Sunday, 1 November 2015

A week visiting the classical
sites and churches of Sicily

The garden at Saint George’s Church, Taormina, offers views of the Sicilian coast and the Ionian Sea (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

A week in Sicily at the height of summer came to an end by taking the local bus up the hill to Taormina, high above Giardini Naxos, to attend the Sung Sunday Eucharist in Saint George’s Anglican Church.

It was a busy week, based in Recanati, on the outskirts of Giardini Naxos which stands on the site of Naxos, the earliest Greek settlement in Sicily. There were visits to the lofty hill town of Taormina, high above Giardini Naxos, to the classical sites in Syracuse, to Noto with its grand baroque architecture, beach walks and a climb up the slopes of Mount Etna, the tallest active volcano on the European continent.

Enjoying the beach at Recanati, near Giardini Naxos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Climbing the slopes of Mount Etna, Europe’s highest active volcano (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Classical writers say Naxos was the first Greek colony in Sicily. It was founded by colonists from Chalcis in Euboea and the island of Naxos in the Cyclades in 735 BC, a year before Syracuse was founded.

Naxos was the first Greek settlement on the island of Sicily (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Syracuse later replaced Naxos as the most important Greek centre in Sicily. Archimedes, who had his Eureka moment in his bath there, was born and died in Syracuse, Aeschylus saw his last plays, Prometheus Bound and Prometheus Released, staged in the Greek Theatre in Syracuse, Sappho and Pindar were visitors, Plato taught there, and the Apostle Paul stopped in Syracuse for three days on his way from Malta to Rome.

Little remains of the original site of Naxos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Naxos remained an important centre of Greek civilisation and culture in Sicily until constant wars and invasions forced the people of Naxos to move up the hill to Taormina. There the Teatro Greco or classical theatre is one of the most celebrated sites in Sicily because of its remarkable preservation and its beautiful location.

It is the second largest classical theatre in Sicily, after that of Syracuse, and is still used frequently for operatic and theatrical performances and for concerts.

Churches in Taormina

The Greek theatre in Taormina is one of the most celebrated sites in Sicily because of its remarkable preservation and its beautiful location (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015; click on image to enlarge)

The Duomo or cathedral in Taormina, which looks like a mighty fortress, was built around 1400 or even earlier on the ruins of a smaller mediaeval church. It was rebuilt in the 15th and 17th centuries and restored in the 1700s. However, there are older churches in Taormina. The Church of San Pancrazio, named after the patron saint of Taormina, was built with material from the sanctuary of Isis and Serapis, dating from the Hellenistic period.

Saint George’s Anglican Church in the centre of Taormina is a much newer church. It is close to the bus station, the cable car and all the main attractions, and the Eucharist is celebrated there in English every Sunday.

Saint George’s is a stone church with spectacular panoramic views from its windows and from the terrace in the green garden behind the church that looks out across the Ionian Sea. The church is below street level but a banner on the wall and the attractive stone arch makes it easy to find the way in.

I was warmly welcomed to Saint George’s by the verger, Salvatore Galeano, who took over the role from his father in 2000. It is a family tradition, and before Salvatore, both his mother and his grandfather had been vergers.

English-speaking visitors

The Greek Theatre in Syracuse, where Aeschylus saw his last plays staged (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015; click on image to enlarge)

English-speaking people were among the first foreigners to come and stay in Sicily from the 17th century on as Europeans developed a renewed interest in the art and history of the Greek and Roman world. Some of these English-speaking families settled in Sicily, mainly in Palermo and Taormina.

The Dublin-born singer, composer and theatre manager, Michael Kelly (1762-1826), was an early Irish visitor to Taormina. He was a friend of Richard Brinsley Sheridan and of Mozart, and he first visited Sicily in 1780. He became one of the first singers of his time from either Britain or Ireland to make a front-rank reputation in Italy.

The British presence in Sicily was boosted in 1799 when King Ferdinand IV donated the Castle of Maniace to Admiral Nelson, after the King of Naples fled to Palermo on Nelson’s ship. The large estate granted to Nelson as Duke of Bronte included the Villa Falconara in Taormina, which remained a home to Nelson’s heirs until the mid-1950s. The family also played a key role in founding Saint George’s Church.

Sicily and Sardinia were the only parts of Italy that Napoleon never conquered, and as Napoleon advanced though Italy, King Ferdinand and the Bourbon court fled revolutionary Naples in 1799. They were brought to safety in Sicily by Admiral Horatio Nelson on his ship. Also on board were Sir William Hamilton, and Emma Lady Hamilton.

To show his gratitude, King Ferdinand made Nelson a Sicilian duke, with the title of Duke of Bronte, and gave him a large estate with pistachio orchards. The estate was then called named Maniace, after the Byzantine general George Maniakes, but it was promptly renamed Castello Nelson.

Castello Nelson looks like an English country house with an English country garden, rather than an Italian palazzo. Nelson never visited the place, but his ducal title and estate passed to hiss elder brother, the Revd William Nelson. The Nelson family continued to own the Bronte estate until 1978, and the family still owns the nearby English cemetery.

Irish literary connections

A Greek mask in the museum in Naxos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Prunty (1777-1861), who was born in Rathfriland, Co Down, on Saint Patrick’s Day, was the son of a farm labourer. He started off life as an apprentice blacksmith and then became an apprentice linen drape. But eventually became a teacher and managed to fund his way through a theological education at Saint John’s College, Cambridge.

Either because he was so in awe of Nelson, or so keen to mask his Irish identity, he changed his family name while he was at Cambridge to Brontë, adding umlaut to the final E in a dashing affectation. And so the novelist sisters Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë came to be named after Nelson’s estate in Sicily, without a hint of their Irish origins.

Later English-speaking visitors to Taormina included Edward Lear, who came to paint in 1843, the poet Edmund John, who died of an overdose in the Hotel Timeo in 1917, DH Lawrence, who rented the Villa Fontana Vecchia, Bertrand Russell who stayed with the writer Daphne Phelps in her Casa Cuseni, Ernest Hemmingway, Roald Dahl, Tennessee Williams, and Dylan Thomas’s widow, Caitlin Thomas, who also stayed with Daphne Phelps.

Irish writers who visited Sicily included Oscar Wilde in 1897. George Bernard Shaw praised Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author as “the theatrical masterpiece of the [20th] century.” More recently, the Greek mythology of Sicily is reflected the poem ‘Sicily’ by Desmond Egan.

Greek coins from Sicily inspired WB Yeats in his design of the first Irish coins (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

It is not surprising then that the Irish Nobel poet William Butler Yeats was inspired by a visit to Sicily almost a century ago. While most of the celebrations this year of the 150th anniversary of his birth have focused on his poetry, it seems to be largely forgotten that he was also responsible for designing the first coins of the Irish Free State. The inspiration for those designs came during a visit to Sicily in the mid-1920s with the poet Ezra Pound.

Building a church

The cathedral in Syracuse stands on the site of a classical Greek temple (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Taormina first became a popular tourist resort in the 19th century. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was one the first celebrated tourists and he dedicated parts of his book Italian Journey to Taormina. Other early ‘celebrity’ visitors included Czar Nicholas I, Richard Wagner, and Friedrich Nietzsche, who wrote Thus Spoke Zarathustra while he was there.

For much of the 19th century, church services for the English-speaking community were held in the private homes of wealthy families or in the residence of the British Consul in Messina.

The baroque cathedral in Noto (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

At the end of the 19th century, Sir Edward Stock Hill (1824-1922) and Lady Hill bought a villa in Taormina known as Santa Catarina. It is now an hotel, but had once been a Franciscan convent and included a small private chapel, which Sir Edward offered for services. When the Hill family chapel became too small, Mrs Dashwood, the owner of the Villa San Pancrazio, offered the use of her large drawing room for Sunday services.

Sir Edward then decided to buy a site for a proper church. The architect was his son-in-law, Sir Harry Triggs (1876-1923), and Saint George’s Church was completed in Spring 1922 at a cost of £25,000. The writer DH Lawrence, who was then living in Taormina, refused to come to any of the meetings organised by the English-speaking community to organise the building programme, for fear he would be asked to pay for the whole project.

Antique shops in Taormina … the town has attracted tourists since the 19th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

The first service in the new church was held on 17 December 1922, and the first churchwardens were the then Duke of Bronte, from Nelson’s family, and Sir Edward’s daughter, Mabel Hill.

Mabel Hill set up a school of embroidery to help women in Taormina to earn a small living. She invited the Salesian priests to set up a centre in Taormina in 1911, and their building in the town centre was named San Giorgio in her honour.

The public gardens were donated to Taormina by Florence Trevelyan (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015; click on image to enlarge)

Inside, the church has two aisles, divided by three round arches in Syracuse stone with two central columns as their base. The most beautiful part of the church is its large polychrome window behind the high altar depicting Christ on the cross with Saint Catherine on the left and Saint George in mediaeval armour on the right.

Inspiration for Newman

A view from inside Saint George’s to the Sicilian coast and the Ionian Sea (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

John Henry Newman was an early English visitor to Taormina. When he arrived in 1833, he was a young Anglican priest, recovering from a fever that almost caused his death. He made a full recovery thanks to the kindness of strangers, and also visited Catania and Syracuse.

Newman described the Greek theatre in Taormina as “the nearest approach to seeing Eden” and said: “I felt that for the first time in my life I should be a better and more religious man if I lived here.”

After he recovered from his fever in Sicily and had visited Taormina, Newman left Palermo for Marseille in June 1833, on the first stage of his journey back to England. He was convinced that God still had work for him in England, and on the journey home from Sicily he wrote his hymn ‘Lead, kindly light.’

He arrived back in Oxford on 9 July, and five days later, on 14 July 1833, John Keble preached his Assize Sermon, marking the beginning of the Oxford Movement.

Inside Saint George’s Church in Taormina (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Of course, Newman’s words, inspired by his experiences in Sicily, came to mind as I was leaving Sicily for Dublin at the end of this holiday:

Lead, kindly light, amidst the encircling gloom,
Lead thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Lead thou me on!
Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.


‘And with the morn those angel faces smile’ … welcome to Saint George’s Anglican Church in Taormina (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Canon Patrick Comerford lectures in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This feature was first published in the November 2015 editions of the ‘Church Review’ (Dublin and Glendalough) and the ‘Diocesan Magazine’ (Cashel, Ferns and Ossory).

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