Hotel Palladio

Sicily

a handmade hotel

Corso Umberto 470, Giardini Naxos, 98035, Sicily
Tel: (+39) 0942 52267; Fax: (+39) 0942 551329;
E-mail:
palladio@tao.it 

 

Perhaps the effect, as that of wine, which a sea like this produces: it does not make drunk,
it seizes the thoughts, stirs ancient wisdom

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The gardens of  Naxos: the archaeological park and the museum of the first Greek colony in Sicily

 

The archaeological park in Giardini Naxos is one of the most fascinating sites in this area: here among magnificent vegetation and views you can track the paths of the first Greek colony in Sicily founded, in the eighth century BC, at the southern end of the bay of Naxos, in the peninsula originated by a spectacular river of lava that got down to the sea in prehistoric times. On this fertile promontory (so becomes the land born by the transformation of lava) the Greeks migrants come to build their first city in Sicily, calling it Naxos, in honour of the Aegean island, home to some members of the expedition. From the new Naxos begins the history of the Greek Sicily, which will become, in the fifth century BC, with the domain of Syracuse, an autonomous power-centre in the struggle for the hegemony over the Mediterranean. It was Syracuse (the largest European city back then), in 403 BC, that destroyed Naxos radically in order to punish it for its alliance with Athens. The urban center will be moved a bit, up to Taormina settled on Mount Tauro, and in the bay it will remain the port with its arsenal of ships and the furnaces that will continue to produce amphorae even during Roman times.

The colony of Naxos, a few centuries old, did not get meet with the changes of the Hellenistic and Roman age: the site of Naxos is therefore a rare example of an archaic settlement over which nothing has ever been built again and this makes it even more valuable for the archaeological researches on the original urban design of the colonies. Prime researches, as it is right in the Greek colonies, in the West, that the concept itself of town planning was born: in the colonies, for the first time, the towns do not arise spontaneously as random and subsequent clusters of buildings, but it becomes necessary to plan from the very beginning their disposition and protection in an area inhabited by potential enemies.

Today the archaeological site of Naxos (where excavations and maintenance are unfortunately still limping forward for the chronic lack of funds to dedicate to culture that demeans Italy), is a large green area, happily torn, thanks to the resolution of few people and archaeologists, from the awful wave of real estate speculation of the last century seventies which has much disfigured part of the Italian coast and that at the outskirts of Naxos has led to the ruin with the dormitories district of Recanati, outrageously built on part of the land that belonged to the colony. In the saved part (thankfully large) has been set up the museum and the archaeological park of Naxos, where, surrounded by lush vegetation, with Mount Etna in the background and beautiful views of the bay and the mountain of Taormina, you can walk in the ancient city, among its wide paths, the fortifications of lava stone, fragments of sacred buildings and dwellings, altars and furnaces.

Although, for non-expert eyes, it is difficult to reconstruct the image of the first colony of which nothing remains but the foundation (to understand how rich and colorful the city was you must visit the museum within the site, where there are exhibited many of the architectural elements that decorated the buildings), the park of Naxos is an enchanted place that gives the thrill of being out of the time. Within the archaeological park disappear from view (and hearing) the bustling tourist town and you find yourselves deep in a wonderful Mediterranean landscape mixed with sub-tropical plants, with palm trees, oranges, lemons and tangerines, cactus natural sculptures, giant agaves, gnarled olive trees, walnuts, medlar, oleanders, and rows of cypress trees, and even crops here can tell bits of Sicilian history: citrus and irrigation systems, still the same today, introduced by the Arabs, great mulberry trees reminiscent of the silk production in Sicily.

 

Inside the archaeological park there is the museum of Naxos, a two-storey building, built next to the remains of a fortress of the XVII-XVIII, which, through the precious finds of the excavations, tells the story of the Greek expansion in Sicily, a tower of the sixteenth century with specimens of underwater archeology and a watch tower of the fifteenth century.

The park is open every day from 9am till one hour before sunset, the museum is open on Mondays from 9am to 2pm. All the other days of the week from 9am to 2pm and from 3pm to 7pm.

The entrance fare is 2 Euro (free entry for EU citizens under the age of 18 years and above 60 years). The entrance is next to the medieval castle of Schiṣ (also called Palazzo Paladino), reachable from Hotel Palladio, with a 15 minute walk along the seafront.

 

The land of the first settlers: the Greeks to the conquest of their "new frontier"

 

Walking through the archaeological park of Naxos it is easy to imagine this land (despite the diversity of cultivation) as it must have been almost 3000 years ago when the Greeks chose it, attracted by the extraordinary beauty and easy docking of the bay with the always mild climate.

 

Giuseppe Borgese, great Sicilian writer (who went to voluntary exile to the United States not to have to swear allegiance to the Fascist regime as a university professor), said this of their coming: "To the Greeks, inhabitants of fragmented islands and thin peninsulas, [Sicily] must have seemed like a continent: in the narrow proportions of the ancient pre-Roman world, like a kind of America to the immigrant settlers to the West. [...] It is easy to imagine an ancient Sicily different from that which appears today.

The same, despite the movement of craters and the different agricultural cultures, was the general view of Etna, inspiring from a distance Pindaro in some of his superb accents: Etna with the slopes richly earthly and the top divine. [...] Same the outline of the entire shore up the stict and [...] that grace and majesty, under the blue-green sea and the seasons [...]. As the Germans among the fires and ice of the mysterious Iceland, so the Greeks put on this majestic earth, already present with its particular sublimity on the geography of the Odyssey, some of the most felt and terrific themes of their religion and that religion, those myths, became Sicilian; Polyphemus, Aci Galatea, Scylla, Charybdis, Arethusa, the monstrous symbols and the suave symbols, composed in an accord extremely sentimental, were indigenous names to this side of the Ionian Sea. The beautiful volcano, beneath which lay the Titans defeated, was a kind of infernal Olympus, romantic. Its sense, its suggestion, have not changed since then.

 (Texts are taken from the writings of the park director Maria Costanza Lentini)
 

The history of Naxos

The oldest Greek colony in Sicily

A bay sheltered from the winds and a flat promontory close to numerous water courses welcome a group of Greek sailors as an ideal place to found a new city. Thus was born between the deepest sea and the highest volcano in the Mediterranean, the first Greek colony in Sicily, carrier of a great message of civilization, Naxos did not develop large in size, but it played a key role in the subsequent colonization of the island.

The site of ancient Naxos is about 15 km north of Etna, at the edge of the not very big plain that opens up to the south of the Taormina heights, where there is the estuary of the Alcantara river, the natural route of penetration of the colony. The ancient settlement lay on a more or less flat territory, occupying the narrow Schiṣ peninsula and the immediatelly adjacent lands, opening up to the north on the bay, the gateway to the colony, and delimited to the south by the Santa Venera stream. A maritime city,like most Greek cities on the Island, it flourished above all in the archaic epoch due to the development of commercial traffic and the cultivation of vines, to which the hilly nature of the territory was well suited. It was fonded in the second half of the 8th century BC (in 734, according to Tucydides, VI. 3.3) by the Euboeans from Chalcis.

It was the first Greek colony in Sicily -  all ancient historicians agree on this – and its origins coincide with the birth of the city. Cycladic populations from the big Island of Naxos also took part in founding it. This descent, for a long time documented in an uncertain way by the sources (the historian Hellanicus of Mytilene) and by the name, the same for both cities, has been confirmed by a recent find: a stele with a dedication to the goddess Enyo, written in the alphabet used on the Cycladic Island in the 7th century BC. The expedition was led by Theocles, who five years later set out again with some of the settlers to found first Leontinoi (728 BC) and then Katane (727 BC). Hence Naxos was the fulcrum of the Euboean expedition in Sicily; and this function is  corroborated by the presence of the altar of Apollo Archegetes, which was erected by the settlers on their arrival and on which, at the time of Thucydides, offerings were made by the theoroi, the sacred envoys of the Greek cities on the Island, before they set sail for Greece.

We do not know much about history of Naxos. The fierce anti-calcidese policy carried out in the fifth century BC by the Dinomenidi from Syracuse has left its mark - in 476 BC Hieron of Syracuse destroyed the city; citizens are transferred en masse to Leontinoi. It is only after the fall of the Dinomenidi in Syracuse (466 BC) that the Naxi refugees can return to their city. This is again destroyed in 403 BC by Dionigi of Syracuse that this way punishes the alliance contracted with the Athenians. Afterwards, the city continues to survive, but very small in size. This briefly is the history of Naxos, through which we grasp the main lines of the history of the Greeks of Sicily in the fifth century BC: the rise thanks to the Dinomenidi, the antagonism between Doric and Ionic people

THE PARK

The history of Naxos is brief, for it lasted just over three centuries. An ally of Athens, in 403 BC it was destroyed by Dionysius I of Syracuse, who rewarded his Siculi allies by ceding the territory of the city to them, and deported the inhabitants, selling  them as slaves in Syracuse. It was a drammatic and  decisive event, which ended the story of Naxos and opened up that of Taormina (Tauromenion), founded soon after the distruction of Naxos. This circumstance, together with the fact that the modern settlement was not superimposed on the ancient one, has favoured archaeological research.

Right from the very start, activity  concentrated on the city, with an investigation of the phases of its life and its morphology. It was the research  done by Paola Pelagatti that defined its extension and distinguished two building phases: the first, datable to the period between the middle of the 7th century BC and the end of the 6th century BC; the second, orthogonal to it, done in the 5th century BC. Recent diggings, which are still ongoing in the north sector of the Schiṣ peninsula, are gradually  delineating the layout of the oldest colonial settlement, dating from the last decades of the 8th century BC.

A journey in the ancient city

Leaving the Archaeological Museum, you enter directly into the urban site of Naxos. Its fortifications cross the garden and run parallel to the Borbonic fort and the tower of the museum. On the right you can see the complex with the castle of Schiṣ with a towering palm; closer are the remains of the Byzantine dwellings, built directly above the structures of the oldest archaic settlement of the VII-VI centuries a.C. From here it is reachable, through a path shaded by a large mulberry tree, the eastern side of the archaic fortifications of the city, that point to the castle with a beautiful view of the bay. Returning to the main path, now paved, we reach the temple C of the seventh century BC, covered with houses in the fifth century; houses that open onto one of the north-south roads, the “stenopos” 11, that can be crossed till we reach out to the intersection with plateia A , the main east-west axis of the system of the fifth century BC. Of the plateia stand out the considerable width (9.50 meters), the lateral channels well-paved and the houses bordering on it. Houses of the late eighth century BC stratch below the plateia. Important evidence of the first colonial station. Turning back along the main path for 200 meters, which in this stretch runs under a row of tall cypress trees, we get to the plateia B, the southernmost of the east-west axis of the classical city. At the entrance of the Plateia there are two large house of square plant, with a open central court. Considerably narrower of the platea A, but just the same it is flanked by paved gutters, the platea B is viable till the city gate 3. At the regular interval of 39 meters, it is interrupted by intersections with north-south arteries, all marked with square corner bases. Out of the narrow door, you can admire the fortifications: in polygonal Cyclopean tecnique, they have on this side of the imposing appearance of a wall. Returning to the city, you enter the south-western sanctuary through the monumental portal: here are the fundaments of the great temple B (late sixth century BC), superimposed on an older sacred building, sacello A, of the end of the seventh century.

On the south side, slightly sloping, we may observe under a roof the well-preserved remains of two furnaces of the late seventh century BC. The nearby rectangular altar, with steps on one of the long side, can be dated back to the early decades of the sixth century. The southern propylaeum, Port Marina, is not practicable, closed in ancient times due to defensive problems by a row of blocks. The beautiful south boundary wall of the sanctuary, wall D (early decades of the sixth century) is reachable through a modern passage at the eastern side of the propylaeum. It must be reported how the wall D is the oldest example in the West of the polygonal technique of bended joints.

Upon the western end of the wall can be seen, leaning, the remains of a square tower of later fortifications

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The museum

Three centuries of daily life, and not only…

The Naxos Archaeological Museum was inaugurated in 1979, crowning long and difficult research conducted by Paola Pelagatti, bearing in mind abnormal urban expansion that, outside all rules and in the space of a few years, had transformed the fine Recanati beach into a tourist and hotel pole. Now  that much of the ancient area of the colony is demesnal and can be visited, the museum represents, though with limited spaces, an efficacious presentation of a visit to the diggings. Built on Cape Schiṣ, exploting the space of a Bourbon fort that encompassed a keep built in the late  sixteenth century  to guard the entrance to the port, the museum is closely linked to the site of Naxos: a strech of ancient boundary wall crosses its garden and at the museum there starts the itinerary that winds inside the urban area.

The museum’s collections are largely made up of finds from the various digging campaigns carried out in almost fifty years; there is also a small nucleus of material purchased in Taormina by Paolo Orsi, coming from searches he made, as in the case of the equipement of three graves at Cocolonazzo di Mola (1919 diggings) which, dating the second half of the 8th century BC, efficaciously represent the encounter between settlers and local Siculo populations. It is also to Paolo Orsi and to his attentive surveillance of the then flourishing antiques market at Taormina that we owe the utensils coming from a Malvagia  store from Bronze age and the splendid decorated elmet from the 4th century BC, found at Moio, both sites in the lower valley at the Alcantara.

At last excepitions is constituited by a much more recent acquisition: this is the little altar known as the Heidelberg-Naxos one (530 BC), with affronted sphinxes, wich Paola Pelagatti put together again by joining a fragment kept at the Museum of Heidelberg University and another fragment she  purchased in the 1973 at Giardini. The recomposition, wich only took place in 1997, enriched the museum with a notable example of pottery done at Naxos in the late 6th century BC.

For the rest, the display follows a criterion which  is both chronological and topographical, with particolar attention being paid to the grouping of some classes of materials, above all slabs used for achitectonic lining and Silenus mask antefixes, which represent one of the most significant production developed uninterruptedly from the last decades of the 6th century BC to the and of the 5th century BC, affording a testimony to the spread of the cult od Dionysius, whose image characterised Naxos coinage right from the first issues.

The first rooms are devoted to the prehistoric phases of the site and to the initial period of the colony. The splendid Stentinello cup, found not far from the place of the museum, documents the start of life in the Neolithic as a village on Cape Schiṣ.  The two big pythoi from the first Bronze Age belong to two tombs that, with skeletons hudled up inside, were discovered in the sonthwest sanctuary. There is more abundant documentation for the middle and late Bronze Ages, when a big fortified village law on the peninsula, in the castle area, where there is a bigger concentration of vestiges of the first colonial settlement. There is very little documentation relating to the Iron Age and the time when the Greeks came: on the basis of the notice provided by Ephorus, it would seem that, at the time of the foundation, the territory was deserted;the siculi lived elsewhere, on the nearby heights, as is well documented by the Colonnazzo di Mola necropolis.

Among the oldest materials from the colony, a major place is taken by the Corinthian importations, and in particular the numerous fragments of Thapsos cups (740-700 BC); named after the site near Syracuse where the first exemplar was found, they are deep cups, used both for drinking and for eating, characterised by a narrow decorated panel framed by horizontal lines.

Ceramics imported from Euboea and to greater extent imitations produced at Naxos soon after its foundation are abundantly found in the oldest levels of the settlement. There is a great variety of shapes: from big amphorae on feet, with late geometric decoration, to numerous craters, some with pouring spouts, and many types of cups – and among these, single-bird ones – and lekanai, as well as plates of various size, or jugs with cut necks, a shape of unmistakable Euboean derivation when found in a colonial context.

One of the two wings of the upper floor  of the museum is devoted to items from  the sacred areas, and another to items from the archaic and classical city and the 5th century BC and the 3rd century BC necropolises, with a limited choise of materials documenting the activity of potters in the 5th century BC. The display ends with a small selection referring to the later phases of life on the site. On the same floor, in the first room, in a showcase there are some exemplars of silver coins from the classical age minted at different cities in Sicily and Reggio.

The ex-votos from the southwest sanctuary of the city, mostly consisting in fictile feminine decorative relief heads from the late 6th century – however, the only complete exemplar on display comes from the seabed at Isola Bella – fill a showcase of the wing devoted to items from the sacred areas. The rest of this space is occupied by fictile linings of the roofs of the edifices of the two sanctuaries and by Silenus mask antefixes, wich, however, do not come exclusively from sacred areas: they are also found on the roofs of houses and on tomb coverings, thought they were prevalently used in sacred edifices. A major place is occupied in the room by the fragments of a pedimental slab with a Gorgon figure, of clear Corinthian derivation, which decorated the triangular space of the tympanum of an edifice in the sanctuary to the west of the Santa Venera stream (580 BC).

The vestiges of the settlements from the ends of the 7th century BC to the end of the 5th century BC mainly consists in vases , or fragments of vases; but among them there are other objects found in domestic contexts, like fragments of little altars with relief decoration, statuettes, oil-lamps and portable ovens; with fictile weights  a model of a vertical loom has been reconstructed. The equipment found in the necropolis discovered in the Recanati area in 1975 is distributed in the 5th century BC, with a minor contribution of Attic imports. Among the equipment of the 3rd century BC graves, generally made up of ointment containers, a major place is occupied by the tomb of the Surgeon, with a rare and well preserved exemplar of a glass cup perhaps made in Alexandria (beginning of 3rd century BC).

Lastly, inside the keep there is an exhibition of under water finds: here is a vast collection of stone anchors and lead anchor chains (a true archive), mostly picked up in the 1960s in the sea of Naxos or in the nearby Taormina bays.

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