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Saturday, 28 June 2014

PAINTING ALBANIANS IN SICILY


Most tourists visit the small town of Palazzo Adriano to see its perfectly preserved old piazza with its unusual fountain, where the delightful movie Cinema Paradiso was filmed in 1988. We visited it for another unrelated reason. The picture below, a copy of a photograph in one of the town's museums, shows a scene from the film. The fountain is on the right side






Detail of the fountain as it is today


Palazzo Adriano is one of the 5 places in Sicily that were settled in the 15th century by Albanians fleeing from the Ottoman invaders of their homes in the Balkans. The first Albanians to arrive there were soldiers and their families, who left the Balkans before the death of their great leader Skanderbeg in 1468. More of them arrived later, bringing with them the traditions and practices of the Eastern Orthodox (Byzantine) Church. The plaque shown below, which is on the side of the town's largest Byzantine rite church, reminds us that the Albanians who came to Palazzo helped defend western Christianity from the ravages of the Ottomans.




The largest of the 5 places settled by the Albanians in Sicily is Piana degli Albanesi, someway north of Palazzo. In Piana, more than 95% of the inhabitants speak Arberesh, which is a dialect of Albanian. In Palazzo, no one speaks it anymore, but many people worship according to the Byzantine rite. We learnt this when we asked some old men who were spending time in the town's small 'Circolo Skanderbeg'. This place was filled with items relating to the town's Albanian connection. Even the lace curtain over its window was embroidered with the two-headed eagle of Albania:




The town boasts a museum of Albanian culture, the MUSEO DELLA CULTURA ARBERËSHE. It is housed in part of the castle, which overlooks the town. This grandly named institution displays only a few exhibits. Amongst these, there are a few traditional costumes that, we were told, were copied from paintings of the Arberesh made by the French artist Jean-Pierre-Louis-Laurent Houël (1735-1813). 



Portrait of Houel by François André Vincent 
(Source: http://mbarouen.fr/en/oeuvres/portrait-of-the-painter-jean-pierre-houel-1735-1813)



Best known for his painting of the siege of the Bastille, he visited Sicily between 1776 and 1779. During his travels there, he painted and drew many pictures of what he saw. Many of these were bought by Russian royalty, and are now to be found in the Hermitage Gallery in St Petersburg (Leningrad).  The museum in Palazzo has copies of two of these pictures, both depicting Arberesh women in traditional dress. They are illustrated below:








The marks with the crown in the lower right corners of these copies shows that they are also part of the Hermitage collection. The lower of the two pictures shown above shows what Palazzo Adriano looked like when Houël visited it. The picture below shows a part of the piazza as it is today:




We visited Palazzo Adriano hoping to find evidence of its Albanian past, and did. Even if you have no interest in the Arberesh or Albania, this well-preserved little town in the heart of western Sicily deserves a visit.



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