Archive for March, 2015


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A surprising discovery in Sicily

There are quite a lot of sights, when you’re in Italy, that cause you to break step, do a second take, shake your head and shrug before moving on, with the vision playing through your head long after.

My visit to the Shrine of Our Lady of the Tears* (Santuario della Madonna delle Lacrime) in Syracusa, southern Sicily, was one of those occasions. The building itself is remarkable enough, a 90-metre teardrop-shaped edifice of grey concrete, fashioned also to look like a tented pavilion to shelter pilgrims, jutting into the sky and visible for miles around.

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Inside, silent, eerily empty when I visited, it is strangely like walking into one of those bleak and featureless multi-storey car parks where the architects have run out of ideas after designing a contemporary exterior. Areas of it appeared raw and unfinished (it opened in 1994 after 28 years of construction) and it screamed out for contrasting softness, perhaps some tapestry hangings, to alleviate the brutal starkness. But that’s how they like it, I guess, and who am I to pass judgment.

It was when I went down into the museum area that the real strangeness took over. There were different rooms containing displays of various relevant items, including some of the 5,000 votive statues unearthed nearby during the building work, but what stopped me in my tracks was the display devoted to modern-day offerings of thanks to the Madonna.

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These tugged so hard at my heart-strings I could barely breathe. In acts of pathetic gratitude to the Madonna for mercies bestowed upon them, people had handed in their crutches, medical corsets, callipers and leg braces – obsolete now, thanks to her gracious intervention in answer to prayer.

Perhaps the most touching, though, were the soft heaps of baby clothes, lovingly knitted matinee jackets, bonnets, bootees, mittens, given as proof that the Madonna had heeded pleas for the blessing of childbirth upon so many desperate couples.

After looking at photographs, letters, drawings, paintings and lovingly executed pieces of embroidery, I turned away to calm my emotions, only to see a display of dazzling white wedding dresses, so incongruous among such desperate pathos. Yet it turned out that these dresses had also been given in thanks to the Madonna by women who had prayed fervently to her that one day they might become brides. Their dresses told the rest of the story.

I was in that peaceful, emotion-charged room for only a short time, but it was long enough to learn what the very depths of gratitude can look like, and to find how strongly the images print themselves on the mind.

* The circular shrine was built to accommodate the growing numbers of pilgrims drawn to a small plaster image of the Madonna, from which, in 1953, in a simple Siracusan home, tears were seen to fall for five days, during which the Madonna bestowed more than 300 miraculous cures. The museum area of the building is mainly devoted to the miracle of the weeping Virgin statue and the objects associated with it.

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It is hard to believe that under this depressing mound of litter lies an important historical site.

There, buried under the grime and grot, is nothing less than the late-Roman tomb of a wealthy Christian family, dating from around 400 AD, containing two sarcophagi and decorated with frescoes of roses, wreaths, swags and peacocks.

The frescoes are similar to those in the catacombs of San Giovanni, where 4th century Christians took refuge from persecutors.

The mausoleum is in Viale Teocrito in Syracuse, only a few steps from the famous Paolo Orsi archaeological museum, but no visitors would know it was there because it has sunk virtually without trace, surrounded by grim corporation railings.

Over the years, the roads have been gradually raised around it, leaving it a good two metres below street level, as if it is some eyesore public toilet block.

Now, the traffic roars and blasts its way past above roof height, while buses that stop almost beside it carry passengers who afford it not a glance. It is opposite one of the entrances to the modern sanctuary, the Madonna delle Lacrime, yet I doubt that more than a handful of worshippers would be aware of its existence.

Those who do know about it are anxious for its value and historical significance to come to wider notice and to be accorded more TLC.

The mausoleum is named after Vincenzo Politi, the painter, antiquarian and archaeologist who discovered it in 1826. If he knew what a grim state his lovely discovery was in, he might be spinning in his own grave.

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A fine example of the art of non-translation from Italian to English, seen in the southern Sicilian town of Noto.

A fine example of the art of non-translation from Italian to English, seen in the southern Sicilian town of Noto.

Information boards in Italy rarely illuminate but they do serve as a showcase for reams of flowery Italian and as many paragraphs of impenetrable English translation. I use that word loosely. The challenge is to read them and not double up with laughter.

I have a theory about how these translations come about. They are the dastardly work of someone who has responded to a cry across a crowded office for help. ‘Hey, anyone know any English? Give me a hand with this.’ (That’s a rough translation of the original.)

The courageous person who steps up is confident they have a command of the English language good enough to turn dense Italian prose into the sort of language that the English-speaking world can recognise. This is meritorious, in its way, except that they are misguided. They merely employ a string of words and phrases that they remember from school and three months of working in Zio Pepe’s pizzeria in Coventry.

They have a predilection for words such as ‘immersed’, ‘characteristic’ and ‘suggestive’ which make the reader lose concentration while grasping to maintain a hold on reality.

These long screeds of quasi-English verging on the semi-lunatic offer more laugh-a-minute errors than if the piece had been run through Google translate – and that’s saying something.

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Walking along a busy, dirty, going-nowhere sort of road called Via Elorina in Siracusa, lined with derelict buildings and some scruffy stores, an open space was revealed on my right, behind a length of paint-peeled railings.

A gate was propped open so I went in, my feet brushing through the long grass.

To my amazement, I found myself standing in the Ginnasio Romano, an ancient site that was discovered 150 years ago and is estimated to date from between 200BC and 200AD.

Theories about its origins vary, but a distinctly 21st century information board (I use the word ‘information’ very loosely) advised me that it could either have been a Roman curia, a kind of district office for the Pope, or a sanctuary of votive offerings to Oriental deities.

What an extraordinary place to have stumbled across. I walked around the small site, about the size of a football pitch, and was saddened to see it in an apparent state of abandonment.

A trimmed hedge of oleander down one side was the only sign that anyone had tended or even visited this extraordinary place recently. Yet of course it does draw visitors, of a determined mindset presumably, a fact which I discovered later on looking it up online.

How anyone reaches the Ginnasio Romano I cannot imagine, since my walk took me well away from the centre of the town and, this being Italy, there were of course no direction signs.

Little wonder that on Trip Advisor it is rated as 75th out of 95 things to see and do in and around Siracusa, yet it is beautiful in its way, unsung, unloved and so brimming with ancient history that it deserves far greater attention.

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