One of the drawbacks of designing your own itinerary is that at one point or other in your trip you’re probably going to come down with a bad case of second guessing-itis. Halfway between Punta Secca – probably better known nowadays as Marinella, hometown of Detective Montalbano – and Ragusa, where I would be staying next, is a building featured in the series. It wasn’t far – 15 kilometres – and it was on the way, but as I drove through the uninspiring scrubland I began to have my doubts. Maybe it would have been better to spend the morning by the sea. Luckily, 15 kilometres doesn’t give you much time to get into full-blown second-guessing gear and when I finally arrived, I was glad I hadn’t given into the self-doubts.
A great deal of the allure of the site comes from the captivating tales it has given rise to. A favourite is the story of the Regina Bianca di Navarra. After the premature death of her husband, King Martin the Younger of Sicily, followed by the equally untimely death in 1410 of her father-in-law, Martin the Elder, who had been appointed Viceroy, the young Queen Blanche’s misfortunes were far from over. Count Bernardo Cabrera, Lord of Modica and one of the most powerful men in Sicily took a fancy to her. More precisely to her position. After a few unsuccessful attempts to wrest the crown from her by force, he decided to try le buone maniere. He asked for her hand in marriage. This being centuries before ‘No means no!’, when she refused, he locked her up in his palace, the one I was about to visit. When she escaped, the enraged Cabrera set out in hot pursuit, following her around the island, attacking the various castles in which she sought refuge.
The site was only opened to the public fairly recently after five years of intensive restoration. As you can see in the photo below, work on the outbuildings – the stalls, warehouses and hovels where the farm workers once lived – continues.
The tale of Queen Blanche is often used to explain the castle’s name – Donnafugata – which as anyone who knows a bit of Italian will recognize as the synthesis of ‘donna in fuga’. ‘Woman in Flight’ or ‘Fleeing Woman’. We are wrong. The name comes from a spring discovered by the Arabs in the 10th century. Over time the Arab name, ‘Ayn As Jagat’ (‘Fountain of Health’), evolved into Ronnafuata in the local dialect and eventually Donnafugata. This and another documented fact – the earliest records pertaining to the castle date back only to the 17th century, long after both the Queen and her pursuer were dead – have not deterred the romantically inclined who insist on the White Queen derivation.
The castle got a big boost in tourism after it started appearing in the Detective Montalbano series. The downside, as experienced by some unlucky tourists, is that it’s off limits to the public during filming. And private events. Like the wedding – the real life wedding – of Luca Zingaretti, the actor who plays Montalbano.
To my uneducated eye, the castle looked like any self-respecting castle, with all the usual enchanting embellishments. For those who know even a bit more about such things than I, it is an architectural hodge podge. Or to put it more delicately, a pastiche. Eclecticism was all the rage in the 19th century and when Corrado Arezzo de Spuches, Baron, Member of the Sicilian Parliament and Senator of the Kingdom of Italy, purchased the property in 1869, he set about decorating the castle with his favourite motifs. He especially liked Venetian Gothic, which explains the loggia above the terrace.
The legend of Queen Blanche isn’t the only thing that confounds visitors. Fans of the Sicilian classic, Il Gattopardo (The Leopard), who come here expecting to walk in the footsteps of the last of the great Sicilian aristocrats are disappointed to learn this is NOT the castle where Prince Salina and his family sought refuge from the stifling heat of Palermo’s summers. However, I doubt that even the most devoted Gattopardo fans remain disappointed once they climb the scala monumentale (monumental staircase) to the piano nobile where the real life 19th century noble owners lived. Of the castle’s 122 rooms, 28 – more than enough for any fan – are open to the public, all filled with period furniture and clothes and the paraphernalia of daily life. (Whereas if they had gone to the ‘real’ Donnafugata, the one in Santa Margherita Belice that Lampedusa based his novel on, they would have been as wretched as I was after the long and difficult drive. I’ll write about that experience later.)
In each room a plaque provides a mini history of the item being focused on. For the most part these explanations – which really are fascinating – are in Italian only. I didn’t hear any English during my visit and I suspect there haven’t been many English speaking visitors in the past. Not surprising, given all the other more famous must-see sites on the island. I’d come to Sicily twice before – for three weeks at a time – and was only now visiting the castle for the first time. However, with the immense popularity the series is having with British viewers, that is bound to change, so perhaps more English explanations are in the wings.
If I were to do that relationship exercise where someone says a word and you have to say the first thing that pops into your head, the last thing that would come to my mind for ‘umbrella’ would be ‘sun’. I’ve always found the habit, practiced predominantly by certain ethnic groups in Toronto – I am trying to be careful here – of carrying an umbrella when the sun is shining rather odd. Who knew they’re just using the umbrella the way it was originally designed to be used?
More bits of umbrella history follow. ‘In the 1700’s it was an important symbol of social status, owned only by the aristocracy. By the 1800’s it had become an essential element of the noble woman’s wardrobe, a charming accessory designed to highlight the elegance of one’s outfit. It was only in the first half of the 20th century that its use as a shield from rain became widespread.’ Then came the most fascinating bit of all. ‘Along with the hat and purse, it was the first sign of the emancipation of women, in that it was associated with life outside the home.’
One of the many elaborate silk wall coverings features repeating patterns of twin lions, atop ornately decorated interlacing pipes, licking the gold base of an urn holding a bunch of loaves of bread. Obviously I was missing something.
As it turns out, there is really no need for the ‘Fleeing Woman’ story. The real life story of Baron Corrado had enough drama and tragedy to satisfy the most diehard romantic. His only child, Vincenzina, was married at 16 – probably not unusual in those times – but then she and her two daughters – if they had been sons the story would of course have been different – were abandoned by her husband. The young mother set off for Paris, city of love as well as light, to recover from the heartbreak. The city’s magic didn’t work and she died. Shortly after, her mother also died, leaving the Baron alone with his two granddaughters, one of whom died in the 1908 earthquake in Messina. Part of her inheritance was donated to the construction of a hospital in nearby Ragusa. This didn’t lessen the baron’s grief, but it was a noble thing to do. On my previous trip to Ragusa I had been intrigued by a couple of plaques along Corso Umberto. They seemed so out of place in the lively area that even though I had no idea what they were about I took a photo.
The upper plaque was the original one. You can tell because of the date at the bottom – MCMXXII. For those of you whose knowledge of Roman numerals is a bit rusty: M = 1,000; C = 100; C before M = minus one C; X = 10; two X’s = 20; I = 1 and two II = 2 (not 11!). So MCMXXII = … The plaque is written in formal, ‘monumental’ Italian. The gist of it is that with this plaque, the town fathers of Ragusa Ibla wished to consecrate their gratitude to the memory and name of MARIA PATERNO’ AREZZO (the wretch who had abandoned Maria’s mother Maria was Giuseppe Paternò Castello Alliata – try hyphenating that one) Princess of Castellaci who, inspired by the writings of the Evangel, donated the funds to build a hospital and cover the costs of caring for thirty patients’.
That left Clementina, and this is where real life comes deliciously close to fiction. Clementina and the French Viscount, Gaetano Combes de Lestrade, fell in love. But the baron, perhaps wishing to protect his one remaining grandchild from the fate that had befallen her mother, forbade the relationship. So the two young things did what young lovers everywhere do – they ran away. But they had underestimated the baron, who had grown used to using his powerful contacts and influence to get his way. One of his campieri (field guards), the unfortunately named don Mario ‘U Crapu’, followed their trail to the south shore of Sicily, where they had boarded a ship on its way to the continent. The enterprising ‘U Crapu’ commandeered a ship moored off Punta Secca (perhaps not far from Montalbano’s villa), and no doubt spurring on the deck hands with threats of the baron’s displeasure if they did not succeed, caught up with the nave in fuga. Fleeing Ship. It took some doing, but there was – eventually – a happy ending to this story. The baron and the count’s family overcame their objections and the two were married and lived happy ever after, dividing their time between Paris and Sicily.
…but it was the enormous frescoes that really caught my attention.
The next room featured the influence of the Oriente, meaning Japan and China, on fashion in the 19th and 20th centuries. Like most of the longer, more involved explanations, there was no English translation.
Amongst the interesting bits was something I hadn’t expected to come across during my visit of the castle – or anywhere on my travels around Sicily for that matter. A reference to the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, which had facilitated contact between the two worlds – allowed them to toccarsi la mano (touch each other’s hand) and led to an even greater enthusiasm for the Far East. Not just in art – the red arrow is presumably to ensure we don’t miss this point – but also in music.
On one side of a long hall were the guest bedrooms.
As I walked past another guest room I overheard one of the guards talking about a working clock in a painting. When I asked her, she pointed to the blank space in the tower on the left. A tiny clock used to tick tock the hours from the space. It was one of the Baron’s scherzi. Jokes. The painting had to be hung on an angle to make room for the mechanics of the little clock.
Another corridor led to one of the most remarkable rooms in the castle – the Stanza del Billiardo. Elevated chairs allowed a good view of the table which was lit by the ornate bronze lamp suspended from the ceiling. A sign of the times, the lamp could be ‘lit’ by candles or petrol. Preferably not at the same time.
Now and then special exhibits are mounted in the castle. The photo below is of the normally very staid Salone degli Stemmi. Crests, even of Sicily’s great families, are not my thing, so normally I would have walked right by. I had no idea what was going on here. Neither did the couple I’d befriended at Villa Montalbano who, as it happened, were also visiting the castle. Some of the gowns had labels.
The red gown at the back of the room was the strangest of all. It was called ‘La Strega delle Rose.’ It took me a while of meandering around the Internet but eventually I found it at ‘suggestionidicarta.blogspot.ca’. The artist – I couldn’t find his name anywhere on the site, although there was a photo of him working on the red grown – takes paper of all types and weights and works it into fabric, lace and embroidery, which he then uses to create gowns for the heroines of a bygone era. Divas and femmes fatales. The mannequin dressed in red is a Sicilian witch. On her head she wears a crown of red coral; an arrow pierces her heart, illuminating the mysterious interlacing of her corset; red blood flows down the billowing skirt, transforming it into roses…
It was time to check out the baron’s garden. In the grand tradition of 18th century garden design in Sicily, it had been divided into three distinct areas – the English Garden, the French Garden and the Mediterranean Garden. The baron had over 1,500 species of plants brought over to the island, many of them rare. But when I saw what was left of his garden, I hesitated. Sicily obviously has had and continues to have many, much more serious problems to contend with than the state of its gardens, but still, it did not look worth my while. And it was hot. And close to lunch time. But then I gave myself the ‘for heaven’s sake, you crossed the Atlantic to get here, just go have a quick look at it’ talk and went out into the garden.
Close to the palace is an ancient fig tree. The Baron’s guests were encouraged to take a leaf – literally – and write a little note on the leaf which would then, thanks to a special permit granted courtesy of the Baron’s powerful connections, go off in the mail to friends and family.
The baron was well aware that although he derived a great deal of pleasure from embellishing his castle, the days could be long and boring for his guests, so as well as in the castle he also had a few scherzi installed in his garden. Some of these were scherzi d’acqua, water jokes, similar to ones I had seen in gardens such as Villa Medicea di Castello near Florence (‘The 1st Renaissance Garden – part III’, Sept. 22, 2013) and Villa Valsanzibio in the Veneto (‘A Garden that Wants You to Think’, April 10, 2016). I was relieved to learn that, like those in mainland Italy, they were no longer functional, but aghast when I found out that work was underway to get them working again.
Not all the scherzi involved water. Scattered throughout the park were empty tombs. The idea was that young (hopefully attractive) female guests would come across the tombs and, terrified at the thought of tripping over a dead body, would run to the waiting arms of the baron, who was more than pleased to comfort them. I didn’t come across any empty tombs. Presumably they have all been filled in. Even if it does make for less fun, no owner nowadays wants visitors falling into holes and filing lawsuits.
On top of a slight elevated area partway down the central pathway was one of the baron’s folies. Il Tempietto.
I looked around for the grotto and finally found it behind a bunch of overgrown bushes. A wrought iron gate barred the entrance. That was annoying. We modern visitors in our sneakers and track shoes are a lot surer on our feet than his 19th century guests would have been. Maybe, unlike the real thing, the baron’s stalactites had started to crumble. I continued down to the end of the wide, central pathway – the setting for the horse race in ‘La Pista di Sabbia‘ (The Track of Sand) – to another temple-like structure. The ‘Coffee House’, where the Baron’s guests could refresh themselves after their long, hot walk.
Unlike the school group I had not brought lunch and my water bottle was empty. Time to get back on the road to Ragusa and the little trattoria where I’d had such a lovely antipasto misto on my last trip. On my way back to the castle I climbed up the little slope to have a better look at the Tempietto.
I also hoped that from up here I’d get an overhead view of the labirinto, another of the amusements the baron had made for his guests’ enjoyment. The maze (I wrote about the difference between labyrinths and mazes in ‘Carpe the Sunny Diem’, May 15, 2016) replicates the one at Hampton Court that the Baron would have visited on one of his trips abroad. At the time, climbing roses blocked the view between the walls and prevented visitors from climbing on top of the walls to see the way out. Which is exactly what one visitor, a rather spry fellow for someone who looked to be well into his sixties was doing as I watched from the temple. I climbed down the slope and approached the entrance. He was talking to some people in the maze. Giving them directions. Eh, vous trichez! (That’s cheating!), I teased him. A few minutes later a woman and a man, also in their late sixties, half stumbled out of the maze. Perspiration was dripping down their faces and they looked more than a bit rattled. How difficult is it? I asked them, I’m thinking of trying it. Mais non, Madame, the woman said, a truly concerned look on her face, il ne faut pas y entrer toute seule. C’est vraiment difficile.
I was hot and hungry. The idea of getting lost in those stone walls was as unappealing as it was embarrassing.
I headed back to the castle.