Journey’s end

Eight kilometres to the north, and many lifetimes away from Noto, lie the remains of its corpse. Here was journey’s end for the continuous relay that connected Jesuits, merchants, nobles, criminals, prisoners, artisans, guardsmen and peasants to the Iron Age Sicel people, after whom Sicily is named, Noto’s founders; to Daedalus, who stayed there after his flight across the Ionian Sea; to Hercules, who rested there after capturing the Cretan Bull; to Hieros II, King of Syracuse, to whom the Romans ceded the city in 243 B.C.E.; to the long reign and slow decline of Rome; to the final redoubt of the Arabs in Sicily, from whom the Normans conquered Noto in 1091, sealing their seizure of the island. Here is all the contingency and obligation, of which the new Noto, with its Baroque lattice of false novelty laid across the land with a surveyor’s rule, likes to imagine it is free.

Entering through Noto Antica’s still-grand stone gateway, which pierces a remaining fragment of sturdy wall with an aperture too narrow for two carriages to pass, feels a little like passing through a door in a scenery flat, to discover that the building you have entered exists only from the outside, only in the imagination. Within, low walls chaperone the roadway, and the castle looms to the right, but all is crumbling and desolate; the civic pride once invested here, and still promised by the gate, has been withdrawn and placed in the care of another broker to the south. The earthquake of 1693, which devastated southeastern Sicily and killed sixty-thousand, is a horizon which divides Noto’s history, with apparently absolute closure, into two halves. But to be free of ones history is to be unmade: the new, eighteenth-century Noto, the perfect dream of its burghers, is not founded on a blank slate, but on a willed forgetting. The city’s memory has been sealed in an attic and denied, but it will not be excised; nature is reclaiming its own, but masonry has heroic powers of recollection, and among the dust, the scrabbly undergrowth, the gangs of lop-eared goats clattering after their bell-toting alphas, can be found the ball and chain that tethers the later city to its past.

Not for the first time in our visit to Sicily, Il Trionfo della Morte is enacted literally in the remains of Noto Antica. In the chamber at the base of an ill-maintained, but still standing tower of the castle, graffiti proclaim the grievances and identities of those once imprisoned there; but the buildings of the Jesuit campus further along the ridge are tumbled and anonymous, no longer distinct from the remains of any lesser churches or secular palazzi. Here death repeats the lesson it has taught since we first subjected the weak to the strong, and that we have stubbornly refused to learn: none of our wealth, status or power makes a blind bit of difference in the final reckoning. And if there is great beauty in the works commanded by the mighty, it is everyone’s, it cannot be hoarded, it is beautiful only inasmuch as it is seen.

Here in Noto Antica beauty emerges in the space between the seen and the unseen, in the form of a desolate melancholy that hangs in the air like dust; the Baroque figuration that can be seen in the ruins of the city’s palazzi resonates with the imagined presence of its lost cityscape, and the bustling of its daily life. In the new Noto, there is an amnesia that brings a kind of stillness to the city, a stasis, a death born of perfection; in the old, there is physical silence and emptiness, but it is busy with memory. This is where we made our own journey’s end in Sicily, the last site we visited in our brief sojourn on an island at the centre of what once seemed the whole world, before we returned to our own island at its periphery.

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