28 July 2015

A Greek theatre, public gardens,
shrines and churches in Taormina

The Teatro Greco is one of the most remarkable sites in Sicily ... Mount Etna is in the background (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015; click image to enlarge)

Patrick Comerford

I returned to the romantic, mountain-top town of Taormina high above Giardini Naxos today [28 July 2015] to visit the Teatro Greco.

Taormina stands on an ancient site on the hillside of Monte Tauro, mid-way between Messina and Catania. Last night, inside the Church of Santa Caterina, I saw part of the surviving ruins of the Teatro Romano, but today I wanted to the see some other classical sites and churches I had missed yesterday.

Most of the original seats are long gone in the Teatro Greco, but the plan and arrangement remain those of a Greek theatre (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015; click image to enlarge)

The Teatro Greco or classical theatre is one of the most celebrated and remarkable sites in Sicily because of its remarkable preservation and its beautiful location. It is built mainly of brick, which means it was probably built by the Romans. But the plan and arrangement are those of a Greek theatre, which shows that a Roman theatre was probably built on the foundations of an older Greek theatre.

The theatre was built in the Corinthian order and was richly ornamented. Most of the original seats are long gone, but the wall surrounding the whole cavea is preserved, and the proscenium, the back wall of the scena, and its appendages survive with noticeable integrity.

With a diameter of 109 metres, this is the second largest theatre in Sicily, after that of Syracuse, which I hope to visit tomorrow. It is frequently used for operatic and theatrical performances and for concerts.

Looking down on the Bay of Naxos from Taormina (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Strabo and other Greek writers confirm the tradition that Tauromenion (Ταυρομένιον) was founded by Greek colonists from the island of Naxos, like Giardini Naxos on the coastline below. The new settlement rapidly gained prosperity, and was a considerable town at the time of Timoleon’s expedition in 345 BC. This was the first place he landed in Sicily after he out-manoeuvred the Carthaginians guarding the Straits of Messina to the north.

Tyndarion of Tauromenion was involved in bringing Pyrrhus to Sicily in 278 BC, and he landed with his army at Tauromenion before marching on Syracuse to the south. A few years later, Tauromenium fell to Hieron of Syracuse, and it remained a part of the kingdom of Syracuse until Hieron’s death.

The town fell to Rome when the whole island of Sicily was reduced to a Roman province. Cicero records that Roman Tauromenium was one of the three cities in Sicily that enjoyed the privileges of a civitas foederata or allied city, with nominal independence, subject not even to the demand to supply ships in times of war.

During the Servile War in Sicily in 134-132 BC, the city was taken by insurgent slaves. Despite siege and famine, they continued to hold out until the citadel was betrayed by one of their leaders, Sarapion, and all the survivors were put to the sword. The fleets of Octavian and Pompeius fought a sea battle off the shores below Tauromenium, ending with the defeat and almost total destruction of Octavian.

When the Western Roman Empire fell, Taormina remained an important town, and was one of the last places in Sicily that the Eastern Roman emperors held onto.

After a two-year siege, Taormina was captured in 902 by the Arabs who renamed the place al-Muizzia after al-Muizz, a Fatimid Caliph. Muslim rule lasted until 1078, when Taormina was captured by the Norman leader, Count Roger I of Sicily.

After the fall of the Normans and their heirs, the Hohenstaufen, Taormina was held by the Angevins and then by the Kings of Aragon. Later Taormina was under Spanish rule, and was given the status of a city in the 17th century.

Today, portions of the ancient walls can be seen at intervals all around the brow of the hill. The scattered fragments include the remains of reservoirs, sepulchres, pavements, and a spacious building known as La Naumachia, although it is difficult to understand its original purpose.

The Church of San Pancrazio was built with material from the sanctuary of Isis and Serapis, dating from the Hellenistic period (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

After a late lunch in Sapori di Mare outside the walls, I visited the Church of San Pancrazio, a few paces to the north. This church, named after the patron saint of Taormina, was built with material from the sanctuary of Isis and Serapis, dating from the Hellenistic period.

Two surviving inscriptions, one in Greek (2nd century BC), the other in Latin (1st to 2nd century), show the temple here was dedicated to the cult of the two Egyptian gods Isis and Serapis, and a statue of a priestess, dating back to the 2nd century AD shows the lengthy, continuous use of the dating back to the late 3rd and early 2nd century BC. The temple stood on a high podium, and much of it survives in the fabric of the church, including parts of the southern block walls.

The Giardino Pubblico was a bequest to Taormina by Florence Trevelyan (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015; click image to enlarge)

Close to the Teatro Greco, we found the Giardino Pubblico, or Public Gardens, the second major tourist attraction in Taormina after the Greek Theatre. It was donated to the town by Florence Trevelyan (1852-1907), an English heiress who at an early age was taken into the royal household at Balmoral. Queen Victoria fostered her and imparted her passions for dogs and plants.

However, at the age of 27, Florence was suddenly banished from the royal household and was given 48 hours to leave Britain. It was rumoured that she was having an affair with the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII. In 1879, she settled in Sicily, and there in 1890 she married Dr Salvatore Cacciola, for many years the Mayor of Taormina.

As well as the plants and the follies and observation towers that Florence Trevelyan built, the gardens offer panoramic views over the bay to Giardini Naxos and Mount Etna.

The Centaur fountain in the Piazza Duomo (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

From Florence Trevelyan’s gardens we walked along the Via Roma, a balcony overlooking the Bay of Naxos, to other end of the town and the Piazza Duomo, with its 17th century baroque fountain decorated with a centaur and the Duomo or cathedral, dedicated to Saint Nicholas and dating from the 13th century.

Outside the cathedral, a throng of tourists enjoying the late afternoon shade from the summer heat, applauded spontaneously as a bride entered the Duomo, hand on her father’s arm, for her wedding.

The Duomo has been built and rebuilt over the centuries (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

The Duomo, which looks like a mighty fortress, was built around 1400 or even earlier on the ruins of a smaller mediaeval church. It was completely rebuilt in the 15th and 17th centuries and restored in the 1700s.

The main portal, which was rebuilt in 1636, has a large Renaissance-style rosette sculpted on it. It contains elements of every refurbishment the cathedral has undergone, while the interior, with three naves, contains elements from both the Renaissance and Baroque eras.

Inside, the nave ceiling has wooden beams supported by carved corbels with Arabesque scenes and with a Gothic flavour.

The six pink marble columns lining the nave, three on each side, with capitals decorated with foil and fish-scale motifs, are thought to have come from the Teatro Greco.

We had come full circle, and returned on the local bus to Giardini Naxos as the evening began to close in.

The pink marble columns lining the nave of the Duomo are thought to have come the Teatro Greco (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Taorrmina is neither ‘one long parade of junk
shops’ nor ‘quite as boring as Bournemouth’

The lights in Taormina begin to fade over the Bay of Naxos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

As I left Taormina last night, the moon was almost full above the Bay of Naxos, the sun had set, purple lights were filling the clouds, and they were reflected in purple hues across the Mediterranean waters below.

The village of Taormina is perched on a cliff above Giardini Naxos, where I am staying this week, and looks down on the east coast of Sicily and out to the Ionian Sea. A cable-car carries tourists from Giardini Naxos up to Taormina, with its old churches, lively bars, fine restaurants, tourist shops and classical ruins.

Taormina is a romantic place, and it is celebrated by Mark Knopfler, who evokes the town in his song Lights of Taormina on his latest album Tracker (2015).

Knopfler told Billboard magazine that he started writing the song “where I was actually sitting on this beautiful terrace, looking down at Taormina.” He played at Taormina’s ancient Greek theatre just two years ago [16 July 2013], and wrote the song probably as he was looking down on Taormina from Hotel Villa Angela, owned by Jim Kerr of Simple Minds. Kerr fell in love with Sicily when he visited on tour.

Taormina has had a mixed reputation among English-speaking visitors and tourists. The writer and dilettante Harold Acton said Taormina had become “a polite synonym for Sodom” in the mid-20th century. Acton inspired the character of Anthony Blanche in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1945).

Later, when Acton returned to Taormina with Waugh after World War II, they saw a sign advertising “Ye Olde English Teas,” and Acton sighed, declaring Taormina “was now quite as boring as Bournemouth.”

Before Acton, another English visitor who was not impressed by Taormino was DH Lawrence, who lived here for three years in 1920-1923. Much of Lady Chatterley’s Love is supposed to have been inspired by the tales of an English woman living in Taormina who fell in love with a local farmer.

But in one letter back to England, Lawrence wrote disparagingly of Corso Umberto, now one of the most expensive shopping streets in southern Italy – he described as “one long parade of junk shops … If only Etna would send down 60,000,000 tons of boiling lava over the place and cauterise it away.”

Antique shops and chic boutiques line the streets of Taormina (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

The English writer Daphne Phelps was much happier when she lived here for over half a century, from 1948 to 1999. She had inherited the Casa Cuseni, with its spectacular views of Mount Etna and the Bay of Naxos over the rooftops of Taormina, and described life here in A House in Sicily.

Her many friends who were her guests here included Bertrand Russell, Roald Dahl, Henry Faulkner, Tennessee Williams and Caitlin Thomas, the widow of Dylan Thomas.

Stepping into Taormina is like stepping into another world (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 Oscar Wilde, Czar Nicholas I, Richard Wagner, and Friedrich Nietzsche, who wrote Thus Spoke Zarathustra while he was here.

In the early 20th century, Taormina hosted a colony of expatriate artists, writers, and intellectuals. Albert Stopford grew roses in his Edwardian garden, DH Lawrence stayed at the Fontana Vecchia, and 30 years later, in 1950-1951, the same villa was home to Truman Capote.

The balcony in the Palazzo Corvajo is like a scene from ‘Romeo and Juliet’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Taormina stands on an ancient site on the hillside of Monte Tauro above Giardini Naxos, mid-way between Messina and Catania. A steep, almost isolated rock, crowned by a Saracen castle, rises another 150 metres higher.

The Palazzo Corvajo, with a balcony that could be a setting for Romeo and Juliet, was the location of a rebellious “parliament” of Sicilian nobles who met here in 1410 to elect a new king. It now houses the Sicilian Museum of Arts and Popular Crafts.

Next door, inside the Church of Santa Caterina, we saw part of the surviving ruins of the Teatro Romano.

The most remarkable surviving monument at Taormina is the Teatro Greco or classical theatre. But it was closed off last night because of a concert by the Irish singer and songwriter Damien Rice. I must return again later this week to explore classical Taormina.

The Teatro Greco was closed off last night for a concert by Damien Rice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)