Thursday, June 13, 2013

Postcards from the Edge

Like their mythological counterparts Odysseus and Aeneas, intrepid explorers throughout the centuries have voyaged to Sicily.  As with Homer and Virgil, Sicily has loomed large in the imagination of countless storytellers, poets and playwrights throughout the centuries.  In one Arthurian legend, King Arthur was even reputed to have taken refuge on Mount Etna to nurse his wounds and forge his shattered sword Excalibur.  By another calculation, Sicilian settings, characters or other references were employed in more than half of Shakespeare’s plays, including The Winter’s Tale, Much Ado About Nothing, and The Merchant of Venice

A British traveler and explorer by the name of Patrick Brydone came to Sicily in the Spring of 1770.  Brydone chronicled his travels in Sicily in a series of letters written to a friend, William Beckford, that were later published in 1809.  For more than two months Brydone traveled the untraveled mule paths of Sicily from Messina to Etna to Syracuse and ultimately to Palermo.  In the letters describing his exploration of Mount Etna, the modern reader is struck by the clarity of Brydone’s careful observations of nature and man.  He describes the strata and facets of Mount Etna with the precision of a geologist and the passion of a classicist.  As he traveled along the seacoast from Taormina south to Mount Etna, Brydone also recognized the fundamental contradiction between Sicily’s celebrated fertility and historic poverty.

In recounting the massive eruption of Mount Etna almost a century before in 1669, Brydone also provides us with a remarkable tale of how one mountainous vineyard belonging to a monastery of Jesuits was carried away on a lava flow (and partially survived!).

“This vineyard was formed on ancient lava, probably a thin one, with a number of caverns and crevices under it.  The liquid lava entering into these caverns, soon filled them up, and by degrees bore up the vineyard; and the Jesuits, who every moment expected to see it buried, beheld with amazement the whole field begin to move off.  It was carried on the surface of the lava to a considerable distance; and though the greatest part was destroyed, yet some of it remains to this day.”

Patrick Brydone, A Tour Through Sicily and Malta (London: Vernor, Hood & Sharpe, 1809), 89.

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