I would‘ve scoffed if someone had told me I would spend my thirty-first wedding anniversary schlepping up a very steep hill a half hour after breakfast. Seven of our group set out from the Villa Raino for the village of Gangi, not far away in distance, but at a much higher elevation than our lodgings, a former baronial estate. Martina will drive the others into Gangi for the morning’s tour through the town, said to be one of the most charming in Sicily.
A young woman who works at the Villa yells at the white dog, still loitering around the carpark, but he seems to think he belongs here. He he runs away a short distance and when her back is turned, quietly returns to the car park for a lie-down.
The small knot of walkers is assembling. I look across the grounds of the villa to a mountainside dotted with sheep, perhaps the same ones I had seen the day before as my husband and I walked gingerly down the slope that led away from Gangi. For me, that was no challenge. Today, it’s another story. I take a deep breath as we start moving, our leader Stephen out in front.
Once we are on the paved road, I see that the climb ahead is dramatic and daunting. I’m winded before we are ten minutes into the ascent. I bring up the rear, but make it to the top of the slope, then a little higher onto a road back into Gangi. A couple of donkeys watch us as we move along at a good pace, now that the lane is almost level underfoot. We spy Martina in the white ATG van just ahead; she’s just dropped off the other four at the meeting place, a small café. We order espressos and cappuccinos, and after a ten- minute caffeine infusion, are off to explore Gangi. Stephen provides us with background on medieval, modern, and postmodern history. It’s an ancient town, built –one theory goes—by the Greeks, or more likely, by the Romans. In the thirteenth century it was destroyed during the Sicilian Vespers War, and rebuilt in the early fourteenth century by the Ventimiglia family.
We walk past the Palazzo Bongiorno, now the Town Hall, and on to the piazza del Popolo, where a plaque commemorates vittime della Mafia, the victims of the Mafia. Some of us pull out our cameras or our cell phones. Stephen tactfully tells us it’s bad form to take photos of ourselves under the plaque. He tells us of the Mafia’s long history in Sicily, from the hired men whose job it was to protect baronial estates of absentee rulers and landlords—off living in Swabia or France or elsewhere—from roving bandits who raided the farms and estates. Over time, these protectors assumed more and more power, and were, in effect, the only ones controlling the brigands, a private police force of sorts. The Mafia persists, but in different ways—perhaps not so visible to tourists, and perhaps more focused on protection schemes for shops, construction contracts, and the more mundane stuff of HBO television series?
We pass by the town fountain and learn of the siege of Gangi in the late 1920’s by Caesare Mori, known as the Iron Prefect. Appointed by Mussolini to eradicate the Mafia, Mori, with Il Duce’s blessing, carried out house to house searches, tortured, took hostages, including women and children, and specialized in humiliating his victims. When we get home, we’ll see if we can track down the DVD of Il prefetto di ferro, a 1970’s film by Pasquale Squitieri, starring his longtime companion Claudia Cardinale.
Sobered by the accounts of sieges, absentee princes, the Mafia, and Partita National Fascist, we visit a couple of Gangi’s thirteen churches. We maneuver up steep lanes, past houses with large terra cotta pots of geraniums and herbs on doorsteps, and up narrow stone stairs to the Chiesa Madre, dedicated to San Niccolo. Here, we pass by nineteenth century artist Filippo Quattrochi’s carved wooden sculpture of San Gaetano, and walk behind the altar to the sacristy. Occupying one enormous wall is Salerno’s seventeenth century masterpiece, L’ultimo Giudizio, The Universal Judgment. Patterned after Michangelo’s version of this theme in the Sistine Chapel, the painting seems hidden away in this part of the church, but as we soon learn from the priest, the painting was moved from the rear wall of the church when an organ was installed there a few centuries later. The painting is rich with New Testament imagery—St Michael the Archangel, souls waiting to be ferried to purgatory, Christ at the center, the Virgin Mary kneeling at his right side, the separation of legions of the saved from those of the damned, the cherubim and assorted other angels. We could spend the rest of the day there, picking out details and puzzling over their theological significance.
But there’s much more to see, so we move back into the nave and have a look around at the side altars and the sculptures. Just when we have had our fill, Stephen and the padre begin to converse by the church door. He’s a small, round man with glasses, and he speaks with great confidence and authority. At first, Stephen listens, then translates for us. Then as the back and forth between the two speeds up, I try to catch some vocabulary that is close enough to my high school Latin and my elementary school Italian lessons with Signora Clement. I decipher about one out of every ten words: poesia, musica, danza, morte. We all nod; some of our group knows Italian, so they nod more knowingly. Art was always a matter of close communication between the artist and the clergy, the padre tells us. All this history and art, as well as the climb up Gangi’s hilly lanes, has made us hungry, so it’s back down the mountain to the Villa for another delicious lunch: a salad of ripe red tomatoes, and another of radicchio, blue cheese and pear, charcuterie, pecorino and provolone cheeses, crostini, sundried tomatoes, ripe apricots. There’s Sicilian wine, of course– one red and one white, and to finish it all, the dolce. Martina has wowed us once again.
Next: The troglodyte caves in Sperlinga.