It was with equal parts trepidation and excitement that I boarded the plane to Sicily on an unseasonably cold, mid-September day. A year abroad in Italy sounds like a dream come true, a sunny, pizza filled dream, but it’s also a big step into the unknown, and a risky move to take a year off from studying—instead of attending an Italian university, I’m spending my year abroad teaching English in a Sicilian high-school. On the other hand, Art History is definitely a discipline benefited by travelling, and while a year abroad isn’t exactly comparable to, say, raiding the Temple of Doom, it’s still an exciting way of discovering art and architecture that I probably wouldn’t have thought twice about otherwise.
I’m placed in a town called Messina, the closest port to mainland Italy. Messina is an ancient city: it was mentioned in the Odyssey as the strait through which Odysseus sailed, past the monster Scylla and the giant whirlpool Charybdis. While Messina lost most of its ancient heritage due to a number of earthquakes (the volcano Etna is pretty close by), the rest of Sicily littered with ancient Greek remains: the vast temple complex in Agrigento, dating back to 5th century BC and the world’s biggest archaeological site, is particularly spectacular. While some of the ruins are cordoned off, many are left open; walking through the foundations of a building that was already ancient by the time the fork was invented is a very affecting experience.
What strikes me most about Sicily, however, is the eclecticism of its artistic heritage. The island has been home to the Greeks, the Romans, Vikings, Normans, Saracens and Bourbons, each leaving their mark on the region. Walking through a city like Palermo is a bit like counting the rings on a tree trunk, you can see the progression of cultures in the way the architectural styles lay over one another. It’s a very concrete (building pun!) reminder of the complexity of history.
In another interesting overlapping of history, I recently went to see an exhibition of Steve McCurry photographs displayed Palermo’s Gallery of Modern Art—currently housed in a 15th century convent.
Teaching has been tough but rewarding; despite a truly bizarre schedule including three separate timetables that cycle in a complex pattern that would put astronomical charts to shame, it’s actually pretty fun. My school specializes in humanities subjects so I even get to prepare a lot of lessons on Art History, which has been useful revision! I figure it’s also a bit like exposure therapy for the pressures of third-year. I’m hoping that after facing down classrooms of Italian teenagers with nothing but some power-point slides about the Pre-Raphaelites, next year, and the looming threat of the dissertation, will be a breeze.