Catania: Tits Galore in the DBC

You know the feeling when a word is repeated so often it starts to lose all meaning? That happened about five minutes into the tour of Catania’s Diocesan Museum. Our tour guide, Sofia, a pretty, buxom blonde, was sharing the story of Agatha, the city’s patron saint. I don’t ordinarily remark if a woman is buxom or not, but the theme, and Sofia’s own explanatory gestures, drew our attention inexorably to the whole boobal area.

 

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Gaius tries the novelty scissors

 
“Agata was a young woman who lived in the Catania when it was ruled by the Romans. They did not allow other religions and she protested strongly. The Romans wanted to kill her, but she was young and there was a law that you must not kill virgins. For that reason, the soldiers tried to force her, to rape, but they couldn’t because angels stopped them. Then the Romans cut off her tits. But when they did, her tits grew back because the angels were helping. Finally, the Romans took her in prison here in the city and starved her—that is the easiest way to kill someone. Then at last the Romans cut the tits off and chopped her body up.”
Sofia moved over to a big silver plaque embossed with scenes and pointed to one in the upper right showing a girl with her hands to her throat.

 

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“There is a story that the Romans threw the parts of her body all over the countryside. One day a poor peasant girl found one of the tits and ate it (it is not my fault, this is the legend). The girl started to choke and couldn’t swallow it because the tit was holy. She went to her mother, who helped her get the tit out of her throat. The poor girl didn’t know, she was just hungry.”

 

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Tits again

 

Surprisingly, though, the symbol of the city is not tits. It is an elephant known as U Liotru, the Sicilian rendering of Heliodoros,  hapless eighth-century necromancer. This noble-born Sicilan was in line for a bishopric but, disappointed in his hopes, apostasized in order to practice the black arts. He sat on the elephant uttering spells in an attempt to animate it and, though he didn’t succeed, the elephant is now associated with his name.

 

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U Liotru

 

You may notice that there is an Egyptian obelisk on top of the elephant. This was originally consecrated to Isis, looted by the Romans and brought to the city. The cult of the goddess was once very strong in Sicily, as the Siculians associated her with Prosperpine. Isis was also known for her boobs; one of her epithets was Isis the Milk-Giver. Her milk was magic, having the ability to confer life to a baby, power to a pharaoh and new life to the dead. Milk was served to sick people and was commonly one of the offerings to the dead.

 

Isis

 

Incidentally, there are echoes of Isis in Christian imagery with the Madonna lactans. In the Museum Palazzo Bellomo in Siracusa, there are several beautiful examples. Mary breast-feeding Jesus was a popular image until the sixteenth century and the Council of Trent, which discouraged any kind of nudity in religious art.

 

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Madonna Lactans at the Palazzo Bellomo

 

The obelisk of Isis got stuck on top of the elephant 1757 thanks to one
Gianbattista Vaccarini, who is responsible for a lot of the distinctive ‘Sicilian baroque’ palazzi and churches in Catania. The U Liotru monument is odd. One theory for the concoction was that both the elephant and the obelisk were both believed to have good-luck powers. It’s not hard to see why Catanians felt in need of luck after the seventeenth century, when there was an eruption of Mount Etna in 1669 and massive earthquake in 1693.

 

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A Dark Baroque City

When we arrived in Catania I couldn’t see the volcano. In fact, it was raining so hard that I couldn’t even see out the window. When we got off the bus, there were no taxis so we dragged our luggage down the hill to the train station. It was a wet procedure. The sidewalk mainly consisted of potholes and water. At the crosswalk, we faced the prospect of a fast-flowing river. Halfway across, a speedy little car splashed us with a wave of white water.

“Fucking fuck!” I sputtered. Drenched, I continued to ford the road. We could not initially see any taxis so took it in turns to scout.
John was successful, seeing one with a registration sticker on its back window. He approached the driver but couldn’t understand what he was saying as the man only had one tooth. I finally figured out that the guy was having a break and for god’s sake could we just leave him alone? 
Luckily, there was another guy approaching. He was small and sinewy and beckoned us over to his vehicle. He’d never heard of our hotel but would take us to the Piazza Duomo for ten euros. OK.
We got out in a hopeful mood. My feet were wet and I was ready to dry them off and crawl into bed for a post-travel nap. All we had to do was find a hotel called The Voices.
We found the address, but there was no sign to the hotel. Not even the buzzer panel had anything called anything like The Voices.

 

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Piazza dei Fantasmi

 
A baroque church loomed. Cabbage leaves were strewn in the nearby square. There was a smell of fish coming from some hole-in-the-wall trattoria. Rain continued to stream down. John asked a lady at the restaurant next door if she knew about the hotel. She did not. I tried ringing all the buzzers at that address. No answer.
“Maybe it’s the next block?” John said hopefully.
“No. It’s not the next block. It’s this address.”

Glowering, I started tugging the suitcase back to the main square, noting with extreme irritation that the stupid pumice cobblestones were making the wheels veer in every direction at once. I imagined how useful it would be to have a flame-thrower in my mouth. Maybe I should pray to Etna…
We went to a café in the main square and checked the internet as the rain tried to splash in under the umbrellas. I saw another hotel nearby on the map.
We traipsed in the rain to find that hotel. We couldn’t. We walked into one lobby but then, seeing the number of stairs we’d need to walk up, walked straight out. At last, there was a big fancy building called Principe Hotel. There was a sleek young lady, very dry, at the desk who looked at us dripping on her carpet and sniffed.
“Do you have a room for tonight?” John asked.
She hesitated.
“Yes. It’s quite small though.”
“That’s OK,” I said.
“I’ll…have to ask the manager,” she said.
“How much is the room?” John asked.
“Two-hundred-and-thirty euros per night.”  
She smiled a little as we squelched back out into the street.
“What we need,” John said, “Is the tourist information office.”
Two long, wet blocks later we found it. The lady grimaced a little when we told her what happened about the Hotel that Was Not There. She told us there was a good cheap hotel around the corner and rang them to ask if they had a room. They did, so she kindly gave us directions. 

 

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DBC

 

We walked the street and John looked up at the  enormous, grim, tomb-like facades of the churches on either side. 
“I read a tour guide saying this was a dark baroque city, and durned if it isn’t! DBC for short.”
We arrived at the new place, Hotel Biscari, and it turned out to be up three flights of stairs. Brooding on the tribulations of the last hour, feeling thwarted and helpless, I saw John about to offer to carry the suitcase despite his bad knee.
“Keep walking,” I growled with sinister intensity. I must have looked scarier than I meant to because he went pale and hot-footed it up to reception.

 

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View of the courtyard at the hotel

 

Back to Norma
Emailing The Accursed Voices, I learned that the landlady was not home all the time and had expected us to tell her exactly what time we were going to arrive. It was somewhat comforting to realize that the operation was not an outright scam, merely a sloppy, casual fly-by-night deal.
We slept and groaned, then slept some more. Finally I was ready to get up and walk around this city.
On the main pedestrian mall, Etnea Street, an accordion player sawed away under a see-through poncho and tourists flocked into cafes to try Sicilian sweets. Umbrellas were out in force. Most of the retail shops were closed because it was the four-hour lunch hour.

I walked in the rain until I got to a statue of Vincenzo Bellini, the Swan of Catania, surrounded by some of the most memorable characters from his operas. Poor Bellini died at the age of 33 of an inflamed colon but he wrote some of the most beloved operas of the nineteenth century, especially Norma and The Puritans (I Puritani).

 

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Bellini and friends

 

I headed uphill and passed the remains of a big Roman amphitheater, half underground. Just behind it was an old prison where Saint Agatha may have been kept, marked with an altar covered with flowers and melted votive candles. To the right was a leafy park where a poor African lad was huddling under a raincoat. Even Mazzini looked glum.

 

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Further on was a park where a chestnut vendor was smoking the street up.  I passed tiny little old houses suggestive of the poverty of the region in former times. There was a sad little shrine to Mary that looked semi-abandoned except there was a bunch of fresh flowers inside it. And then the heavens really opened. It had been raining before, but this was diluvial. I swam home as quickly as possible.

 

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That night John and I went out for pizza and ordered a Norma. The story goes that Catanian writer Nino Martoglio tasted some pasta alla Norma (ie tomato, eggplant, ricotta) and exclaimed, “It’s a Norma!” Norma, being the last word in operatic perfection. For maximum Catania flavor, I recommend you eat it while listening to Maria Callas singing “Casta Diva” while you are standing waist-deep in a cold river.

 

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Maria Callas as Norma, London, 1952

 

Pizza alla Norma 

(taken from this site )

 

pizza

 

Preparation
Before cooking, prepare the eggplant, to cut out the characteristic bitter flavor of this vegetable, you have to dice it and immerse it in salted water for at least an hour. After it has soaked, drain the eggplant well to remove the water and then fry the diced eggplant in extra virgin olive oil until it’s a perfect golden brown.
Pizza dough
500g of type ‘0’ flour (not self-raising)
250g of lukewarm water
1-2 tablespoons of olive oil
5g salt
2-3g of fresh brewer’s yeast.

Mix the water, yeast and oil in a bowl. Add the flour and mix with your hands. After the ingredients are mixed, add the salt.
In five minutes, your dough should be ready. Divide it into four balls, cover with a teatowel and leave it to rest for an hour.

When the dough has doubled in size, roll it out from the center, pushing the gas to the edges.
Add the toppings in this order:

• Pizza sauce
• Thick slices of mozzarella
• Fried eggplant
• Grated salted ricotta
• Salt and pepper
Cook in an oven preheated to 300 degrees Celsius for a few minutes, until the crust is golden brown and just right.

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