Finding the Clue to Sicily

Students unlock the secret of Syracuse on film

On The Town | Michael Freund, Marinka Shalikashvili | September 2009

"To have seen Italy without having seen Sicily is not to have seen Italy at all; for Sicily is the clue to everything." – Johann Wolfgang Goethe, 1787

Leave it to Goethe to get us off to a good start. And let us add that Syracuse is probably a good clue to Sicily: Steeped in history to the top floor of any palace, a decaying beauty, an apparent chaos with its inner logic and ancient rules, it is situated between the fruits of the land and the frutti di mare.

Siracusa, as it is called in Italian, is a small harbor town on the Southeastern Coast of the island. In the warmer season – which in this part of the Mediterranean, the same latitude as the Tunisian and Turkish coasts and the Portuguese Algarve, extends for eight months of the year – it welcomes its share of visitors. They could travel to bigger and better-known places such as Palermo or Catania; or to smaller and more notorious ones such as Corleone and Castellamare. These are all at most a daytrip away from Siracusa, and to Catania’s airport it is just an hour. But the little town to the south of the provincial capital has retained its own flavor, less hectic, less built-up, more relaxed. So it gets its share of tourists. And of students.

The students come because, for one thing, there is a ready infrastructure: the Mediterranean Center for Arts and Sciences (MCAS) in the middle of Ortigia, the oldest part of Siracusa, on a small island connected to the mainland by three bridges. The Center was founded to accommodate study groups, many of them from the United States and concentrating on Italian history, literature and archeology. When they want to do photo or video work, they also come for the light.

Remember why the movie industry moved from New York to the West Coast, to an idyllic area named after the holly woods? It was not just because of non-union labor and cheap real estate, it was also because the outdoor conditions were such that the filmmakers could shoot with no additional lighting. The same is true for Sicily. So a dozen students of Webster University Vienna went to Siracusa last May and, under the guidance of visual artist Holger Lang, experimented with digital photo and video.

The Center provided some background on the local – and once global – history. Here is an excerpt from diary notes: "Susanna Kimbell, an art historian from Scotland who has lived in Sicily for 19 years and who teaches at the MCAS, guides us through the main attractions of Ortigia. Among them are the Cathedral, built into the Greek Temple of Athena, with the antique columns interwoven into the Baroque church walls; the epogeo, a necropolis extending underneath the archbishop’s palace; the Maniace Castle at the southern tip of the island; and the fonte aretusa, a (former) sweet-water well next to the harbor bay. ... The next day, another visit, to the archeological sites in the mainland part of Siracusa. We spend some three hours at the Greek and Roman theaters and in a vast necropolis. An amazing setting, with a view of the island of Ortigia and the bay of Siracusa; a background to die for, which I guess is what they did on the vast and amazingly intact theater stage. In fact, they still do – classic Greek plays are performed here in the summer months."

It became obvious that Siracusa is indeed an alternative to the well-known Sicilian destinations. It invites the visitors to forget about cars, to enjoy the humane scale of the buildings, the market and the harbor and to slow down to a more relaxed pace. It is perfect before and after the high season when it gets really hot; the sea invites you to swim from May through October. True, the beaches in Siracusa itself are very small. But some larger and more attractive ones are just a short ride away. What can you do when you don’t have a car, don’t want to spend on cabs or wait for public transport?

Do it Italian-style: rent a Vespa.


(From the notes of Marinka Shalikashvili and Michael Freund)

Webster students produced several thousand pictures and half a dozen experimental videos (see Most of the work is dedicated to specific documentary or experimental topics, but some focus on the town itself. A selection of photos is presented in this page. Further information on visiting and/or studying:

Other articles from this issue