayed in all their naked manliness, female deities were depicted fully clad, harking back to the conventions of Kouros and Kore from the archaic era. Though as the skill of the sculptors developed, the goddesses' covering, 'a chiton' became increasingly diaphanous, revealing the heavenly body as much as clothing it. At some point in the 4th Century someone must have decided, 'what the hell!' dispensed with see-through chiton altogether, and we ended up with the Venus de Milo!

In one respect the figure in Aidione is unusual. Although her torso is carved from a block of pale, local limestone the unclad parts - head, feet and arms - are sculpted from imported Parian Marble. Perhaps the cost of importing the a large block of marble from Greece was prohibitive. What is equally interesting is that the style of the head is quite different to the body. The latter is lively, animated, and deeply carved, while the facial features of the former are smoother, and exude an air of inscrutable contemplative calm that you find in early classical statuary from a generation or so earlier. This may be a coincidence arising from different sculptors working on the same statue, but the effect is intriguing; is it fanciful to think that contradictory nature of Olympian deities, at once benevolent and vengeful is captured in the statue's stylistic dichotomy?

There is some debate as to who the goddess actually is. Some scholars have identified her as a local variant of Aphrodite, others as Demeter, the goddess of the harvest and fertility. For purely sentimental reasons I favour the latter, the history of the statues's abduction and return fits well with the Demeter myth. The Roman poet Ovid places the story of the abduction of Demeter's daughter, Persephone, by Tartarus, king of the underworld in Enna, just to the north of Aidone. The museum itself has an interesting collection of terracotta statuettes of Persephone excavated from the nearby cult site of Morgantina which appears to have been a centre of Demeter related worship stretching back to the Bronze Age.

 Terracotta figurines of Persephone from the neatrby Morgantina cult site.

Other arterfacts from Morgantina - including an ancient hip-bath..
There are some landscapes where the past feels as if it is entwined with the present. The chalk lands of Wiltshire and the Ridgeway are like that, as was much of the southern Peloponnese that we travelled through in October. Sicily should be too developed, populated,  busy and industrialised to be the same, but in more remote spots the ancient and mythological nature of the island becomes palpable and inescapable.

This being said, the remainder of the day conspired to assert the stresses of modernity, the road from Enna to Agrigento is being upgraded, there were diversions and contraflows galore. This completely flummoxed Muriel, our sat-nav, and we ended up trying to navigate our way through the narrow streets of both towns. The roadworks on the main road in-between resulted in tailbacks which prompted outbursts of suicidal overtaking manoeuvres on the part of frustrated Alfa-Romeo owners. By the time we arrived in Camping Valli di Templi near Agrigento the soulful mythological musings of the morning had long gone. I felt utterly frazzled, and somewhat grumpy.


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