In Sicily, Squalor and beauty have always existed cheek by jowl, finds Griselda Heppel
Litter is of course a problem all over the world but Sicily takes it to a whole new level, appalling not just the tourists who flock there for its wealth of classical architecture, but visitors from other parts of Italy too.
Now, according to Lampedusa, this is nothing new. When he wrote The Leopard in 1957, non-biodegradable plastic rubbish was not the problem it is today; yet the careless behaviour that would allow it to become as bad as it is in Sicily goes back hundreds of years.Set against the backdrop of Italian Unification in 1861, the novel depicts officials sent from the northern province of Piedmont to the island being aghast by what they see:
In front of every house the refuse of squalid meals accumulated along leprous walls, trembling dogs were rooting about…
In Lampedusa’s view, filth and beauty existing cheek by jowl is rooted deep in the Sicilian mindset, itself created by the sheer difficulty of survival in such a harsh landscape and climate. The hero, Don Fabrizio, recalls the reaction of some visiting foreign naval officers (British, as it happens):
They were ecstatic about the view, the vehemence of the light; they confessed, though, that they had been horrified at the squalor, decay, filth of the streets around. I didn’t explain to them that one thing was derived from the other.
|A Paradise of Pasta|
Reading this brought me straight back to a holiday my husband and I took in Sicily with some friends a couple of years ago. What we didn’t realise was that these friends were great Montalbano fans (as in the TV series): for them Sicily was a paradise of home-made pasta served in simple trattorie behind mediaeval doors; streets winding through ancient, honey-coloured villages, leading to squeaky-clean squares empty of parked cars and only two pedestrians loitering somewhere at the top of the TV screen; enchanting fishermen’s cottages looking out on to wide stretches of gleaming, empty beaches.Their distress at the Day-Glo plastic, empty cans and rotting food disfiguring every beautiful scene was acute. The mess bothered me too but not as much because I didn’t have that perfect television picture in my head of what it should be like. It’s not that the cameras had lied, exactly; more that they’d been positioned to cut out all the ugly bits. And each location had clearly been given a good clean-up before every shot.
|Montalbano gazes across an unspoilt Sicily|
The funny thing is, our friends knew deep down that filming creates its own reality. Part of the joy of watching a series like Montalbano is the beautiful setting; why would a film director want to spoil it? Yet we buy the dream all the same without realising it, which means that visiting the location of a favourite film or TV programme sets us up for disappointment. I rarely watch the hugely popular Inspector Morse series but when I do am amused to find, for instance, the detective knocking on the door of a house in Jericho with the Sheldonian Theatre in view just behind it, making an aesthetically pleasing but geographically impossible shot.
Not quite the same as trails of litter everywhere (though we have our fair share of that in Oxford too); but could still be disconcerting for an ardent Morse fan trying literally to follow in their hero’s footsteps.
None of which solves Sicily's rubbish problems. If Lampedusa was right, only a massive shift in the Sicilians own outlook will do that.
Find out more about Griselda Heppel here: