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Taormina, Sicily, September 2015

When I wrote on 17th May, teaching was finished and I’d been to three of my four conferences for the year, and there really should have been time for blogging, but somehow I have been at home only three weekends since then including this one, and my engagements have involved a writing workshop in Ankara, two weddings (neither my own), co-editing a themed journal issue, submitting a couple of pieces of writing, the International Medieval Congress and, generally, enough stuff with tight deadlines to keep me too busy to feel safe making the time to blog. Today I have decided that this is ridiculous and that I must commit something to the web, however lightweight and backlogged, and so we’re going back a bit more than two years, to just after when I’d started my job at Leeds. As I arrived at Leeds I still had (indeed, still have) a lot of commitments left over from my employment at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts back in Birmingham, and one of them was to go to the International Numismatic Congress in Taormina, in Sicily, in September 2015. I will write separately about the actual Congress in a couple of posts’ time, but Taormina is one of those places where monuments and settlement have piled up on each other like strata and it was worth some time with a camera. So here is some photographic diversion, and I hope to be able to manage more substantial blog very soon.

A view down one of Taormina's cliffs to the sea

A view down one of Taormina’s cliffs to the sea

The city is on the sea, as you might have guessed, and its history goes back at least into the period when Greek merchants dominated the Mediterranean and presumably also before, and then into the Roman Empire, consequently into its Byzantine continuation, and it was finally taken by Muslim forces in 902, I think, before being taken off them by the Normans about two hundred years later and beginning a path that led through the Holy Roman Empire, Angevin and Catalan rule and eventually, much later, incorporation into Italy. As tourist, however, you’d not know anything had happened here between the seventh century and the sixteenth. There’s neither Islamic nor Norman footprint visible and precious little medieval, either. There has, however, been some work to expose Greek- and Roman-period monuments, but not always that much thereafter to maintain them. A case in point, the Odeon, a small urban theatre, now open to the public and structurally stable but not what you would call restored, conserved or even really displayed…

View across the Odeon, Taormina

View across the Odeon from what I suppose you could call the upper circle

View down onto the surviving entry and stage right of the Odeon, Taormina

View down onto the surviving entry and stage right

The entrance into the Odeon, Taormina, from down on the floor

The entrance from down on the floor

Interior of the entrance-way of the Odeon, Taormina

Interior of the entrance-way

This is the ancient town’s smaller theatre; I’ll save the larger one for the subsequent post, as some of the Congress actually happened in it. This one is Roman in construction, from the early reign of Augustus, and was apparently hidden in later accretions till 1892, but it had clearly suffered a fair amount of alteration and modification even before it was thus ‘lost’, all of which was torn down during its discovery. Whether any archaeology of its medieval use was done, I don’t know. Suffice to say, I doubt any new answers are coming out of it now, but it’s a rather nice, if confused, little space where just a small amount of signage and maybe some wooden decking over part of the erstwhile stage, just for orientation, would hugely increase its comprehensibility as a heritage site. It’s still used for public occasions, however, so perhaps fossilising it in that way is not the way to treat it. That kind of arithmetic is a bit less easy to perform with some of the other old sites of the city, however. Our next example is a baths complex, as seen below.

View of part of the Roman baths complex, Taormina

View of the baths from one direction

View of part of the Roman baths complex and floor in Taormina

View of the baths complex from below floor level in the corner, in the other direction

Underfloor of a hot room in the Roman baths, Taormina

Underfloor of one of the hot rooms, with column fragments wherever they happen to have fallen

Fallen stonework at one of the walls of the Roman baths, Taormina

Fallen stonework at one of the walls

A cat in the Roman baths, Taormina

One of the present-day complex’s main users

Again, unmaintained is what you could call this. There is one sign, on the extremely narrow entrance-way outside where to read it means blocking traffic. This, however, is the result of excavation, and so we do know a bit more about this one: it was probably built in the forum in the first century, and then expanded over a Greek-era building in a subsequent second-century phase. Some parts of the complex are probably still under housing, and what we have here is the three hot rooms and some antechambers. Again, however, I’d like to know what happened to it at any point after the second century, and that is not something that was easy to find out. Last case is even more obscure, however…

Exposed structures of the Church of San Pancrazio, Taormina

Exposed structures of a mysterious complex

This is what you see from the street. The footprint exposed from the viewing platform is really quite confusing…

Internal structures of the church of San Pancrazio, Taormina, and the underlying temple

Internal structures of the complex

I still don’t know what this is. We were repeatedly told that there were Byzantine ruins in the city, and pretty much by process of elimination these ought to be they, but the signage that’s right by them relates mainly to the church across the street. I think these are another bath complex, which the signage also hints at, but if so the things that would make that obvious, like heating ducts and water pipes, weren’t visible to me. So even what it is, never mind when, needs settling by someone else alas!

Cat on the ruins of San Pancrazio, Taormina

And if he or she knows, she or he isn’t telling

Surviving structures of the Naumachie, Taormina

The first one I found, the Naumachie, probably a nymphaeum, so that what you are seeing is a wall that would have been full of statues looking over the complex, now all built in

Now, I’m coming across like I spent the whole time disparaging the place, rather than eating really excellent pizza and balancing hanging out with the world’s numismatists and going to explore ruins and beaches. In fact, the town is charming, has loads of hidden byways and you never know when you’re going to come across a major Classical or Byzantine structure just literally forming part of people’s lives…

Perhaps the most striking of these were visible briefly on our precipitous and winding bus ride up to the town—access by vehicle is not easy, though plenty of them do it—but apparently I didn’t get a picture of them when we went back, so this I have scrounged from the web.

The Byzantine tombs along the Via Bagnoli Croce, Taormina

Byzantine tombs along the Via Bagnoli Croce

These are thought to be fourth- or fifth-century and were discovered only in 1996. Who knows what there still is to be found when the next row of cheap houses from the 1800s has to be taken down? And I don’t mean to reproach a community with not a lot of resource and some basic geolocational difficulties in making a living for not making the most of their ancient heritage. It’s just that fifth-century is about as late as it goes before we switch back in with the cathedral, which somehow I don’t remember seeing—I think it was always in use when we passed, in fact—but which is apparently thirteenth-century but rebuilt three times since then. All cool and worth seeing, but uninterested in answering many of my own favourite questions, alas…

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8 responses to “Taormina, Sicily, September 2015

  1. Lovely pictures! Thank you for the report.

  2. Thanks for your updates whenever you can get to them, always a treat. I understand how some of the local residents may not be too interested in exploring long lost ruins. They probably fear their home may be taken down because it is sitting on something important – which it probably is. Not all small towns want more tourists.

  3. The shots of Sicily in the opening credits of the Inspector Montalbano TV ‘tec show are breathtaking. Worth seeking out if you don’t know it.

  4. Sorry for slow approval of your comments, gentlemen! They are as ever much appreciated. More photos of Sicily are lined up for a few posts’ time!

  5. Pingback: An awful lot of numismatists in Sicily, I | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  6. Pingback: Site of a Byzantine Last Stand | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  7. Pingback: An awful lot of numismatists in Sicily, II | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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