Calabria in the footsteps of the poet Edward Lear: Stilo

I first read about Stilo in the English poet and landscape painter Edward Lear’s account of his journeys throughout Calabria in 1847, which brought him to this hilltop town. Lear, who is best known for his nonsense poems including “The Owl and the Pussycat” spent part of that year walking across this southern Italian region and drawing the landscapes that intrigued him. He also wrote notes about his travels which were published in”Journals of a Landscape Painter in Southern Calabria”.

He spoke very highly of Stilo, describing it as “magnificent”. He noted “an air of orderly feeling and decent neatness,” which surprised him in “a place more remote from the capital than any we had visited yet”.

Here’s how he remembers his approach to the town:

“Soon the town of Stilo on its height became visible, and though it was dusk before we arrived there, yet there was light enough to perceive that its general aspect was most promisingly picturesque; standing immediately below perpendicular precipices, it is built on a sort of amphitheatrical terrace, the projecting rocks at each extremity crowned with the most picturesque churches and convents”.

When I finally made it to the town in May 2016, I could see what he meant about its splendid aspect, with the imposing mountains in the background and the pretty churches on its edges.

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I was particularly excited to find this view above, which resembled the picture by Lear published in his journals (I passed under the arch in the picture below before taking the photo):

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Stilo has ancient origins, dating back to the city of Caulonia that existed in Magna Graecia, when Greek settlers populated southern Italy. As Caulonia experienced several episodes of destruction, including its capture by Dionysius II of Syracuse in the fourth century BC and its sack by Rome around 200 BC, some of its inhabitants moved inland towards the area around modern day Stilo. Some records show that during Roman rule the settlement was also called Consilinum.

From the sixth century, Calabria was part of the Byzantine Eastern Empire. Stilo became a major centre of the region and a draw for hermits and monks from Eastern traditions, who lived in caves in Consolino mountain above the town. During the tenth century, the little Cattolica monastery was constructed on the side of the hill, where monks would come together and pray. Nowadays it is one of the main sights to visit in the town, and is on the tentative UNESCO World Heritage list. A small red brick building, it was partly reconstructed at the beginning of the 20th century, and resembles church architecture in Armenia and Anatolia.

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There is a lovely mountain pathway approach to the Cattolica, along which I enjoyed the marvellous views over the surrounding hills and the Ionian Sea in the distance.

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Inside, the church has a Greek cross plan, and is held up by four columns taken from ancient sites in the area.

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Parts of the frescoes on the walls are still intact, and some depict Eastern Orthodox interpretations of the Bible. For example, the guide at the site told me this portrayal of Mary’s assumption resembles Eastern Christian icons of the “Dormition of the Theotokos” commemorating Mary’s death and subsequent bodily resurrection before being taken up into heaven.

stilo1You can also see that some of the frescoes have been painted over and modified to match the traditions of different strands of Christianity.

The columns bear inscriptions, including a cross with Greek words and messages in Arabic praising Allah and stating that there is only one God. During Arab invasions of the area during the Byzantine period, they often destroyed places of worship, but the Cattolica was undamaged, with some historians suggesting they may have used it as a religious site too. Others say the columns may have already had the Arabic inscriptions before they were brought to the Cattolica.

stilo2After seeing the little church, I wandered through the centre of the town of Stilo. Around the hill it is still possible to visit some of the caves where monks lived as far back as the 10th-11th centuries. These include the grotto of the Divine Shepherdess (Laura della Divina Pastorella). This was converted into a cave church at the start of the 20th century and looks like a hidden treasure based on my research. I regret that I did not have time to walk around to it, as it definitely seems to be a little jewel.

Another interesting site to see in Stilo is the Fountain of the Dolphins, which reflects Arab influence on the art of the region, and has been interpreted as a sign of the alliance between Arabs and Byzantine armies, who fought together against Emperor Otto II in the 10th century and defeated him.

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The Duomo in the town has a pair of feet from a Roman statue attached to the side of the door, reflecting the fact that it was built on the site of an early Christian temple.

stilo11We walked through the streets until we reached the church of San Domenico. I later read that the famous Italian philosopher Tommaso Campanella (1568-1639), who was born in nearby Stignano and spent time in Stilo, wrote some of his early works in the convent here. There is a statue to him in one of the town’s main squares.

stilo5It was near the church of San Domenico that I spotted the point it appears Lear chose to draw Stilo. I decided this was the best spot to record his words on the town, which you can listen to below. I like replaying this video because it also reminds me of the strong presence of nature in Calabria. If you watch it look out for the birds and bees flying around and the sounds of animals and birds in the background.

Lear stayed in Stilo for a few days, and described his experience fondly in his journals. He writes that he spent the first morning wandering around the town, saying “so many and so exquisite are the beauties of Stilo”. On a walk to nearby villages, he says that “no one met or overtook me…without a word or two of salutation, there were few who did not offer me pears, and parties of women laden with baskets of figs would stop and select the best for us”. 

As he prepares to move on from the town, he says:“the well-bred population of Stilo we shall ever remember with pleasure.” I also hold great memories of Stilo and its people, including the guide who helped explain the frescoes in the Cattolica church for me, and I hope to return one day.

 

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