Inhabiting History

Modica, in a single edified volume, sums up the entire palette of Sicilian colors, softness, harmony of sky and earth.

The lower city has two hillsides that take on different hues across the day, divided not only by the river – channeled below ground since 1902 – but also by different social origins: upper Modica with noble palaces and Baroque churches, and Cartellone with little residential cells where daily work (ovens for sweets, caves for livestock, etc.) often overlapped with the idea of the habitation.

From Cartellone the view is filled with the opulence and sensuality of authentic Sicilian Baroque. Cartellone is a real window on art history: it looks towards a “strange and divine museum of architecture” (G. de Maupassant, Sicily, 1885).

A colony of ‘continentals’ from different parts of Italy has understood the hidden beauty of this place, searching amidst the wrinkles of time for the grace and harmony Goethe understood in 1817, glimpsing the secret value of Sicily generated by the “purity of its contours…”

These ‘foreign’ presences are linked by kinship, not based on genetics but on a shared sensibility, a desire for beauty to be discovered and brought to the fore: a true case of ‘word of mouth’ among enthusiastic friends that has created a domino effect.

The two houses shown here belong to two former students of architecture in Florence, who as adults have rediscovered a way to spend time together and to share everyday vacation pleasures in this earthly paradise.

The first house is that of a resident of Bologna hailing from Abruzzo and trained in Florence, the architect Paolo Di Biase, whose aesthetic sensibility and ongoing search for ‘stories’ through historical objects have given rise to a new habitat.

His first approach, as in other houses around the world, was to try to stop time, conserving cracks, the fragility of materials (ceramics, cement tiles, pietra pece), the pale hues, the layers of time and neglect, enhancing them through a series of grafts of objects from Sicily and elsewhere, making the house a true, uninterrupted voyage, a museum of things, not of collections of objects.

The idea is to interpret the concept of ‘collection’ by redeeming it from the sense of maniacal accumulation, making it become the opportunity for a new narrative through the metaphor of gathering various items. The theme of ‘repetition’ links the whole house together, through Sicilian puppets, birdcages, chandeliers, toys, sacred and profane imagery.

The second house, my house, though of a different type (a two-story tract house with grotto annex), reflects certain traits of that of my former classmate, who was the person who introduced me to Modica: the pursuit of an arduous combination of past and present.

When I show the house to friends for the first time, before letting them search and discover the points that intrigue them most, I use the metaphor of the butler. In London there is an important school for butlers where they teach you how to clean the family silver, trying to leave just a bit of tarnish in the complex zones of the decorations.

Cleaning it completely and renewing the flatware, as in architectural spaces, would make it too new, too commercial. The job of the butler and that of the architect is actually to know how to communicate nobility and a story (of nobility or poverty) that may span several centuries.

So the casements have remained the same, with rust and cracks bearing witness to a past I do not want to erase, but protect and update to some extent.

Maybe the space that represents this approach of respect most vividly is the sirocco cave (in the past the heat of the south wind forced people and animals to seek shelter), now used as a loft for guests in the summer.

All the signs have remained here, sculpted in the rock, of the coexistence of humans and animals: places to tie the animals, equipment and chains for hanging objects, cuts in the rock like shelves.

One anecdote can clarify this attitude of respect: the second grotto, next to the entrance cave, had been covered up to a height of 1.6 meters by trash, after being used as a dump.

I rushed down from Florence, asking the workmen to wait for me before removing anything, because I wanted to be there, like an archaeologist, in search of signs of a humble past; I also asked them to bring fruit crates so I could conserve any object, whole or broken, we might find.

This research uncovered chapters of a life of hardship, but also thrilling aesthetic finds, work tools, giant green umbrellas to offer shade from the sunlight in summer, a donkey saddle, sieves, a pestle made of Modica stone, rusty chains, fragments of pottery and two chamber pots.

Here again, this was not a naive collection, but a ‘repetition’ of narrative objects that decorate the refurbished space with their ‘soft’ presence. Knowing how to put things together, as in all the creative disciplines, cannot become emotion unless you respect and grasp present and above all past sentiments, as history teaches us

Photos Alberto Ferrero – Article Paolo Di Nardo