Sean Thomas

Sicily and the slow collapse of civilisation

The island of high culture has been overrun with litter

  • From Spectator Life

Even in the long-shadowed depths of winter, Sicily can be a seductive place. From the hushed, hidden and time-polished marble piazzas of intricately lovely Ortygia, to the White Lotus out-of-season treats of ‘so pretty it hurts’ (Ernest Hemingway) Taormina, this blessed island has for obvious reasons been attracting invaders and colonisers for thousands of years. Indeed, enigmatic remains at Cozzo Matrice, near the lake of Pergusa – where Hades abducted the goddess Persephone – suggest Sicily might boast some of the oldest built human settlements on the planet.

Litter is a primary sign of a society in dangerous civic decline

 Such is the longevity of human civilisation on Sicily, it is an amusing game to speculate when, within those long centuries, it might have peaked: as in, achieved its most noble, humane and beauteous form. You could, for instance, easily go as far back as the Hellenic colonies. There are few sights in Europe that are simultaneously as handsome and exhilaratingly proud as the great Greek temples of Agrigento, glowing and golden in the slant January sun, arrayed with casual grandeur on their hilltops in the south of the island.

Maybe we could look at the Romans? The Unesco-listed site of Villa Romana del Casale, in the heart of Sicily, dates from the 4th century. This is supposedly a period of imperial decline, yet the casually lavish mosaics, the courtyards once jubilant with welcoming fountains, the bewilderingly complex private bathhouses, speak of a civilisation still able to throw up domestic habitations of a splendour mankind maybe has yet to equal. Though we must never forget that all this ran on a plentiful supply of slaves, fed into the system like the wooden logs burned for the central heating.

You could also a put a word in for the Normans, who conquered Sicily in 1060, and contrived a unique, marvellously syncretic culture, infused with the sorbet-sipping luxuries of the Islamic Orient, yet with the religious and architectural bone structure of confidently Christian, Germano-Celtic northern Europe.

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