It was several decades ago that I visited Italy, but one place sticks in my mind and imagination: a cave called The Ear of Dionysius, in Syracuse, Sicily. I was 12 0r 13, returning from a year and half living in Baghdad, where my father was seconded to work for the World Health Organization. My mother and I were on our way to England to board an ocean liner (a rather small one, as it turned out), making a side-trip to the steep hills and olive groves of Sicily.
The Ear of Dionysius is a strange, beautiful cave about 80 feet high that somewhat replicates the shape of the passages in the human ear. There is some debate about whether it was formed naturally by eons of water flow, or is an artifact of an ancient quarry.
But the reason it's named Ear of Dionysius is fascinating: around the time of Plato, a tyrant by that name used to keep political prisoners in the cave. The hard walls and funnel-like shape meant that even whispers would carry to the top, just as quiet voices ring across a still lake. High up in a tiny ante-chamber (ante-cave?) either the king himself or (accounts vary) a trusted servant lurked in order to keep track of the jailhouse confessions and fomenting plots among the prisoners. It was an early but efficient form of invisible surveillance, an acoustic version of the Panopticon.
I think that is the most compelling thing about Italy -- its dual nature. The same land that gave us Michaelangelo, da Vinci and Sophia Loren also mothered the Mafia and Sicily's revenge culture; Dante's haunted poet; Verdi's arching arias; Fellini's movies and the Borgias' poisonings; Mussolini's bellowing Fascists; Galileo, and hidebound churchmen who forced him to recant.
Of course, intermixing beauty and ugliness, genius and stupidity, violence and sublime art is part of human nature, not exclusive to Italy. But something about the light and rugged landscapes of the country make the oxymorons especially strking.
Causes John Oughton Supports
PEN International, Amnesty International, League of Canadian Poets, POR AMOR, Greenpeace