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Sicily's Literary Past

Truman Capote, DH Lawrence, Cervantes and Oscar Wild

Truman Capote, DH Lawrence, Cervantes and Oscar Wild

From its earliest days, Sicily has held a magnetic attraction to writers 

Seducing Ovid, Goethe, Cervantes, a soldier stationed in Messina long before he wrote Don Quixote, Guy de Mauspassant, Oscar Wilde, Tennessee Williams and Hemingway all have spent time in Sicily.

Taormina in particular on the east coast, has proved a source of inspiration to novelists and writers throughout the centuries. Goethe praised Taormina in his "Italian Journey" to such a degree that it became an integral part of the Grand Tour, upon which fashionable English gentlemen and intellectuals embarked for purposes of education and refinement in the 1800's.  D.H. Lawrence who, whilst in Taormina wrote "Lady Chatterley's Lover" and based various aspects of his novels on his experiences in the city. “Here the past is so much stronger than the present that one seems remote like the immortals, looking back at the world from their otherworld.” So wrote D H Lawrence in a letter from his house in Taormina in eastern Sicily, dated June 1, 1920.

Basking in its new found international popularity, Taormina expanded with the creation of numerous new hotels, many of which are still thriving, Taormina's popularity has not waned and in time it became an exclusive high-class haunt frequented by an array of artists and personalities, luring a seemingly unending series of writers, artists, royals and aristocrats. Once described as a playground for the dilettante rich and artistically inclined, in search of a new muse or perhaps just the replenishing strength of the air, the views, and the ineffable aura of the immortals of the ancient past which seem to dominate the landscape and consequently the entire atmosphere. Scattered here and there remain the stone ruins of Greek civilisation and looming over them all, Mount Etna.

The list is extensive: Alexander Dumas, Johannes Brahms, Gustav Klimt, Richard Wagner, Oscar Wilde, Truman Capote, John Steinbeck, Ingmar Bergman, Francis Ford Coppola, Leonard Bergman, Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Federico Fellini, Cary Grant, Gregory Peck, Elizabeth Taylor, and Woody Allen. 

However today we are looking at Taormina from its literary perspective. Whilst living in Fontana Vecchia, DH Lawrence seemed at ease and settled during the 3 years he lived there, nor is it hard to identify the qualities that singled out Taormina, a town of barely 11,000 people even today.  Staying in Fontana Vecchia, situated high up on a cliff top overlooking the rocky bays of the dark blue Mediterranean, it is easy to understand why Lawrence felt so moved – winding up the hill above Taormina past precariously perched lemon groves, you finally reach what feels like a higher plane altogether, remote and removed from ordinary life.

DH Lawrence, who whilst living above Taormina with his wife, wrote  Lady Chatterley’s Lover,  based various aspects of his novels on his experiences also providing the sad inspiration (after he was cuckolded by a local Sicilian mule driver). The house in which they lived is up a series of steep hilly roads, 15 or so minutes outside of Taormina’s centre and has become notorious with the locals and known as “the Lawrence house” or “the writer’s house”.

Truman Capote, some 30 years later also lived in Fontana Vecchia, one of the 20th centuries most revered and gifted writers (Breakfast at Tiffanys) and childhood companion of Harper Lee (To Kill A Mockingbird) led a life of early morning writing and early evening strolling, happy to fit in with the customary passaggiata so beloved of people in the Mediterranean.  These expeditions to saunter among the crowds whilst buying supplies, were often accompanied by a martini or two and a chance to indulge in some more literary gossip. 

Below is an excerpt from Truman Capote’s – A Capote Reader, titled Fontana Vecchia, a travel sketch of his 12 months living in Sicily in 1951. Compellingly he captures the very essence of Sicily with a depth and clarity in his writing that captivates the reader.

Fontana Vecchia, Old Fountain. So the house is called.  Pace, peace: this word is carved into the stone doorstep. There is no fountain; there has been, I think, something rather like peace. It is a rose-coloured house dominating a valley of almond and olive trees that sinks into the sea.  Across the water there is a view on clear days of Italy’s tip end, the peninsula of Calabria. Back of us, a stony, wavering path, travelled mostly by farming peasants, their donkeys and goats, leads along the side of the mountain into the town of Taormina. It is very like living in an airplane, or a ship trembling on the peak of a tidal wave: there is a momentous feeling each time one looks from the window, steps onto the terrace, a feeling of being suspended, like the white reeling doves, between the mountains and above the sea.  This vastness reduces to an intimate size particulars of the landscape – the cypress trees are small as green pen quills; each passing ship could be held in the palm of your hand.

Before dawn, when drooping stars drift at the bedroom window fat as owls, a racket begins along the steep, at moments perilous, path that descends from the mountains.  It is the farm families on their way to the marketplace in Taormina. Loose rocks scatter under the stumbling hoofs of overloaded donkeys; there are swells of laughter, a sway of lanterns: it is as though the lanterns were signalling to the far-below night fishermen, who just then are hauling in their nets. Later, in the market, the farmers and the fishermen meet: a small people, not unlike the Japanese, but brawny; indeed there is something almost lush about their lean walnut hardness If you question the freshness of a fish, the ripeness of a fig, they are great showman. Si buono; your head is pushed down to smell the fish; you are told, with an ecstatic and threatening roll of eyes, how delicious it is. I am always intimidated; not so the villagers, who poke stonily among the tiny jewel tomatoes and never hesitate to sniff a fish or bruise a melon. Shopping, and the arranging of meals, is universally a problem, I know; but after a few months in Sicily even the most skilled householder might consider the noose – no, I exaggerate, the fruit, at least when first it comes into season, is more than excellent; the fish is always good, the pasta, too. I’m told you can find edible meat; I’ve never been so fortunate. Also, there is not much choice of vegetables; in winter, eggs are rare. But of course the real trouble is we can’t cook; neither, I’m afraid, can our cook. She is a spirited girl, very charming, a little superstitious; our gas bill, for instance is sometimes astronomical, as she is fond of melting immense pots of lead on the stove, then twisting the lead into carven images. As long as she keeps to simple Sicilian dishes, really simple and really Sicilian, they are, well, something to eat.

 But let me tell about the chicken.  Not long ago Cecil Beaton, in Sicily on a holiday, came to stay with us. After a few days he was beginning to look a bit peaked: we saw that a more proper effort toward feeding him would have to be made. We sent for a chicken; it appeared, quite alive, and accompanied by the cagey peasant woman who lives slightly higher on the mountain. It was a great black bird – I said it must be very old. No, said the woman, not old, just large. Its neck was wrung and G., the cook, put it to boil.  Around twelve she came to say the chicken was still troppo duro – in other words, hard as nails. We advised her to keep trying, and settling on the terrace with glasses of wine, prepared to wait. Several hours, several wine liters later, I went out to the kitchen to find G. in a critical condition: after boiling the chicken, she had roasted it, then fried it, and now, in desperation, was giving it another boil.  Though there was nothing else to eat, it should never have been brought to the table, for when it was set before us we had to avert our eyes: crowning this steaming heap was the poor bird’s severed head, its withered eyes gazing at us, its blackened cockscomb still attached.  That evening Cecil, who previously had been staying with other friends on the island, informed us, quite suddenly, that he must return to them.

When first we leased Fontana Vecchia – this was in the spring, April – the valley was high with wheat green as the lizards racing among its stalks. It begins in January, the Sicilian spring, and accumulates into a kingly bouquet, a wizard’s garden where all things have bloomed; the creek sprouts mint; dead trees are wreathed in wild clamber roses; even the......

You may be interested to see the house for yourself during your free time on tour in Taormina (see Day 11 – itinerary).  Just ask!

Several books have been written on the subject of writers and their association with Sicily.  Also look out for extensive information in Andrew & Suzanne Edwards Sicily – A Literary Guide for Travellers, published in 2014.