Inheriting Sicily

From ancient ruins to architecture: the beauty of Segesta, Selinunte, Agrigento and Taormina

By Honor Moore
Isola Bella, in Taormina, is breathtaking at dusk.
Photograph: Photo by: Harf Zimmermann

My wish to go to Sicily began with an image from my grandmother. She described an ancient Greek temple built of pink stone, at the edge of the Mediterranean, set in the midst of “wild stretches of earth . . . dappled & dimpled with small sweet things—valerian—muscari & small sultry poppies—all stridently in bloom.” She was an artist from Boston who painted under her maiden name, Margarett Sargent, and she wrote those words from Sicily in a letter I found while researching The White Blackbird, the book I wrote about her life. She went to Sicily in the spring of 1954; now, 55 years later, Margarett was sending me. I’d embark on a nine-day trip that would start in Palermo, then take me through the temples and ruins of Segesta, Selinunte, Agrigento and Taormina.
My grandmother was always a force in my creative life, but the message was decidedly mixed. A gifted sculptor who became a modernist painter, Margarett had nine much-praised one-woman shows in six years, only to stop painting in her early forties. As a young writer I often found myself blocked, and of course my grandmother’s fate came to mind. I needed to know what had happened to her, and one day when she was in her eighties, I got up my nerve. “Why did you stop?” I asked. “It got too intense,” she answered. You can see intensity in her highly colored, angular paintings, but she was also referring to something else, an undertow of manic-depressive illness for which she was first hospitalized in her fifties. No one would have predicted a tragic life for the brilliant young woman who at 17 escaped the suffocation of a Boston Brahmin childhood by persuading her par-ents to send her to finishing school in Florence. She came back “crazy for Donatello” and set about becoming an artist. By the 1920s, she was a young mother of four, exhibiting her sculpture and paintings in New York and traveling several weeks a year in Europe with my grandfather.
When I was a child, the grandmother I knew was often hospitalized for depression, but when she emerged she wrote me wonderful letters on brown butcher paper in odd-colored inks. And every birthday present was unusual: at eight, a red jacket from France; at 13, a green satin evening bag.
I was 20 when I planned my first trip to Europe, and it was only natural that I would seek her out. Even though she was bedridden from a series of strokes, Margarett remained glamorous—yellow sheets, a hot pink coverlet, the walls crowded with paintings and drawings. “Go to Florence,” she told me. “Make sure you see the Donatellos!” My eccentric grandmother was teaching me to travel like an artist, to find in what I saw something I could carry away with me.
Now I was following her lead again. My trip to Sicily would not be about the food, the Mafia or the sea, but about ruins and architecture, landscapes and traces of Magna Graecia, as ancient Sicily was called when it was colonized by the Greeks. It was a familiar feeling, being led by Margarett’s imagination, although I am no longer 20 but in my early sixties, close to the age Margarett was when she went to Sicily. Earlier in my life, it had been easy to identify with a young woman who had her life ahead of her, but how would I, for decades a working writer, connect with the grandmother who had left her art behind?
My sister Rosemary is my traveling companion, and since this is my first trip to Sicily we’re spending a couple of nights in Palermo before setting off to see the ruins. We hire a guide for a day, and as she navigates the narrow streets in her small car, she gives us a summary of Sicily’s history, the indigenous Sicans and Sicels, and the waves of invaders and colonizers Sicilians call the strangers: Greeks, refugees from Troy, Carthaginians, Romans, Arabs and the Normans who crowned an emperor named Count Roger.

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