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Giuseppe Antonio Borgese: The Polymath from Polizzi

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We recently bought a copy of Colm Tóibín’s novel about the life of Thomas Mann, The Magician. If you haven’t read it, we would heartly recommend it. Tóibín, however, hardly needs an endorsement from us as his work is so well known and respected. Praise aside, reaching the section of the novel where Mann, the anti-Nazi, has left Germany and sought refuge in the United States, we were intrigued to find references to ‘the Italian’, a writer and academic called Borgese. Borgese features at this point as he formed a relationship with Elisabeth, Mann’s youngest daughter, whom he subsequently married. Just who was Giuseppe Antonio Borgese? Tóibín is scant on the details, which is unsurprising given he is not the focus of the novel and that Borgese is largely seen through the eyes of the Mann family. He is often just known as ‘the Italian’ in somewhat disparaging terms, chiefly owing to the age difference between him and the much younger Elisabeth Mann.

Borgese in later life

We decided to do some digging and discovered that Borgese’s work and backstory are much more interesting that we had suspected. Giuseppe Antonio was a Sicilian, born in Polizzi Generosa in 1882. Many epithets can be appended to his career, which spanned numerous fields of cultural endeavour, including journalism, poetry, literary criticism, playwriting and academia. Despite an early foray into legal studies at the University of Palermo, he swapped over to literature in Florence, eventually becoming a specialist in German authors and taking a post teaching letteratura tedesca at Rome’s Sapienza University in 1910. All of which would explain his attraction to the Mann family whilst in California.

Polizzi Generosa by neekoh (CC 2.0)

Running in parallel to his academic career was his work for various publications and newspapers. He wrote as a correspondent for Il Mattino and La Stampa, even forming his own literary magazine, Hermes. Prior to the post at La Sapienza, Borgese spent two years in Germany where he absorbed the language and cultural environment. His work at this period was collected in a book called La nuova Germania (The New Germany). His stay would prove one of many outside Italy and would trigger a lifelong passion for the substance and preoccupations of travel writing. His historico-cultural and socio-anthropological eye would roam across further horizons. He would pen other works in a similar vein: Autunno di Costantinopoli (Autumn in Constantinople), Giro lungo per la primavera (A Long Spring Tour), Escursioni in terre nuove (Excursions to New Lands), not to mention his essays that focused on cultural and political matters, including Italia e Germania published at the height of World War I. Even Borgese’s poetry is laced with travel, witness ‘Trilogia di viaggio’ (‘Travel Trilogy’).

The Sicilian’s philosophy seems to be summed up in the introduction to Giro lungo, where he implies that the path may be long and tortuous but concludes that in the end our spring will come. Borgese’s political and social concerns would certainly ensure that his own path would not be without life-altering shifts in the course he had planned for himself. In the 1914-18 war he took a Liberal-Nationalist position and advocated intervention against the Austro-Hungarians. He was asked by the government to undertake diplomatic discussions with Anti-Habsburg Slavs to try and arrange an alliance. He even tweaked his more youthful La nuova Germania in 1917 to reflect that position.

A careful reading of the original, however, reveals some concerns pointing to ominous portents for the future. At one point he compares the Germany of the 1900s to a forge where endless energies of creation and death circulate unnoticed in the shiny bright devices being produced. With the rise of fascism, we know that these energies were indeed directed towards death. From an unpublished diary entry quoted in ‘Borgese viaggiatore perenne’ by Ilaria de Seta (Laboratorio di nuova ricerca) we can see how Borgese struggled with the rise of Mussolini. He says that ‘nulla è in mi fascista’ (‘nothing in me is fascist’), going on to declare that he couldn’t possibly swear to educate the youth in a fascist manner. His refusal to swear the oath that Mussolini imposed on university professors meant that Borgese stayed in the United States, where he had initially been invited to give some lectures. He wouldn’t return to Italy until the immediate post-war years, when he would go back to the University of Milan and his teaching post in Aesthetics. During the Second World War he formed the Mazzini Society with Gaetano Salvemini and others, promoting the values of democracy, anti-fascism and detailing the conditions in Italy for an American audience.

It was in the United States that Borgese married Elisabeth Mann who was 36 years younger that Giuseppe Antonio, which may well account for the Manns’ slightly reticent opinion of her husband as portrayed by Tóibín in the novel. Tóibín did, of course, carry out detailed research and writes of the numerous occasions when the couple visited Thomas and his wife in their Californian residence, so far removed physically and mentally from Thomas’ childhood in Lubeck. The California of the forties would have been more familiar climatically to Borgese, but still an immense culture shock in terms of the functioning of society. He had, though, an innate adaptability because of his many travels and not for nothing was he the ‘perennial traveller’. Giuseppe and his wife eventually settled in Fiesole near Florence, where his archive is still located at the university.

Borgese is proof of the old adage that travel expands the mind. At the time of writing his diary entry about the Mussolini oath, he noted that he couldn’t conceive of hatred for other countries. Irrespective of governments, he saw people as individuals and assessed their cultural merits accordingly. There were, naturally, youthful opinions he regretted and an early liking for Gabriele D’Annunzio’s work that he left behind, but his entire oeuvre reflects his inquisitive mind and desire to see the world as a whole unit. In Italia e Germania, published in 1915, he said that ‘we know the limits of the principle of nationality’, indicating that ‘it can be (even something) criminal with a ferocious sterility…’ Truly words that ring through the decades to our own time.

The Comune of Polizzi Generosa in Sicily has commemorated him with a plaque bearing these words in Italian: ‘To Giuseppe Antonio Borgese – poet, novelist, critic and politician who wanted the unity of art and the world’ – a fine epitaph.

Andrew and Suzanne are authors of Ghosts of the Belle Époque, a history of Palermo’s Hotel delle Palme and Sicily: A Literary Guide for Travellers. The Times Literary Supplement had this to say about their literary guide: ‘Sicily is full of such delicious anecdotes: it is not only a literary signpost for travellers in an ancient island, but a cultural guide for anyone who finds themselves in the infuriating thrall of its contradictory and compelling extremes… Sicily is bound to become battered and dog-eared, blotched with caponata and wine stains’.

In addition, they are the authors of His Master’s Reflection, a travel biography in the footsteps of Lord Byron’s doctor and Andalucia: A Literary Guide for Travellers. Andrew is the translator of Agony, Sicily’s first detective procedural by Federico de Roberto and Borges in Sicily by Alejandro Luque, a travelogue in search of the photographic locations used by Ferdinando Scianna when he took images of the Argentinean writer, Jorge Luis Borges, during his island tour.

Spend off-season quality time in Sicily

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Have you thought about leaving the daily routine for a few weeks or months and enjoying some time away? After all the lockdowns and changes in our habits and lifestyle, maybe it is a good time to stop for a while and have a re-think about a slower pace of life. 

Funnily enough, in Italy we say “non tutto il male viene per nuocere” (not all bad things come to harm you). In fact teleworking often enforced by the Covid issue has also created many digital nomads and with that the possibility of working from remote places. Well, if you are already retired, you can finally do what you were dreaming of anyway.

Having, myself, travelled for work a lot and then been forced to take a pause for the “Covid Stop”, I’ve actually benefited by returning to my origins, living in my small village. Its warm community helped me reignite my soul and rediscover the simple things that I had forgotten, not to mention the possibility of practising more healthy habits such as sport, eating healthy food, daily meditation, in general an overall healthier lifestyle.

I always end up telling my friends or colleagues in Europe, with whom I work every day, about my experience, explaining that a healthy, happy employee is good for any company, but I guess a “happy person” is always successful and helpful to the people that surround them, whether a spouse, their children or friends. My final question is always: why don’t you try it?

In fact, a couple of years ago, I refurbished a nice charming apartment, built by my grandfather. It’s actually part of an entire building where all my family live just next to the former route of the famous Targa Florio race. I wanted this to be a nest where I or my kids in the future could always come back to, so we could be in touch, not only with the place where I grew up, but also with a place ideal for recharging the batteries.  I have finally started travelling again and moved back to the city of Palermo, where my kids live, so my refurbished apartment is available for Times of Sicily readers to rent.

With this in mind, I’d love to continue writing about my experiences here in more detail, like yoga on the beach and surf or paddle boarding 365 days a year. Of course, there are trips to the local market and you would have the opportunity to learn and practice your Italian or Sicilian, buy the local food and get to know the local people from my town, Campofelice di Roccella. Why not try skiing in Sicily!? Would you believe it? Stay tuned!!

I have already written about certain attractions such as going to an Opera – in my case seeing Cavalleria Rusticana in one of the most beautiful Opera houses in the world, the Teatro Massimo in Palermo.

I’ve also mentioned making pizza with my son, using olive oil from my land. By the way, I suggest you visit during the olive oil season which is also a nice time to go trekking in our Madonie mountains, see my clip here

Besides having all you would need for these experiences i.e. yoga @ home or watching films, listening to nice music or indulging in culinary adventures, Campofelice is also well placed to get to the ski pistes or to go walking in the mountains (30 min) or, further afield, Etna (2h). It’s about 10 minutes from Buonfornello junction, where three motorways connect to the main cities in Sicily, like Palermo, Catania, Messina, Trapani etc

I recently added my apartment to Airbnb, take a look if you would like to get a real feel for the place. If you want to make a booking, you are very welcome to contact me directly and I can assist you personally. 

mailto: ing.giovannimorreale[@]gmail.com (remove the [] signs)

Pietro Pisani: Mental Health Pioneer

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Pietro Pisani
Baron Pietro Pisani


In these uncertain times, we’ve all been focusing a little bit more on the theme of mental health. When normal life gets suspended, and we are forced to adapt to circumstances beyond our control it inevitably takes a toll and affects a good many people. Mental health has always, to a degree, been a taboo subject, something to be brushed under the carpet and dealt with away from the light of day. In the 19th century, family members suffering in this way were almost considered an embarrassment and were often sent off to an institution which made little pretence at effecting a cure or some form of amelioration. Witness the expression ‘bedlam’, i.e. ‘it’s like bedlam in here’. The term comes from the St Mary Bethlehem Hospital in London, which from the Jacobean era onwards was simply known as Bedlam and became a synonym for madness and chaos. Even in the late Georgian/early Victorian era, the chief physician was accused of ‘wanting in humanity’ towards his patients.

It is against this background of maltreatment and ignorance that we turn to the Real Casa dei Matti, an institution founded in Palermo in 1824 by Baron Pietro Pisani. If the name lacks a certain delicacy (the Royal Home for the Insane), the same thing cannot be levelled at the enlightened attitudes of Baron Pisani. Unlike similar organisations in other parts of Europe and the United States, Pisani was focussed on the ‘moral treatment’ of his patients and foreswore the use of chains, segregation and beatings. Pisani’s archival entry in the Palermitan comune gives his birth as 1760, although they do admit that other authorities have stated he was born 3 years later. He had an aristocratic liking for the finer things, specifically painting and music, but he was no dilettante, putting his privilege to good use. Initially, he centred his efforts on the island’s cultural heritage, even intervening to prevent two rapacious English archaeologists from spiriting away, a la Elgin, some fragmented metopes from Selinunte. His efforts are now on display in the Museo regionale.

Towards the end of 1802, he was scandalised by the conditions endured by those suffering from tuberculosis, leprosy and severe mental illness – they were all bundled together and essentially forgotten about within the confines of the Ospedale di S. Giovanni dei Lebbrosi. Eventually the patients with mental health issues were transferred to the building of the ex-noviziato dei Padri Teresiani ai Porrazzi where Baron Pisani took over the running of the institution in 1824, transforming it into the aforementioned Casa Real. He encouraged therapies that promoted recreational activities and entertainments, even instituting an early form of occupational therapy. He was very open to ideas promulgated by cutting-edge doctors specialising in psychiatric matters. Patients were not confined to cells if this could be avoided; they were urged to walk in the gardens and participate in the cultivation of food crops that would then be used in the organisation’s kitchens.

Attention was paid to hygiene and clothing, pride in the appearance being considered important. Pisani was careful to construct an ordered and planned existence for his patients in the belief that a structured day was beneficial, thus avoiding unexpected intrusions which could lead to chaotic outbursts. Music was used as a calming influence, presaging the ‘Mozart Effect’ by many years. Poetry was also read to gatherings of those housed in the building, the verse and metre chosen to soothe the mind and stimulate thoughts in a productive manner. Pisani’s system classified patients rather than placing them all in one simplistic category. Although his groupings were stridently named to modern ears, i.e. maniac, it is interesting to note he had a category for the malinconici (those suffering from melancholy), or in today’s terminology, depression.

The outside world only began to encroach on the residents when they were sufficiently improved to warrant the prospect of release. It was at this point that Pisani considered allowing visits from relatives, believing they could then sustain contact with people and events beyond the walls. It was also a preparation for their future life outside the institution. News of Pisani’s efforts began to filter through to a wider audience. In 1835 an article was reproduced in The Friend, an American magazine, which quoted from a US surgeon’s visit to the Casa Real. The enlightened regime was witnessed at first hand:

The tranquil patients or subjects were put at work of some kind. This was and is yet the only medicinal means employed, if it may be so termed, except in cases where some physical disease is manifested. As reason is restored, and when they become capable, they are employed in various useful and responsible little offices in the house. This is found to soothe their irascibility in some instances, and in many to rouse their ambition and self esteem.

The American medic also noted that meticulous archival records were kept and the institution employed an abundance of staff who had to follow the rules: ‘Conciliatory persuasion and gentle means only are permitted to be used, the infamous use of the whip is not only abolished, but all harsh abuses and violent language and epithets are constantly rejected and carefully avoided.’ Restraints and straight-jackets were used, but only in extremis, and chiefly to protect the patient from harming him/herself. It would be naïve to suggest that the Casa Real was a paradise of insight, but by any standard of judgement applicable at the time, Pisani was light years ahead of most similar organisations.

Alexander Dumas, who knew Sicily well, was moved to refer to him in his classic, The Count of Monte Cristo:

“Do you know with what design M. de Monte-Cristo purchased a house at Auteuil?”
“Certainly, for he told me.”
“What was it, sir?”
“To make a lunatic asylum of it similar to that founded by the Count of Pisani at Palermo.”
“Do you know that edifice?”
“I have heard of it.”
“It is a magnificent institution.”

Likewise, Edgar Allan Poe was inspired by reading of Pisani in The Metropolitan Magazine. Poe also knew the author of the article, Nathaniel Parker Willis. As with all things Poe, the story he wrote: ‘The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether’, had a rather sideways and edgy slant. The fictional insane asylum he features, located in France, used to have a ‘soothing’ regime which was then replaced by a stricter and harsher system implemented by the eponymous Tarr and Fether, a none too subtle reference to mediaeval punishments. Undoubtedly, the author of ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’, intended his story to satirise the prevailing cruel practices found in many North American institutions.

Pietro Pisani has spanned the decades with his reputation and ideas intact. For those wishing to know more, Germana Agnetti and Angelo Barbato have written a biography of the man and a history of the home, Il barone Pisani e la Real Casa dei Matti, published by Sellerio.

Andrew and Suzanne are authors of Ghosts of the Belle Époque, a history of Palermo’s Hotel delle Palme and Sicily: A Literary Guide for Travellers. The Times Literary Supplement had this to say about their literary guide: ‘Sicily is full of such delicious anecdotes: it is not only a literary signpost for travellers in an ancient island, but a cultural guide for anyone who finds themselves in the infuriating thrall of its contradictory and compelling extremes… Sicily is bound to become battered and dog-eared, blotched with caponata and wine stains’.

In addition, they are the authors of His Master’s Reflection, a travel biography in the footsteps of Lord Byron’s doctor and Andalucia: A Literary Guide for Travellers. Andrew is the translator of Agony, Sicily’s first detective procedural by Federico de Roberto and Borges in Sicily by Alejandro Luque, a travelogue in search of the photographic locations used by Ferdinando Scianna when he took images of the Argentinean writer, Jorge Luis Borges, during his island tour.

We the Italians

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We the Italians, an international network and media company, recently named Mark Spano of Orange County, NC, its North Carolina ambassador.

The grandson of Sicilian immigrants, Mark is a prolific writer, television producer, and filmmaker. His feature documentary “Sicily: Land of Love & Strife” played to packed houses during its initial limited theatrical release in the U.S. and Canada. It was warmly received at the Toronto Italian Film Festival and has aired on select public television stations both here and in E.U. markets.

We the Italians

During the initial COVID-19 quarantine, Mark’s passion for Sicily inspired him to spend his time at home creating a short video tribute to the island nation entitled “Dreaming of Sicily.” He is currently working on another show about Sicilian wines.

Shortly after he completed the film, he also published a companion book by the same name with the addendum “A Filmmaker’s Journey.” (Both the film and the book are available on amazon.com.)

As a writer, Mark is a contributing editor to the online magazine Times of Sicily. His short fiction and book reviews frequently appear in Ovunque Siamo, a literary magazine that curates the work of Italian American writers.

Mark considers his new appointment as ‘We the Italians’ ambassador “a genuine honor and another way to engage my passion for Italy.”

About We the Italians: Headquartered in Rome, ‘We the Italians’ is a media company and network through which Italian-Americans and anyone else interested can “share, promote, be informed, and keep in touch with anything regarding Italy happening in the US” through its website, social media communities, newsletter, magazine, and book. For more information about the organization and its programs: wetheitalians.com/about.

Post-Covid Luxury Travel Desires

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Traveling smartly and choosing local vacation spots is a growing trend among post-covid travelers. Smaller communities with rich histories and longstanding traditions are becoming more and more common among those craving to connect with the uncommon world after a year plus of isolation and staying in one’s familiar home. As travel to far-off countries isn’t yet guaranteed as 100% secure, those still seeking vacations are considering places that are off of the mass-tourism radar, instead selecting more intentional vacations which support smaller businesses and uncover uncommon entities and experiences.

With so many people having been cooped up in their homes for so long, a new era of intentionality and quality has begun. Travelers are seeking specific territories and realities that appeal more to their inherent desires and deep curiosities. Travel will be more focused on meaningful trips which fulfill thoughtful needs and wants, rather than cheaper, often lower-quality trips which are booked with an air of indifference and casualty rather than a true desire to connect and explore inherent pursuits. Tourism is now seen in a more exclusive light and is simpler to achieve with hand-made itineraries with a focus on the intentional rather than the convenient.

Individuals and families are now seeking to travel to destinations where the uncommon path and a more “meditative” destination can be easily achieved. The pandemic has thrown people off of their daily rhythms filled with crowded realities and bustling movement. Though vacations are usually intended for rest and recharge, travelers desire to leave their homes in search of more exclusive destinations with few crowds and open air. This may demonstrate itself in the form of small bed and breakfasts rather than beachfront mega-hotels in densely populated areas, countryside retreats, or resident boutique hotels in lesser-known towns and cities. Those traveling after the pandemic desire a change in scenery without forfeiting comfort and security.

Piano Zucchi – Madonie

As the economy has taken a nosedive in the tourism sector, there will be more noise from popular tourist destinations vying to win back the affection and wallets of those wishing to get back out into the world of travel. Tourists are instead seeking economic options and more sustainable patterns of exploration and the use of much-needed vacation days. Sustainability has demonstrated itself in many different forms, yet in the travel industry is still a tricky archetype to navigate. Sustainability in travel may appear in different forms such as moving around via local modes of transportation, purchasing locally-grown and crafted goods, and preferring experiences from uniquely local organizations/businesses.

A Conspiracy of Talkers

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Gaetano Savatteri is an astute observer of the quirks and nuances of Sicilian society.  In our book on Palermo’s Hotel delle Palme, Ghosts of the Belle Époque, we refer to Savatteri’s writing on a couple of occasions.  Firstly, we recount the unusual story of Baron Agostino Fausto La Lomia who used to write himself letters whilst staying in the hotel so he could go to reception and grandiosely feel the self-importance of receiving a lot of post.  Savatteri describes how he went on to set up an Accademia del Parnaso provoking fascist opprobrium.  Secondly, we delve into the plot of his novel, Il ferito di Vishinskij, where he writes of the attempted assassination of Stalin’s chief prosecutor in a Palermo hotel.  From these two examples, it’s clear that the writer who grew up in Racalmuto has an eye for idiosyncratic detail.  Who better, then, to write a murder mystery set in Sicily?  We were delighted to discover that he had, La congiura dei loquaci, (inspired by real events from his hometown) which has recently been translated into English by Steve Eaton for Italica Press under the title, A Conspiracy of Talkers.

The book is set during the period after the initial invasion of the island by Allied troops during the Second World War.  The Americans have withdrawn from direct day-to-day military intervention and the island is under AMGOT control. We discover that some US transport trucks have gone missing.  Lieutenant Benjamin Adano, an Italian-American who learnt the college Italian of Dante rather than the Sicilian-inflected Italian of his aunt, is sent down from Naples to investigate.  He steps into something of a hornet’s nest, owing to the fact that the extremely unpopular mayor of the town has been killed in the main square.  On a rainy night, his body is found sprawled outside the Caffè Cacioppo.  The accusations begin to fly, sotto voce, and more overtly.  There is seemingly no end of possible suspects, but suspicion falls on Vincenzo Picipò, the man nicknamed Hundred-Ten, an out of work sulphur miner.  He is a known thief, but there are doubts about his capability to commit murder.  Nonetheless, his fate appears to be preordained.  Town gossip fixates around his inevitable incarceration rather than his guilt.  Even the local carabinieri chief knows he has a role to play in finding enough evidence to send the man for trial.

Against this backdrop, Adano struggles to uncover the story behind the missing trucks.  The trail leads to the sulphur mine, run by the deceased mayor and to a monastery where a monk explains a few home truths about the nature of theft in an unfair world.  The characters are wonderfully evoked, from Adano’s assistant, Semino, with his fractured English and guile, to the young auto-didact desperate to put his hands on any book in an effort to better his knowledge of the world – a world, however, he knows that he’ll never see at first hand.  The facts are grim and a deep sense of fatality hangs in the air, a weary acceptance that things will never change and that this is just the way things are and will always be.  This could lend the book a heavy ponderous air, but it doesn’t.  The atmosphere is leavened by Savatteri’s sardonic humour and piquant side-ways glance at Sicilian society.

Soon Adano comes to the same conclusion as many of the citizens of the town, namely that Hundred-Ten isn’t guilty, but that he will end up as the fall guy for the real culprit.  There is a theatrical scope to the dialogue as the book builds to its conclusion, a finale worthy of a Greek tragedy.  Savatteri is not Sciascia or Bufalino, his writing is very much his own, although there is something of Sciascia’s piercing insight and Bufalino’s wry crafted language. He is acutely aware of his subject and writes with a befitting style.  Aficionados of both these authors will recognise the similarities and the differences and will really enjoy this book.  That said, you can approach A Conspiracy of Talkers from many perspectives; from an interest in the Allied landings, from Tancredi’s perspective in The Leopard, of things having to change to say the same, from an interest in Italian emigration, or from the complex issue of crime and society in Sicily.  That said, you can pick it up and just enjoy it as a damn good story. Savatteri is the consummate storyteller, as recognised by Andrea Camilleri himself.

The translator, Steve Eaton, has done an admirable job in capturing the conversations in a natural and unstilted manner, no mean feat given some of the more complicated passages switching between local expressions, Italo-American and formal talk.  The words also act as semi-hidden metaphors for class, affiliation and conflict.  Little can be said, but much can be meant.  In this context, it is all too easy to fall into the trap of over-using English language dialects in translation, but it’s avoided here to great success.  Post-invasion Sicily reveals its multi-faceted layers effortlessly in Eaton’s translation.

Further details about A Conspiracy of Talkers can be found on Italica Press’ website.

The Invention of Sicily

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Book cover

The Invention of Sicily: A Mediterranean History, Jamie Mackay, Published by Verso, 304 pages, $24.26 US/£16.99

Book cover

Reviewed by Mark Spano

…the concept of Europe must have first been formed as an antithesis to that which is not Europe…

from Europe (in Theory) by Roberto M. Dainotto

In Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog), a 1929 Franco-Spanish silent short film by Spanish director Luis Buñuel and surrealist artist Salvador Dalí, there is a striking image of a man pursuing a woman while pulling behind himself two grand pianos, two bloodied and dead mules, and two members of the Roman Catholic clergy all roped together. This well-known film image has always evoked in me the notion of the encumbrances of our European heritage, the baggage of our Western patrimony. And, no region in Europe has been more plagued by these most oppressive burdens of history than the island of Sicily.

Sicily is said to be the most conquered region on earth. It is this remarkably multifarious past that intrigues so many of us so much about the island that is also the homeland of my grandparents. Sicily fascinates and baffles us by virtue of her extremes. She is both verdant and desolate, both abundant and spare, both hospitable and forbidding. Yet, so many of us keep returning to her shores. We continue making films about her. We persist in writing of her marvels and her secrets. We keep trying to crack the Sicilian riddle believing that which is so satisfying in Sicily will somehow overturn so much that is amiss in Sicily.

In the Epilogue of his new book The Invention of Sicily: A Mediterranean History, author Jamie Mackay writes,

For centuries Sicilians have struggled to assert their autonomy
in the face of Catholic monoculture, Italian nationalism, fascism
and organised crime. Now, as a new migrant population begins to
establish itself, they have begun to envisage a different kind of society.

In this Epilogue, Mackay gives the most lucid depiction of a new rising Sicily that I have yet to read. His dauntless narrative would somehow stand as hollow, though, without the preceding well-documented eight chapters that render the requisite groundwork for the reader to grasp the context for the millennia of Sicilian contentions. There is no escaping the fact that the story of Sicily is every bit as entangled as the image from the Buñuel/Dali film.

“Nothing is ever finished and done with in this world,” says Don Fabrizio from Lampedusa’s The Leopard. It seems in Sicily history is never over. The past, the deep past is eternally present in Sicily. This can be simultaneously beautiful and stifling.

Mackay writes,

For the islanders themselves, life is and has always been
characterised by the almost constant exchange of people
and ideas across and beyond the Mediterranean.

Is this multiculturalism from a period of time before such terms were even thinkable? I think not. This was empire, and if you held Sicily you ran the Mediterranean. It has always been about running the Mediterranean. I write this remembering that my own country has installed listening devices atop the island’s hills and mountains to eavesdrop on suspected military rivals across the Mediterranean Sea.

Mackay goes on to write,

Sicilian history has been white, Christian and Western, certainly,
but it has also been, and still is, black, Arab and Muslim among
other things. Such ambiguities are present everywhere, but they
are particularly visible on the shores of the Mediterranean. This
is what makes the region so exciting. It’s also what makes it difficult
and, for some, uncomfortable.

“Uncomfortable,” would not have been the word I’d have chosen for a response to out and out racism and classicism, but Mr. Mackay, I believe, is trying to be conciliatory, and I am too old for such evasive language.

Sicily still has its hierarchies. Not the hierarchies of the era of The Leopard but hierarchies just the same. The notion of privileged groups has never been disguised in Sicily. It is preferential treatment exercised in the light of day that contributes to the sardonic Sicilian sense of humor.

Mackay goes on to tell us,

…international observers, particularly in America, began to
look at Sicily in surprisingly favourable terms. To some extent
this might be said to have begun as early as 1972 when Francis
Ford Coppola released his film adaptation of The Godfather.
The plot, it’s true, is concerned with murders and racketeering.
Nevertheless, the on-screen version of the island is that of a
Mediterranean paradise, where despite the gang violence life is
essentially comfortable. The Cosa Nostra of Coppola’s world is
not made up by thugs like (Toto) Riina. Their leader is the charismatic
and charming Don Vito, who rules over his organisation according
to codes of honour and respect.

Here the author is spot on. Those whose ideas about Sicily begin and end with Coppola’s film are as well informed about Sicily as Gone with the Wind would inform one about the problems of race in the United States. Sicily’s past cannot be sentimentalized. Poverty and the marginalizing of entire peoples is not something for which we should have any nostalgia. These were not, “the good old days in the old country.” Sicily needs modern economic prosperity.

“Everything changes,” Ovid writes in The Metamorphoses, “nothing perishes,” and, yes, Sicily is undergoing big changes, changes that are neither seismic nor volcanic. They are social changes and hopefully economic changes.

I have written in different contexts that the Sicilian terrain is very similar to that of California. Sicily has a great many of the attributes of California. It is sunny and rugged. One can grow grapes and citrus. Sicily even has some very fine universities. Why isn’t Sicily the Silicon Valley of Europe? Who wouldn’t want to live there? The weather’s great, the food, wine, beaches, mountains, boating, skiing. What’s not to love?

Prosperity for Sicilians means choice and the only choice Sicilians have had for the past one hundred and fifty years was to leave the island. My ancestors left Sicily for the United States. Others left for Australia, Latin America, and North Europe. They sought the promise of a new land. They sought opportunity. Now, refugees see Sicily as a new land. Is the promise there?

I was on and off the island making a film between 2014 and 2016. The film was released in 2017. I could not return to the island until 2018. Over a few years, Sicily had changed. No question, Palermo, Catania, and even some not traditionally touristic towns seemed more vibrant. There were more feet on the street, more economic activity, and possibly leaning way too much in the direction of American consumerism. Goethe wrote in his diary: “Italy without Sicily leaves no trace upon the soul. Sicily is the key to everything.” Sicily is the key and seems to be transforming before our very eyes.

Mackay’s new book is not simply important, it is a necessity for a reader who wants to comprehend a new Sicily that is metamorphosing before our very eyes. His book is a needed piece of the discussion on Sicily because it offers a glimpse of a promise of change. But are things changing only to remain the same?

Let us try to believe as the author Jamie Mackay believes that changes for the better may be in store for Sicily. He is a younger man than I. I want to believe his vision is correct, and I hope he lives to see a better Sicily even if I will not.

Views from the ‘Triangle’ and the ‘Continent’

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We’ve always been interested in travelogues and guides from another era as they speak, not only of the culture they focus upon, but also of the ideas, preoccupations and, sometimes, prejudices of the authors’ own culture. We are currently writing a book on the poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and the time he spent in Sicily and Malta. As part of Coleridge’s own investigation and research, he read accounts of both islands by learned men from Britain and, we have to say, the degree to which they pushed a colonialist agenda was an eye-opener. Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising given the time, 1804, and the conflict with France which led to Bentinck’s intervention in Sicily. We also know that Coleridge was able to read Italian, which led us to dip into some accounts from Italians who had travelled across the island. We thought it would be interesting to translate some passages from a range of peninsula writers from the end of the eighteenth century onwards and from islanders writing for a wider public. Just what did the ‘polentoni’, Napolitani and others make of Sicily? What did the Sicilians wish to project to a larger Italian audience? We have put our own, somewhat tongue in cheek, impressions in Italics under each quote.

‘Continentals’

In Sicily, whether in the small or larger towns, the courtesies extended to the traveller aren’t accompanied by those clumsy concerns that make them less agreeable; but rather by good grace, discretion and a certain freedom given to the guest, which make them very welcome.
Ricordi di un viaggio a Napoli e in Sicilia (Francesco Finocchietti, 1864). We agree totally with this one. Natural hospitality is always better than the forced variety.

The preparations to receive King Vittorio in Palermo… despite the bad taste, they were solemn and grandiose. It was said that he would really arrive on the 27th (November). What a sight Toledo (note: now Via Vittorio Emanuele) was on that day, with decorations, an immense multitude, the universal brio, so much so that it can only be imagined by those who know the people of Sicily.
Del festeggiato viaggio de’ reali d’Italia in Sicilia (Antonio Traina, 1881). This is full-on propaganda tinged with a bit of northern Italian sangfroid – i.e. oh those colourful southerners with their bad taste!

The perpetual disputes among the learned over determining the position of the ancient cities and castles of Sicily makes travel over this large island for the man of letters rough and annoying, given the impracticable roads, the torrents, the precipitous ravines…
Viaggio della Sicilia (Carlo Castone, Conte Della Torre di Rezzonico, 1828). Plus ça change for this one. Academics will always squabble about the minutiae of a subject and anyone who has driven the backroads of Sicily today will know they are a bit hairy and prone to the vagaries of weather extremes.

Not far from the city (Enna), you can see the famous lake, where poets, especially Claudio, say that Proserpina was kidnapped. In the mountains belonging to the city, you will find the Salgemma mines, the richest in Sicily, but now in a total state of abandon, so much so that you won’t encounter anyone who wants to risk entering the mountain, as the art of building supports has been forgotten.
Guida dei viaggiatori in Italia e all’Isole di Sicilia (Domenico Sambalino, 1823). Greek myths and legends are inextricably linked with Sicily. They were obsessed with them then and we still are today. Nothing wrong with that! As regards the mine works, well they’re always getting abandoned through economics, geography or the exhaustion of resources – take a look at Cornwall.

Tree near Mt Etna (J-P Houel)

On the contrary, Sicilian is distinguished by sweetness and grace. It is notably mixed with Arabic, and also conserves vestiges, more or less noticeably, of all the occupiers who have followed one another, such as the Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Saracens, Normans, Germans, French and Spanish.
Guida storico-statistica monumentale dell’Italia e delle isole di Sicilia (Ferdinando Artaria Ed., 1857). This is nice to see. An appreciation of Sicilian as a multi-faceted language collecting influences from various sources. Having it characterized by ‘sweetness and grace’ is a pleasant change from the more common characterization as a peasant dialect. Even Coleridge complained of ‘bad Italian’, which we suspect was a misunderstanding as he most likely didn’t realise he was listening to Sicilian.

Castrogiovanni (Enna) presents a mixture of roads and paths winding through the rocks; the houses are located in the seemingly most inaccessible places, whether at the bottom of picturesque funnel-shaped clefts or above the mountain’s rocks, stretched like frames over deep precipices.
Guida manuale pel viaggiatore in Italia (Edoardo Sonzogno Ed., 1870). A good bit of standard guide book description here, although one wonders if the writer had visited Sicily that often, given this description could stand for the majority of inland hill villages and towns.

‘Islanders’

In truth a cave, the marvellous and surprising Ear of Dionysius is known for the phenomenon of its echo. In a corner of the Latomie, referred to as Paradise, you will find the opening to this very high and twisted cavern carved out by picks, which, given the material is well preserved, forms the actual shape of an ear cavity… Mirabella, Bonanni and other modern writers assert that the tyrant Dionysius had this horrible prison constructed, and that the grotto resonates in a such a manner so that, from the heights, everything being said by the incarcerated unfortunates could be heard.
Viaggio per tutte le antichità della Sicilia (Ignazio Paternò Castello, 1817). Well, you can’t go to Neapolis in Syracuse and not talk about the Ear of Dionysius. Even then there was debate about the veracity of Dionysius’ echo chamber being used as an eavesdropping station – still, it makes a good story!

Noto is a city newly rebuilt in a better spot, and a few miles from the old one, ruined by the 1693 earthquake. The Ispica valley is found in its south-westerly territory, making the abundant mineral springs pleasant and picturesque; there is a rock of such size that it’s carved into a thousand square little cavities, arranged in various sizes. The fatigue of many miles of disastrous road can be saved; perhaps they can be seen in greater number at Pantalica.
Guida dei viaggiatori agli oggetti più interessanti a vedersi in Sicilia (Abbot Francesco Ferrara). Noto, one of the glories of Sicily and he’s more concerned about the surrounding countryside and the caves, which are lovely, but… He even suggests you can save yourself the trouble by visiting Pantalica! Maybe he thought Noto was just a ‘new town’, like Milton Keynes in the UK. Trust us, Noto is nothing like Milton Keynes. And yes, we do know the roads are bad.

After the sack of Rome in 1527, Polidoro Caldara da Caravaggio moved to Messina, where, in 1535, he was commissioned to make the apparatus and triumphal arches for the solemn entrance to the city of Emperor Charles V. He, along with his school, created all the paintings worthy of great praise. He executed many fresco works, which were mostly destroyed in the 1783 earthquake… Michelangelo Amerighi, o Morigi, da Caravaggio also came to Sicily, specifically Messina, Syracuse and Palermo. He was well-know and famous for the strangeness of his behaviour and also for the strange way in which he painted.
Guida del viaggiatore in Sicilia (Father Salvatore Lanza, 1859). No, not that Caravaggio, but the world-renowned Polidoro. Not intending to ‘diss’ the works of Signor Caldara da Caravaggio, but really…! Oh, the other Caravaggio, well, his works are just weird. Funny how tastes in art change and the great and good go in and out of fashion or, perhaps, it was because Salvatore Lanza was a priest. Caravaggio was notoriously antagonistic towards clerics. Also, we now commonly call him Merisi – see Andrew Graham Dixon.

We reposed at Agnone, and breakfasted in a beautiful wood of olives belonging to Prince Palagonia; and afterwards sauntering about through the neighbouring fields we entered a little cottage, where sat an old woman and the captain of a small coasting felucca from Messina, who was learnedly discussing certain doctrines of navigation, and displaying a world of self-importance… “What! Bobadils and pedants ‘even at Agnoni?’”
Giornale del viaggio fatto in Sicilia (Paolo Balsamo, 1811, N.B. translation not ours, but by Thomas W Vaughan). Two explanations here, either the aristocratic visitors were unsettled by seeing educated talk from a mere fisherman or they witnessed an early version of ‘mansplaining’.

But here comes the winter, a favourite season for clouds and mists. Although the mantle stretched over Erice’s mountain is monotonous and melancholy, it nonetheless provides a joy which is all its own. You believe, in such places, to be on the edge of that widowed northern location, of which ice and darkness are the everlasting masters, the two elements of death and chaos.
Erice oggi: Monte San Giuliano in Sicilia, memorie storiche (Giuseppe Castronovo, 1872). Blimey, Erice portrayed as Dante’s inferno. This could only be written by a Sicilian who has never traipsed around a Scottish castle in the height of summer whilst being lashed with sleet and soaked by fine misty rain. A nice piece of evocative writing, though.

What have we learnt? That anyone who dares to pontificate on something will be subject to the jibes of posterity. Which is exactly how it should be!

Andrew and Suzanne are authors of Ghosts of the Belle Époque, a history of Palermo’s Hotel delle Palme and Sicily: A Literary Guide for Travellers. The Times Literary Supplement had this to say about their literary guide: ‘Sicily is full of such delicious anecdotes: it is not only a literary signpost for travellers in an ancient island, but a cultural guide for anyone who finds themselves in the infuriating thrall of its contradictory and compelling extremes… Sicily is bound to become battered and dog-eared, blotched with caponata and wine stains’.

In addition, they are the authors of His Master’s Reflection, a travel biography in the footsteps of Lord Byron’s doctor and Andalucia: A Literary Guide for Travellers. Andrew is the translator of Agony, Sicily’s first detective procedural by Federico de Roberto and Borges in Sicily by Alejandro Luque, a travelogue in search of the photographic locations used by Ferdinando Scianna when he took images of the Argentinean writer, Jorge Luis Borges, during his island tour.

A Jewel and Other Texts

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Waterhouse, John William; A Mermaid; Royal Academy of Arts; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/a-mermaid-149322

Someone like me, who can become very heavy about what he enjoys, has been banging on for a few years about the desirability of rescuing Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s stories. The last edition of this volume in Spanish, published by Edhasa, dates from 1990 and, although 30 years are nothing, in the increasingly fleeting market of editorial novelties it is tantamount to vanishing. Welcome, then, to Anagram’s rescue, and congratulations in advance to the readers, because it has to be said this book contains one of the most beautiful texts in the world. (Translator’s note: in the English-speaking world, Alma Classics re-released I racconti in 2013 as Childhood Memories and Other Stories with a new translation. They are also available in a 1997 Harvill Edition entitled The Siren and Selected Writings, referred to here.)

I should begin, however, by noting that Lampedusa’s Stories are not all stories as such. Not all of them. Specifically, only two of the four listed in the contents. We’ll find out what the others are in due course. After the scholarly foreword by Gioacchino Lanza di Tomasi, adopted son, heir to Lampedusa, and perhaps the one who knows most about his life and work, come the ‘Childhood Memories’, a first draft of what might have been the germ of a longer autobiographical text. It was Lampedusa, himself, who patented the idea that the State, any state, ought to impose on its subjects the obligation to keep diaries or write memoirs. “There is no memoir, however insignificant its author may have been, that doesn’t encapsulate expressive and social values of the first order.” His would be no exception.

This brief memoir could also be read as a collection of thoughts and ideas which would then crystallize in the Sicilian’s great work, Il Gattopardo (The Leopard), the very same book so crushingly remembered by the famous phrase where everything must change so that nothing changes; well yes, but it is also one of the most beautiful exponents of a genre, the historical novel, which is not exactly overflowing with masterpieces.

Gioacchino Lanza has pointed out that the ‘Memories’ reveal “the meaning of the game, of a dream fantasy accompanying the emergence of late creativity”. Indeed, one can glimpse in these pages the writer who has been preparing his whole life to be just that, and who in the last years of his life – he will die when only 60 – will compose that fabulous paean to an era and a lineage on the verge of decline. We will never know what these childhood memories would have looked like on completion; perhaps their destiny was to remain as a warm-up exercise before undertaking the feat of writing The Leopard. In any case, they belong to a tradition of the island’s aristocracy which runs from the estimable Happy Summer Days, a book by Lampedusa’s cousin, Fulco di Verdura, who ended up designing jewelry for Coco Chanel, to Via XX Settembre, by Simonetta Agnello Hornby (her Palermo memoir).

The second piece in the volume, ‘Joy and the Law’, is a Christmas tale with key Neorealist elements.  The protagonist is a grey accountant who trudges the bombed streets on his way back home — a home full of brats — with a chunky panettone he has won in the office raffle. Perhaps he can be accused of displaying certain stereotypical padding, but he possesses the undoubted value of being Lampedusa’s first and only known attempt at reflecting a world outside of his own; an attempt made with literary ambition, beyond the modest end result.

Waterhouse, John William; A Mermaid

The last piece in the volume, ‘The Blind Kittens’, is actually the truncated beginning of a novel that might have been some kind of a continuation of The Leopard. The autobiographical and the historical merge once again into an eventful ride whose title already implies the fate of its characters, those blind kittens who can’t even manage to see the light. If I’m not mistaken, within the text there also looms, for the first time in Lampedusa, an observation on the vernacular violence of the Mediterranean’s largest island, in which “deeds of violence when unpunished were in that time a motive for esteem, the halo of Sicilian saints being blood-red”.

The house of Salina, the emblematic protagonist of The Leopard, is still present in this new installment, as it also is in the jewel of the volume, which I have purposely left until the end. ‘The Siren’, originally titled ‘Lighea’, is told precisely by a Salina who finds himself in rather reduced circumstances, “the only surviving specimen of that family”, a legatee of “all the Leopard’s ways”, writes Lampedusa humorously. I won’t tell you much more about the story, I trust you will read it and judge it for yourself.  It’s the love story of a man and a mermaid. There are only a handful of pages, but from the very first to the last they are accompanied by grace, inspiration, culture and beauty. Let me just say that the first time I read it, I wanted the book to float in the air so I could applaud every few minutes.

In short, the ‘Childhood Memories’ are a warm-up for The Leopard; ‘The Blind Kittens’, a stretching exercise. What about ‘The Siren’? The siren is a song, but not that of the fabulous sea creature, but of the swan. Some wagging tongues, which abound in Sicily, have even tried to insinuate that this story, so much better than the others, was not the work of Lampedusa, but of his disciple Francesco Orlando.

I mention this piece of malice simply for notary purposes, without giving it any credence. I am convinced that Lighea belongs to the author of The Leopard; that nobleman whose original manuscript had been rejected by the great publishers of the time, but due to which there was already no going back, as he had discovered the pleasure of writing. Lighea is the work of a man who enjoys each paragraph, each line, regardless of its destiny. Someone who has been diagnosed with a fatal cancer, who counts his life expectancy in a few months, and is willing to invest them in what the maestros taught him: to leave a little beauty in this world.

This article first appeared in M’Sursee here for the original.

Alejandro is the author of Borges in Sicily, a travelogue in search of the photographic locations used by Ferdinando Scianna when he took images of the Argentinean writer, Jorge Luis Borges, during his island tour.

Exhibition in Palermo: When Masayoshi Sukita Photographed David Bowie

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Bowie & Sukita

It seems like Masayoshi Sukita and David Bowie were soul mates who were destined to come together in the name of art. You only have to look at the photos of Bowie to imagine how much the iconic musician means to Sukita.

It wasn’t Bowie’s music that first drew Sukita in. The photographer was in London in the early 70s when he saw a poster for a concert the singer was performing in with Lou Reed at the Royal Festival Hall. He knew instantly he had to see that concert and soon had a ticket in his hand.

The show enchanted the Japanese photographer who could only speak basic English. Bowie’s pure theatrics on stage and flamboyant presentation inspired him. With the help of his translator, who was also a fashion designer, Yaski Takahashi aka Yakko, he reached out to Bowie’s manager. Sukita presented his photography portfolio and was granted a photoshoot with the man who would be his lifetime muse.

Sukita photographed Bowie in the studio and in concert several times, including at the Rainbow Theater for the launch of The Rise And Fall of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars. Ziggy Stardust was Bowie’s alter ego, a character he invented who was a bisexual rock star and intergalactic messenger. Arriving at the theater, the photographer realized the singer was impressed with his work, as the monochrome and color photos were enlarged and on display.

 The following year Bowie requested a shoot to launch Ziggy Stardust at Radio City Music Hall. The Watch That Man series shows Bowie as a space Samurai in an elaborate outfit inspired by the Hakama (Samurai pants). The New York shoot was styled by Yakko, who chose striking outfits by Japanese designer Kansai Yamamoto.

Sukita had a vision to use the bright red background to contrast with the outfit and Bowie’s strong presence, dramatic makeup and punk hairstyle. He recalls how heavy the costumes were, but Bowie modeled them effortlessly. From behind the camera, he saw the lines between Bowie and Ziggy’s personas were blurred and he really could take on an authentic alien-looking presence. The connection between the photographer and the musician was strong and they enjoyed creating art together as the world lapped up as much as they could offer.

 That shoot at RCA Studios was a success and Bowie headed off around the States on tour. Before long, he was in Japan, discovering life in Japan and stripping on stage in a wild display encouraged by the crowd. Japan welcome Bowie and he became very famous throughout the country. Other musicians followed in Bowie’s path, landing in Japan to promote their music. Many had success, but Bowie was always the most famous Western rocker of them all.

Sukita says Bowie was inspired by Japanese culture, as equally as he was by the West. His popularity was exploding in America, Japan, and internationally, and he was being recognized for his innovative style and musical talents.

In 1977 Bowie produced Iggy Pop’s debut album called The Idiot. Both went to Tokyo on a promo tour and Sukita was there to document the trip. He took images that would be used on both artists future albums.

With busy careers and lives, sometimes much time would pass between photo shoots. But the bond was always as strong as ever whenever the chance for a photoshoot came up. The two pushed each other creatively and sometimes agreed to meet at a photoshoot with ideas to execute. No idea seems too wacky or too mundane. Sukita found joy photographing Bowie in everyday life situations as much as he enjoyed documenting superstar moments.

Bowie’s fame rose and Sukita was there to record the many moments. He would capture the performer backstage putting on makeup, on stage in front of thousands of fans and took lifestyle shots of Bowie drinking tea, smoking and riding the subway. The concerts passed. The years passed. The costumes changed. The decades passed. Bowie once said, “It’s very hard for me to accept that Sukita-san has been snapping away at me since 1972, but that really is the case.”

In 2015 Sukita had his first solo exhibition in New York and he invited Bowie. He wasn’t able to attend but did message the gallery to share some words about his friend. “He is a very serious artist, a brilliant artist. I would define him a master.”

You can see an exhibition of Sukita’s Bowie portraits at Palazzo Sant’Elia in Palermo, Italy. Heroes – Bowie by Sukita features 100 large-format photographs taken over four decades by the iconic photographer who is now 82 years old. Bowie passed away from cancer in 2016. After his death, Sukita said he had expected to die before Bowie, who was nine years younger.

Fans of both artists are flocking to admire the photographic artworks that celebrate the life and career of one of the world’s most iconic rockstars ever. If you get the chance to see the exhibition, don’t miss it. It is a moving and inspiring work of art that is beautifully powerful.

 If you are in Sicily or planning to come to Sicily, visit the exhibition which is on until April the 30th 

https://www.fondazionesantelia.it/mostre/bowie/itemid-206.html

If you need a place to stay, why not book my charming, newly refurbished apartment listed in AirBnB: https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/48299963  or inquire directly to me giovanni@timesofsicily.com

Gio Morreale