Sicilian Scenery and Antiquities — Part 1

Thomas Cole, 1844

Editor’s Note: The following essay was written by Thomas Cole after his trip to Sicily in 1843, and published in the Knickerbocker vol. XXIII in February of 1844. Fair warning — this essay is written in the long, floridly descriptive prose of the 1800’s. It’s incredibly boring, because the didn’t have Netflix until sometime after Cole’s death — Long writing was prized as a way to vicariously live through others travels. Consider it the slowblogging of its day.

A few months only have elapsed since I travelled over the classic land of Sicily; and the impressions left on my mind by its picturesqueness, fertility, and the grandeur of its architectural remains, are more vivid, and fraught with more sublime associations, than any I received during my late sojourn in Europe. The pleasure of traveling, it seems to me, is chiefly experienced after the journey is over; when we can sit down by our own snug fire-side, free from all the fatigues and annoyances which are its usual concomitants; and, if our untravelled friends are with us, indulge in the comfortable and harmless vanity of describing the wonders and dangers of those distant lands, and like Goldsmith’s old soldier, “Shoulder the crutch and show how fields were won.” I was about to remark, that those who travel only in books travel with much less discomfort, and perhaps enjoy as much, as those who travel in reality; but I fancy there are some of my young readers who would rather test the matter by their own experience, than by the inadequate descriptions which I have to offer them.

Sicily, as is well known, is the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea. It was anciently called Trinaeria, from its triangular shape, and is about six hundred miles in circumference. Each of its extremities is terminated by a promontory, one of which was called by the ancients Lilybeum, and faces Africa; another called Pachynus, faces the Peloponessus of Greece; and the third, Pelorum, now Capo di Boco, faces Italy. The aspect of the country is very mountainous; some of the mountains are lofty; but towering above all, like an enthroned spirit, rises AETNA. His giant form can be seen from elevated grounds in the most remote parts of the island, and the mariner can discern his snowy crown more than a hundred miles. But Sicily abounds in luxuriant plains and charming valleys, and its soil is proverbially rich: it once bore the appellation of the Granary of Rome; and it is now said that if properly tilled it would produce more grain than any country of its size in the world. Its beauty and fertility were often celebrated by ancient bards, who described the sacred flocks and herds of Apollo on its delightful slopes. The plain of Enna, where Proserpine and her nymphs gathered flowers, was famous for delicious honey; and according to an ancient writer, hounds lost their scent when hunting, in consequence of the odoriferous flowers which perfumed the air; and this may be no fable; for in Spring, as I myself have seen, the flowers are abundant and fragrant beyond description; and it seemed to me that the gardens of Europe had been supplied with two-thirds of their choicest treasures from the wild stores of Sicily. The history of Sicily is as varied and interesting as the features of its surface; but of this I must give only such a brief and hurried sketch as, to those who are not conversant with it, will serve to render the scenes I intend to describe more intelligible and interesting than they otherwise would be. Its early history, then, like that of most nations of antiquity, is wrapped in obscurity. Poets feign that its original inhabitants were Cyclops; after them the Sicani, a people supposed to have been from Spain, were the possessors; then came the Siculi, a people of Italy. The enterprising Phoenicians, those early monarchs of the sea, whose ships had even visited the remote and barbarous shores of Britain, formed some settlements upon it; and in the eighth century before CHRIST various colonies of Greeks were planted on its shores, and became in time the sole possessors of the island. These Grecian founders of Syracuse, Gela, and Agrigentum, seduced from their own country by the love of enterprise, or driven by necessity or revolution from their homes, brought with them the refinement, religion, and love of the beautiful, that have distinguished their race above all others; and in a short time after their establishment in Sicily, the magnificence of their cities, the grandeur of their temples, equalled if they did not surpass those of their fatherland. About the year 480 before CHRIST, a fierce enemy landed on the coast of Sicily with two thousand gallies: this was the warlike Carthaginian, whose altars smoked with the sacrifice of human victims. This formidable invader was defeated under the great Gelon of Syracuse, who was called the father of his country; but the Carthaginians, returned again and with better fortune, at length became masters of the island. The Romans next conquered Sicily, and held it for several centuries. The Saracens in the ninth century were in the full tide of successful conquest. They landed first in the bay of Mazara, near Selinuntium, and after various cofficts and fortune, finally subjugated the whole island in the year 878. The crescent continued to glitter over the towers of Sicily for about three centuries, when the Normans, a band of adventurers whom the crusades of the Holy Sepulchre had brought from their northern homes, after a conflict of thirty years under Count Roger, expelled the Saracen in the year 1073, and planted the banner of the cross in every city of the land. Soon after that time it came under Spain and Austria; France and England have severally been its rulers. It is now under the crown of Naples. Such is a brief outline of the eventful history of Sicily; a land formed by nature in her fairest mould; but which the crimes and am bition of men have desecrated by violence, oppression, and bloodshed; and with the substitution of a word, one might exclaim with the poet:

‘SICILIA! O SICILIA! thou who hast
The fatal gift of beauty, which became
A funeral dower of present woes and past,
On thy sweet brow is sorrow ploughed by shame,
And annals graved in characters of flame.
Oh God! that thou wert in thy nakedness
Less lovely or more powerful, and couldst claim
Thy right, and awe the robbers back who press
To shed thy blood, and drink the tears of thy distress!'

Her brightest age was when the Greek threw the light of his genius around her; when rose those mighty temples which now, even in their ruin, call forth the wonder and admiration of the traveller; her greatest degradation was in the age just passed away. As an exemplification of this, it is sufficient to say, that from the time of the Norman until the accession of the present monarch, a space of seven hundred years, not a single road has been constructed in the island. But we have reason to believe that a brighter day now dawns, and that ere long the sun of civilization will dispel the clouds that have so long overshadowed the mountains of Sicily. He who would make a tour through this magnificent land, must make up his mind to submit to much fatigue, some danger, and innumerable annoyances; such as filth, bad fare, the continual torment of vermin; lodgings, to which a stable with clean hay would be in comparison a paradise; knavish attempts at imposition of various kinds, etc. He must mount on a mule whose saddle is of rude and of abominable construction; whose bit is a sort of iron vice, which clasps the animal’s nose and under-jaw, and every day wears away the flesh; and whose bridle is a piece of rope fastened to the bit on one side only. He must ford rivers of various depth; he must fear no ascent or descent, however precipitous, if there appears to be a track; and at times he must have a careful eye to the priming of his pistol; and above all, a patient and enduring temper is a great comfort. The aspect of Sicily is widely different from that of this country; its beauty is dependant on other forms and associations. Here, we have vast forests that stretch their shady folds in melancholy grandeur; the mountain tops themselves are clad in thick umbrage, which, rejoicing in the glory of the autumnal season, array themselves in rainbow dyes. There, no wide forests shade the land; but mountains more abrupt than ours, and bearing the scars of volcanic fire and earthquake on their brows, are yet clothed with flowers and odoriferous shrubs. The plains and slopes of the mountains are now but partially under cultivation; vineyards and olive-groves generally clothe the latter, while over the gentler undulating country, or the plains, fenceless fields stretch far away, a wilderness of waving grain, through which the traveller may ride for hours nor meet a human being, nor see a habitation, save when he lifts his eyes to some craggy steep or mountain pinnacle, where stands the clustered village. The villages and larger towns are generally set among groves of orange, almond, and pomegranate trees, with here and there a dark Carruba, or Leutisk tree, casting its ample shade.

Fields of the broad bean, the chief food of the laboring classes, serves at times to vary with vivid green the monotony of the landscape. The traveller rolls along over no Macadamised road in his comfortable car. riage, but mounted on his mule, leaves him to choose his own track among the numerous ones that form what is called the strada-maestro, or master-road, between city and city. Here and there he will come to a stone fountain, constructed perhaps centuries ago, which still furnishes a delightful beverage for himself and beast. Oftentimes the road leads through a country entirely waste, and covered with tall bunches of grass or the dwarfish palmetto; sometimes in the cultivated districts the road is bounded by the formidable prickly-pear, which grows to the height of twenty feet, or by rows of the stately aloe, and not unfrequently by wild hedges of myrtle, intertwined with innumerable climbing plants, whose flowers the traveller can pick as he rides along. Generally the road-side is perfectly enamelled with flowers of various hue and fragrance. No majestic river, like the Hudson, spreads before him, with all its glittering sails and swift steam-boats; but ever and anon the blue and placid Meditterranean bounds his vision, or indents the shore, with here and there a picturesque and lazy barque reflected in the waves. I have before said that the towns and villages are generally perched like eagles’ nests in high places. This is particularly the case with those of the interior: many of them are inaccessible to carriages, except the Letiga, a sort of large sedan-chair, gaudily decorated with pictures of saints, and suspended between two mules, one of which trots before and the other behind, to the continual din of numerous bells and the harsh shouts of the muleteers. I never saw one of these vehicles, which are the only travelling carriages of the interior of Sicily, without thinking that there might be a land-sickness even worse than a seasickness; for the motion of the letiga in clambering up and down the broken steeps must be far more tempestuous than any thing ever experienced at sea. Between village and village you see no snug villa, farm-house, or cottage by the road-side, or nestling among the trees; but here and there a gloomy castellated building, a lonely ruin or stern Martello tower, whose dilapidated walls crown some steep headland, against whose base washes the ever-murmuring waves. Now the traveller descends to the beach, his only road; the mountains are far inland, or dip their broad bases in the sea-foam, or impend in fearful masses over his head. He ascends again, and journeys over wastes which undoubtedly in the time of the Greek and the Roman were covered with fruits and grain; but which now are treeless and desolate as the deep whose breezes stir the flowers that deck them. At times he must ford streams, which, if swollen with late rains, are perilous in the extreme. I remember once on my journey descending from one of those treeless wastes upon a spot very different from any thing on this side of the Atlantic. It was called Verdura, from its green and verdant character. A stream which flowed through a plain bounded by lofty mountains here fell into the sea. A large mill, which much resembles an ancient castle, and in all probability had served both purposes in times gone by, stood near. Upon the sandy beach close by, and hauled entirely out of the water, lay several vessels in the style of Homer’s ships; and I have no doubt bore a strong resemblance to ships of ancient time, for they were picturesquely formed, and painted fantastically with figures of fishes and eyes. The wild-looking mariners were lounging lazily about in their shaggy capotes, or engaged in loading their vessels with grain, the product of the neighboring plains. Up the steep we had just descended a letiga was slowly winding; and on a green declivity over- . looking the sea, a flock of goats were browsing, and their shepherd reclined near in listless idleness. Open and treeless as was this scene, there was such a peaceful character about it, such an air of primitive simplicity, that it made a strong impression on my mind.

It does not come within the scope of this paper to offer any description of the larger cities of Sicily, Palermo, Messina, etc. Most readers have seen accounts of them more ample and more interesting than I could offer. Of the smaller places I must content myself with giving a very general description, so that I may retain the requisite space, in this division of my article, for some notice of an ascent which I made to the sublime summit of Mount Aetna.

The secondary towns to which I have alluded, such as Calatifini, Sciacca, Caltagerone, etc., are in general picturesquely situated, and are built in a massive and sometimes even in a magnificent style. The churches and houses are all of hewn stone, and exhibit the various styles of architecture of the builders; the Saracenic, the NormanGothic, or the later Spanish taste. Sometimes the styles are fantastically intermixed; but the whole, to the architect, is extremely interesting. Flat roofs and projecting stone balconies from the upper windows are perhaps the most characteristic features of the houses. The churches, though large, are seldom beautiful specimens of architecture; and the interior is in general extremely ornate, and decorated with gaudy gilding and pictures, and images of CHRIST and saints, disgustingly painted. The streets, wide or narrow, would appear to us somewhat gloomy and prison-like; and paint is a thing scarcely known on the exterior or perhaps interior of an ordinary house. The air of the interior of the common houses of the Sicilian towns is as gloomy and comfortless as can be imagined. A few wooden benches, a table firmly fixed in the stone pavement, a fire-place composed of a few blocks of stone placed on the floor, the smoke of which is allowed to make its escape as it best can at the window, which is always destitute of glass, and is closed by a rude wooden shutter when required; a bed consisting of a mattress of the same hue as the floor, raised a few feet from it by means of boards on a rude frame; some sheep-skins for blankets, and sheets of coarse stuff whose color serves as an effectual check on the curiosity of him who would pry too closely into its texture; are the chief articles of furniture to be found in the habitations of the Sicilian poor. Beside the human inhabitants of these uninviting abodes, there are innumerable lively creatures, whose names it were almost impolite to mention in polished ears; and I might not have alluded to them had they confined themselves to such places; but they rejoice in the palace as well as in the cottage, and to the traveller’s sorrow inflict themselves without his consent as travelling companions through the whole Sicilian tour.

The houses of the more wealthy are spacious and airy, but not much superior in point of comfort. They are often of commanding exterior, and are called palazzi, or palaces. Of course, there are exceptions to this general character of discomfort; but judging from my own observa. tion, they are few. On approaching a Sicilian village, the eye of the traveller will almost surely be attracted by a capacious and solid build. ing, surmounted by a belfry-tower, and commanding the most £ prospect in the vicinity. It is surrounded with orange groves an cypress-trees, and looks like a place fitted for the enjoyment of a contemplative life. He will not long remain in doubt as to the purpose of the building whose site is so delightfully chosen; for walking slowly along the shady path, or seated in some pleasant nook, singly or in groups, he will perceive the long-robed monks, the reverend masters of the holy lace. p Connoisseurs say that a landscape is imperfect without figures; and as that is the case in a picture, it is most probably so in a magazine article; and the reader might complain if I were to neglect giving some slight outlines of the figures of the Sicilian landscape. In travelling from city to city, although they may not be more than twenty miles apart, the wayfarer meets with very few persons on the road; seldom an individual, and only now and then, at an interval of miles, a group of men mounted on mules, each person carrying a gun; or perhaps a convoy of loaded mules and asses with several muleteers, some mounted and some on foot, who urge by uncouth cries and blows the weary beasts over the rocky or swampy ground, or up some steep acclivity or across some torrent’s bed. At times he will see a shepherd or two watching their flocks; these are half-naked, wild looking beings, scarcely raised in the scale of intelligence above their bleating charge. Their dwell. ing may be hard by, a conical hut of grass or straw, or a ruined tower. On the fertile slopes or plains he will sometimes observe a dozen yokes of oxen ploughing abreast. The laborers probably chose this contiguity for the sake of company across the wide fields. If the grass or grain is to be cut, it is by both men and women armed with a rude sickle only. It is seldom you meet either man or woman on foot upon the roads; men scarcely ever. Donkeys are about as numerous as men, and their ludicrous bray salutes your ear wherever the human animal is to be seen. The peasant-women through a great part of Sicily wear a semi-circular piece of woollen cloth over their heads; it is always black or white, and hangs in agreeable folds over the neck and shoulders. There is but little beauty among them; and alas! how should there be? They are in general filthy; the hair of both old and young is allowed to fall in uncombed elf-locks about their heads; and the old women are often hideous and disgustful in the extreme. The heart bleeds for the women: they have more than their share of the labors of the field; they have all the toils of the men, added to the pains and cares of womanhood. They dig, they reap, they carry heavy burthens — burthens almost incredible. In the vicinity of Aetna I met a woman walking down the road knitting: on her head was a large mass of lava weighing at least thirty pounds, and on the top of this lay a small hammer. Being puzzled to know why the woman carried such a piece of lava where lava was so abundant, I inquired ‘the wherefore of Luigi, our guide. He answered that as she wished to knit, and not having pockets, she had taken that plan to carry the little hammer conveniently. That piece of stone, which would break our necks to carry, was evidently to her no more than a heavy hat would be to us. It may be thought that I draw a sorry picture of these poor Islanders; but I would have it understood that on the side of Messina, and some other parts, there is apparently a little more civilization; but they are an oppressed and degraded peasantry; ignorant, superstitious, filthy, and condemned to live on the coarsest food. They are as the beasts that perish, driven by necessity to sow that which they may not reap. How applicable are the words of ADDIsoN:

‘How has kind Heaven adorn'd the happy land
And scattered blessings with a ‘’ hand!
But what avails her unexhausted stores,
Her blooming mountains and her sunny shores,
With all the gifts that heaven and earth impart,
The smiles of nature and the charms of art,
While proud oppression in her valleys reigns,
And tyranny usurps her happy plains?
The poor inhabitant beholds in vain
The reddening orange and the swelling grain:
Joyless he sees the growing oils and wines,
And in the myrtle’s fragrant shade repines:
Starves, in the midst of nature’s bounty curst,
And in the loaded vineyard dies of thirst.’

But the Sicilians are naturally a gay, light-hearted people, like the Greeks, their forefathers; and if the cloud which now rests upon them were removed, and we have reason to think it is lifting, they would be as bright and sunny as their own skies. The women of the better classes wear the black mantilla when they venture into the streets, which they seldom do, except to attend mass or the confessional. This robe is extremely elegant, as it is worn, but it requires an adept to adjust it gracefully. It covers the whole person from head to foot; in parts drawn closely to the form, in others falling in free folds. But for its color, I should admire it much: it seems such an incongruity for a young and beautiful female to be habited in what appear to be mourning robes. I was often reminded of those wicked lines of ByRoN’s on the gondola:

“For sometimes they contain a deal of fum,
Like mourning-coaches when the funeral’s done.’

But let us turn from the animate to the inanimate, and visit the famous AEtna, called by the Sicilians Mongibello. From the silence of Homer on the subject, it is supposed that in his remote age the fires of the mountain were unknown; but geologists have proof that they have a far more ancient date. The Grecian poet Pindar is the first who mentions its eruptions. He died four hundred and thirty-five years before CHRIST; from that time to this, at irregular intervals, it has vomited forth its destructive lavas. It is computed to be eleven thousand feet high. Its base, more than an hundred miles in circumference, is interspersed with numerous conical hills, each of which is an extinct crater, whose sides, now shaded by the vine, the fig tree, and the habitations of man, once glowed with the fiery torrent. Some of them are yet almost destitute of vegetation; mere heaps of scoriae and ashes; but the more ancient ones are richly clad with verdure. Let the reader imagine a mountain whose base is as broad as the whole range of the Catskills, as seen from Catskill village, rising to nearly three times their height; its lower parts are of gentle ascent, but as it rises it becomes more and more steep, until it terminates in a broken summit. Imagine it divided, as the eye ascends, into three regions or belts: the first and lowest is covered with villages, gardens, vineyards, olive-groves, oranges, and fields of grain and flax, and the date-bearing palm. The second region, which commences about four thousand feet above the sea, is called the Regione Sylvosa, or woody region. Here chestnuts, hexes, and on the north pines of great size flourish. This belt reaches to the elevation of about seven thousand feet, where the Regione Scoperta, or bare region, commences. The lower part of this is intermingled lava, rocks, volcanic sands, and snow; still higher are vast fields of spotless snow, which centuries have seen unwasted, with here and there a ridgy crag of black lava, too steep for the snows to lodge upon; and toward the summit of the cone, dark patches of scoriae and ashes, which, heated by the slumbering fires, defy the icy blasts of these upper realms of air. It will readily be supposed that, when viewed from a distance, Mount AEtna is an object to make a deep impression on the mind:

BUT for yon filmy smoke, that from thy crest
Continual issues like a : mist
The sun disperses, there would be no sign
That from thy mighty breast bursts forth at times
The sulphurous storm – the avalanche of fire;
That midnight is made luminous, and day
A ghastly twilight, by thy lurid breath.
By thee tormented, Earth is tossed and riven:
The shuddering mountains reel; temples and towers,
The works of man, and man himself, ‘. hopes
His harvests, all a desolation made :
Sublime art thou, O Mount! whether beneath
The moon in silence sleeping with thy woods,
And driving snows, and golden fields of corn;
Or bleat on thy slant breast the gentle flocks,
And shepherds in the mellow glow of eve
Pipe merrily; or when thy scathéd sides
Are laved with fire, answered thine earthquake voice
By screams and clamor of affrighted men.
Sublime thou art!– a resting-place for thought,
Thought reaching far above thy bounds; from thee
To HiM who bade the central fires construct
This wondrous fabric; lifted thy dread brow
To meet the sun while yet the earth is dark,
And ocean, with its ever-murmuring waves.

On the ninth of May, myself and travelling companion commenced the ascent of Mount AEtna; and as the season was not the most favorable, the snows extending farther down the sides of the mountain than in summer, we were equipped, under the direction of our guide, with coarse woollen stockings to be drawn over the pantaloons, thick-soled shoes, and woollen caps. Mounting our mules, we left Catania in the morning. The road was good and of gradual ascent until we reached Nicolosi, about fourteen miles up the mountain. We saw little that was particularly interesting on our route except that the hamlets through which we passed bore fearful evidences of the effects of earthquake. Arrived at Nicolosi, the place where travellers usually procure guides and mules for the mountain, it was our intention to rest for the remainder of the day; but Monte Rosso, an extinguished crater, being in the vicinity, my curiosity got the better of my intention to rest, and I sallied forth to examine it. The road lay through the village, which is built of the lava, and is arid and black, and many of the buildings rent and twisted. Monte Rosso was formed by the eruption of 1669, which threw out a torrent of lava that flowed thirteen miles, destroying a great part of the city of Catania in its resistless course to the sea, where it formed a rugged promontory which at this day appears as black, bare, and herbless as on the day when its fiery course was arrested by the boiling waters. And here I would remark, that the lavas of AEtna are very different from those of Vesuvius. The latter decompose in half a century, and become capable of cultivation; those of AEtna remain unchanged for centuries, as that of Monte Rosso testifies. It has now been exposed to the action of the weather nearly two hundred years, with the exception of the interstices where the dust and sand have collected, it is destitute of vegetation. Broken in cooling into masses of rough but sharp fracture, its aspect is horrid and forbidding, and it is exceedingly difficult to walk over. If two centuries have produced so little change, how many centuries must have served to form the rich soil which covers the greater part of the mountain’s sides and base ! Our purpose was to see the sun rise from the summit of AEtna; and at nine in the evening, our mules and guides being ready, we put on our Sicilian capotes, and sallied forth. We had two guides, a muleteer, and as there was no moon, a man with a lantern to light the mules in their passage over the beds of lava. For several miles the way was uninteresting, it being too dark to see any thing except the horrid lava or sand beneath the feet of the mules. At times the road was so steep that we were ordered by our guides to lean forward on the necks of the mules, to keep them and ourselves from being thrown back. At length we entered the woody region. Here the path was less rocky; and as we wound up the mountain’s side, beneath the shadows of noble trees, I could not but feel the solemn quietness of a night on AEtna, and contrast it with what has been and what will in all probability be again, the intermitting roar of the neighboring volcano, and the dreadful thunder of the earthquake. At midnight we arrived at the Casa delle Neve, or House of Snow. This is a rude building of lava, with bare walls, entirely destitute of furniture. We made a fire on the ground, took some refreshments which we had brought with us, and in about an hour remounted our mules, and proceeded on our journey. We soon left the region of woods; and being now at an elevation of seven thousand feet above the sea, felt somewhat cold, and buttoned our capotes closer about us. From the ridges of lava along which we rode, by the light of the stars which now became brilliant, we could discern the snow stretching in long lines down the ravines on either hand; and as we advanced, approaching nearer and nearer, until at length it spread in broad fields before us. As the mules could go no farther, we dismounted, and taking an iron-pointed staff in our hands, we commenced the journey over the snows. It was now half-past one, and we had seven miles to traverse before reaching the summit. The first part of the ascent was discouraging, for it was steep, and the snow so slippery that VOL. XXIII. 15
we sometimes fell on our faces; but it became rather less steep as we ascended, and though fatiguing, we got along comfortably. As the atmosphere was becoming rare, and the breathing hurried, we sat on the snow for a few minutes now and then. At such times we could not but be struck with the splendor of the stars, far beyond any thing I had ever seen. The milky way seemed suspended in the deep heavens, like a luminous cloud, with clear and definite outline. We next arrived at the Casa degli Inglese; so called, but alas for us! the ridge of the roof and a part of the gable were all that rose above the snow. In the midst of summer, travellers may make use of it; but to us it was unavailing, except the gable, which served in a measure to shield us from the icy wind which now swept over the mountain. We again partook of a little refreshment, by way of preparation for the most arduous part of our undertaking, and were now at the foot of the great cone. The ascent was toilsome in the extreme. Snow, melted beneath in many places by the heat of the mountain; sharp ridges of lava; loose sand, ashes, and cinders, into which last the foot sank at every step, made the ascent difficult as well as dangerous. The atmosphere was so rare that we had to stop every few yards to breathe. At such times we could hear our hearts beat within us like the strokes of a drum. But it was now light, and we reached the summit of the great cone just as the sun rose. It was a glorious sight which spread before our eyes! We took a hasty glance into the gloomy crater of the volcano, and throwing ourselves on the warm ashes, gazed in wonder and astonishment. It would be vain for me to attempt a description of the scene. I scarcely knew the world in which I had lived. The hills and valleys over which we had been travelling for many days, were comprised within the compass of a momentary glance. Sicily lay at our feet, with all its “many folded mountains, its plains, its promontories, and its bays; and round all, the sea stretched far and wide like a lower sky; the Lipari islands, Stromboli and its volcano, floating upon it like small dusky clouds; and the Calabrian coast visible, I should suppose, for two hundred miles, like a long horizontal bank of vapor ! As the sun rose, the great pyramidal shadow of AEtna was cast across the island, and all beneath it rested in twilight-gloom. Turning from this wonderful scene, we looked down into the crater, on whose verge we lay. It was a fearful sight, apparently more than a thousand feet in depth, and a mile in breadth, with precipitous and in some places overhanging sides, which were varied with strange and discordant colors. The steeps were rent into deep chasms and gulfs, from which issued white sulphurous smoke, that rose and hung in fantastic wreaths about the horrid crags; thence springing over the edge of the crater, seemed to dissipate in the clear keen air. I was somewhat surprised to perceive several sheets of snow lying at the very bottom of the crater, a proof that the internal fires were in a deep slumber. The edge of the crater was a mere ridge of scoriae and ashes, varying in height; and it required some care, in places, to avoid falling down the steep on one hand, or being precipitated into the gulf on the other. The air was keen; but fortunately there was little wind; and after spending about an hour on the summit, we commenced our descent.
We varied our course from the one we took on ascending, and visited an altar erected to Jupiter by the ancients, now called the Torre del Filosofo. Soon after we came upon the verge of a vast crater, the period of whose activity is beyond the earliest records of history. Val di Bove, as it is called, is a tremendous scene. Imagine a basin several miles across, a thousand feet in depth at least, with craggy and perpendicular walls on every side; its bottom broken into deep ravines and chasms, and shattered pinnacles, as though the lava in its molten state . had been shaken and tossed by an earthquake, and then suddenly congealed. It is into this ancient crater that the lava of the most recent eruption is descending. It is fortunate that it has taken that direction.

In another and concluding number, the reader’s attention will be directed to the Architectural Antiquities of Sicily, especially those of Grecian structure, which will be described in the order in which they were visited.

Continued in Sicilian Scenery and Antiquities — Part 2
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Thomas Cole

Five kids, a farm, and dizzying allegory

1801 – 1848

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