“Rich, I’m in trouble,” I said a few mornings ago. “So far our stay here in Catania has been delightful, but I can’t think of a single moment that counts as a Nutter experience. What am I going to write about this week? If I just prattle on about good food and pleasant weather, even I will fall asleep, let alone my readers.”
“Well, there was the drive-by soaking,” he suggested. The day before, a prankish young teen on a motorbike, who happened to have an open water bottle in his hand, decided to douse us as he roared past. The little scamp. “Actually, considering how hot the day was, I found it kind of refreshing.”
“Hey, I know,” I said. “I can talk about the vomitorium!”
Like most kids, I grew up hearing gross jokes about such chambers, said to be popular among ancient Romans seeking relief from extreme overindulgence. I certainly never expected to visit one. But on my first morning in Catania, on Sicily’s southeast coast, I was touring the ruins of the Greek-Roman theater when I saw a faded sign.
“Wait, what?” I exclaimed. “We’re standing in an actual vomitorium?” Yes, and it wasn’t at all what you’re thinking. Turns out the term actually refers to the series of passages designed to let crowds disperse quickly from an amphitheater or stadium after a show — literally “to spew forth.” The idea that it meant rooms used for regurgitation? A total myth. I know, shocker of the year. We’ve all walked through countless vomitoria and never even knew it.
Clearly Catania was going to prove educational in unexpected ways. For instance, you can’t spend any time here without learning how precarious it feels to live in a city built on the lower slope of an active volcano. For 500,000 years Mt. Etna has loomed over the landscape, belching smoke, just waiting its chance to explode again. As recently as 2021 there was an eruption lasting six months that disgorged so much lava the volcano grew 100 feet in height. Yikes!
It's easy to picture these thing happening in the ancient world, but lately we’ve all been reading such alarming headlines as “Italy plans for mass evacuation as quakes continue around supervolcano; Campi Flegrei area near Naples has been jolted by more than 1,100 earthquakes in a month.” Still, whatever catastrophe may lie ahead for Naples, it’s likely to pale in comparison to what happened to Catania back in 1669.
Over several earth-shaking months in 1669, erupting lava from Mt. Etna covered 15 square miles, wiping out whole villages, destroying farmland, eventually pouring into the city’s western edge and flowing up to the very walls of the Castello Ursino (Bear Castle). I imagined what it must have been like for the residents standing on the parapets looking down at the vast river of molten rock advancing toward them, filling the moat, and surging against the building’s foundations.
When that kind of disaster happens, who you gonna call? No question it’s St. Agatha, the virgin martyr and patron saint of Catania. She was a tough cookie who knew all about standing her ground under extreme pressure.
At age 15 Agatha decided to devote her life and virginity to Christianity, rejecting the amorous advances of the Roman governor Quintianus. Enraged, he had her tortured and (here’s the gruesome part; better send the kids out of the room) had her breasts torn off. She was sentenced to be burned at the stake, but an earthquake disrupted the proceedings, and she died in prison in 251. A year later she was credited with stopping an eruption of Mt. Etna, earning the city’s eternal devotion.
Today she is invoked against volcanic activity, earthquake, fire, and breast cancer, and is the patron saint of bakers. This last might seem a stretch until you learn about the pastries called minnuzzi di sant'Àjita. “It means Saint Agatha’s tits,” a Sicilian told me. I quickly stepped back to avoid the bolt of lightning that might be expected to greet these profane worlds, but evidently God was busy elsewhere and didn’t notice. Minnuzzi are made of sponge cake soaked in liqueur, stuffed with ricotta, chocolate drops, and candied fruit, then topped with pistachio marzipan and a candied cherry. I never got around to trying them, but they certainly sound heavenly.
St. Agatha isn’t the only one providing Catania with miraculous protection. In front of her cathedral there’s a primitive elephant carved of lava rock; whenever Mt. Etna's ready to blow, it's said to wake up and alert the residents. As you can imagine, I take a good hard look at it every time I cross the plaza, but so far I've never seen it stir.
Earlier in its career, during the eighth century, the elephant supposedly came fully alive, carrying the sorcerer Heliodorus on its back as far as Constantinople. At the time Heliodorus was in hot competition for the job of Catania's bishop and took up the Dark Arts to outshine his pious rival, Leo (later St. Leo the Wonderworker). Heliodorus made himself hugely popular by performing magic for the townspeople. This infuriated Leo, who eventually secured the bishop’s job and promptly had Heliodorus burned alive in the nearby thermal baths. Now is that any way for a saint to behave? I ask you.
By popular demand, the sorcerer’s magic elephant remained in the city and was eventually placed in front of St. Agatha's cathedral. Major renovations were made in the 18th century, adding fancy carvings, an obelisk, and a fountain. Legend says the men of the town demanded another addition; they complained the statue's gender neutrality was an insult to their virility, so the sculptor gave the elephant a robustly masculine anatomy.
Now, those of you who paid attention in zoology class may be thinking, “An elephant — in Sicily? They only live in Asia and Africa, right?” Not in prehistoric times! Apparently back then Sicily was home to miniature elephants about the size of a Shetland pony. Their skulls, which without the tusks look like oversized human heads, have a large hole — a nasal cavity — in the forehead, giving rise to the legend of the cyclops, one-eyed giants living on the slopes of Mt. Etna.
“I guess there have been some nutty things going on around here,” I admitted, when Rich and I had reviewed all we’d learned in Catania. But thinking back over my time in the city, the thing that struck me most vividly was the energetic, buoyant spirit of the people. Everyone seemed to have a bit of extra zip in their step, a little more sparkle in their eye.
Maybe this is what comes of living on the flanks of a live volcano, I mused. At the end of every day, I suspect people breathe a sigh of relief and give each other high fives, rejoicing that they'd survived another day without being engulfed by molten lava. Or shaken by earthquakes. Or torn asunder by a lascivious politician. Or trapped by a cyclops. I like this attitude and have decided to adopt it. “Made it alive through another day,” I remark to Rich every evening as I pour us each a glass of vino. “Let’s celebrate that little miracle.”
JUST JOINING US? THE NUTTERS' WORLD TOUR SO FAR
RIGHT NOW: SICILY
Enna: Sicily's Belly Button and Home of the Cereal Goddess
Agrigento: "The Devil Made Me Write It!"
Palermo: The Good, the Bad & the Nutty
SUMMER 2023: CALIFORNIA
SPRING 2023: SPAIN
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