Finche ch’e la morta, ch’e la speranza.
—Lampedusa, Il Gattopardo
So long as there is death, there is hope? That is a sentiment so singular and so rooted to its place of origin that, if you found it upon a shard in the farthest desert, you could guess that someone had tarried there who had spent most of his life in Sicily.
There is no part of Sicily less Sicilian than Ortygia, the last extremity of its southeast corner. It is all the flower and none of the thorn. And yet nowhere else does the odd notion of death as man’s last best hope press a stronger claim. For here is the most wonderful city that any of us is ever likely to see and a great piece of its wonder is that it is dying.
Ortygia is the island fortress of the old Greek Syracuse from which the new Syracuse has fled. In its abandonment it cries out to the portion of us all that cherishes its fellow creatures and deplores their aspirations. It achingly and joyously reminds us that the blessings of the modern arrive in the company of two curses: nothing speeds decay like progress and nothing preserves except neglect.
Aeschylus staged The Persians in Syracuse. The tyrant Dionysius called Plato here as instructor in the arts of government and repaid him with so valuable a lesson in the nature of governors that only an unceremonious debarkation for Athens saved him from sale into slavery. Pindar was inspired and Cicero edified here. Archimedes glared across these seas and employed their sun and his mirror to set Roman ships afire. Syracuse had broken Athens and sent the Carthaginians limping away; and, this time round, she and Archimedes came close to beating back Rome herself.
The Syracusans were moderate in their moments of aggression and implacable in their hours of resistance. Ortygia has been violated again and again, and always it has outworn its conquerors and restored its own inviolable self. And always, when the Syracusans turned at bay, their last asylum was this little island a hundred feet from their mainland.
Naturally then, the huge and formerly swarming Hotel des Etrangers stands empty, the once-arrogant crimson of its facade paled and chastened by the sun. The tourists are no longer a force in occupation; dying, Ortygia has outlived the last of its barbarian invasions.
The grandeur of the names in this great history seems rather beside the point now, because Ortygia owes so much of its command over the sensibilities for being a monument to anonymous artisans. By no means the smallest of its charms is the refuge it affords from distraction by certified masterpieces.
Aside from its Greek coins, Syracuse possesses only two works eligible for notice in college surveys of the history of art. They are the Venus Anadiomene, which could dangerously ignite the libido of a Capuchin who had lain for a century dead, and the ravaged Annunciation of…
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