Trog 5: Excelsior!

Ancient Akrágas was built on top of a steep hill overlooking the sea.  In its century of prosperity from the late 6th to the early 5th century, when it was mercilessly destroyed by the Carthaginians, the city spread down to a ridge that slid steeply to the sea.  It was on that lofty brow that Theron, the lord of Akrgas, began constructing temples even before he teamed up with Gelon, the lord of Syracuse, to defeat the Carthaginians, who had invaded the island from the North.  

I am using the term “lord,” because the Greek term, tyrannos, is almost entirely misleading.  Whether we say 'tyrant' or stick to the Greek original, we cannot help thinking of the evil tyrants of the history-books or the monsters created by the news media in their never-ending search for the new Hitler.

The word tyrannos, which originally may have meant no more than ‘ruler,’ came to be applied to a variety of political leaders who exercised power not according to custom, as did  kings—and the aristocracies that generally replaced kings—but by some other means, such as by a coup, an agreement among aristocratic factions, or—and this is most typical—as leaders of a popular uprising against aristocratic rule.  Some “tyrannoi,” who had been regarded as wise men in their day—Periander of Corinth—were later condemned, while others—Pittacus of Mytilene—retained their good reputation.  Some were tyrants in our sense, but that is beside the point.  To be quite candid, the great Solon of Athens was more of a tyrannos than anything else, but he was wise enough to retire after his work was done.  The Signori (lords)  of Medieval and Renaissance  Italian cities--Can Grande della Scala, Castruccio Castracani at the high end, the Visconti and Medici at the low--make a better starting point for understanding Greek "tyrants."

My point, before getting distracted by a defense of tyrants, was simply that as the city shrunk, as it did in the early Middle Ages, it retreated up the hill, and the acropolis is once again the center of life in the city.  Today there are ugly suburbs, as there are everywhere, and the cancerous growth along the coast that bears the inappropriate name "Porto Empedocle."  The prophetic poet would have been appalled as much as Pirandello, whose casa natale looks out on the smokestacks and refiners of the modern  excrescence whose city fathers have renamed it "Vigata" after the fictional home of  Comissario Montalbano, who has dominated Italian television for years.  A tourist pamphlet declares that Porto Empedocle preserves the spirit of Vigata.  I hope the open-borders leftist author, Andrea Camilleri, reads this every day.  I  mean no disrespect to Camilleri:  Like so many old leftists, he can write beautifully and with some detachment from his ideology.  I've read  many of the books and seen all the TV programs.

From the Valley of the Temples, where we are residing in a little two-apartment building that might once have been a warehouse for the olives that are grown here, it is a bit more than a mile to the Piazza Aldo Moro, the little park area that marks the beginning of the pedestrian zone.  Just across the street is a rather dramatic statue of Empedocles, but I’ll save that for another post.  1.2 miles is not much of a walk, unless it is steeply uphill, and I have seen walking companions have to stop to rest.  In the old days, I sneered, but now—with my bronchial passages apparently seared by gastric acids churned up by my recent malady, I no longer sneer but stop to catch my breath—or persuade my wife to drive up to the top, where there is a conveniently located parking lot.  Amazingly, the lot—one of those self-service places that dispenses tickets in exchange for money—only charges during shopping hours, which in Italy are 9-1 and 4-7.    Someone intending to spend the day, might park at 9 and return at 3:55 for only three euros.  Perhaps the "lot"--just spots along a street--fills up in the Summer, but it has never more than half full during our sojourn.

The upper town, for both good and ill, seems as much North African as Italian.  On the credit side, it is a rabbit warren—a casbah, if you like—of blind alleys, stairways to nowhere, and strange vistas.  On the debit side is the general lack of order and cleanliness—be careful to clean off your shoes before returning to your room.  In the shadier parts of town, where illegal immigrants are hanging out, intermittently shouting guttural sounds into cell phones and trying (without success) to cadge change from the localst, the tone becomes more subsaharan, but the few panhandlers who work the Via Atenea—the main shopping drag—are pretty restrained, and I can only imagine that there are business people—and a friendly and benevolent business protection organization—who keep the numbers low and the behavior largely unobtrusive.

The other morning, when I was only half recovered from whatever attacked my innards, we tried to find the Benedictine Monastery of Santo Spirito.  I made the mistake of trying to look at a map—maps are about as useful to the stranger in Agrigento as they are in Venice.  We plotted a course out of the P. Aldo Moro and ended up walking through filth, dodging sullen Africans,  up the steep Via Gioieno.  There is a supposedly excellent fish store up there, but I can resist the temptation of trying to find it.  Finally, we decided to cut back and thought we might hit the monastery from the Salita della Madonna degli Angeli.  No luck, and we tried going up a bit and crossed the street where was a restaurant in which we had eaten on two occasions.  Surely, if we pressed on just a little further.   My lungs and temper finally gave out and we found our way back to the Atenea and back to the car without having accomplished a single thing—apart from noting the sign pointing out the way up to Santo Spirito.  

We didn’t even have lunch—in my delicate condition I shouldn’t drink wine in the afternoon, and if there is no wine, what is the point to food?  Nourishment?  How can you be so shallow?

Yesterday, we repeated the experiment.  Stopping briefly to salute my spiritual ancestor Empdocles, we proceeded up the Via Atenea and followed the signs that led us up stairways and ramps that were by Akragantine standards clean and found ourselves in a courtyard staring at two doors, one closed and one open.  The situation was reminiscent of “The Lady or the Tiger.”  I  had read complaints on TripAdvisor that if you knocked on the door on the left, a nun would give you a guided tour of the church, after first squeezing out of you an appropriate donation.  A French woman complained furiously that her group of friends was rejected because they offered too little.  What greedy nuns!  Since when is 20 cents too little?    Others on the same website complain that, when they entered the door on the right, were forced to disgorge 4 euros a person, and given a boring tour of crumbling medieval buildings and a so-called museum that was more like somebody’s attic.

With trepidation, we entered the open door, and a short brisk lady informed us that she could only show us some rooms of the monastery of the Museo Civico.  To see the Church, she explained, we had to knock on the door at the left.  I thanked her and we went next door and knocked.  When nothing happened, we decided to find out what’s behind the door on their  right.  The same lady, in breathlessly rapid Italian, tried to ascertain what wanted to see, and I gave her the Brandoesque answer, “Whatcha got?”

I think she concluded we were either crazy—harmlessly so, she hoped—and asked if we wanted the pamphlet in French.  For reasons I do not understand, I am frequently taken for French, not just in Italy but in France itself.  On my first visit to Italy, a party of French tourists in Pisa approached me and asked the way to "le Tour Pendant."  Italians have some excuse for the mistake, since a good friend in Lombardia, when I asked her decades ago what my accent was like, informed me that it was "troppo nasal"--too nasal.  I hear it but cannot seem to correct it entirely--any more than I can routinely avoid sounding Milanese.

I told the lady French was fine, but we preferred Italian.  She raised an eyebrow and for 8 euros gave us a little brochure saying mostly nothing in Italian.  She then led us, a bit suspiciously I thought, opening doors and pointing to crumbling rooms stripped of nearly everything.  This was fine with me:  There are far more boring things to see than 13th century ruins, such as the entire state of California.  On the second floor, where on display there were Arabic and Norman artifacts, we went into a chapel with an impressive painted crucifix and a few other odd and ends.  Hearing us chatting about it, she asked me, 

“Le piace?”  You like it?

“Yes,” I told her and went on at unnecessary length.  She asked the usual polite questions, such as where are you from?  Here just for the day?  How come you speak Italian—you must be of Italian descent?  Why do you come often to Agrigento?  The temples, well, yes,  they are beautiful… Oh, a former professore of classical studies?  In a liceo?  In university?  Really? And you’re a writer now?  I’m a writer too—I write poetry.

Before long, the taciturn and suspicious lady and I were quite pals, and we talked family—our daughter and grandson are coming to join us for Christmas in a few days.  How nice for you!  We’ll bring them by to see you. They'd love  to see the monastery.  What hotel?  Actually we are staying in a little house on the property owned by a family that has a B&B.  Oh, you should buy a place and move here.  But you own a house in America?  Well, that’s nice too.

We sat for a bit in the courtyard, looking at the neglected garden,  There were several trees growing “lumíe”—citrons of an odd pear shape  that are supposed to be ancestral to modern citrus fruits.  She was on the phone as we left, but we waved good-bye.

After making our way down to the V. Atenea, we ran a few errands—pharmacy, trinkets for presents—and got the car and drove to the newly reopened R7 Supermercato in our neighborhood, where I bought a partially pre-cooked cotechino (a delicious sausage made with a good deal of pig skin, which requires long boiling) in a pouch.  Served with lentils (lenticchie), cotechino or zampone (pigs trotter, also available in a pouch) are required eating for New Years, which seems a long way away.

I wrote for a while, sitting on our sunny terrace, though it was only 60 degrees, and I had time for a chat with our proprietario, a lawyer who had just driven down from Palermo.  He asked after my health, since the last time I had seen him, was at the lunch where  I could only eat broth with a few tortellini and,  periodically, had to take breaks from lunch to stretch out in the garden.  I explained that I was on the mend.  “It’s the tendenza,” he said, that counts.  Whatever is wrong with you, a bad hip, ulcers, influenza, you can’t count on being well and should not get too impatient for full recovery.   Tendenza can have  a more active sense than our own 'tendency,' more like the direction  in which affairs are headed. "What counts is the tendenza.  You’re either getting better ,” or, I put in, “getting worse.”  He put his arm on my shoulder.

“Listen.  What do you hear?  Nothing.  You can’t even hear a fly!  In Palermo, he said pointing north, it’s all noise and traffic, but here—and he dropped his voice to a whisper, ‘Silenzio.’  I am perhaps a few years younger than you?  70 [Doesn’t look over 60], and the older I get, the more I love silence.”

Yes, I thought, that is also a tendenza—decidedly one of migliorarsi.  Speech is silver, said John Chrysostom, but silence≥...

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

2 Responses

  1. Clyde Wilson says:

    To be taken for French is an honour.

  2. Sam Dickson says:

    Tom: I am reading a book I spotted in a book rack of $.50 books entitled “Midnight in Sicily” by Peter Robb published by the Vintage Books section of Random House. It’s a combination travel book and report on the Mafia, mostly about the Mafia. Have you read this book or do you know anything about it? Its claims are shocking…1,000 people murdered by the Mafia in Palermo in one year, a figure that includes not only judges, lawyers, journalists, witnesses, priests but also large numbers murdered in a war b/n rival Mafia gangs. Is this for real?