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.

The island’s amnesiac heart

At the approximate heart of the island of Sicily there is a site which it is hard not to regard as its historical or spiritual centre, although it is far from the oldest dwelling known there, and certainly not unique in the political and economic power which it embodied – but of course such ascriptions are always spurious. It was constructed late in the Classical era, at least those parts that can be seen today were, and finally abandoned in the twelfth century, under Norman rule, when it was covered by a landslide. This sudden final occlusion accounts for the astonishing preservation of its frescoes, and especially of its famous mosaics. It’s probably unsurprising, given how much closer to Rome this is, but it still gave me pause to note how the size and degree of preservation of the site is so entirely unlike anything to be found in the UK, despite the long period of Roman settlement there. The mosaics of the Villa Romana del Casale display such a profuse variety and volume of pictorial detail that they could occupy the viewer for hours or days, or at least they could under kinder conditions than the blistering heat during which we visited.