Sicilian Scenery and Antiquities — Part 2

Thomas Cole, 1844

Continued from Sicilian Scenery and Antiquities — Part 1

We proceed, in another and concluding paper, as promised in the last number of the Knickerbocker, to direct the reader’s attention to the Architectural Antiquities of Sicily, especially those of Grecian structure, which will be described in the order in which they were visited. The first are those of Egesta, or Segeste, as it is sometimes called; a city said to have been built in the remote age of the Siculi, and which was destroyed by Agathocles, the potter’s son, who reduced all Sicily two hundred and eighty years before the Christian era. It lies about forty or fifty miles from Palermo, among the mountains which cluster round the famed Mount Erix, on which once stood a temple dedicated to Venus. On leaving Alcamo, which may be called a city of convents, midway between Palermo and Segeste, the broad slopes of an ample valley lie before the traveller, which though almost treeless, are waving with beans, and grain and grass. In the depth, is a river meandering among fragrant oleanders; on the left, the valley is intersected by a range of distant mountains; on the right is a beautiful bay of the Mediterranean. Across the valley the mountains form a green amphitheatre, and high in its remotest part is seen the Temple of Segeste, but merely as a point of light and shade upon the bosom of the mountain. The next view, if he takes our route, is from the ancient Grecian city of Catafimi, itself perched on a mountain’s top. He looks down a deep luxuriant vale, and on a grassy knoll about three miles distant, lifted from the depths of the valley by precipitous crags, stands the solitary temple; and if seen as we saw it, receiving the last golden rays of the setting sun while all below is wrapped in shade. The next day, would he visit the temple, his road lies through the valley of which I have last spoken. And surely he never passed through such an Arcadian scene as this. Almond and orange trees fill the air with fragrance; his path struggles through the tangled flowers, the cistus and the blue convolvulus, and he disturbs the nightingale in her pleasant haunt. At length, emerging from the valley, and climbing the steep side of a mountain, he stands before the temple. It is a majestic pile, about two hundred feet in length and eighty-eight in breadth, having fourteen columns on each side and six at each end, in all thirty-six columns, of about six feet in diameter; not fluted, as is usual in Grecian Doric temples, but having a very peculiar form. It stands on a platform raised on three gigantic steps. All the columns are standing; the entablatures and pediments are in pretty good preservation, but it is roofless, and flowers and weeds are now waving where once trode the white-robed priests. The breezes from the fragrant mountains and the distant sea, of which it commands a fine view, sigh through it in harmony with its sad and solitary grandeur.

On a neighboring hill are the vestiges of the ancient city, a few ruined towers, probably of the citadel, and a theatre, the stone seats of which are almost entire; part of the sculptured figure of a faun still remains on the proscenium; wild shrubs shade a great part of the ruin, and where manhood and beauty once sat, listening to the tragedies of an Eschylus or Euripides, the adder and the lizards sun themselves. The next ruins we visited were those of Selinunte, anciently Selinus or Selinuntium, which lies on the southern coast of the island. This city was founded by a colony of Greeks about twenty-five hundred years ago. It was taken during the Carthaginian wars, and in a great measure destroyed by Hannibal the son of Giscon, four hundred and nine years before CHRIST. The country on approaching Selinunte is a dreary plain covered with the palmetto. On gazing toward the sea, when distant two or three miles, the traveller’s eye catches what he would take for a rocky hill, were it not for a few mutilated columns which rise above the blue horizon. As he approaches, the stupendous scene of ruin strikes him with awe. There in a mighty heap lie column and capital, metope and cornice; and the mind is lost in wonder at the power that raised these giant structures, and the power that overthrew them. Only one complete column, and that without its capital, and several mutilated ones, remain standing of the great temple supposed to be of Neptune; the rest are prostrate; and all lying in one direction, bear evidence that they have been thrown down by an earthquake.

The first temple is Grecian Doric, as are all those of which I shall speak. Its columns are about eleven feet across, and they must have been, including their capitals, more than sixty feet high. Above these lofty columns was placed the architrave, one of the stones of which, that we measured, was twenty-five feet in length, eight in height, and six in thickness; but another is still larger; forty feet long, seven broad, and three deep. To transport these enormous masses of stone from their quarry, which is several miles distant, with a deep valley and river intervening, would trouble the modern engineer; but to poise and place them on the top of the columns, seventy feet from the ground, with our mechanical means, were indeed a great feat. The columns were not of single pieces, but composed of several, and they now lie, to use an unpoetical phrase, like rows of enormous cheeses. The great temple was three hundred and thirty-four feet long, one hundred and fifty-four wide; its porticoes at each end were four columns in depth, eight in width; a double row on the sides of the cella or interior edifice, which in all Grecian temples was the sanctum sanctorum. In all, there must have been eighty columns. There is one remarkable feature about this temple, which is, that none of the columns were fluted except those of the eastern end. About thirty paces from this ruin, which the Sicilians call the Pileri di Giganti, or Pillars of the Giants, are the remains of another temple which was about two hundred feet long: its entablature was supported by thirty-six fluted columns of seven feet in diameter and thirtyfive feet long, each of a single piece of stone. Only a few fragments of the columns remain standing in their places. Treading another thirty paces, you come to a temple which is of rather larger dimensions than the one last mentioned. The columns of this were also fluted,but no part of the edifice is standing, except a solitary pilaster, which was probably a portion of the cella. These temples were built of a hard but porous stone, of a light color, and were probably covered with a thin coat of cement. They command an extensive view both of sea and land, and in their primal days must, with their tower-like columns, their sculptured entablatures and pediments, have risen above the scene in majestic grandeur.

Three quarters of a mile from these temples was the ancient port, now choked with sand, and near it are the remains of edifices supposed to have been the magazines. On an adjoining hill are remnants of three temples and two towers, in almost undistinguishable ruin. We left Selinunte with a lasting but melancholy impression, and were reminded of the lines:

‘Two or three columns and many a stone,
Marble and granite, with grass o'ergrown:
Remnants of things which have passed away,
Fragments of stone rear'd by creatures of clay!'

Girgenti, anciently called Agragas and Agrigentum, is situated on the southern coast of Sicily, in a delicious country; the modern city was built by the Saracens on the summit of a hill upward of eleven hundred feet above the level of the sea. The site of the ancient city is lower, and about a mile distant. It was probably founded in the eighth century before CHRIST. In its flourishing state it contained two hundred thousand inhabitants, who were celebrated for their hospitality, their love of the arts and luxurious style of living. Plato was so much struck with the solidity of their buildings and the sumptuousness of their dinners, that he said they “built as though they thought themselves immortal, but ate as though they never expected to eat again.” The horses of Agrigentum were celebrated; and one of the citizens returning from the Olympic games, on entering his native town, was followed by three hundred chariots, each drawn by four white horses sumptuously caparisoned. The government of this little state, whose inhabitants never amounted to more than eight hundred thousand, was at first monarchical, afterward democratic; but neither the forms of its institutions, nor its riches and grandeur, could save it from misfortune: it was besieged several times by the Carthaginians, and at length, after a siege of three years, was taken and sacked by Hannibal, the son of Giscon. In alluding to these misfortunes, the historian says: ‘Yet of all the Sicilian cities, the fate of Agrigentum seemed the most worthy to be deplored, from the striking contrast of its fallen state with its recent splendor and prosperity. The natural beauties of Agrigentum were secured by strength and adorned with elegance; and whoever considered either the innumerable advantages of the city itself, or the gay cultivation of the surrounding territory, which abounded in every luxury of the sea and land, was ready to pronounce the Agrigentines the most favored inhabitants of the earth. The exuberant fertility of the soil, particularly the rich luxuriance of the vines and olives, exceeded every thing that is related of the happiest climates, and furnished the means of lucrative commerce with the populous coast of Africa, which was sparingly provided with those valuable plants. The extraordinary wealth of the Agrigentines was displayed in the magnificence of public edifices and in the splendid enjoyment of private fortunes. They had begun and almost completed the celebrated Temple of Jupiter, built in the grandest style of architecture, employed by the Greeks on the greatest and most solemn occasions.”

The ancient city of Agragas stood on an elevated platform or table of land, three sides of which fell off in steep precipices; the fourth side was surmounted by the lofty hill on which the modern city stands. These steep precipices were the natural walls of the city, and were made more available for defence by excavation on the inside, so as to leave a solid wall of rock rising round the city. On the verge of this platform, which gradually sinks from east to west, and on the side next the sea, which is about a mile distant, are seen the remains of no fewer than six temples. They stood in a general line, but at irregular intervals, and must have formed one of the most magnificent spectacles that the art of man has ever presented to the eye. The remains of three other temples exist, but they lie at a distance from this grand range. On the eastern and highest part of the platform, where the natural wall of which I have spoken makes an angle, stood the Temple of Juno Lucina; next came the Temple of Concord; next the Temple of Hercules, near which was the Temple of Jupiter, called of the Giants; next came the Temple of Venus, and lastly that of Castor and Pollux. The approach to the ruins of these temples from the modern city is over the site of the ancient, now shaded by olive, almond, and carruba trees. The Temple of Juno is a picturesque ruin; all the columns on the northern side are standing, also several at the ends, and part of the entablature; the rest of the building, corroded by time or entirely prostrate, lies under an exuberant growth of flowers and shrubs.

Descending from this temple, we pass through a sort of wild garden, with here and there an olive-tree or dark carruba ; on the left are the ruins of the ancient rock-wall, huge fragments of which in places have fallen down the precipice; other parts are perforated as with windows or loop-holes, or with deep cell-like excavations: these are the tombs of the ancient Agrigentines, now tenantless and void. Those window-like apertures were evidently made so by the action of the elements or the violence of man; and it is related that in consequence of the Agrigentines having made their tombs in the walls, they were so much weakened that the Carthaginians by means of their engines were enabled to batter them down and obtain an entrance. We now come to the Temple of Concord, one of the most beautiful specimens of Grecian Doric in existence. It is roofless, but otherwise almost perfect. It has twenty-four columns; it is, like the temple of Juno, raised on a platform of several steps, and about one hundred and fifty-four feet in length and fifty-five in breadth. It seems that this temple was used in times past for a Christian church, and the sides of its cella are perforated by arched openings. The next temple is near one of the ancient city gates, and is supposed to have been dedicated to Hercules: it was celebrated in ancient times for having in it a fine picture of Alcmena; but it is now a confused heap of ruin, with only one column standing, which proves it to have been of larger dimensions than the temples just mentioned.

Turning a little to the right, we come upon the Temple of Jupiter Olympius, commonly called of the Giants, the largest sacred edifice in Sicily, and one of the most stupendous works of the ancients. It was in length three hundred and sixty-eight feet, in breadth one hundred and eighty; the breadth or diameter of its columns at the base thirteen feet four inches; the height of the columns must have been seventy-five feet; above these rose a massive entablature, and the top of the pediments could not have been less than one hundred and twenty feet high ! The grandeur of the door and vestibule corresponded to the simple majesty of the whole building, whose sculptured ornaments represented, with the finished elegance and laborious accuracy that distinguished each particular figure, the “Defeat of the Giants and the Taking of Troy.’ In the interior ranged twenty-four antae, or square pillars, of fifty feet in height; on the top of each was a scupltured giant twenty-seven feet in height, which with his hands clasped over his head supported the lofty roof. One can scarcely conceive any thing more noble and majestic than this wonderful edifice, in comparison with which, though covering much more ground, St. Peter’s in Rome is a splendid gew-gaw. But what remains of this great temple 2 A wide heap of ruin; the interior of which, the columns and walls having fallen outward, is a flowery field, in which lie some fragments of those huge giants that once supported the roof. One of these is tolerably entire: the curls of his hair form a sort of garland: it lies with its face upward, and when I stood by it, my own head scarcely reached as high as the brow of the statue. It is composed of several pieces of stone, as are the columns of this temple, and most of the others of Agrigentum. On every side of this elevated field lie the walls, entablatures, and columns in enormous fragments: the capitals of the columns look like huge rocks that have been hurled there by some violent convulsion of nature.

A short distance from this temple are the ruins of the Temple of Venus, and another of Castor and Pollux, of which two of the columns and part of the entablature are entire, and the thin coat of cement or stucco which covered them is in some parts as perfect as ever. The stone of which the temples were constructed is of a very porous nature, a sort of tufa, full of sea-shells, and when seen in the sunlight, of a golden hue; but they were all covered with stucco, which, judging from what remains, was nearly as hard as porcelain, and gave a beautiful and finished appearance to the otherwise rude material. Of the other remains in Agrigentum, the limits of this article will not allow me to speak. But the reader would ask, how came these temples in such a state of ruin? On this subject there has been some dispute; but their destruction may most reasonably be attributed to a mightier agency than man’s. Earthquake has shattered these gorgeous temples; the time when is not recorded. I am inclined to believe that they were destroyed, as well as those of Selinus, by the dreadful earthquakes that shook Italy and Sicily in the dark age of Valens and Valentinian, three hundred and sixty-five years after CHRIST.

Let us now proceed to Syracuse, once the capital of Sicily, and the birth-place of the great Archimedes. It was founded by Archias, one of the Heraclidae, more than seven hundred years before the Christian era, and according to some authors contained within its walls at one time, one million two hundred thousand inhabitants; could maintain an army of one hundred thousand foot, ten thousand horse, with a navy of five hundred armed vessels. Little now remains of a place once so populous and so powerful, save the shrunken modern city of Syracusa, containing about nine thousand inhabitants, and a few almost unintelligible ruins scattered among vineyards, olive-groves, and fields of corn, or over the high wastes of the barren Epipole, on the summit of which the curious will find ruined walls and fortresses of massive and beautiful masonry. From these the eye commands the whole site of the ancient city. There lies, at the distance of three miles, the small island of Ortygia, on which is the modern town; on its right is the narrow entrance from the sea, which lies beyond, to the greater harbor, that appears like a beautiful lake, and is about two miles long and one and a half broad. On the left of the island of Ortygia is all that remains of the lesser port of Syracuse. On this side the island is connected with the main land by means of a draw-bridge. In Ortygia is the famous fountain of Arethusa : the spring is yet clear and copious; but the only nymphs I was fortunate enough to see were engaged in the necessary vocation of cleansing the soiled linen of Syracusa. The remains of a beautiful temple of Minerva form a part of the cathedral church. Near the small river Anapus are two columns, the remnants of a temple of Jupiter, which once contained a statue of that god, wearing a robe of gold; but Dionysius the tyrant stripped it off, saying “it was too cold for winter and too hot for summer.” Among the seats of a noble theatre now stands a mill, that is supplied with water diverted from an ancient aqueduct close by : a strange metamorphosis indeed! This aqueduct conveys the water thirty miles. It may have been of Greek construction originally, but that part of it which I have seen is evidently Saracenic. The rocky site of Syracuse is in many parts perforated with tombs; the roads are literally honey-combed with them. There is a street excavated in the limestone rock which on either side is full of cells, and it may indeed be said of Syracuse that it is a great buryingground. The oranges, vines, and figs of Syracuse are still flourishing, and the earth yet yields its hundred fold; but its glory is departed, and the traveller looks in vain for satisfactory vestiges of that mighty city. There are many other interesting remains of antiquity in Sicily, but I must hasten to a conclusion. I trust the reader will have found the subject of this article interesting, although treated briefly and imperfectly. The traveller is unworthy of his privilege, and forgetful of duty if he extracts not from the scenes described some moral lesson or religious truth. The reader has accompanied me in imagination through classic Sicily. He has seen the lonely temple of Segeste, standing among the mountains like a widowed thing, mourning in silence the departed. Where is the multitude that once thronged around its walls? Mount Erix still battles with the clouds, as in the days of Agathocles. He has clambered with me among the prostrate columns of Selinunte: once, from beneath those massive porticoes, the Selinuntine, in the pride of his heart, looked upon the crowded port and distant mountains as we look on the Hudson, with its white sails and swift steamers, and the neighboring hills. Where and what are they The distant mountains stand, but the great works which he erected to be a living honor to his name and country, are perished forever. He has lingered with me among the ruins of the splendid Agrigentum. Its numerous temples are dilapidated, or crumbling on the earth; its walls, once its vaunted strength, are strewed in shattered fragments on the steeps around. The dust of its multitudes serves to fertilize the soil of its ancient site! But the stream still flows which gave its name to the city, and the hills around yet produce the oil, the wine, and the grain. We have sojourned for a time among the melancholy vestiges of Syracuse; the scene of battles far more bloody than this land has ever known. The army which the Athenians, inflated with pride and presumption, sent against Syracuse, was here defeated. In yonder land-locked bay the Athenian fleet, the mightiest that republic had ever sent forth, and which they believed invincible, was destroyed. And the Roman orator has eloquently said, that not only the navy of Athens, but the glory and the empire of that republic, suffered shipwreck in the fatal harbor of Syracuse. It was there the wonderful mechanical skill of Archimedes was displayed against the Roman fleet, and those quiet waters have been strewed with the dying and the dead. From this deserted citadel, called of ‘Labdalus, the eye embraces the whole site of the once populous Syracuse; and what does it behold? On the distant island of Ortygia, an insignificant town, with a few small craft at anchor in the bay; nearer, a desert of rocky hills, a goat-herd, and a few straggling goats. Turning away from the melancholy scene, we behold afar off the snowclad AEtna. What a contrast is this to what we have just reviewed in the mind’s eye? That is the work of God! Since its huge pyramid arose, nation after nation has possessed its fertile slopes. The Siculi have labored on its sides; the Greek, the Carthaginian and the Roman; the Norman and the Saracen have struggled for mastery at its foot; but the roar of the battle is past; the chariot and the charioteer are mingled in the dust. Yet yon earth-born giant, fed by continual fires, each century augments, and in all probability will continue to do so until

“The cloud-capt towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, yea the great globe itself
Shall dissolve, and like the baseless fabric
Of a vision, leave not a wreck behind!'

May we not in these things read deep lessons applicable to ourselves? The history of the people whose noble works I have endeavored to describe, should in the first place teach us how noble a thing it is to construct works of beauty and utility, not only for our own gratification, but for the benefit of posterity also. The selfish and unreflecting, even the modern utilitarian, will perhaps laugh at the thought, and say: ‘What folly to undertake such labors for the benefit of posterity! We will labor for ourselves.’ I would ask such persons, what would have been our state if the ancients had entertained such grovelling notions? Do they not know that most of the elegant as well as the useful, is the rich bequest of these ancients whom they affect to despise ? There is not in the whole city of New-York a house, however lowly, but in some part of it I could point out a moulding or an ornament that comes from the ancients. But there are other points of view perhaps of higher consequence. Their temples were erected to the gods; mistaken as they were in their religious notions, we Christians may be put to shame by the devotion of the pagan. Not to man were their temples erected. Man enjoyed their beauty; gazed with admiration on their exquisite forms, and lingered under their shady porticoes; but the eye of the god to whom each temple was dedicated was supposed to be on the work, and the aim of the builders was perfection in every part; and even that which the eye of the multitude never rested on, was finished with elaborate care. I would ask, is there such a lofty feeling among us? Are we willing to expend toil and cost on that which will never gratify our senses? You will answer no. Is not this then a lesson to us? Another view of the matter: These works of art were the objects of veneration and love; city vied with city in their construction; it was a noble emulation — think you not nobler than the competition for sordid gold? The citizen gazed with pride upon the marble triumphs of his native place; he loved it more than ever, and felt his patriotism kindle as he gazed. Let us not think that rail-roads and canals are the only works worthy of modern civilization. If we look to intents, (and what ought we to look at 2) I doubt much but the ancients rose superior to us. We are in the enjoyment of many advantages of which they knew nothing. The wonder-working press was unknown to them; and above all, the beautiful light of Christianity had not been shed on the world. We have the broad day; they wrought in the twilight gloom. What majestic monuments of art! what enduring legacies of beauty what objects to make a man love his country more and more, could have been erected with the means expended a few years ago in reckless speculatons ! Instead of turning with melancholy loathing to those broken bubbles on which the hopes and fortunes of many of us were suspended, we could at least look with admiration on the marble pile, and exclaim, “I also can be proud of the genius and taste of my country!” Another lesson we may learn from the fate of ancient states: it is to beware of presumptuous pride and overweening conceit: these are the result of inconsiderate ignorance. It was through presumptuous pride that Athens fell, as I have before intimated. We have reason to fear there are many, some unconscious of the injury they do, and perhaps with just intentions, who feed this appetite for undue praise. Others, for mere popularity or the applause of the day, minister with adroitness the sweet though poisonous morsel for which our vanity and self-love are open-mouthed; which (to carry on the simile,) puffs us up with the comfortable notion that we are superior in every respect to all other nations, ancient or modern. It would be well to turn a deaf ear to this syren’s song: let us learn if possible to know ourselves; let us remember that there is no perfection, either in men or their institutions; and by avoiding a vain and presumptuous spirit, and scanning with a careful eye the causes of the greatness which under Providence we possess, we shall be most likely to approach the perfection which we all desire. We can have little doubt that the Agrigentine considered the institutions of his country as perfect as we do ours; and the citizens of greater states, Athens, even Rome itself, indulged in the same pleasing thought. Our only means of judging of the future is the past. We see that nations have sprung from obscurity, risen to glory, and decayed. Their rise has in general been marked by virtue; their decadence by vice, vanity, and licentiousness. Let us beware! I would not have the reader censure me for commencing this article as a traveller and ending it with an attempt to moralize. In reviewing in my mind the interesting scenes I have endeavored to describe, I have been led back to the thoughts that arose when I trode among the ruins of prostrate temples, and they were connected in my mind; and I will venture again to say, that he is unworthy of the privilege of travelling who gleans not from the fields he visits some moral lesson or religious truth.
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Thomas Cole, The ArtistsPortrait of Thomas Cole

Thomas Cole

Five kids, a farm, and dizzying allegory

1801 – 1848

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