The view from Caucana
Wrapping up nearly one year in Sicily – initially in Caucana, by the sea for 3 months, and then Ragusa since last January – I’m prompted by circumstances to draw an assessment as our lives move on now to another setting.
We arrived by serendipity: summer of 2016 met a fellow who’d taken a workshop I’d done way back in 2003 in a small town, Gallo D’Oro, nearby Taormina. It had been a very happy and successful 10 day affair, and those who took part in it had had a rich and good experience. Giuseppe Tumino had gone on to other things in the film world here, making documentaries and organizing various events and he had a little festival on the Ionian sea, and finding out I was nearby, in Matera, recuperating from a back operation, he contacted me and asked if Marcella and I might play jurors. We said yes, had a nice time, and along the way Giuseppe mentioned he came from Ragusa and would be going for the summer to his family’s beach house. Knowing that such beach towns are full of houses that sit vacant for 10 months of the year I promptly and indelicately asked if I might stay in his family’s place in the off-season. And so we did, from October to December.
Along the beach from Caucana to Punta Secca, one of a thousand fotos of sand
I spent the time recuperating, taking long daily walks along the beach, making photos, and along the way we met a friend of Giuseppe’s, Raffaella Spadola, who had a nice small apartment in Ragusa with a modest rent, and in January we moved there. Ragusa is one of a string of baroque towns – including also Modica, 10 miles away, and Scicli another 10, and then a fair bit further towards Siracusa, Noto. These towns were all destroyed by an earthquake in 1693, and rebuilt splendidly in the style of the times, fully displaying the wealth that Sicily then had. Each town has a sizable Duomo (cathedral) and numerous other churches and Catholic institutional buildings – convents and monasteries, and palazzi for the church leaders and other wealthy people. And as well, famed celebrations for patron saints, though these now seem mostly – like much else – mainly for tourists. They are leached of the passion of only half a century ago, when the church still had a firm grip on society – a grip that has collapsed under the assault of modernity and consumerism. The towns now are full of B&B’s and are busy during the summer tourist season, but largely dormant the rest of the year.
On moving here, perhaps owing to Giuseppe’s local influence, I was the subject of fame’s aura – supposedly I was well-known, a big director. Which once upon a time might have appeared so – 30 years ago I materialized in Italian newspapers with articles and photos, films in festivals and other such ephemera – and so quickly hovering around were those for whom this acts like flame for a moth. They had “heard of” (but most likely not seen, even if they said they had) All the Vermeers in New York. Or something else. They asked to interview me. To have me for a party. Etc. But quickly disillusioned by my willful failure to live up to their imagined expectations, the same people disappeared as brusquely as they had shown up – thankfully. I guess I don’t exude Big Important Person, nor whatever goes with it. Nor have I ever wanted to.
So I went about my modest business – took a ton of photos, did some collages, and began to shoot some kind of film. A kind of a reflex habit. About Ragusa, or vaguely so, or maybe.
Surfaces of doors in Ragusa
At one point some people here thought to do a workshop and arranged a screening of a film, La Lunga Ombra, at a local cafe/cultural focus, Le Fate. Ironically, this place, intended to celebrate Sicilian culture, is run by a woman from Romania. At the screening I said I might be making a film set in Ragusa and said if anyone was interested in helping or participating, to let me know. The screening attracted maybe 20 people, and when a workshop was suggested they couldn’t manage to round up enough people to bother. However one fellow contacted me, a self-described art critic, who proved more than interested. He was the kind of opportunist I’d seen before, jumping to take a ride on whatever “fame” coattails I appeared to have, eager to help and insinuate himself into importance. He was, as usual, helpful, in that he provided a few contacts to local arts people, but then dug in turning himself into the virtual producer of a non-existent project. After he talked with Marcella about local witches whom he said he knew, and other such things, and took his role with far greater seriousness than warranted, I let him know in no uncertain terms that he’d far over-stepped his boundaries and that I was a private sort of person, and he should bug off. He did, though he materialized later to say he wished to write an article on my painting and photos for some Italian arts magazine, and to set up an exhibit at a local art gallery. And then he disappeared a few months, only to pop up again several weeks before we were to leave. He said he’d arranged to do an exhibit at a gallery in Ibla for the last week of our stay. Rather abrupt and fast in my book, but I went to the gallery, met the guy running it, and said OK, though it all seemed rather rushed to me. Italia! Last minute as usual. After a little discussion about how to hang the paintings – I said in little passepartout cardboard frames and directly rejected putting them directly on the wall with little putty things – we agreed to an exhibit for a week before we were to leave. They huddled a week and said to come in on a Friday morning, the day before the “opening”, to see and approve the display. Marcella and I arrived at the suggested time, and no one was there. A glance inside suggested nothing had been done. After a phone call the gallerist materialized 45 minutes later, and indeed nothing had been done and when Marcella inquired how he intended to mount the paintings he said, why with this putty. I said no. Things quickly degenerated and I said I could do without this hassle and to give me back my paintings. They wanted me to pay for the awful little postcard and poster things they’d made but had not put up anywhere. I left with the paintings. Marcella stayed another 20 minutes to listen and haggle, which resolved nothing.
Ragusa, the new side
Meantime we’ve shot a bit of material for a film – an interview with a local photographer, Giuseppe Leone, who is quite good. And we met with a painter, Giovanni Lisandrello. Perhaps this week, before leaving, we’ll go and shoot Giovanni. At the moment we have perhaps 50 minutes. There’s a few others I’d like to film, though I lack enthusiasm and wonder why I should bother.
My doubts seem to have to do with the less than positive sense I have that inchoately gathers around the material. Since arriving I’ve been struck by the crippling psychological effect that a very deep provincialism seems to have on those we’ve met – whether the one’s hustling to attempt to use “famous” me as a stepping stone, or those artists, like Giuseppe and Giovanni, who in their talks with us have transparently resented their parochial setting, trapped in the small city of Ragusa, despite their talents, and (as is so common) not really respected as they think they should be in their own community. The provincialism works into everyone and everything, and distills down into something akin to the thought that if you are here, in Ragusa (or a hundred other small cities or towns in Sicily) then you are nothing. It is a disease that eats into anyone with the least of ambitions in this kind of setting, and condemns anyone who stays, no matter their talents and skills. And they seem self-aware of this, but are unable to either escape by leaving, or by refusing the mind-set of provincialism. Flip side is the tribalism which affects all of Italy, in which your town, contrada, region, and finally person, is necessarily better than those others. It seems that everyone either feels the doors are closed to them, or they themselves close the doors.
Doors of Ragusa
When we visited Giovanni in his nice apartment nearby where we’ve been living, he was, along with his wife, gracious and kind. We looked at his paintings – which I rather like – and talked. He’s self-taught, and in fact worked with Giuseppe at the beginning in a photo studio doing retouching. Giuseppe turned to photography, and Giovanni to painting, each taking their own path. Lissandrelli’s technique, which he learned doing more mundane house-painting as a youth, has a tactile sensibility which is quite strong in his paintings of the local landscapes. Other works seem instantly archaic, like things dug up by archeologists.
At one point, probably feeling the need to inflate his importance, Giovanni mentioned he’d had an exhibition in New York, and he went to find a newspaper clipping about it. He came back with a very yellowed and worn newspaper page, where his showing was announced – in the advertisement of a car dealership on Long Island, doubtless an Italo-American immigrant from Ragusa who had “made it” in America. The pathos was visceral.
Paintings by Giovanni Lissandrello
Leone, the photographer, has a lovely studio, with many wonderful photos on the walls – the better being from Sicily before it became modernized and lost most of its aesthetic and cultural frisson. They are like stepping back in time, though within Leone’s life-time – showing how rapidly this part of Italy changed.
Photographs of Giuseppe Leone
So there’s some days left, and I think to think some more. I don’t think there’ll be a film about Ragusa, though perhaps some of the things shot will materialize in some future work. Or perhaps drift into the decay of digital oblivion. Like everything.
A final note: the night before leaving, the art critic fellow – Giorgio Giovanni Guastella by name – went in the night and deposited a deep key scratch on our car (actually Marcella’s mother’s car), doubtless in his mind exacting revenge for whatever my imagined crimes. Of such stuff is provincialism made.