by Daniela Maggiore
An island is both nostalgia and an arrival point, hesitation and anxiety, apprehension and, at the same time peace; something arousing intense moments of contrast, sensationsin pursuit which never catch up with each other.
An island is also reflection, curiosity, an interval from which imagination of the unknown, the craving to cross border and explore new spaces are reborn.
The Aeolian Islands have been, even over the most recent centuries, a far-away and unknown kingdom, but in view of their geographical position and history, they have often been considered the lead characters of their own, autonomus and often different, according to their geographical region, culture and civilisation.
On these Islands, the myth centred around their own geographical reality and millennial human ability to control a chthonic, difficult and inhospitable environment, stands out.
Natural elements, water, fire, air and and earth, which form Aeolian space, make it a unique and uniform territory. Each island is able to exchange these conflicting elements, drawing inspiration for an image, an aspect, the organisation of space and time.
These Islands, as from days of old, precisely because of the spectacle offered by their coast, steep cliffs and rocks sculpted by the erosion of the sea and the wind, by the smoke pouring forth from their very bowels, must have offered first travellers, going through the Southern Tyrrhenian, fertile ground for scientific research, for seeking out strange elements, for lyrical descriptions, spiritual meditation and given them a mine of sensations, men, events and feeling to write about in their books.
Among XIIIth and XIX Century travellers and writers, the names of scientist Déodat de Dolomieu, artist Jean Houel and Gaston Vuillier, writer Alexandre Dumas and Archduke Louis the Saviour, stand out. A digression able to take into account the personal stamp left by these travellers could give us the opportunity to rebuild the Aeolian setting which so impressed and fascinated the minds of those who, at times by pure accident, came across the natural beauty of these Islands and made us share, thanks to their written evidence, in their very special and unrepeatable “discovery”.
The Archipelago of the Aeolian and of Vulcan, as described in days of old by authors such as Strabone or Diodoro Siculo, quoted by poets such as Homer, has never ceased to attract travellers from all around the world visiting Sicily. After the rare travellers in the early Middle Ages, Tommaso Fazello, in the Sixteenth Century, brought the Aeolian Islands back into the limelight, by using classical Greek and Latin authors: “…enclosedon three sides, Sicily, on its North side has ten neighbouringislands, whereas the ancients only spoke of seven, commonly called the Lipari, Vulcan and Aeolian Islands….Nowadays, having used up its matter, Lipari has stopped smouldering for many years…”
Travellers in subsequent centuries will give us more specific information, descriptions or drawings of the things they saw, of events they witnessed. One of the most significant foreign travellers having visited our Islands, is Déodat de Dolomieu, a naturalist, geologist and pioneer of modern volcanology. He visited the Aeolian Islands in July 1781 and from this experience a work having serious scientific value was born. His book, centred around comments on the Islands, the rocks and volcanic phenomena, is only interrupted by mythological references and recalling of early Middle Age legends. Dolomieu does not neglect to also consider living conditions on some of the Islands. The town of Liparicertainly did not create a good impression: ”…The town of Lipari is small, ugly and badly built…”. On the other hand, the opinion he has of the islanders and their characters is positive: “…They have a remarkable nature, are courageous, devoted to their land, quick-witted and superstitious;…the best troops at the service of the King of Naples is the Corps of the ‘Liparoti’ (Lipari islanders)”.
For Jean Houel, a French painter and engraver, the Aeolian Islands were a melting pot of feelings and discoveries, which he mainly remembers through the colours and chromatic effects of shiny, black volcanic glass, lava and sulphur. Approaching Lipari, he was struck by the shores and rocks lit by the last rays of sunshine, the colours of which “appeared even more beautiful and the certainty that everything would disappear after dusk, made the enchantment of that moment even more alive and precious”.
Certainly, the most famous writer to have ever visited the Aeolian Islands is Alexandre Dumas. His tale of this stay on the Islands is lively and colourful, at times exuberant. His book caused negative reactions in some readers, as they were stung in their native pride by the detachment which, in their opinion, had led the writer to linger on the less attractive, hardly exemplary aspects and implications of the Aeolian people’s life and custom. In fact, the author gives us evidence of decidedly peculiar habits and customs, which inhabitants deemed far from the Island’s reality. Alicudi is described in this way: “…It is hard to find a sadder, more dismal and desolate place than this unfortunate Island…”, “ …a corner of the earth forgotten by creation, and which has remained unchanged since the day of chaos”.
Dumas was fascinated by nature, culinary habits, local wines, the colours of the sea which, thanks to a play of lights full of harmony “changes colour five or six times before disappearing into a mist”. But whatstrikes Dumas most is the spectable of the frequent eruptions of Stromboli: “…I confess that last night was one of the most strange. I have ever passed in my life…. I could not take my eyes off that terrible and magnificent spectacle”.
Curiosity, enthusiasm, nostalgia are the basic elements which drew Gaston Vuillier to the Islands. He tells us about his experience in the first person and this makes his reader feel a part of it. For Vuillier, the Aeolian Islands form an ambivalent entity: on one hand, their exotic flavour, on the other, the fact that they recall a very specific and hard social reality, like the reality represented by forced residence and the living and working conditions of pumice-stone miners. But surely what counts is stressing the completely intimate relation the artist had with the Islands; he is not an observer who is a stranger to facts, but someone who wants to know and understand.