The lady in blue

What makes for a great work of art? Well, people differ on the answer to this question. Seeing one special painting in the Galleria Regionale della Sicilia in Palermo (Sicily) helped me formulate my answer.

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The painting that literally caught my eye and grabbed my full attention is “The Virgin Annunciate”. It was painted sometime between 1474 and ’77 by the Sicilian artist Antonello da Messina (c. 1430-79). It depicts a woman in a blue veil seated at a small wooden desk on which there is an open book. The fingers of her right hand spread forwards towards the viewer. Her left hand holds her veil closed. She appears to be gazing towards her right.  Simple, really, if described like this, but it is not.

The painting grabbed my attention long before my brain had time to analyse what was reaching my eyes’ retinas. It was an intense visceral attraction to the image that made me stop and look at it carefully, an attraction that few other works of art have had for me.

When I had recovered from the initial pleasurable shock of seeing such beauty, I began to notice its subject matter, and with the help of an explanatory note next to the painting, I learnt some of the artist’s deeper intentions.

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For example, there is a sharp crease in the cloth of the veil  just above the mid-point of the lady’s forehead. This tells the informed viewer that the Virgin is wearing a special treasured, rarely worn, veil that is usually kept neatly folded in a closet or wardrobe. No doubt, art historians would be able to point out many other meaningful details that the artist has depicted. Despite these aspects of symbolic meaning, despite its subject matter and context, this picture is primarily an object of enormous beauty and graciousness that appeals greatly to something in the deep recesses of my subconscious.

For me, a work of art must first seize the seat, the very source of my emotions in a positive way. If it can do that, then whether or not the artist has imbued it with layers of meaning, the work is in my view a great one. Lest you think that it is only the works of long dead masters that fall into my definition of ‘great art’, let me refer to someone who created more recently, Constantin Brâncuși (1856-1957). Some of his sculptures depict birds or humans as simple, almost abstract, forms, almost devoid of detail. These works evoke the same deep sensations of visceral attraction as the painting by Da Messina, yet they could hardly be more different in all respects from that.

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A work by Brancusi [Source: bookdepository.com]

I am unable to formulate why the Da Messina and Brancusi works chime (and even some extremely abstract works such as those by Modriaan or Sean Scully) with my deepest emotional chords, when others, undoubtedly masterful in many ways like the works of Caravaggio and Barbara Hepworth, do not. I suppose this is what folk call ‘taste’. And, tastes differ greatly.

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Sean Scully

For me, a great work of art must first appeal to me emotionally, viscerally if you like, rather than intellectually. If I can only begin to appreciate a work of art after it has been explained, as is the case with much so-called ‘conceptual art’, then, for me, it is not ‘great art’.

They helped Garibaldi to unify Italy

The Arberesh of Sicily are a group of people descended from Albanians, who left the Balkans in the 15th century to escape from the Ottomans.

Palermo, the capital of Sicily, is separated from the rest of the island by a crescent of mountain ranges. After the occupation of Sicily by the Arabs in the 9th century, the Bishop of Palermo moved his seat to Monreale, a small hill town southwest of the city. There, he built a cathedral and then, later, after the Arabs had been expelled, the Normans built a Benedictine monastery. Monreale, which overlooks the metropolis, is now a suburb of Greater Palermo but in mediaeval times it was almost 5 miles away from the old walled city.

Albanian refugees landed along the coast of Sicily during the 15th century while the Ottomans were fighting in Albania, ably resisted for many years by George Kastrioti Skanderbeg (1405-68). Some Albanians landed near Palermo about twenty years after the death of Skanderbeg. In 1488, the Archbishop of Monreale granted them some vacant, disused, plague-ravished land across the mountains about 5 miles south of Monreale. They were told to make the most of it, and they did so very successfully. In exchange for this ‘gift’ of land, the Albanian settlers were required to recompense the Archbishop with taxes raised on what they were able to produce.

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The settlers established a town on the south-east facing slope of Monte Pizzuta. Originally named Piana dei Greci, it is now known as Piana degli Albanese (‘Piana’).  With a present population of about 7,000, most of the people speak an archaic form of Albanian known as Arberesh, as their mother tongue. They are also fluent in Italian and Sicilian.

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Bilingual signs (Italian/Arberesh) in Piana

In 2014, I published a book, “From Albania to Sicily”, which describes the Arberesh communities in Piana and several other villages in western Sicily. In October this year, while staying in Palermo, we re-visited Piana for a day and a night.

The bus from Palermo to Piana winds through the mountains separating Piana from the capital. As we travelled along the sinuous road with its many hairpin bends, I looked at the slopes strewn with greyish boulders and pondered the difficulty of the terrain through which the Albanian settlers had to struggle in an era long before there were decent roads. Then, I remembered the landscape of wild, steep mountain ridges in south western Albania, south of Vlora. Travelling through the wild terrain south of Palermo must have seemed no different to what the settlers had left behind in Albania.

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San Demetrio Megalomartire

On arrival in Piana, I popped into the lovely cathedral of San Demetrio Megalomartire. This church has an iconostasis such as you would expect to find in an Eastern Orthodox church. It is home to worshippers who practise the Byzantine rites. The first inhabitants of Piana, who originated mainly in south-western Albania and the Morea (Peloponnese) were Greek Orthodox Christians. The Archbishop of Monreale allowed them to continue to worship according to the Byzantine rites, but they had to adopt the Pope in Rome, rather than the Patriarch in Constantinople, as their spiritual leader.

In 2016, we visited Himara in Albania. This beautiful seaside resort was one of the places where the Arberesh lived before escaping to Sicily. The old part of the town, high above the coastal resort, is largely abandoned, but it resembles closely the historic centre of Piana. Incidentally, Piana has a street named Via Himara, and, also, a restaurant called Valle Himara.

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One of the reasons for our recent visit to Piana was to present a copy of my book to the town’s excellent library that occupies two storeys above Piana’s centrally located Extra Bar, which is famed for its fine canoli. We were invited to meet Ing. Rosario Petta, the town’s Mayor, who showed great interest in my volume, and even suggested that it ought to be translated into Italian.

During our visit, we met many people who remembered us from our earlier stay in Piana. They greeted us like old friends, an indication that the Arberesh have not abandoned the Albanian traditions of friendship and hospitality. They have also not forgotten other traditions they brought with them from Albania. Although they dress like other Italians for daily activities, no opportunity is lost to change into colourful, decorated traditional Arberesh/Albanian costumes. This is particularly the case at Easter time, when visitors from all over Italy flock to Piana to see great numbers of people wearing this garb.

Eric Hobsbawm remarked that the people of Piana, “… had a reputation for rebelliousness …” He quotes the words of GM Trevelyan who said that Piana “… was the hearth of freedom in Western Sicily.” I wondered why of all the towns in Sicily, Piana was one of the most rebellious. GM Trevelyan puts it down to some kind of inheritance. Maybe, those Albanians, who preferred living freely rather than under the yoke of the Ottomans and also chose to leave their homes in the Balkans in the 15th century, were perhaps endowed with something, maybe even genetic, which engendered in them a love of freedom and equality. Who can say?

The Arberesh in Piana played an important role in assisting Garibaldi in his invasion of Sicily in 1860, the beginning of a series of events that led to the Unification of Italy. When GM Trevelyan visited the town sometime before 1912, he met leading citizens of the town, “… in their circolo, where a very intelligent and just pride is taken in the history of the revolution of 1860 and the highly creditable part played in it by the ‘Albanians’ of Piana.” Garibaldi, who began his campaign to liberate and unify the Italians in Sicily, proclaimed to the Sicilian Arberesh who fought with him that: “Avete combattuto come leoni” (i.e.: they had fought like lions).

During our recent visit to the library in Piana, we met a group of highly educated librarians, who showed great interest in my book. When we began discussing Garibaldi in Sicily, they, like several people we met in Palermo, displayed unfavourable sentiments about the Unifier of Italy. They all felt that the liberation of Sicily and its incorporation into Greater Italy was a bad thing for the island. What had once been a prosperous part of the Italian lands became impoverished whilst the previously impoverished north of Italy became increasingly wealthier. Many of the people we met in Piana and Palermo suggested that the liberator Garibaldi, a northern Italian, had not only liberated Sicily from the Bourbons, but had also ‘liberated’ much of Sicily’s wealth including the contents of the vaults of the island’s banks. I have yet to check the veracity of these surprising slurs on Garibaldi’s reputation.

Returning to Piana, this delightful little hillside town is an attractive, peaceful place to stay. There is accommodation in the town and in the countryside around it. You can explore the old town with its steep streets as well as the interesting Nicola Barbato Museum, the lake, and several old churches. Energetic visitors can enjoy breathing fresh mountain air on the slopes of Mount Pizzuta and other nearby peaks. If you speak Albanian (or Italian), you will have no difficulty communicating with the hospitable Arberesh. Although the Arberesh language differs from Albanian, Albanian-speakers can easily converse with the Arberesh. If, however, you are hungry for Balkan food, Piana will disappoint.

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Various restaurants in Piana, including the first-rate Antica Trattoria San Giovanni, serve wonderful Sicilian fare. Signor Salemi, who established the Antica Trattoria, was a child in May 1947. He was present at a large public political gathering on the 1st of May at Portella della Ginestra (close to Piana), when members of a gang of bandits led by the bandit Salvatore Giuliano opened fire on the unarmed people, massacring about 12 folk including children as young as he was and a baby. But, that is a tragic story that I will save for another time.

Wherever you go in Piana, you will see the Albanian double-headed eagle and Albanian flags. Road direction signs and other public notices are frequently bilingual: Arberesh and Italian.  In the Cathedral, I noticed a huge poster recording the 550th anniversary of the death of the original settlers’ compatriot, Skanderbeg. The people of Piana retain their ancestral homeland, Albania, close to their hearts.

book cov

LEARN MORE ABOUT THE ARBERESH BY READING
FROM ALBANIA TO SICILY

by Adam Yamey.

Available on Amazon and bookdepository.com

Nothing changes

Palermo

It is 2018, and I am eating ice cream in Italy after the ladies in my family have just visited a shop selling brassieres.

60 years earlier, aged 6, I was doing the same thing. We used to visit Florence annually during my childhood. Every year, my mother used to buy her bras in Florence at a shop close to an excellent ice cream shop called “Perché no?” (IE Why not?). After every visit to the bra store, I was rewarded with an ice cream.

Now, here in Palermo, the same thing has happened six decades later?

Nothing changes.