The cathedral that failed

Biniamar is a small village of three hundred people at the eastern foot of the Sierra Tramuntana in Mallorca. Its name, like that of many other places in Mallorca beginning with Bini, comes from the fact that during the Muslim kingdom of Mallorca (902-1229), an Arab or Berber tribe lived here, who considered themselves the sons (bani) of a common ancestor, in the case of Biniamar, the sons of Amar (bani Amar). In the centuries following the Catalan conquest, Amar’s sons became Catalan peasants and good Catholics. Their medieval church was dedicated to Saint Thecla, disciple of Saint Paul and an early patron of female autonomy, whose veneration was widespread among the Catalan conquerors. The cathedral of Tarragona in Catalonia is also dedicated to her, where she is celebrated in every September with a spectacular ten-day (!) procession.

In Biniamar, however, the most famous shrine is not the church of Saint Thecla, but the one called Església Nova, the New Church. However, this building is not marked as a church on the map, and although the commemorative plaque bolted to its façade in 2010 celebrates its centenary, it was never actually consecrated. You can only see why on site: because it has no roof, and never had. The ribs that start as cross vaults from the consoles above the Gothic arches of the side aisles stop immediately after starting, and the building is open to the sky. That is why the church is also called the Unfinished Cathedral.

It is not uncommon for Gothic cathedrals to be left unfinished, such as the Dom in Cologne, which, as they say, “if will be finished, the world will end”. Or the Duomo in Siena with its large, empty main nave, or Beauvais Cathedral, where the five-hundred-year-old scaffolding itself is already considered a monument. This, however, had a reason as serious as the building itself: war, black death, earthquake. As comical as it was to build a Gothic cathedral in Biniamar, just as banal and farcical was the reason for its failure.

The village’s three hundred inhabitants would never have thought of building such a large church, if it had not happened that Antonio Maura (1853-1925), a six-time prime minister of pre-Franco Spain, born in Palma de Mallorca, spent his childhood summers with his uncle who lived here.

Antonio Maura. A portrait by photographer Kâulak (Antonio Cánovas del Castillo y Vallejo) on the double page of the May 5, 1917 issue of the magazine La Esfera

Already from the end of the 19th century, Maura clearly saw the structural problems of the Spanish state and the disasters to which they could lead (and did lead indeed). During his six governments, he consistently tried to change them with the reforms of his “revolution from above” and by breaking “caciquismo”, the power of rural landowner politicians (godfathers, oligarchs, or “NER knights”, as we would call them in Hungary, the beneficiaries of the System of National Cooperation). In contrast, as we will soon see, he was the first governor in 20th-century Spain who had to crush by force a revolution from below,and the first politician who, as a successful native of Mallorca, was surrounded in the island by a personal cult worthy of a “cacique”. The Art Nouveau monument erected by the city of Palma de Mallorca with the sculptor Mariano Benlliure in 1929 on the Plaça del Mercat is a witness to this.

Another witness is the “cathedral” of Biniamar, which could come to life only due to the fact that Maura wanted to set up a memorial commensurate with his own perceived importance in the scene of his childhood. During his second prime ministership (1907-1909), the great returner of Spanish politics “found” 100,000 pesetas for the new church of Biniamar. The foundation stone was laid on September 25, 1910, two days after the feast of St. Thecla, and the amount was enough to raise the walls up to the beginning of the vault. At that time, however, it was already apparent that there would be problems with the continuation.

The so-called second Rif War that broke out around the Spanish enclave city of Melilla in Morocco, did not turn well for Spain, and Maura was forced to call up reserves. The conscript could be redeemed for 1,500 pesetas, which was a worker’s salary for one year. In this way, the rich got away, but the poor, many of whom were sole breadwinners, were dragged into a war that, in the eyes of the Spanish people, served only the interests of the rich mine owners around Melilla. Demonstrations and later uprisings broke out against the conscription, primarily in Barcelona, which was already an important center of Anarchism, which played a significant role in the later civil war. During the “Tragic Week” at the end of July, the government put down the rebellion with guns. More than a hundred people died. Five organizers of the uprising, including its leader Francesc Ferrer i Guàrdia, organizer of the “Free Schools” in Barcelona, were sentenced to death. The sentence and the execution were accompanied by a huge European protest, and as a result, King Alfons XIII replaced Maura as prime minister.

Francesc Ferrer i Guàrdia (1859-1909) free thinker, anarchist, educator

The burning Barcelona on July 28, 1909, about which Antonio Ribas made the film La ciutat cremada (The city burnt) in 1976

And everything happened as usual. The projects of public interest continued under the next prime minister, Segismundo Moret: the Berber fighters of the Rif Mountains were pushed back from the land they were fighting for, expropriated by the mining companies. But the private projects stopped immediately. The promised next 100,000 pesetas did not arrive in Biniamar. The arcs started, but they did not continue. The church was left without a roof.

And everything went on as usual with projects that only serve the pleasure and prestige of a powerful patron, but the local community does not really need them. The stadiums are overrun by weeds, the family estate built on the site of destroyed monuments becomes a sheepfold, drug addicts shoot themselves up under the torn ceilings of palaces of culture. * As Isaiah dramatizes it:

“Thorns will overrun her citadels, nettles and brambles her strongholds. She will become a haunt for jackals, a home for owls. Desert creatures will meet with hyenas, and wild goats will bleat to each other. There the lilith will also lie down and find for themselves places of rest. The owl will nest there and lay eggs, she will hatch them and care for her young under the shadow of her wings. There also the falcons will gather, each with its mate.”

In Biniamar, the large space surrounded by four walls was turned into a sports field and a community space, because that was all what the local community needed. By peeking through the main gate, you can see the soccer goal pushed aside, and through the south gate, the basketball blackboard in the transept as well as the stacked plastic chairs of the open-air cinema.

And today, on the evening of Saint Anthony, when every village on the island prepares for the holy theater of the temptation of the old hermit and the subsequent community pig roasting, you can already see the huge log of the community bonfire in front of the church, as well as the glowing “Happy Holidays!” inscription above the gate.

It’s dusk. The sun is setting blood red over the surrounding houses. Dezső must die today. *

Swallow calendar

In the Sicilian Nicosia, next to Bar Antica Gelateria in the main square, on the façade of which fragments of Mussolini’s Victory Day speech of May 9, 1936 still can be read, a steep staircase leads up to the hill of the twenty-four barons.

The hill got its name from the fact that, after the conquest of the city at the end of the 11th century, the cream of the new Norman-Lombard nobility settled here. The name has since become a trademark of Nicosia, which is referred to as “the city of the twenty-four barons”, but it is also the name of a local restaurant, brewery and craft beer pub. The coats of arms of the twenty-four barons are displayed in the restaurant of the same name.

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Although the names of the twenty-four barons have been brightly preserved by tradition, time has not been so clement to their legacy. Most of their palaces stand empty and decaying. Some of them were closed so long time ago that the lock itself is slowly becoming a thing of museum value.

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Since the earth is constantly moving gently in Sicily, the door jambs of some gates have also slipped apart, and there is no one to get them right again.

The Salomone Palace, the largest among them, after which the steep street is named, is in the best condition. One of the most valuable old libraries of Nicosia is kept here. Above the gate, the coat of arms of the converso family includes the Star of David, or rather Solomon’s Seal, and the two lions next to it look like the lions of Judah raising the crown of the Torah on Jewish tombstones. Other Jewish noble families also often preserved these symbols of their most ancient pedigree, as Jakob Bassevi von Trautenberg did on his palace in Prague.

Steep streets climb up from the old and the lower town on both sides of the salita.

Soon the Lombard hill rising on the other side of the main square appears above the rooftops, with the “mother church” (madre chiesa) of Santa Maria Maggiore on the top. The Lombard warriors who were settled there by the Norman conquerors brought to Nicosia the typical Gallo-Italian dialect, which no one else in Sicily understands except them, and which does not even sound Italian. When sitting in the bar, I had to wonder for a long time what language they were speaking. Their church became a rival to the St. Nicholas church of the original Greek inhabitants in the main square, so it was necessary each year to change the title of the city’s cathedral between the two madre chiese. During their Holy Week processions, they regularly clashed, and struck each other with the procession crucifix. The same happened on the feast of St Nicholas, the original patron saint of the two churches. That is why the Lombard church had to be renamed Santa Maria Maggiore, so the two devotional processions would at least not meet during the feast of the patron saint.

At the end of the road, you have to make one last effort to get up the steep SS. Salvatore stairs to the Church of the Savior on top of the hill.

The effort is well worth it. From the small square in front of the church, you enjoy a gorgeous panorama of the old town of Nicosia and the landscape beyond it, all the way to Mount Etna, which is piping with a delicate white strip. The structure of the city unfolds below us in such detail and invites us to take a virtual walk like an animated Baroque city map, with its streets, squares, fountains, the façades of churches and palaces, the high towers and the inner courtyards lined with sloping tiled roofs, into which you can peer from above.

Directly below us is the main square with St Nicholas Church, which was rebuilt from a Greek church and an Arab tower in its current Renaissance-Baroque form after who knows how many earthquakes. Its Andalusian-style minaret tower is still surrounded by seven strong iron bands to at least somewhat counterbalance the inscrutable will of Allah.

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But the biggest surprise is that the south side of the Church of the Savior, which is normally closed off from the rest of the square by an iron-barred gate, is now open. Its key is kept in the Ecomuseo Petra d’Asgotto, with whom you can arrange a meeting in advance by e-mailing to And it is worth it, because here is a unique monument of the city: the swallow calendar (calendario delle rondinelle).

The southern wall of the church is enriched with a 13th-century arcaded porch. In the eastern corner of the wall, a large limestone block was inserted, on the two smoothed sides of which they engraved year by year from 1737 to 1798, which month and which day the first swallows arrived in Nicosia. This happened most often in the first days of March, but sometimes in the last week of February, and even in mid-February towards the end of the century. Would the weather have been that much warmer?

The continuation of the calendar can be found after passing through the arches, in the southwest corner of the church. Here, they inserted three block stones in the wall, but only the middle one has dates, from 1799 to 1820. Perhaps the lower one has some too, but you cannot read them any more.

The arrival of the first swallows and the first storks, the official seal of the new spring, is a big event in the life of a small town. But since it is not about the visit of great people, saints or rulers, it rarely occurred to anyone to include this event in the local history.

History writing also has its history, as to in which age what was considered worthy of recording, of including into history books. Based on the ancient Roman-Greek model, for a long time they only focused on dicta et facta memorabilia, the memorable deeds and sayings of famous people, or major events affecting the lives of entire peoples. That simple folks, everyday mentality, man’s relationship with nature and animals, ad absurdum the swallows of Nicosia can also have a history, was only established in the 20th century by the French school of historiography Annales.

I wonder who thought of this in Nicosia, which churchman was so much channeled at the same time into the cycle of nature and the routine of written chronicles, to start keeping this calendar and to create micro-historiography two centuries before Annales.

Kingdom forever

Petralia Soprana is a charming medieval town in north-central Sicily, at the inland foot of the Madonie mountain range that separates the cheerful Cefalù coast from the hopeless inland hills. It has everything you need: winding medieval streets, a Baroque cathedral of Romanesque origins, a Norman castle which was converted into a Carmelite monastery after the Arab threat has passed, its weekly Friday market, on which day it is forbidden to enter the city from 9 am to 1 pm, a begun but never finished highway, on the six pillars of which a car park has been arranged, and, last but not least, a town hall, with a pastry shop below, and a small park in front with a monument to the fallen heroes.

The Piazza del Popolo on the feast of the armed forces, November 4, 2022

Today, in the age of democracy, the small park is called Piazza del Popolo, but in the anti-democratic age it was called Vecchia Vuccirìa. In the Sicilian language, vuccirìa means cacophony and confusion, in which today’s speakers tend to recognize the root voce, ʻword, sound’, but this is a false etymology. The name actually comes from the French word boucherie, cattle market, and the noise associated with such markets leads to the word’s modern meaning.

The ʻcattle market’ lends a special second meaning to the monument in the middle, which, according to tradition, commemorates those massacred in the war. The monument was dreamed up in 1929 by Antonio Ugo (1870-1950), a prolific sculptor during Fascism, head of the sculpture department of the Accademy of Fine Arts in Palermo, in the popular “Novecento” monumental classicist style of the period, which was so close to other – German or Soviet – imperial styles. The young Roman warrior going to war swears to defend his country with his sword held above a burning altar, like Mucius Scaevola. From under his arm, his anxious old mother peers at the altar, which is probably decorated with the motif of the Eucharist for her – and for Petralia Soprana’s similar old women’s – sake. On the other side, the hero is supported by his wife in going to war, only she knows why. Her arm embraces their Michelangeloesque child, who is partly secretly grieving his father’s heroic decision, partly drawing strength from his mother’s clothes for the time after his father’s fall, which is what this post is about.

Strangely enough, there is no inscription on the monument, although space was left for it, and the holes of the dowels fixing the former marble tablets are still visible.

We are probably dealing with another case of the historical cognitive dissonance which, as we have seen, is so characteristic of the small towns in Sicily. Mussolini’s rule brought development and public security to Sicily, and a harsh suppression of the mafia, which was only restored to its former monopoly by the Anglo-Saxon landings in 1943. The island therefore finds it difficult to give up its Mussolini-era monuments, which remind them of a bygone golden age that has not been reached since. In the main squares of small towns, Mussolini’s frasi celebri can still be read, and still there are sculptures and statues from his era. In the neighboring Gangi, the nationalist memorial plaque of 1936 was first removed in 1945, and then put back due to popular pressure. Probably this monument also had some dedicatory inscription which it was thought better to remove. The monument speaks for itself eloquently enough.

In the photo above, on the corner house overlooking the monument – which may have been an office or a party center – you can still see that under the balcony there was once a text painted in the font typical of public Mussolini quotes. What exactly it was, can be told only by the dwindling age group that can still browse the frasi celebri in their memory and identify the still readable groups of letters.

Much more interesting historical documents are the still-preserved inscriptions that were painted on the façade in May 1946, long after the fall of Mussolini, and which celebrate the monarchy and the king.

“Long live the King! Long live the monarchy!” The hammers and sickles that were faded above and below were not repainted like the royalist inscriptions.

These inscriptions are perhaps unique survivors of a campaign that preceded the June 2, 1946 referendum on Italy’s form of government.

The question of the form of government caused tensions in the domestic politics of united Italy from the very beginning. The spiritual father of the unified Italian state, Giuseppe Mazzini, who founded the Giovine Italia movement in 1831, dreamed of this state as a democratic republic that would abolish all previous kingdoms. However, the unification of Italy was ultimately carried out under the leadership of the king of Sardinia and Piedmont, in reality as a kind of internal colonization. Garibaldi, who united the country from the south, from Sicily, was indeed a republican, but for the sake of a unified Italy, he finally handed over his conquests to Victor Emanuel II. This even made some of his party colleagues consider him a traitor. The opposition between republicans and monarchists determined the entire domestic politics of Italy until Mussolini came to power in 1922.

After the fall of Mussolini on July 25, 1943, the question gained new relevance. The king fled to southern Italy, controlled by Anglo-Saxon troops, and virtually became a lame duck. In addition, he had already compromised himself by appointing Mussolini in 1922, and supporting his dictatorship for twenty years. In the North, occupied by the Germans, the republican parties were illegally re-established, and participated in the anti-German partisan movement. Therefore, after the liberation of the country on April 25, 1945, they demanded a referendum on the form of government.

The ballot of the referedum on June 2, 1946

One month before the referendum, Victor Emanuel III passed the throne to his son Umberto, whose name is still given to squares in Sicily. This change dates the Petralia campaign inscriptions to May 1946..

“The monarchy is the only one that can guarantee the salvation of the homeland. Long live Umberto! Long live the monarchy!”

The June 2 referendum was the first in Italy to take place on the basis of universal suffrage, i.e. women could also participate in it. Less than half of the population of 45 million cast valid votes, of which 12 million voted for the republic and 10 million for the monarchy. After the proclamation of the republic on June 11, King Umberto handed over the power to the new president, Alcide De Gasperi, and then went into exile.

By projecting the votes on the map, we can see how much the issue divided the country. Roughly to the north of Rome, supporters of the republic predominated, and supporters of the monarchy to the south of it. In eastern Sicily, where Petralia is located, the monarchy achieved more than two thirds. This might be also the reason of the survival of the monarchist campaign inscriptions in Petralia, as silent witnesses of the resistance against the colonizing North.

“It is the careerists and adventurers mad for power who are furiously attacking the monarchy. God save the king! Long live the king! People of Petralia! Vote for the monarchy!”