Sasso Barisano, Matera

This is a view of the Sasso Barisano in Matera (see posts below) with the cathedral of the town high on the ridge in the distance. Those dark clouds managed to bypass the city today, threatening rain but never delivering on it.

Styles Matera

On the right is part of the facade of the church of San Domenico in Matera, with its wheel-shaped rose window in classic 13th century design. On the left is a portion of the adjacent structure with Baroque decorations–five centuries separating each of the styles. That’s common in Matera, which has a wide range of buildings from many eras.

Gravina River, Matera

This is a view of the Gravina River, which flows through Matera (see posts below). You can see above some of the cave dwellings from the middle ages, these ones not yet renovated from their abandonment in the 1950s and 60s.

Matera Sasso Caveoso

This is a view of the Sasso Caveoso of Matera, Italy. Two sassi or ravines exist in the old town, the Caveoso and the Barisano, in both of which people lived in partly cave dwellings for centuries, continuing their medieval way of life well into the 1950s when the poor citizens of the sassi were relocated to the upper parts of the town, some against their wishes. In the 1980s people started to move back, and now the place is becoming gentrified and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Tourists have discovered it and now nice hotels exist in what once were the poorest of dwellings. The place has been the location of many films, including Pier Paolo Passolini’s Gospel According to Matthew (1964; you can watch the whole thing on YouTube) and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. You can recognize Matera’s ancient sassi in the background of this clip.


Matera: Sacred and Profane

I took this picture this morning in Matera, Italy, a city made famous, or infamous, in Carlo Levi’s book Christ Stopped at Eboli (1945). At left the upper portion of the city hall with its clock, and beside it the bell tower of a church.

Pretty Pomegranate

While walking in Matera, Italy this morning I saw a pomegranate tree with a single red fruit on it; pretty against the tan limestone walls of ancient cave city (see above).

Agrigento / Phaedra Sarcophagus

In a medieval Norman church, 12th century, in Agrigento, Sicily, there’s a chapel that contains a remarkable ancient work of art known as the Agrigento Sarcophagus. For the 18th century art historian Winkelmann (1717-78) it was one of the ancient world’s most precious treasures. Goethe, who saw it in his Italian Journeys of the 1780s, also thought it a masterpiece, though believed it to be classical Greek rather than early Roman. Most now date it from the first or second century CE, yet clearly imitating a Greek style. For centuries it was in the cathedral of Agrigento, according to different travelers being used as a baptismal font at one time and the church’s altar in another (it had this last function well into the 20th century). The front depicts Hippolytus preparing to go on a hunt, while the small nurse, just to the left, approaches him to divulge Phaedra’s desire for him (see below). He hold the reins of the horses, a hunting dog is in the lower right.


The hero Hippolytus was loved by Phaedra, a cunning and duplicitous heroine. Married to the hero Theseus, Phaedra fell in love with Theseus’ son by another woman, Hippolytus. Rejected by Hippolytus, she composes a letter to Theseus claiming that Hippolytus raped her, thus bringing a curse down upon Hippolytus, who dies in a chariot crash. In some versions, Phaedra commits suicide (see below). Here we have the hero Hippolytus. In the lower left the diminutive nurse of Phaedra approaches him to tell him of her mistress’s desire.


This is a detail of the Agrigento Sarcophagus (see above), a scene on the short side that shows Phaedra being attended to by girls and women. She is larger in scale than they, and her seated figure is graceful. Two girls with rowed hair confer in the background, a woman holds her arm, another whispers to her, offering her something to comfort her in her grief for having been rejected by Hippolytus.

Catania’s Crisis

In 1669 two fumeroles, or side vents, of Mount Etna erupted and lava began to flow towards the city, eventually engulfingĀ  part of it. The flows stopped just behind a Benedictine monastery, a miracle the monks were, no doubt, happy to affirm. These monks appear in a famous painting of the event in Catania’s cathedral, done by the painted Michelangelo Bonadies (see detail below).

My Kingdom for a Boat

Detail of above, showing a procession of monks going down to the waters to escape the lava flows from Etna.

Bolt the Doors

While waiting around in Catania’s cathedral I was impressed by the old mechanisms of the interior of the colossal main doors. They made fascinating subject with all the locks and bars of iron. In case of a revolt the church might offer a safe refuge indeed.

Constance in Catania

Exploring Catania’s cathedral today, dedicated to St Agatha, I decided to buy a ticket to give me access to the sacristies. I was surprised to find the tomb and effigy of one of Sicily’s most important historical personages, and certainly one of the most importance women, Queen Constance of Aragon (1179-1222). She married the great Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor and King of the Two Sicilies, in 1209, when she was thirty and he only fourteen. Here she rests in peace after eight hundred years.

Rome’s Remains

The Greco-Roman City of Catania, Sicily had an amphitheater as well as a theater and odeon, among other ancient remains still visible today. The theater one can visit, wedged tightly into the dense buildings that surround it. At some point in the Roman period there was a conversion in the theater as apparently they couldn’t make enough money just putting on plays. In an attempt to cash in on other types of entertainment, they constructed a low wall around the orchestra and diverted water from an aqueduct so it could be filled with water for tetimimi shows, which were aquatic spectacles where nude or semi-nude swimmers put on shows. The famous Roman ‘Bikini Girls’ depicted in the mosaics of Sicily’s Piazza Armerina villa might be drawn from tetimimi entertainments of the period.

Catania’s Cascade

In Catania, Sicily, in the town’s main historic square, is a fountain designed by the Neapolitan sculptor Tito Angelini in 1867. It features a sheet of water cascading down the front. Made of Carrara marble, its figures symbolize the wealth and prosperity of the city. Here’s a detail of one of the figures, his shell telling us he represents the gifts of the seas. Appropriate as the fountain is right at the entrance to the city’s famous fish market.