On the homepage of Gaia Servadio’s own author website the title banner describes her as a writer, historian and broadcaster. In some ways this doesn’t do justice to her many talents, most notably absent are her abilities as a designer and artist, although one could also add theatre critic and linguist. She has written on various topics from food to politics, in addition to being a novelist and documentary maker. Two of her films have appeared on the BBC. Gaia is best known as a writer, in both the Italian and English languages, and her work has not been shy of tackling some of Sicily’s most interesting and occasionally most controversial subjects.
She was born in Padua, with Jewish and Sicilian heritage; her grandfather was Sicilian. Her initial career plan focused on art – her ambition was to be a full time painter. However, after two personal exhibitions, one in Milan and one in Rome, she decided on a different path. She explained her decision in these terms: “Everybody else was abstract and I began to feel there was no room for me and to be a woman was very unfashionable at that time, especially in Italy, and a woman painter even worse. There was an explosion of design in Italy, great design like that of Olivetti. I decided on design and there were two great schools.”
The two design schools she considered were in Zurich and London. She told me that she discounted Zurich owing to the requirement of having to learn German; an understandable decision given the family’s suffering during the Second World War, adding that “German has always been a block for me”. The other school was St Martins in London, which seemed the right fit as her family was Anglophile, her mother having visited in her youth, “very revolutionary for the time”.
Her arrival in London must have been a step in the dark as she recalls few foreigners living there in those years, but she threw herself into her studies, also attending Camberwell for typography training. She got a BA in an accelerated period of two years, which she puts down to the educational methods: “We had fantastic teachers, and great liberty, but great discipline at the same time.”
Whilst in London she began to pick up some work for the BBC World Service. By a series of happy connections, her father knew Danilo Dolci, she was asked to accompany someone who was making a documentary on Dolci and Sicily for the BBC – “one of those things that only happens in your dreams” was her nostalgic summation of this leap forward in her career. Her description of those days paints a picture of documentary making and the island that bears little resemblance to modern realities: “It was a tiny budget so I had to do everything. I had no idea how to set up the lights or anything, no clue. It was my first time in Sicily and we arrived in a very poor Sicily; we went to Trappeto and there was still no road.” She remembers Dolci, the social activist, educator and writer as ”a heroic man”.
When in Sicily, she wanted to meet Bruno Caruso, whose painting and drawings she much admired. He had done a lot of work for Olivetti. One day she recalls asking him about the existence of the mafia, a social taboo, “the Mafia was still very abstruse and not mentioned. If you mentioned it, you were rather badly brought up”. His response was surprising; he took her to a caffè where they sat in a corner and he talked to her for hours, giving her a lot of insight. Through Caruso she also met journalists from the newspaper L’Ora. Her recollections of those days give a real awareness of the perils of crusading journalism: “L’Ora di Palermo was a paper, left-wing, which was blown-up twice, by the way, and some of its reporters were killed – De Mauro famously, very brave. Later on when I went on to become a full time journalist I joined them and I worked a lot for L’Ora; from there (Palermo) and from here (London). As they were very poor they couldn’t pay me, but I did a lot for The Sunday Times and The Telegraph as well, and my payment from L’Ora was a holiday in a fisherman’s house in Marettimo, or such like.”
It wasn’t all work, she has fond memories of the ricci, sea urchins – “I remember the wife of the fisherman saying it’s not good for the digestion to eat so many. I’m still a great eater of ricci, although there are very few left, due to people like me in fact!”
In the days before the EU Gaia found it difficult to get work in the United Kingdom and her thoughts turned to Italy and moving home to put her design training into practice. Things changed, though, when she met and married her first husband and they found they could encompass both worlds, whilst putting roots down in England. He spoke Italian and knew a lot of the friends she had amongst the Italian intelligentsia. They spent time in Florence and Tuscany; he had been the assistant of Bernard Berenson. Berenson was also a passionate observer of Sicilian antiquity, whose diaries reflect trips to some of the island’s most notable sites including Villa Casale and Syracuse.
After a Lettera di Londra column for a provincial paper and the acceptance of two articles for a more literary paper, as we already know, things began to take off for her. In 1967, after numerous submissions elsewhere, she had a novel accepted by the publishing house, Feltrinelli. Tanto gentile e tanto onesta, aka Melinda, became a runaway success for Gaia. Her still evident joy at the achievement is tinged with every writer’s lament about the cold hard facts of earning a living: “It was one of the biggest best sellers ever, really, which was also published here by Weidenfeld & Nicolson. I made good money with that, really the only book I probably have. It was almost bad for me to start with such a success, although again I couldn’t believe it.”
She credits L’Ora with giving her a great deal of Sicilian know-how, especially relating to the topic of the Mafia. At the time a new law was making life very difficult for the Mafia bosses and her editor at The Telegraph newspaper’s colour supplement asked her to cover the story. Some mafiosi were being sent into exile pending trial or sentencing. With this rationale, she decided to take the assignment – “I thought it was really the only chance to meet them, it’s not that you can ring a man in Palermo, of course you don’t know where they live or who they are very often. I went to Rome where I knew a lot of politicians. I got papers and books from the Anti-Mafia. I was very well prepared when I got to Linosa. I met the Godfather of the Mafia, that’s really how the book on La Barbera was born – which he didn’t like at all, of course.” Her book on Angelo La Barbera, entitled A Profile of a Mafia Boss, was published by Quartet in 1973.
Despite seeing the dark side of Sicily, Gaia has a great deal of time for Sicilians. “I have a quarter of Sicilian blood; I have a strong attraction to Sicily. I also like their character – I like their reserve – they are quite silent, highly intelligent. When you have started to say something you know they have understood exactly what you are going to say. At the same time they can answer without speaking. It takes quite a long time to gain their trust.”
Ever the diligent journalist, she researched Sicilian history and became captivated by its complex web of interlacing threads. She explained how this interest led to a series of pieces for British newspapers: “At the time I had L’Ora, the Sicilian paper, and I knew the history well. I find it fascinating. I knew Denis Mack Smith. I had my passionate Sicilian world and went there very very often. I did some very amusing articles, one for The Sunday Times was called The Last Gattopardi and I went to interview all of them. Strangely, they welcomed me because of the English connection and my husband, by then, was director of Christie’s. Oh yes, I met Lampedusa’s wife, also Lucio Piccolo and I’m a great friend of Gioachino Lanza. Lucio Piccolo was very eccentric; he could have been an Englishman. He had a correspondence with W B Yeats about witches and other things – completely cuckoo. At Capo d’Orlando, they didn’t throw anything away, piles of newspapers and of course, lots of dogs.” Piccolo was Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s cousin. His house at Capo d’Orlando is now a foundation and can be visited by the public, old newspapers still included.
In recent years, Gaia has been most known in the English-speaking world for her book on Mozia, the island formerly called San Pantaleo, which lies just off the Marsalan coastline in western Sicily. The book, Motya: Unearthing a Lost Civilization, is part history, part travelogue, part biography, a fascinating mixture that explains exactly how the Phoenician remains on the island came to see the light of day. When I asked her about the origins of her interest, it was easy to see that Motya fever still burns in Gaia’s soul. Her recollections led on to a fulsome description of her involvement:
“I visited Motya very early, when it was still a Whitaker property. I was taken by the archaeologist Tusa, il contadino archeologo, who was very good in many ways, he saved Selinunte. He showed me around and I had lunch there on the island with Tusa. But I never met Delia Whitaker, who, by then, was quite cuckoo. Much later, I decided to go back. I thought I would write an article and met the archaeologist, Marisa, but it was so interesting and much more than an article, I thought this is a book. The Phoenicians were in Sicily, but the Greeks won and then the Latins won so the poor Phoenicians were completely ignored. Palermo was Phoenician, Siracusa was Phoenician and Selinunte was, of course, Phoenician. Little by little they were taken – they were emporia not real colonies. I’m still fascinated by the Phoenicians and I put in a lot of effort. I thought if Joseph Whitaker can learn to read Phoenician so can I. I did, not difficult really. It has 23 letters – very similar to Hebrew – with no vowels so you have to interpret a lot. In some cases it really helped. Although they wrote very little, at the time I didn’t realise that, but now I know. At the time it wasn’t known. They wrote on wood covered with wax, that’s why we have nothing. We only have what was written on stone and we have very little stone because of the sandy island where they were.”
In the book she mentions the Phoenician west of Sicily and the Greek east. I was keen to see in what way that was manifested and, perhaps, still is to this day. Gaia’s response highlighted both the past and present: “In a way the Palermo side is much more Arab, look and see from the names the Arab influence. The Greeks put down their colonies very early like Termini Imerese (ancient Himera), which was very successful, but Himera was completely destroyed several times”. If former battles were painful and shifted power balances, she is only too aware of current difficulties. “The other side is also more sophisticated in a way. There was a big difference with the Mafia, which only really used to be on the other side, the Palermitan side. It has now spread quite a lot, but Catania, Siracusa, they had no mafia. The area used to be called the Provincia Babba, but it’s no longer so, as it’s littered with Mafia.”
Returning to a favourite topic, Gaia noted one Phoenician legacy that often gets forgotten in our rush to credit Greek achievement. “In Siracusa the Phoenicians lost control almost immediately, but they left a very important heritage; let’s not forget that the alphabet is their invention not that of the Greeks. They called their alphabet Phoenica, but our word for it comes from Phoenician. Alph is a Phoenician word for the bull, the head of a bull, and Beth is the house. If you turn around Beta or Beth it becomes the two cupolas of a house. This has come down to us, the alphabet, which they used a lot commercially as they were great traders.”
Mozia is very close to Marsala and it is indirectly thanks to the wine trade that the remains were uncovered at all. Joseph Whitaker took over the family business along with his brothers, but his heart wasn’t in the fortified wine business or any kind of commerce. His inherited wealth, however, allowed him to indulge his passion for ornithology and archaeology. Hence the fact that when Gaia first visited Mozia it still belonged to the Whitakers – Joseph had diligently bought up all the land to avoid complications when digging. She obviously feels a connection with the man: “Joseph Whitaker, whom I learnt to respect enormously, was this shy man who wasn’t interested in business. He was interested in the culture, that’s why I like him so much and he educated himself, he was very sensitive, intelligent and misunderstood. I think he deserves much more honour really. He opened the way. So little was known about the Phoenicians and Motya is important because of that, because it’s a Phoenician city. When you go to Arwad or Tyre, all these other cities, they have been destroyed and rebuilt on so many times that you can’t really dig there. So there are very few traces. Sidon has a bit more, but in Motya you see how the finished city was and you also see they were great traders, they had little factories, you learn history really, which is what I think archaeology should do. Archaeology used to be different, they used to look for statues, artefacts, but now they are looking for history. But from time to time, on the other hand, surprise surprise, you get the likes of the Kouros, which came out of Motya and is one of the most stunning statues.”
She is less favourably disposed to the role of British entrepreneurs in the wine industry. From a Phoenician import used for sustenance on long voyages, Marsala became a carefully constructed beverage fortified with its own grape must. It’s thanks to Nelson that it turned into the usually sweet drink known today. Gaia explained: “The role of the Brits in the development of Marsala is not very good in fact. I tried not to be controversial there. Nelson could no longer buy port for his crew or any of the Spanish wines because of the Napoleonic blockade. He invented sweet Marsala – it was quite nourishing and all the crews were more used to that kind of drink – like port. The Marsala we often taste is fortified with other stuff. It’s fortified with sugar. The very few producers of really good Marsala often cry when this is done.”
John Woodhouse, who knew Nelson, and subsequently Benjamin Ingham, got rich on the back of this association. Gaia went on to clarify how Ingham was able to make wine cheaply and quickly with this method, exporting the finished product to England by rail to avoid shipping difficulties. This innovation led him to invest in railway companies, most notably in North America.
In 1981 Gaia’s biography of the film director Luchino Visconti was published in the UK and Italy. Visconti had famously directed La terra trema, based on Verga’s I malavoglia and The Leopard based on Lampedusa’s book of the same name. Given the fact I had studied La terra trema back in my university days I was keen to get her opinion on the films and Visconti in general. Of the two, she clearly prefers The Leopard – “Terra Trema I find a bit dated and excessively aesthetic. Such marvellous static photography in this world of poverty; I don’t know, I don’t find it such a genuine portrait, but The Leopard I think is a fantastic film. And he thought of himself as a sort of Leopard. He was an aristocrat, and always in his best films, like everybody else – musicians, composers – you cling to a character because there is something of yourself and that’s what comes out. In a way, Visconti has written his autobiography through his films. The Leopard is probably the best of these; no actually I think Senso is better, but anyway I think The Leopard is a great film. It has a great understanding of the falling apart of that world, not only Sicilian and not only Italian but the aristocratic world in general.”
I wondered if she felt a degree of sympathy towards Giuseppe Tomasi’s image of the future. Her reply was equally frank: “I think I share Lampedusa’s pessimistic vision too. There was a great moment when there was a rebellion against the Mafia because the Mafia is a small organisation, tiny and they get all the money. But you have to make things change. People started to display sheets, which was wonderful. I remember a girl who worked for L’Ora; she wouldn’t put out a sheet, although doing so had become a symbol. She said no, owing to the problem of the Ucciardone Prison, and the fact that they might see it – omertà, omertà. Working there so much and writing the history of the Mafia, Mafioso, I ended the book with greatly optimistic views that things would change with a change of government. It’s certain that the Mafia became enormously strong through the Christian Democrats when it penetrated the state and the government. Now in Sicily you really don’t know which is which and as you know Berlusconi got 92 – 93% of the votes.”
Her three books on Mafia related issues have all appeared in English and I was interested to hear about their reception. The publisher Secker & Warburg commissioned Mafioso, but many claimed there was no market for it. “Until the Godfather, books of this sort were very unfashionable. This was the turning point and I don’t like that; Coppola and Puzo they glorified it. I don’t know about English-speaking readers having an appetite for this – I think the English find it a bit boring and repetitious. So do I – the Mafia – it’s a machine to make money. You make it, you get killed or you spend all your money on lawyers.”
So what of Sicily’s future? “I’m not a prophet, but I don’t see pink and rosy clouds in Sicily’s future. It’s very badly run. Every time there is somebody slightly good, they get rid of the person. People are getting so accustomed to such bullying. Some very bravely and publicly refused to pay the pizzo, their shop gets burnt down, their wife is kidnapped. It’s no joke. I had some unpleasant things happen to me – I stopped writing about the Mafia.”
After such a varied list of achievements, it’s difficult to imagine what Gaia is planning next. One project comes as no surprise for someone who has led such an interesting life, the other has such a broad sweep that even she isn’t sure she will finish it: “I’m just finishing my autobiography, which will contain a lot about Sicily. My next project will be so ambitious that I’ll finish it after I’m dead. It’s about religion, about how man invents the religion he needs – geographically, historically. Indeed, the Phoenicians will come in as they are very important in that respect. I’m also going to use a lot of archaeology, as evidence. I’ll have to stop at a certain point, but I’ll certainly go into Christianity.”
Interviewed by Andrew Edwards