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 pinalagiusa@tiscali.it. 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!”

Dissolving: The wonder

In a photo by the Portuguese Andre Boto, a man in a suit stretches out a mountain landscape photographed in bright colors and minute details on a sheet in front of a depressingly polluted industrial area, so that the viewer does not have to face reality. In the Czech Marko Jindřich’s picture from 1945, the amateur photographer stretches out a similarly idyllic landscape sheet in front of the ruins of destroyed Warsaw, so that the survivors can capture themselves in front of a usual, more optimistic photographer’s background.

Boto’s picture was chosen this October as the “photo of the year” out of 48,000 pictures submitted to the Creative Photo Awards of Siena. The finalist photos of the competition were exhibited in October and November in Siena’s Palazzo Pubblico.

The theme of this year’s competition is “I wonder if you can”, from which most of the pictures chose wonder as the keyword. The only exception is the Bulgarian Yuri Vasilyev’s Fish, you can!, which plays with the two meanings of ʻcan’.

But what is wonder? In most of the pictures in Palazzo Pubblico, it is the replacement of the usual reality with another, brighter reality, exactly as is depicted in the winning photo. Still lifes constructed and bodies dressed as Netherlandish paintings, visually elaborated concepts, landscapes with the obligatory lonely tree filtered to the extremities, a musician as a modern Orpheus moving the world as in a Surrealist paiting. The wonder that we await, which is fundamentally diffrent from reality, and which never comes.

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In only a few pictures does the true meaning of wonder appear: the epiphany. The wonder that is always present and sometimes shines on. The entry of authenticity into reality, or rather the cathartic recognition of its presence in reality.

Roddy Macinnes: Honeymoon in Finland