>’u Vascedduzzu (Primavera Eolia, Part 1)
After this winter, all you could be was desperate for Spring. And we were—or I was, in any event, convinced that one more week of Tuscan winter would kill me dead. So as soon as we could arrange schedules, we headed to the Isole Eolie, as close as you can get to the equator and still be in Italy.
(Actually that’s not even remotely true: the islands are north of Sicily and lie at roughly 38° north latitude, so they’re not especially near the equator and are by far not the southernmost point in Sicily. By contrast, Honolulu lies at 21°18’N and Key West, FL is at 24°33’N. I may be the only one who is fascinated by this stuff, but in case there’s someone else out there like me, I prepared this little chart to show places on the globe that share, more-or-less, a line of latitude.)
In the Eolie, however—specifically on the island of Lipari, where we spent most of our time—Spring was having a difficult time being birthed. When we arrived in Milazzo to take the aliscafo the short distance across the Mare Tirreno, the heat was sweltering, but when we woke up the next morning on Lipari, all that was over. A cat-skinning wind had come up, the sky was lowering, and the air temperature was, frankly, more than a little on the brisk side. At our hotel—all Greek white, with a deserted terrace that gave onto a lovely view of the cittadella (that’s a bottle of malvasia that we’d put outside so it could chill), the padrona insisted it wouldn’t rain (she was wrong) but
© MLC, 2006
confirmed (reluctantly) that we were in for a day of a bella sciroccata (a name that sounds like candy for a relentless and baleful wind). She was wrong about that, too—we even stayed an extra day in the islands, hoping for one cloudless, hot afternoon (a beach day) that never came.
Tempers, perhaps needless to say, wore thin. Mostly mine.
I don’t believe any actual connection exists between the scirocco and rain or chilly temps, but that gives me the opportunity to digress. We arrived on Lipari in the mid-afternoon and, once we’d negotiated the aggravating odyssey of finding our hotel (three calls to the proprietari, zero help), we decided to spend the remaining hours of daylight on a visit to the cittadella, where the archaeological museum, Il Museo Eoliano, is located, along with a more-or-less preserved excavation site and the Chiesa di San Bartolomeo, the prottetore of Lipari. [The cittadella was built in 1084 by Ruggero il Normanno, which I add for anyone impressed (like me) by the idea of walking in a courtyard that was new ten centuries ago.]
The museum is quite nice, if a little on the retentive side: there’s room after room after room of pot sherds, for example, all of them carefully numbered and arranged inside floor-to-ceiling glass-front display cabinets. After about the 15,768th sherd, I have to admit, they all started to look alike…. (Still, we were in the museum when we first overheard two curators saying that Berlusconi had lost the elections, which gives it a special place in my heart.) I was most impressed by two things: A small collection of theatrical masks in clay miniatures, particularly the ones of Hades and Herakles, which date to the 4th century BC. There’s a kind of oriental, almost Balinese aspect to the masks, and they’re perfect, Netsuke-like objects. These aren’t great images, but they give you an idea:
The other exhibit that struck me as particularly suggestive was a stack of Greco-Italian amphorae arranged in a huge pyramid from floor to ceiling.
© MLC, 2006
There must be a couple of hundred of them, recovered in the late 1960s from a wreck discovered in the Secca di Capo Graziano near Filicudi, a small island to the west. Many of them are quite thickly encrusted with the remains of sealife—worm tubes, corals, calcareous algae and bryozoans—and there’s something awesome, in the literal sense of the word, about looking at objects that lay on the bottom of the sea for more than two thousand years, where they calmly went on providing a substrate for marine life long after anyone had stopped caring about the people or the cargo lost in the shipwreck that left them strewn on the shoals. You could say it’s humbling, but what it really is, is terrifying….
Once outside the museum, we headed for the Chiesa di San Bartolomeo,
© Jeff Knabb
which lies roughly in the center of the cittadella, at the top of a stone stairway that is not especially steep, but which is so oddly raked that climbing it is a chore.
© Jeff Knabb
As we tramped back and forth across the courtyard to enter the various buildings in which the archaeological museum is housed, I noticed a tall, youngish, slightly chunky man leaning against the wall outside the church. Or, rather, I noticed him noticing us. This happens often in Italy, especially in the South and especially in smaller towns—people stare at you. The look is neither friendly nor unfriendly, but it is frankly curious. Sometimes such a glance contains an invitation to talk, but most often, it holds no particular meaning at all. The world over, of course, long looks between men who don’t know each other are a kind of invisible flag. They’re the preamble to cruising, certainly, but just as often serve the purpose of saying, “I see you and you see me and so here we are.”
So I thought: Our first Eolian frocio just dropped a hairpin in our direction.
No sooner had we bent out heads to get through the low door to the church, however, than he was right behind us. And I mean, right behind us. He began talking nonstop about the history of the church and offered to show us the interior of the Norman-era cloister. At first, he unnerved me because he was a big man and because he was standing practically right on top of me. When I moved, he moved, and sometimes he seemed to step deliberately into my path so that I couldn’t walk around him. But I didn’t have the sense that he was dangerous, and anyway Mauro was there, and I thought: what’s the worst that could happen? We’re in a church, fercryinoutloud.
He introduced himself as Francesco, and said that he was a sort of lay caretaker of the church. After we’d seen the cloister, he took us into the sacristy and the presbytery, including the dining hall where the monks and lay brothers eat, which was dominated by an enormous wooden altar, now used as a kind of china hutch. He showed us the Vascelluzzo (‘u Vascedduzzu), a model ship about a meter across. The Vascelluzzo (there’s another one in the duomo of Messina) is constructed of silver and contains, within a gold monstrance, what is allegedly a fragment of the skin of San Bartolomeo (though the accompanying commemorative plaque says it’s the thumb of his right hand). According to an 18 October 2001 issue of Stretto Indispensabile, a Lipari biweekly that I unearthed online, the church actually does own San Bartolomeo’s thumb as well, along with “a piece of a rib, his lower jaw, and a facial bone.”
The Vascelluzzo, meanwhile, which you can see here, was a gift from the Patriarch of Venezia and commemorates a miracle dating to 1672. According to Francesco, the Liparesi were starving in the midst of a famine when “irresistible winds” forced a vascello (a phantom ship), loaded with grain, into the harbor. The islanders unloaded the grain and, when they went back to thank the captain and his crew, the ship had disappeared.
San Bartolomeo (or “San Bartolo,” as Francesco said he is more affectionately called), is the protector of Lipari, but he can also occasionally be (in the tradition of Eshu-Elegba, Coyote, Maui, and other deities) mercurial, even cruel. Because of that, Francesco explained, islanders make certain to salute the statue of San Bartolo that is hidden away in a niche, high above head-level, on one of the cobbled alleys that lead down to the port. From then on, we did the same whenever we passed.
In the four days that followed, we ran into Francesco at least twice a day: at supper, outside the gelateria, while we were waiting for the arancini to come out of the deep fryer, as we were ordering panini to take on an excursion to Vulcano. He seemed to know everyone and to be everywhere. Spooky. And it was Francesco—just to close this particular circle—who responded definitively to my question about the weather: “What scirocco?” he said. “It’s a spring storm and it’s going to be rainy and cold for days.” Wouldn’t you know, it was San Bartolo’s own truth.