by Elise Warner
Towering mountains, the Cyclops Coast and the sparkling Mediterranean have beckoned seafarers, conquerors and tourists to Sicily since Neolithic times. By the 5th century BC, the Greek colonies, the city-states called Magna Graecia, encompassed the southern part of Italy and half of Sicily. Every Tyrant Hieron, Dionysius the Elder, Dionysius II and Gelo of Syracuse – paid equal tribute to war and the arts during his reign and legends of the Minotaur, Ariadne and Dionysus, Zeus, Hades, Ulysses have been told and retold though the ages.
My husband Bob and I, two old, theatre gypsies, will indulge our passion for drama as we travel through Sicily. In addition to Ortygia Islands Temple of Apollo, our itinerary includes visits to Sicily’s largest and oldest Greek theatre, Teatro Greco in Syracuse, and the islands second largest, the Greco-Roman Theatre in Taormina. In these ancient theatres, the words of playwrights from Euripides, Sophicles and Aristophanes to Epicharmus, the “Father of Greek Comedy,” and Aeschylus, the “Father of Tragedy,” have been heard for more than two milleniums.
Syracuse, founded in 733 BC, became the region’s capital and was considered the third most important city in the Mediterranean. On the north side, in the archeological park, the Teatro Greco lives on Temenite Hill in the ancient district of Neapolis. Designed by the architect, Damocopos, the theatre was hewn from rock with hammer and chisel, during the reign of Hieron I, in the 5th century. The first performances were tragedies performed in groups of three (trilogies) united by a common theme. Each play was followed and ridiculed by a satyr drama, a low comedy with a mythological hero and a chorus of satyrs. The chorus, a group of actors, recited in concert and commented on the play’s action. Dance movements were sometimes performed to the accompaniment of musical instruments.
The city, under Hieron’s rule, was widely honored for its arts and letters; odes celebrated Hieron’s victories; one a tribute to his triumph at the horse races in the Olympic Games held in 476 BC. Hieron’s court invited and played host to two rivals, Pinder, the Greek lyric poet, and Aeschylus, the first of the great Greek dramatists, who preceded Sophicles and Euripides.
Aeschylus added a second actor to interact with the first creating dialogue and involved the chorus in the action of the play. Twelve years after fighting the Persians at Marathon in 472 BC, he wrote “The Persians,” a war story told from the perspective of the defeated. At the invitation of King Hieron, in 471 and again in 469, Aeschylus, traveled to Syracuse where he produced and stage-managed his highly acclaimed play. He is believed to have written ninety plays, seven have survived including “The Persians,” “Prometheus Bound,” and the “Orestie” trilogy. In 476 BC, he wrote “The Women of Etna,” to celebrate the founding of Etna by Hieron I. Legend tells us death claimed Aeschylus, on his final visit to Sicily, when an eagle mistook his bald head for a rock and dropped a tortoise on his pate. A monument was erected in his honor; the memorial mentions the battle at Marathon but not his plays.
The dramas were presented as part of religious celebrations held in the spring and fall that lasted from sunrise to sunset. The entire population attended, socialized, gossiped and exchanged the latest news before the performances.
Restored and enlarged by Hieron II in the 3rd century BC, the theatre could seat 16,000. Nine sections with names of rulers and Gods etched into stone enabled the audience to find their seats. Today, our sneakered feet trod the stage where sandal-clad actors dedicated their performances to Greek Gods and performed for an audience that included tyrants and philosophers.
I take Bob’s hand and we climb to the theatre’s summit; a breeze cools my flushed cheeks. Greek theaters were built facing the ocean or a valley where the gentle wind amplified the actor’s voice and a stage whisper carried to the last row of spectators. The all-male casts used masks with large mouths to augment the sound; the masks designed to illustrate the temperament and spirit of the characters portrayed. We rest our bottoms on the hard stone and project ourselves back in time, a time when Hellenes ruled the land.
Close to the theatre, on the southern edge of the area, is the Ear of Dionysius, the most famous stone quarry in the Lotomie del Paradiso 65 meters long and 23 meters in height. Caravaggio, the artist, gave the cavern its name when he visited in 1586 and noted the ear-shaped entrance. Renowned for its acoustics the inner chamber resounds with fragments of near-forgotten poetry and prose declaimed by visitors. Our guide tells of Dionysius, a tyrant and dramatist, eavesdropping as political prisoners, entombed in the Ear, conspired against his reign.
Dionysius, once his patron, imprisoned the poet, Philoxenos, when he mocked the despot with his writing of “Cyclops.” After a time, Dionysius composed a new poem and had Philoxenos brought to court; the tyrant’s entourage lauded the work but when Dionysius turned to Philoxenos and asked his opinion, the poet said, “Take me back to prison.”
Damocles, a courtier, tried to curry favor with Dionysius by saying the tyrant was the luckiest man on earth. Dionysius suggested Damocles take his place for a day and sit in his seat; Damocles, were told, was terrified to see a sword suspended by a hair, just above his head.
More spectacular entertainment was offered in the Colosseum, an oval-shaped amphitheater constructed by the Romans during the time of Augustus, in the 4th to 3rd century BC, The Romans built the “Salt Road,” transported salt, cut down trees, planted wheat and used Sicily as Rome’s grainery offering the citizenry feasts of bread and circuses in return. A central cistern, supplied by two canals, was used for water games; a parapet surrounds the arena and underneath, a passageway with entrances for gladiators and wild animals can be seen. The gladiators, condemned criminals, prisoners of war and slaves, would honor the Tyrant with the famous greeting, “We who are about to die, salute you,” then engage in mortal combat with tridents, daggers or double-sided, two foot stabbing swords known as Gladium. In Lord Byron’s poem “Childe Harolds Pilgrimage,” a dying gladiator reflects that he has been “butchered to make a Roman holiday.”
The Arabs crushed Syracuse in 878 and retained power until the 11th century when the Normans conquered only to lose to the Angevins in the 14th. Next came the Aragons, the House of Savoy, the Austrians and the Bourbons. Military bases occupied the city during both World Wars but in 1913, thoughts of reviving ancient Greek Drama in Syracuse began to develop and by April 16, 1914, Aeschylus Agammemnon inaugurated the first cycle of classical plays. Since 1929, The Instituto Nazionale del Dramma Antico had organized and staged the works of Aristophanes, Sophicles and Euripedes throughout Italy. From May 14 through June 20, 2004, audiences attended Sophicles’ Oedipus Rex and Euripedes Medea.
Ortygia Island is next on our itinerary; here we can see the ruins of the Temple of Apollo, the earliest example of monumental stone architecture, dating from 565 BC, and the oldest Doric temple in Sicily. There are seventeen narrowly spaced columns on the long sides and six on the fronts. Apollo was a major deity in Greek and Roman mythology; the divine patron of arts, leader of the Muses and God of music and poetry. In Byzantine times, the Temple became a Christian church; under Muslim rule a Mosque and a Norman Basilica during the Middle Ages.
After Ortygia, we board our modern-day chariot (the tour bus) and head east towards Taormina, Sicily’s most famous resort. Romantic and magnificent, Taormina is a feast for the senses. The scent of citrus from nearby groves of oranges, lemons and mandarins waft through the open windows of the bus and the sight of palm, evergreen, cactus and silvery-olive trees, every olive tree believed to have a character of its own, lend an air of tranquility to the surroundings.
As we drive, a brief history of the region is narrated. Taormina, overlooking the translucent blue of the Ionian Sea from the Strait of Messina and the coasts of Calabria, and carved out of Mt. Tauro, was settled when the Greek inhabitants of Naxos fled the tyranny of Dionysius, the Elder in 392 BC. Artists, painters, writers and photographers began coming to Taormina in the 18th century.
As we meander through Taormina’s main shopping street, the Corso Umberto, the sky darkens, the wind blows, particles of volcanic ash from Mt. Etna drift through the air, blanket streets, cover cars and burrow into every orifice. I can taste the grit, see it, inhale it. Typhoeus, the multi-headed, snake-infested giant, buried under Mt. Etna by the victorious Zeus, seeks his revenge. He rumbles, spits, rises and erupts in all his fury. Lava flows, clouds hover and as night falls, Etna flashes streaks of blood-red flame. Etna, the backdrop for our next adventure, is thought to have erupted 135 times throughout recorded history.
The giant’s dramatic welcome is an appropriate introduction to The Greco-Roman Amphitheater, Taorminas most visited site. The theatre, carved out of limestone rock, lives on the edge of a cliff overlooking the Ionian Sea, 200 meters above sea level with breathtaking, panoramic views of Mt. Etna, the Bay of Naxos and the Calabrian coast. Greek theatres usually faced east for light but this theatre faces south. Built in the 3rd century BC, the teatro is divided into three sections. The orchestra (which means dancing) was and is used by dancers, musicians and the chorus. Behind the orchestra, the skene or scene represents the facade of a palace, temple or house with three doors through which the actor makes his exit or entrance. On the sides of the stage are the actors changing rooms. In the 5th century, about 5,400 spectators were seated on the cavea or steps. One inscribed seat bears the name of Philistide, Hieron II’s wife.
In the 2nd century AD, the Romans remodeled and enlarged the theatre and built trenches to accommodate gladiatorial contests, naval battles and hunting spectacles; the archeological remains date from that period. Frieze, fresco paintings, and sculptures once adorned the section of the theatre facing Taormina. When the Romans were driven from the city, the theatre was abandoned; the niches that once held vases and ornate statues of politicians emptied and marble and columns disappeared – some to decorate other city buildings. Many of the churches and palaces, built in medieval times, recycled materials garnered from the site.
Celebrities have often retreated to Taormina for rest and relaxation. Theatrical personalities from Garbo to Capote to Tennessee Williams to Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton have made themselves at home here. Woody Allen filmed “Mighty Aphrodite” in the theatre. The film parodied Greek tragedy, using a Greek chorus who mouthed informal jargon in between lyrical verse.
Hailed for its superb acoustics and fine performances, the theatre’s history of culture and myth lives on. Restored, it plays host to a festival of music, film and dance and The Europe Prize for Theatre, begun in 1986 by the Taormina Arts Committee, honors the world’s finest artists. The theatre’s construction, glorious views and magnificent past and future still dazzle after more than 2,000 years.