Yesterday morning we had coffee at a local café on the edge of the small harbour at Syracuse. The turquoise, mirror-calm Med sparkled in the warm, winter sunshine and hypnotised us into lingering for longer than usual – to the point, in fact, where lingering became malingering (a habit that one can observe in a certain sector of the local male population). By the time we finally left, I was feeling so dozy that I forgot to pay. When, later in the day, I realised this and returned to settle the account, a different barista – one who spoke no English – was on duty and, in order to explain myself, I had to look up the verb “I forgot”: it translates as ho dimenticato, which sounds uncomfortably like an admission of dementia.
This instance of the shared roots of language (in this case, Latin) illustrates just one of the things that make me feel at home in Europe and frustrated by the Brexiteers’ determination to distance us from it: our cultures are more homogenous and our histories more intertwined than many a Little Englander would care to admit. That which appears to them ‘foreign’ is merely a variation of an over-arching theme – and Sicily is a good place to get a sense of this. Linguistic similarities apart, the sense of shared history is evident in many of its buildings. The Cathedral of Syracuse, for example, incorporates the original Doric columns of the Greek temple that preceded it. They look familiar, which is not surprising since Greek classical architecture was widely imitated in Britain and elsewhere. These particular columns, however, are 2500 year-old originals that have served Pagans, Christians, Moslems, Byzantines, and then Christians again. They are visible proof that Sicilians were not always Italian – any more than Britons were always British. They are also a reminder that the incumbent Roman Catholic Church is a relative newcomer to the worshiping business.
Syracuse around 400 BC was not only Greek but also just as prosperous as Athens and, by way of demonstration, the authorities built a huge theatre. It was hewn out of a rocky hillside, had a seating capacity of 16,000, is known to have staged the last tragedies of Aeschylus and is still in use as a setting for theatrical productions today. However, stage drama is not to everyone’s taste and, when the Romans took over the place 600 years later, they made alterations to the performance area so as to accommodate their more plebeian entertainments i.e. gladiatorial events. As it turned out, that was a good move: re-purposing is a practical and economic use of resources that saved it – and many other historic edifices – from obliteration.
The centres of Sicily’s old towns are stuffed with historically interesting houses and palazzi that are barely standing, but the economics of rescue are difficult to resolve and they may all fall down eventually. Elsewhere, however, buildings of another sort are being re-purposed. In Catania, a 20th century sulphur factory has been converted to house workspaces and several small-scale museums, one of which, the Museum of the Cinema, I went to visit. I would like to report that the museum is a rip-roaring success, that it is stuffed with valuable memorabilia and that the interactive displays are ingenious, engaging and all in working order; but, unfortunately, I cannot. Which is not to say it is devoid of interest or charm: the old publicity posters are nostalgic and the period room-sets – especially Don Corleone’s study – are eerily evocative. More importantly, however, the project is an imaginative attempt to preserve the region’s heritage that, without support from the EU, would not have happened. Every region’s past deserves recognition for its contribution to present European culture: and that’s one thing I won’t forget.