CHIAVARI, ITALY – There is something about Sicily that makes me break out in adjective-itis. Words like fanciful, fantastic and extraordinary seem to pop up out of nowhere and take up residence in almost every sentence I write about the place.
|Noto, Piazza Duomo|
Take Noto for example. Strictly speaking it’s just another small town on a island full of small towns, but unlike my adjective heavy sentences that are forgotten as soon as they are read, there is something about the place that sneaks in and takes up residence in your soul.
It may have something to do with all those baroque nymphs, mermaids, lions, trolls and other mythical creatures that look down at you as you walk along the streets.
| A Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious Balcony in Noto|
Or it may be the way the town glows in the late afternoon as the sun slowly sets in the west, reflecting off of the soft limestone buildings. I don’t know. My only consolation is that I’m not alone in my unabashed admiration for things Sicilian, and Noto in particular. It seems to affect everyone who comes here.
“Go to Noto,” wrote the Sicilian writer Gesualdo Bufalino, “it is a place where if one happens to come in, he is trapped and happy and never goes away.”
Bufalino was right. The danger is real.
The day I got to Noto, artists were on their hands in knees on Via Corrado Nicolaci, putting down the outlines for the various sections of a brilliant tableau of flowers. Via Nicolaci is one of the prettiest streets in town, rising gently from Corso Vittorio Emanuele. Under the watchful eyes of the grotesque gargoyles that decorate the balconies of the elegant baroque buildings that line the street, artists were following patterns that resemble the canvases in paint-by-number kits. There was an aura of excitement in the air as the town prepared for the annual spring Infiorata, a week-long celebration of concerts, handicraft fairs, parades and special events.
The Noto we see today is a relatively new town, at least new by Italian standards. The original town, Noto Antica, is about ten miles away, up on a nearby hill. In 1693 Noto Antica was completely destroyed by an earthquake, and rather than rebuild over the damaged site, the survivors decided to try their luck elsewhere.
Earthquakes are a problem in this part in Sicily. In 1990, a minor earthquake caused a wing of Noto’s Jesuit College building to collapse, and a few months later cornices from building facades began to tumble to the ground. But the most tragic event of all happened in 1996 when the roof of the 18th century Cathedral of St. Nicholas fell into the nave, leaving a gaping hole and exposing the treasures within to the elements.
|Cathedral of Noto|
I remember standing in the Cathedral shortly after it happened, looking up at the lions, winged horses, allegorical putti, bizarre Hellenic demons and grotesque stone masks that make up the interior. Pained faces frozen in time and space staring out at me through eerie, hollow eyes, as if to say, do something.
The roof is repaired now but it took more than ten years of plowing through bureaucratic paperwork and complicated maneuvers through the world of Italian and Sicilian politics. In the meantime, as the roof waited, Noto was added to the list of Unesco World Heritage sites. At least the world appreciates its treasures, and that’s good, don’t you think?