Realistic – and Not Realistic

I had come to Scicli (she-klee), the town that plays such a big role in the Montalbano Detective series.  It’s named after the Sicels, one of the three earliest known tribes in Sicily.  When the Greeks arrived, that was the end of the Sicels but not their settlement which, like towns and villages throughout the Val di Noto in south-eastern Sicily, survived centuries of invaders and conquerors only to be destroyed in the earthquake of 1693.  Like its more famous neighbours, Ragusa and Modica, Scicli was rebuilt in the ‘new’ baroque style.

Grotteschi like this one on the façade of Palazzo Beneventano were popular – and to my eye, unlikely – decorative elements of the new baroque style.

Palazzo Beneventano is considered by many to be the most beautiful baroque building in Sicily. But it’s difficult to get a good shot of it.  Although the sciclitani adopted the new architectural style for their buildings, they kept the narrow, winding alleys of the previous medieval layout, which makes it difficult to get far enough back to get a complete shot of a big building like Palazzo Beneventano. I caught my first glimpse of the palace at the end of a block that sits, island-like, between two other blocks.

Assigning modern street addresses must have been a logistical nightmare. How to decide what street a unit is on when it opens onto two, or as in the case of the store in the centre, three streets?

At the end of the block takes on new meaning in medieval Scicli.

There are a lot of baroque buildings in Sicily, so I’m going to stay clear of whether Palazzo Beneventano is the most beautiful of all.  I’m not a fan of these pronouncements anyway. They remind me of the tale of the wicked queen who commands her mirror to declare who is the fairest of them all.  The mirror, in case you’re rusty on your fairy tales, is supposed to reply that she is, but one day slips up and says Snow White, which leads to all sorts of problems for the poor, young thing.   Having said that, I think it’s fair to say there is definitely a lot of baroqueness going on here.

Below the Beneventano crest, the heads of two (conquered) mori, the historic, but obviously now politically incorrect term for dark-skinned people.

Because all the towns of the Val di Noto were rebuilt at the same time, in the same style, they are to a certain extent indistinguishable. (But I wouldn’t say that to a local.) The supports for this balcony in Scicli could easily be mistaken for those on Via Nocolaci in Noto.

But before I could explore Scicli’s baroque palazzi and Montalbano’s haunts, I had to park the car.  Like driving in Sicily – I have an entire post in the wings dedicated to that subject – parking in Sicily is not always a straightforward matter, especially if you don’t want to come back to a ticket or a bashed car.  In any event, somehow, without a piantina (map of the town)  I had managed to make my way to Piazza Italia, which is as close as you can drive to the centro storico.  This would have been good for some pretty healthy bragging rights except for the fact that I didn’t yet know where I was.  For that I still had to find the local tourist office, which hopefully would not be closed and hopefully would not yet have run out of maps.  It was only May, but it wouldn’t have been the first time.

For such a small town the piazza was a pretty lively area with an astonishing number of vehicles either whizzing around or parked, many rather haphazardly, it seemed to me. On my second time round I saw an empty spot that looked like it might be legit.  It was.  There was even a parking meter right next to it. The only problem was, I couldn’t figure out how the meter worked.  There were a few fellows I took to be locals standing next to the kiosk across the road.  I walked over under their watchful eyes.  I knew the routine by now.  They would stare, I would say ‘Buon giorno‘, keep talking and eventually one of them would start talking to me.  In this case it was a young man who put his beer down – it was 11 am – and proceeded to explain how the meter worked.   I wasn’t sure if it was his accent – much heavier than I had encountered so far – or something else (it seems small-minded to criticize those who reach out to lend a hand) but I couldn’t understand half of what he said.  I thanked him and headed back to the meter.  To my surprise he followed me.  Faccio io, (I’ll do it) he said, with a hint of swagger as his buddies watched.  He glanced at the instructions on the meter machine and said, it was easy, a one euro coin, and I’d be set.   This surprised me.  From what I had been able to make out, this was one of those places where the idea of charging people for parking while they are eating lunch is considered contrary to the social fabric.  Accordingly, although you had to pay to park between 9:30 and 12:30, it was free from then until the end of the lunch break, which in Scicli apparently ended at 16,00.  I tried to suggest that I didn’t think one euro would do it, but he was having nothing of it.  I fished around in my wallet and gave him my last one euro coin.  Usually I make a point of hanging on to spiccioli (spee-choe-lee) but I’d used up a bunch of coins for parking the day before and hadn’t yet had an opportunity to replenish my supply.  He inserted the coin, pressed the button and out came a biglietto valido fino alle …12,07.    Perhaps the vigile may not come by, he offered after an uncomfortable few moments, it’s only a few minutes.  I was occupied with resisting the urge to say I told you so, and trying to dismiss uncharitable thoughts about why I hadn’t been able to understand him in the first place, so by way of reply I gave him my best shot at an ambiguously thoughtful look.  In fairness, instead of standing red-faced in front of a parking meter with a straniera, he could have been back at the kiosk enjoying his beer.  To the relief of both of us I am sure, the solution to our predicament soon presented itself in the form of a father with his young son.   Without getting into any niceties such as enquiring how long they wished to park, he informed the hapless newcomer that because “abbiamo sbagliato” (WE had made a mistake) he could have my ticket and in return, would buy a new ticket for me for €1,50 – I would provide the additional 50 cents.  The poor fellow hesitated, looked at the duo in front of him and probably decided it was not worth arguing about.  I lavished mille grazie (a thousand thanks) on both of them and put my new biglietto which was valido until a comfortable 12,47 on the dashboard.   Then I set off in search of Montalbano.

On the left, the kiosk across the road from where I’d parked. On the right, the tourist office, which, as luck would have it was aperto (open) and still had a good supply of piantine.

Even if you’ve only watched a few Montalbano episodes, many of these photos will be familiar.  But you won’t recognize them as from a town named Scicli.  That’s because in Montalbano’s world, a world that seems so real it’s hard to remember it’s fictional, Scicli is not Scicli – it’s Vigata (vee-gah-tuh).

A poster on the door to the Tourist Office announces the upcoming MADONNA OF THE MILITIA. Historical Re-enactment of the Miraculous Intervention of 1091.

Most of the action in Vigata takes place a short walk from where I was parked, on Via Mormino Penna, a few blocks beyond the Chiesa Madre on the other side of Piazza Italia

Scicli’s Mother Church, home of the equestrian Madonna.

On my way over to the church I noticed a banner hanging from the building next to it.  Amidst the highly ornate façades of the surrounding buildings it looked jarringly, coldly modern.  It turns out it is modern.  Very modern.  The Scuola Media Lipparini (Lipparini Middle School) was built in 1961.  To make room for the new school the convent that had for centuries been attached to the church was torn down.  Which says a lot about how Scicli regards its young people.

In any event, there was nothing cold about the message on the banner.


La Giornata della Memoria is not a holiday.  But it is an extremely important day for the future of Italy.  Since 1996, on March 21 – a day chosen because of its strong symbolism as the first day of spring and renewal – a list of over 900 names – all innocent victims of the mafia – is read out in a prominent public setting and schools of all levels, primary to university, organize events, ceremonies and activities designed to educate and engage the younger generations in the battle against the mafia.  Every year the reading of the list is assigned to a different city.  Rome was the first.  Since then cities from Torino, Milano and Genoa in the north, to Bologna and Florence in central Italy and to Naples, Bari, in the far south, as well as Messina, Corleone and Gela in Sicily, but not yet Palermo, have taken up the challenge.

I walked back to the church. In anticipation of the upcoming ceremonies the Madonna had already been taken out of her niche.  Unlike the jewel-bedecked saints I’d seen in Puglia (‘When the Saints Go Marching’, April 4, 2017), there was no-one guarding the statue so I was able to get a good, close-up look at her. I thought the contraption she was mounted on took away from the intended effect, but on the day of the procession,with the crowds pressing close to her along the narrow lanes of the town, it would probably pass unnoticed.

The Madonna was already set up for the processione. The statue must be heavier than most. Usually they are  paraded around town on the (mostly broad) shoulders of the local males.

Like Spain’s Santiago (St. James) di Compostela, Sicily’s Madonna delle Milizie is celebrated for having miraculously appeared, sword in hand, on horseback and led the ‘believers’ on to victory over the ‘infidels’.

The battle took place in 1091. I wonder – as the locals follow the Madonna through the town, what do they think of the figures about to be stomped on?

I continued on to Via Mormino Penna.  The first Montalbano site I came to was the Municipio.  Confusingly – especially for a neophyte fan – as more and more episodes were made – 28 as of March 2017 – some locations ended up doing double duty. The (real-life) exterior of the (real-life) Town Hall is the (fictional) exterior of the (fictional) police headquarters where Montalbano works with Fabio and Mimì and the incomprehensible, but occasionally brilliant Catarella, while the (real-life) mayor’s office inside is the (fictional) regional office of the Superintendent which is located in the vaguely nearby and totally fictional town of Montelusa.  Adding to the confusion, despite the fact that his villa is 25 kilometres south-west of Scicli in the real-life seaside hamlet of Punta Secca, Montalbano lives and works in Vigata,

The only way for a regular tourist to see the Ufficio del Questore is by guided tour.  Not to worry.  Even if you’re generally adverse to these things, the guides are fabulous – just the right amount and type of information – and if you spring for the €5 combo, you’ll get to see two other fascinating sites nearby.

The exterior of the real-life Town Hall of Scicli and of the fictional Commissariato (police station).

The walls around the grand staircase that leads to the office of the questore/mayor are covered with enormous paintings.  Given the setting, the scenes they portray struck me as unexpected, even questionable.

On one wall, ‘La Richezza‘ (wealth).

On the opposite wall ‘La Povertà‘ (Poverty).  What message are these paintings meant to suggest?

On another wall cherubs hold up a medallion that I think the guide said was meant to represent Mussolini.  But I’m afraid by this point none of us were paying much attention to the guide, who was really doing a lovely job.  We were about to enter l’Ufficio del Questore, the room where Montalbano regularly battles with his interfering and unsympathetic boss.

An unlikely combo – Cherubs and Mussolini.

Unlike Montalbano’s Villa (previous post) the Superintendent’s Office was just as it appears in the movies.

We entered through a grand door on the right. In the series, to create a more dramatic effect,  Montalbano storms in and out of a door behind me.

In ‘Making Montalbano:  Behind the Scenes’, a fascinating documentary by MHz Networks, Alberto Sironi, Director of the series, is interviewed with views of Scicli in the background.

From the balcony, a view that seems custom-made for a movie director.

“In the beginning”, Sironi explains “we did all the filming in Sicily.  It was so much easier then to get rid of cars, road signs and ads.  The places we were filming in were much less visited by the public.  Even by Sicilians.”

The documentary is on Youtube and the interviews are in Italian and English with subtitles in English – even when the people being interviewed are speaking English.  If you are already familiar with MHz, this probably won’t come as a surprise, but it took me a while to figure out what was going on.  Sironi, like Luca Zingaretti, the actor who plays Montalbano, speaks in Italian.  You get the sense he can speak English, but to explain his work he prefers his native language.  Translating, as I’ve mentioned before, is not an easy task and I have a great deal of respect for those who choose to do it.  Creating subtitles is in a way even more challenging because of the limited space you have to work within. Having said that, the subtitles, although not as colourful as the original, are an accurate reflection of what the speaker is saying.

Sironi is also filmed against another view of Scicli that will be familiar to fans. La Chiesa di San Bartolomeo (St. Bartholomew) and on top of the ridge, la Chiesa di Santa Maria della Croce (St. Mary of the Cross).

Except for one phrase that occurs while Sironi is standing with the view below in the background. He is talking about the early days of filming when “Everything was più puro, più sognato” (more pure, more dream-like) and how it was “desueto, talmente poco abituale fare quello che abbiamo fatto noi, che è realistico e non è realistico“.  Here the translator stumbles, for he – or she – translates ‘desueto‘ as ‘deserted’ and ‘poco abituale‘ as ‘uninhabited’ when instead desueto means ‘archaic, no longer used’ and poco abituale means ‘not the habit, uncustomary’.  You see how awkward things can get?  What Sironi is saying has nothing to do with the area being deserted.  He is saying that what they were doing was so beyond the realm of what others were still doing, so out of the ordinary, it gave them the freedom to create something that was realistico and not realistico.   (Realistic and not realistic.)  More real than real?  What is Sironi really saying?

“We were able to create something that was realistico – e non realistico.”  (Alberto Sironi)

Like all the principal actors (apart from Catarella) and crew, Franco Lecca, the director of photography, is from Rome.  When he talks about the light in Sicily, it’s like listening to poetry.  For him it is una luce (loo-chay) crepuscolare (twilight), and yet also eccessiva, a light that suggests molta solitudine (great solitude).  At times, he admits, he wants to ramp up this light, make it even stronger, more intense, but Sironi insists on a darker tone, more in keeping with Sicily’s dark interiors. Maybe it’s because I’m visiting after a long winter of endless dark, gloomy skies, but I am glad for the intense light.

Balcony along Via Mormino Penna in May.

A few doors down from the Municipio is Palazzo Spadaro, Scicli’s Pinacoteca Comunale (Art Gallery) and, as our guide tells us, the setting for Le Ali della Sfinge (Wings of the Sphinx).  One more episode to check out when I got back home.

Balcony over the entrance to Palazzo Spadaro.

Paintings cover the walls of  the Salone delle Feste where concerts and other artistic events are held.

The Chiesa di San Giovanni Evangelista (Church of St. John the Evangelist) was not on our Montalbano tour but I stepped in for a quick look.

A lot going on here.

Detail of the wall to the left of the altar. There is so much going on it’s hard to know where to look. Was that the point? To be overwhelmed?

Parts of Via Penna looked almost too beautiful, too perfect to be real.

Our little group continued down the street – although street doesn’t seem the right word. Lane or alley seem too small, and avenue too large.  It felt more like a long piazza. Perhaps it was because the whole thing is a pedestrian zone. It was so relaxing. And so unreal.

So many churches for a town of just 26,000 – and a lot fewer when all these churches were built.

The last of the three sites on our Montalbano tour was at the far end of Via Marmino Penna.  I was a bit skeptical when our new guide – a different guide was stationed at each site – admitted straight off that although many scenes had been filmed in front of the Chiesa di Santa Teresa, none had been filmed in the interior.  Hmmm…

At the end of Via Mormino Penna, the Church of St. Teresa makes a few appearances as background.

The interior was like so many I’d already seen in Sicily.  And so was the light – a challenging combination of what Lecca described as crepuscolare and eccessiva that made getting a decent photo difficult.

Once again I had the saints mixed up. The objects held aloft on the platter are not the breasts of Saint Agatha, but the eyes of Saint Lucia. Equally gruesome.

To the left of St. Lucia, lower down, is a less gruesome, but equally moving sight. The unadorned area within the small, baroque frame was once the door of a Ruota degli Innocenti. Wheel of the Innocents.  I had only ever seen one before in Florence, in Piazza Santissima Annunziata.  (‘Taking a Break – Una Passeggiata a Firenze’ – Part I, April 20, 2013)  Mothers who could not, or did not want to care for their newborn babies would place them on a revolving wheel to be cared for by the nuns.

This simple, easily overlooked space marks a bygone scene of misery and heartache.

It was all very interesting of course, but I couldn’t help wondering what the rationale was for including this church on a tour of Montalbano sites.  The rationale, I eventually concluded had nothing to do with Montalbano.  It was a ruse – perhaps too harsh a word – to entice visitors to a Mostra Affreschi.

The frescoes had originally decorated the walls of the Church and Convent of St. Mary of the Cross, the ruins of which can still be seen on one of the ridges that overlook Scicli.  The complex was severely damaged in an earthquake and after a great deal of discussion, no doubt heated, it was decided to remove the frescoes from the walls.  Even those promoting removal admitted the procedure would be highly aggressivo, but in the end both sides agreed that the alternative – continued exposure to the elements – would have caused even greater damage.

Some of the frescoes were in really bad shape, but others, like this Madonna della Misercordia, were remarkably well preserved.

Next to the Madonna della Misericorda was another Madonna.  La Madonna della Catena.  The catena (chain) – which looked surprisingly modern to me – symbolizes the life-long ties that bind a mother to her child, because, continued our young, male guide, in a manner that suggested he was about to reveal to us some hitherto unknown fact of life, the moment a woman brings a child into this world her life is forever changed.  I burst out laughing. Really?  One of the women in our group – who didn’t strike me as someone who’d had any personal experience with such chains – shot me a withering look.

As well as modern, the chain also looks a lot less ethereal than the Mother and Child it binds.

For me the most interesting part of the exhibit was the series of of six panels that portray the miracles performed by the saint the church and convent were dedicated to. It wasn’t the subject matter of the scenes that really caught my attention, it was the script below them.

At a time when so few could read, a forward-thinking artist had added script.  In Sicilian dialect.

By now I was starving.  It was hot, too hot even for a heat-lover to sit in the sun, so when I saw an osteria, steps from where I had parked my car, with a shaded terrace and view of Piazza Italia, I didn’t look any further.

The table on the left offered shade, a bit of breeze and a front row view of goings-on in the piazza below.

In true Montalbano fashion I ordered a classic Sicilian dish – spaghettoni con fave, pomodori secchi, porcini e menta.

Beans, dried tomatoes and porcini doesn’t come anywhere close to describing how delicious this classic Sicilian dish was.

On the way back to Montalbano’s villa – since this was real life I had to drive back to Punta Secca – I stopped by another filming location, la Fornace Penna, the ruined brickworks on the outskirts of the seaside town of Sampieri.  I drove down a narrow dirt road and parked in the shade of an abandoned farmhouse.  There was no-one around. It was the only time during the three weeks I was in Sicily that I felt uneasy.

A vineyard and the collapsed roof of a farmhouse, long since abandoned.

La Fornace Penna, was built between 1909 and 1912 by Baron Guglielmo Penna.  The goal of the far-thinking Baron was to diversify, a revolutionary concept for that time and place. He wanted to transform his vast holdings from strictly agrarian-based activities to include industry as well. In other words he wanted to bring Sicily – at least the part of Sicily that was under his control – into the 20th century.

A haunting reminder of an earlier, unsuccessful attempt to bring development and industrialization to Sicily.

The site, Punta Pisciotto, was carefully chosen.  The sea off the point was deep enough to allow ships to dock, the railway was nearby and the primary raw material, clay, would come from a quarry a mere 200 metres from where the fornace (furnace) was located.

Punta Pisciotto, the point from which Montalbano gazes out to sea in La Forma dell’Acqua (The Shape of Water).

But what the Baron hadn’t counted on, and what wasn’t under his control was the political environment.  On January 26, 1924 a fire ripped through the complex, destroying it beyond repair.  There was no doubt that the cause of the fire was d’origine dolosa.  Arson. The reason there was no doubt was because the brickworks shut down in the winter months. Rumours of a vendetta involving the Fascists circulated widely.

The complex was abandoned to the forces of nature. In 1989, the upper part of the chimney, which had previously been damaged by lightning, collapsed.

For some reason I felt compelled to check out the bowels of the ruins There were no VIETATO or any other kind of ‘No Entry’ signs, so it had to be safe, right?  It was of course even creepier wandering around the dank, dark interior with its low ceilings and signs of previous, unsavoury visitors.

I read later that the ruins were in uno stato discreto.

It was less than 30 kilometres to Punta Secca and Montalbano’s Villa.  I was looking forward to a nice, long, relaxing walk along the beach.  Maybe even a swim.




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