“And these visions of (Venera) are now all that remain.”
—Bob Dylan (more or less)
Following up a visit to Comiso last May, I decided to read a book by its native-born award-winning author Gesualdo Bufalino. A few things became clear to me early-on in my attempt to read Argo Il Cieco (first published, 1984). For starters it was written in a level of Italian that I’m guessing even most Italians have difficulty with. That’s ok because as a quasi-writer myself I can always invent my own storyline while still enjoying and learning the local cultural ambience. Secondly, the story of a young teacher’s obsession with an even younger student, Maria Venera, was going to be the focus of my interest in this novel. And thirdly, that it wouldn’t be long after finally finishing the book that I would be headed to the city in which the story is situated in 1951: Modica. Modica Alta to be precise (Upper Modica). Not to be confused with Modica Bassa (Lower Modica). An important distinction since, even though they are both a part of the city of Modica, one youngster of Modica Alta in the book chides a companion, “Quit acting like you’re from Modica Bassa.”
Now you may know Modica for being the “The City of 100 Churches” (at least) or “The City of Chocolate”, (you can choose from ordering a hot chocolate or a hot chocolate modicano for 50 cents more), or the city of Baroque architecture, visible at every turn. You may even know it as the birthplace of Nobel Prize winning poet Salvatore Quasimodo, who wrote poems that “express the tragic experience of life in our own times.” Or maybe to you Modica simply means a plate of scacci muricani. However, my personal reason for going to Modica Alta was to find this Maria Venera. She was the apple of every male’s eyes in Modica Alta in the 1951 setting of the book, and she fascinated me because she had the one characteristic that to me is the most important quality in a woman: unobtainability. Even better, unobtainable while pretending to be obtainable—Maria pretended for a stretch to return her teacher’s love to get her out a particularly delicate situation.
And due to my own personal obsession, I spent a wonderful three days lodged at the Hotel Palazzo Failla in Modica Alta, by the piazza and the church of Santa Teresa of Avila. My days were filled descending and ascending the steps between Modica Alta and Modica Bassa. (Consult your physician first!)
Modica Alta is a specific medieval town, now a distinct neighborhood, built high on a hill in the Monti Iblei section of southeast Sicily, in the province of Ragusa. The Hyblean Mountain range was formed by powerful rivers that eroded plateaus and created steep and deep limestone-rock canyons, canyons on which cities were built, including Modica.
Modica provides a feast for the eyes, although I’m confused as to why this is so. Taking the entire city as a whole, it is two cliffs rising from the valley that are filled with homes. We are looking at modern man’s conquest over nature. A marvel of construction to be sure. Tour books will tell you the homes look like they were built into the rocks. Well, in centuries gone by that was the truth. There are archeological parks near Modica (e.g. Pantalica and the Cave of Ispica) that still clearly show how men carved out spaces for themselves in the sides of mountains. One on top of the other. Prehistoric high-rises. So what we see in Modica is just the modern version of that, the homes attached to the rocks instead of carved into them. Wired for Wi-Fi, of course.
For many years and up to only a few decades ago, there was a decided difference and rivalry between the two sections. It stems from both sides historically having different families of nobility. In fact, Modica Alta had the Duomo San Giorgio as its “mother church.” Less then ten-minute walk downhill would get you to San Pietro, the mother church of Modica Bassa. Clearly two different towns.
Sidebar: Catholics apparently put their own differences behind them long enough when on the Feast of the Assumption, 1475, with motivation from the priestly pulpits, they took to Cartellone, the Jewish Quarter, to kill nearly 400 Jews while screaming, “Death to the Jews! Long live the Blessed Mother”. The day has gone down in history as the “Massacre of The Feast of the Assumption.” To be fair, it wasn’t particular to Modica, but occurred in many Sicilian towns.
Modica Bassa was built at the convergence of two rivers, rivers that created a natural beauty often interrupted by flooding. So much so that at one time Modica Bassa was called the “Venice of the South.” However, after a devastating flood in 1902, it was decided enough was enough and the rivers that ran through the lower city were paved over, thus forming what is now the bustling Corso Umberto, the principle street of all of Modica, filled with stores, theatres, restaurants, piazzas.
Ironically, Modica Bassa offers the best views of Modica Alta. In fact, unless you would/could walk directly under it, you can’t even see from Modica Alta the Castle of the Counts, including its famous clock tower. But there are stellar views of it from the front of Church of St. Maria of Bethlehem in Modica Bassa. By the same token if the commercialism of the Corso Umberto in Modica Bassa is not your thing, then Modica Bassa can best be enjoyed from the magnificent view from the panoramic outlook at the edge of Modica Alta.
I went often to the overlook often during my stay and saw some possible modern day Maria Veneras. Just as I did when I walked every street and angle of Modica Alta, imagining the boogie-woogie generation youngsters of the novel hanging out. But I never saw Maria Venera of Bufalino fame. Of course, I went there fully aware of how impractical meeting Maria Venera would be. For one thing, the book took place in 1951 so even if she were still alive she’d be over 80 years old and assumedly unrecognizable—especially since I never saw her in the book either, just the author’s descriptions and impressions and my own imagination. Also in the book, after spurning the local men, she runs off to Rome or somewhere with a movie producer, and possibly never returned. Finally, and probably the biggest obstacle to finding Maria Venera: the book is fiction and she is a fictional character. Sometimes I forget these things.
I guess if I wanted to I could continue to search for her in a movie called either Maria Venera or Quell’estate felice (That Happy Summer), which is a recent film from 2007, shot in Modica Alta. Directed by Beppe Cino, it stars Olivia Magnani as Maria and is “liberally based” on the novel (aren’t most films of books?). The problem is I’m not sure the movie was ever released and does not seem to exist in a purchasable DVD format. The team at Palazzo Failla informed me that at most it was shown at local film festivals. The most I’ve been able to uncover so far is the trailer via youtube.
Just as well, as I might not want to see someone acting the role of Maria Venera. I may not want a movie to interfere with my own vision of Venera. Better to keep my visions to myself.
Great article Gary. I’ve read and thoroughly enjoyed Argo Il Cieco. There is a hotel in Modica Bassa with the first lines of the book printed up in the foyer. It also has one of the rooms named after Bufalino. In the same establishment, through a gap in the dining room, you can enter one of the old cave dwellings – complete with niches for candles and altar or bed-like platforms carved into the rock.
Thank you, Andy. I believe that is the Hotel Principe D’Aragona—with a swimming pool. I didn’t know though about the caves inside. Next time!
New clip on youtube. Opening scenes:
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