Calabria in the footsteps of the poet Edward Lear: Gerace

During his travels around the southern Italian region of Calabria in 1847, the English poet and artist Edward Lear stopped in Gerace and reserved significant praise for this town, which is perched on a 500m-high cliff near Locri.

In the diaries he wrote about his trip (Journals of a Landscape Painter in Southern Calabria), the author of “The Owl and the Pussycat” nonsense poem said Gerace was “by far the grandest and proudest object in general position, and as a city, which we have yet seen in Calabria”.

He admired both “the beautifully placed buildings” as well as the stunning views: “the great height at which this place is situated, and its isolated site, give it a command of views the most wide and beautiful in character”.

When I approached Gerace by car, the modern town in the distance looked quite different than that drawn by Lear, though I could recognise the landscape in his depiction.

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As we arrived on the hilltop and started to look around, I was also struck by the landscapes around the town, and could understand why Lear was so impressed by Gerace’s situation.

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According to local legends, Gerace’s early settlers were guided here from Locri by a sparrowhawk. A discovery of the remains of a prehistoric necropolis show however that the table-like hilltop was inhabited as far back as the Neolithic age. It was chosen by refugees from Locri due to its safety and ease of defence, as the eastern coast of Calabria used to be at risk of Saracen invasions.

Under Norman rule it became a rich and powerful town, with many churches, convents and monasteries built within and around it. The old medieval town is still mostly intact, and includes some architectural gems, above all the cathedral, which is the biggest church in Calabria.

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Consecrated in 1045, it has preserved a lot of its original form despite adaptations following earthquakes. Combining Byzantine structure with typical Norman characteristics, the cathedral used to be covered in frescoes, though it now has a plain, simple beauty.

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Several of the columns in the main building come from the ruins of the ancient city of Locri.

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I also liked the chapel of the Madonna of Itria in the crypt of the church, which originally contained a “Hodegetria” – an eastern Christian icon of Mary holding Jesus and pointing to him as the route to mankind’s salvation. A statue of Mary and Jesus now stands in its place.

After our visit to the cathedral, we wondered around the centre of Gerace and up and down its lanes and alleyways. Lear’s words remain true to this day when he said “each rock, shrine, and building at Gerace seems arranged and coloured on purpose for artists, and the union of lines formed by nature and art is perfectly delicious”.

As Gerace is so steeply situated, I thought that it may not be a very busy town, but I was quite surprised. It actually seemed much more alive and buzzing with local people than several other villages and towns we visited nearby.

On the other side of the town, we came to Porta del Sole, one of twelve gates that were part of Gerace’s defence system. Its name relates to the fact that it faces eastwards and so the sun’s rays shine through its arch at dawn.

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I didn’t manage to see all the sights of Gerace, but if I’d had more time I would have liked to see some of its churches in more detail. The small 11th century Greek-Orthodox church of San Giovanni Crisostomo (San Giovannello) sounds particularly interesting. It is one of the three churches in the same area, which also include San Francesco and Sacro Cuore. We had a chance to admire the unusual exterior of the latter, which was rebuilt in 1851 after the previous church on the site was destroyed in the 1783 earthquake. We did not venture any further in this direction as there was a funeral on, but next time I visit I hope to explore this side of Gerace.

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When we headed back up to the panoramic viewpoints, we also stopped to read about the castle, which was built in the Byzantine era on an ancient Graeco-Roman structure and fortified by the Normans in the 11th century. The structure was badly damaged by several earthquakes over the years, and its remains include parts of the defensive walls and a circular tower.

Here’s Lear describing the castle in 1847:

“Towards the north-west, the sharp crest of rock ends abruptly in a precipice, which on three sides is perfectly perpendicular. Here are the dark and rumbling ruins of a massive Norman castle, from which, by a scrambling path, you may reach the valley below.”

After dinner, we went out to the unsafe precipices of the Castle, which frowns magnificently in its decay, but the wind, for which even on clear days Gerace is notorious, was too high to allow of drawing happily, so we passed the evening at home in conversation.”

The wind was also strong on our visit, as you can tell from this video below from the hilltop:

I would agree with Lear that Gerace is one of the finest towns to visit in southern Calabria. Make sure it’s included on your Calabrian itinerary!

 

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