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Ear of Dionysius
bibliomaniac
An intriguing examination of ears (and wax) over the years,
$18.00
Paperback
Ear of Dionysius

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.

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I know it well

I spent a short time in Syracusa, myself, many years ago, and the Ear of Dionysius was the main thing I wanted to experience. There is very little else I remember about the city, except the clammy sheets in my hotel room and the kindness of the cab driver who drove me down from Catania in the middle of the night for all of 20,000 lire. That is a story in itself. 

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Thanks

for your comment, Tim.  Have you told the story of the drive from Catania on here?