Russell Chamberlain

Sicilian treasure

Throughout a newly affluent Western Europe in the 1960s and 1970s, and under the spur of a technological revolution, people — country people, in particular — began to throw out their artefacts of wood and metal and natural fabric in favour of the exciting new plastic that never wore out and rarely needed cleaning. Newly-weds could have furnished their homes for a pittance from what, in Britain, were known as ‘junk shops’ — if they could face the embarrassment of living with somebody else’s grandmother’s chaise-longue or somebody else’s grandfather’s armchair.

Horse and cart gave way to the internal-combustion engine. Children’s table games gathered dust as the family clustered round the television screen. Local theatres struggled against the Cyclops of the sitting-room; even the once much derided cinema, now an art form, became an endangered species.

In Sicily, where poverty for the majority had stopped the clock until the post-war reforms, the effect was dramatic. The innate conservatism of the Sicilian slowed the change, but when it happened it was startling. The legendary Sicilian cart, with its gaudy pictures of bloody conflict between Saracen and Christian, was swept aside by the ubiquitous three-wheeled van. Puppet-makers continued to ply their trade, but mostly for the tourist market. Local costume disappeared. Oil presses, with their vast circular stones, became an encumbrance.

Antonino Uccello, born in 1922, an elementary-school teacher, poet and amateur anthropologist, was alarmed at the erosion of the island’s ancient culture and began to collect the discarded artefacts. His collection expanded exponentially, and eventually needed a permanent home. Uccello’s politics were unfavourable and he was therefore unable to find official funding, but a bizarre chain of circumstances gave him the chance to acquire an appropriate building at a price he could afford.

In the beautiful little town of Palazzolo Acreide, about ten miles from the Greek capital of Siracusa and with its own superb Greek theatre, a 17th-century palazzo had stood empty for some years.

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