In 1861 the Kingdom of Sardinia became the Kingdom of Italy and Sicily, having been annexed by Giuseppe Garibaldi the previous year, was united with the rest of the peninsula. For centuries the island had passed through the bloody hands of nearly a dozen rulers as they claimed control over the lucrative Mediterranean trading routes. Over the next eighty-six years Sicily experienced a devastating economic collapse as the feudal system was broken down and a new middle class took over the freshly privatized property. During this time the central powers of Italy provided relatively ineffective enforcement of the new land titles and the people turned to their own for protection. As what seems to be a logical result after hundreds of years of bloodshed, those asked to protect the Sicilians chose violence as a means to do so. Eventually the small groups of local men charged with enforcing Italian law became a handful of large families competing with each other for increased wealth and power. Maintaining their savior rhetoric the “Cosa Nostra” (meaning our thing) agents referred to themselves as “men of honor”. Ironically the isolation that had caused the citizens to require protection simultaneously allowed for widespread extortion and the implied “hell” that would be faced as a result of non-compliance with these Mafiosos.
We arrived in Sicily during late spring and the weather was perfect. The small hotel we had booked faced the ocean and the coastal road following the beach. After a long train ride walking barefoot in the sand was just what we needed to rejuvenate. We spent the afternoon enjoying the ocean breeze and clear skies before returning to the road looking for lunch. After some difficulty, and to the frustration of my companions, we found a restaurant offering Pene Arrabiata – the reliable standard as a vegetarian traveling in Italy. After lunch we took a gravity-defying stairway to a town built on the hillside above the beach. As it was growing dark, the shops began illuminating their window displays as we explored the maze-like streets. I discovered Marzipan that evening and was fascinated by the degree of artistry which had developed around this sweet material. Storefront after storefront were filled with sculpted Marzipan fruits and vegetables of every kind, exotic animals and even small scenes of people at markets and sunbathing with umbrellas.
Mt. Etna is the largest mountain south of the Alps rising to over 10,000 ft and is one of the most active volcanoes in the world – a major source of Sicilian pride. The second day in Sicily we had decided to climb a route that promised a spectacular view of the crater, traversing one of its rocky sides to an outlook. The loose volcanic rock that covered the trail was extremely hot, sharp and painful as it wedged into my open sandals with each step and reminding me to make more appropriate footwear choices when packing for the next trip. Reaching the top, we spent some time admiring the vantage point and wondering at the immense opening which we knew led to the very core of the Earth.
Sweaty and tired, we were headed back to the beach to remove our shoes and cool down in the water when we saw a van advertising a scuba diving shop parked in front of the hotel. A middle-aged man with long shaggy hair and flip-flops crossed the road and jumped into the front seat. Before he had time to turn the key we had decided. The most conversant in Italian of the three of us approached the van and asked how much it would cost to take us for a dive that afternoon… and none of us were certified. They agreed on a price and we climbed into the van, the dive shop was just down the coast.
Wetsuits and goggles on, the shaggy-haired man started up the boat and took us out into the water. For the next twenty minutes he shouted a mixture of instructions and precautions over his shoulder as he steered away from the shoreline and then cut the engine. We followed him awkwardly, maneuvering backwards flipper-footed until we could roll off the edge of the boat and into the sea. The water was cloudy and unfortunately the only highlight of the dive was a three-inch long brown-spotted fish. That evening sufficiently worn out, we returned to Florence on the last train from Catania.
The following day was Monday – I was enrolled in a sculpture course on Mondays and that particular week we were going to the baptistery of the Florentine cathedral. One of the fantastic things about Florence was the abundance of “public” artists. People with easels, brushes and canvas were everywhere – but so were other kinds of artists; sculptors, leather workers, musicians, photographers all seeking a point of inspiration. In order to find our own inspiration, the group was instructed to choose a figure encrusted onto the facade of the baptistery and spend the next five hours duplicating it to the best of our ability. I chose the bust of a woman from a bronze panel – part of “The Gateway to Paradise” doors that were created by Lorenzo Ghiberti in the 15th century. The clay was warm and soft in my hands; I began forming the round part of her head and then pressing in to make cavities for her eyes, building the shape of her nose and the slight parting of her lips. The edge of her mouth curved upwards – sure that she had made it to the gateway of paradise and once inside her soul would be safe for all eternity. Perhaps there had been a girl like her in Sicily, sure that she would be saved and that the “men of honor” would protect her.