A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Beautiful, Scandalous Taormina

After Cefalù we turned Sicily's north-eastern corner and edged down the coast to beautiful Taormina. (Sicily is commonly represented by the three-legged trinacria, a symbol of the island's three 'corners'. The head at its centre is that of the Gorgon Medusa, whose hair was turned into snakes by the goddess Athene. The three legs denote the three coastlines of Sicily - considered as gorgeous as the legs of a beautiful woman. Dante, in Paradiso, refers to Sicily by its original name of Trinacria, calling it la bella Trinacria.)

Like Cefalù, Taormina has long been a place of refuge for artists, writers and musicians. It was particularly attractive to English emigres - more remote than Florence, Naples or even Palermo, so the more dedicated, adventurous and, dare I say, eccentric travellers tended to end up there. It's not hard to see why they liked it so much. Goethe pronounced it a little patch of Paradise...

And DH Lawrence wrote Lady Chatterley's Lover here - as well as numerous poems, short stories and travel pieces. Lawrence had eloped with Frieda Weekley, the wife of one of his Nottingham University professors, and embarked on a bohemian life of constant travelling - visiting France, Germany, Italy, South America, Ceylon, Australia, the USA and Mexico. They stayed two years (1920-22) in Taormina, in a house called Fontana Vecchia, which was built in the mid-1600s and is the oldest dwelling on the town's east side. 30 years later Truman Capote also lived here for a while. It's now in private ownership, and you can't really see much, only the back view from the road...

Lawrence probably based the character of Constance Chatterley on a real-life (unmarried) woman from Taormina who took up with a Sicilian farmer. Their naked frolicking in the olive groves apparently shocked the whole town! It seems Lawrence took this germ of a story and from it created his great novel - a book which caused a huge scandal in its day, and for a long time afterwards. Never before had a romantic novel portrayed a sexually liberated woman so explicitly - with hints of a subtle pacifism to boot (Lawrence places Clifford Chatterley in a wheelchair). The novel was finally published in Florence in 1928, but it wasn't until 1960, after a notorious obscenity trial, that it appeared in Britain in its uncensored form.

The other exceptional house in Taormina is the Casa Cuseni, often described as the town's finest residence. It was built in 1905 by the painter Robert Hawthorn Kitson, aided by his friend the artist Frank Brangwyn, who had once been apprenticed to William Morris. Consequently it's a mixture of Sicilian and Art Nouveau/Arts and Crafts Movement styles. This is Kitson's own painting of the front, sea-facing view of the house...

Kitson owned the first motor car in Taormina, which he used to ferry the injured during the earthquake of 1908, and the first swimming pool, which he sited to reflect the moonlit slopes of Mount Etna. After his death in 1948 his niece Daphne Phelps took over this delightful villa, opening it up to paying guests - a story she tells in her book, A House In Sicily (Virago, 1999).

When Daphne herself died in January 2006 at the age of 94, family members found it difficult to keep the house going - and I see it's now up for sale. It had many famous visitors over the years: Bertrand Russell, Tennessee Williams, Henry Faulkner, Roald Dahl - and DH Lawrence, of course (whenever his back was turned, Frieda set about the task of seducing much of the male population of Taormina, including passing tradesman etc, whom she was in the habit of greeting at the door in the nude!)

As readers of this blog will know, DH Lawrence is one of my favourite writers (no mean painter either). His four great novels - Sons And Lovers, The Rainbow, Woman In Love and Lady Chatterley's Lover - I still find wonderful. His travel essays are some of the best ever written in the genre (Sea And Sardinia came out of a visit made to Sardinia from Taormina), and his poetry is powerful, muscular and sensual.

I'd like to do more in-depth posts about Lawrence's writings and artistic philosophy at some point, but in the meantime here's a short extract from his poem The Snake. Lawrence is in the garden of Fontana Vecchia - in his pyjamas because of the heat - when a venomous snake comes for a drink at his water trough. After an internal debate about whether to kill it or not, he half-heartedly throws a log at the snake, which then disappears into the black hole, the earth-lipped fissure in the wall-front... Lawrence immediately regrets his cowardly action, and ends up despising the voice inside him which had urged him to be a man and kill the snake.

Someone was before me at my water trough,
And I, like a second-comer, waiting.

He lifted his head from his drinking, as cattle do,
And looked at me vaguely, as drinking cattle do,
And flickered his two-forked tongue from his lips, and mused a moment,
And stooped and drank a little more,
Being earth-brown, earth-golden from the burning bowels of the earth
On that day of Sicilian July, with Etna smoking.

I know of no other poem about an animal, and about a relationship between a man and an animal, quite as powerful as this one - though some by Ted Hughes come near. It's a quite extraordinary blend of subjective feeling and objective observation.


Dominic Rivron said...

That is so like the symbol for the Isle of Man! I understood it, in that case, to be a variation of the swastika, which had far more benevolent associations, apparently, before the nazis started to use it. (I know very little about it. The far right in South Africa use a three-pronged version, too, as I remember).

George said...

I regret to say that I have not been to Sicily. Today's posting on Taormina, however, is sure to get me there soon. Combine geographic beauty with a great literary and artistic heritage and I'm sold. It's been a while since I have read Lawrence, but the poem on the snake encounter makes me want to return to his works, especially the poetry. I also want to check out his paintings. I didn't know about that aspect of his life.

Bonnie said...

My daughter and son-in-law are planning a trip to Sicily this coming November. I will direct them to your blog so that they can enjoy a foretaste of all the delights that await them there.

Lorenzo said...

I am really enjoying your series on Sicily and I look forward to more on Lawrence.

The Solitary Walker said...

Dominic - yes, it reminded me of the Isle of Man symbol, too. Though the swastika - an ancient religious symbol until malevolently appropriated by the Nazis - has 4 'arms', of course - don't think it's related? Just shows how powerful symbols can be, both for good and evil.

George, I've always wanted to go to Sicily, and finally made it. I'm pretty sure you would love it there. Lawrence's paintings - though not 'great' - are fascinating, I think. Lawrence is so unfashionable today, but I think he has much to teach us. Wonderful, wonderful writer.

Bonnie - thanks! I hope it will whet their appetite...

And Lorenzo - Lawrence has been a much misunderstood writer over the past few decades, and I really want to try and correct this view on my blog at some point in the future. Everyone's had a go at him - the feminists, the left, the right, the philosophers, the critics, the censors, the libertarians, the local people in Eastwood, Nottinghamshire, where he was brought up. I've found myself defending him in all sorts of situations. He was one of our truly great writers, I believe...


Taormina Casa Lawrence were also my Mother stayed for 15 years until 1979.
2011 in april I was back to tell her friends that my dear Mother had passed away 96 years old.
is to day next door to Casa Lawrence in Fontana Vecchia.


My Mother lived in Casa Lawrence for 15 years and loved it.
I was back 2011 to tell goodbye to her place in spirit.
She died 96 years old happy in Denmark Copenhagen
Taormina you never forget..

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks for this, Von Rathsach.