I arrived in Modica by bus on a day of torrential rain. This elegant Sicilian city is divided into two main districts, upper and lower, and the bus terminal was in the lower part. I was in town to see the famous Chiesa Madre di San Giorgio, part-way up the hillside, so I began to trudge up through the downpour, hugging the walls of the city’s old palazzi.
The streets were inundated with rainwater. Concerned about my footing, I scarcely looked around until, glancing up, I saw it. San Giorgio was designed by Rosario Gagliardi (1698-1762) and though almost nothing is known about him, his work here is regarded as the prototype of all the bizarre baroque churches in the Noto valley, where, in the decades following a terrible earthquake in 1693, a new style of building caught on. It is so playful in its masonry and sculptural decoration that it might have been considered a form of magic, indeed of necromancy, had it not been confined to church facades.
San Giorgio has an extraordinary stairway, like a Mayan pyramid reconceived by someone who had never actually seen one, but it had been changed by the storm into a thundering cataract, the rainwater roiling over 250 steps, with, at the summit, a vast roseate tower-church soaring into the sky. The stairway could not be climbed – one would have been washed away – so I merely stood there agape for awhile. It was one of the most impressive and exotic sights I had ever seen.
I found another way to reach San Giorgio and saw, on a wall to the right of San Giorgio’s portal as you pass inside, a commemorative stone in honour of one of Modica’s most brilliant and perplexing sons. Tommaso Campailla (1668-1740) was a poet, philosopher and scientist who (as the stone proclaims) invented an early “cure” for syphilis, known as the cura delle botti, or cure of the casks. Campailla founded his own clinic, today the Museo Tommaso Campailla. I became quite obsessed with Campailla while I was in Modica and went to the museum, which consists of two rooms still equipped with the bizarre and frightening medical instruments of the early 18th century.
The museum also has one of Campailla’s “casks,” actually a wooden box coated with a protective substance that defies chemical analysis. It was his weird practice to fumigate his patients with burned cinnabar and incense. As syphilis was then incurable, we may well wonder why so many people, well into the 19th century, flocked to Modica for “Campailla’s Cure” and pronounced themselves “restored” or “relieved”.
Modica is in the wealthy south-eastern part of Sicily and these provinces are scarcely touched by endemic poverty or organised crime. It is an exceptionally handsome city traversed by a wide boulevard, actually a riverbed that was paved over in 1902, after a flood. This thoroughfare, called the Corso Umberto I, is flanked by stately buildings and leads to the church of San Pietro, most notable for the statues of the apostles lining its front steps.
Off the Corso Umberto was a tiny, elegant chocolate shop, the Antica Dolceria Bonajuto, which I entered on an impulse. Instantly the shop’s owner and manager, Pierpaolo Ruta, came bounding downstairs to regale me with his philosophy of chocolate, illustrated by tidbits.
The Dolceria opened in 1880; Pierpaolo represents the sixth generation in the business, which descends from the antique Modican tradition of the ciucculataru, or ambulant chocolate-maker, who worked the towns and villages of the province mixing chocolate according to the express requests of patrons. Even as a child Ruta wished to become a chocolate-maker: “It was the way my grandfather smelled when he came home from work.” Anyone who has been to Mexico will recognise a similarity here to the chocolate sellers in Mexican markets, who to make mole blend cacao with pepper, epazote, chipotle, and other herbs to suit the tastes of their clientele, and Ruta believes that the Modican chocolate-making tradition is essentially Aztec. Researching his family’s background, he discovered that a French chocolate-making family in Bayonne with almost the same name as his own is Jewish by descent. He has concluded that during the 17th century, the Mexican chocolate tradition became diffused throughout the Spanish empire, including Sicily, by clans of initiates, of whom some were apparently of Jewish extraction.
The chocolate produced by the Dolceria Bonajuto is still quite similar to the Mexican variety. Nothing is used but ground cacao, sugar, and spices, such as cinnamon, vanilla, or pepper; no dairy products or cacao butters are added, and no heat is applied during blending. In this way, none of the taste or beneficent nutritional properties of the cacao are lost and the chocolate retains the “sandiness” characteristic of the Mexican product, since the sugar crystals never melt. I left the shop with a parcel of the typically Modican speciality called (in dialect) mpanatigghi, diminutive filled pastries that combine meat and chocolate in a remarkably intimate marriage. I ended up feasting on one for breakfast every morning for the following week.
Modican friends told me to go to a tiny, unpretentious place called L’Arco for lunch. Grazia, the owner-cook, was known for her simple dishes, they said, and reasonable prices. So around 1pm I went into L’Arco and sat down. When Grazia came over I began by ordering the zuppa di ceci (chick pea soup), a typical Sicilian dish. “You don’t want that,” said a conspiratorial voice nearby. “I mean, it’s fine but what you really want is Grazia’s ravioli di ricotta. That’s what we all come here for.”
A lady in a peaked hat was sitting next to me at the table; I’d been too hungry to notice her. Soon she was ordering my meal for me and explaining everything that Grazia did best. It turned out she came here every day for lunch. Soon after she was joined by a friend, a youngish schoolteacher and fellow Arco addict. As a history teacher in the jaded 21st century, he said, one had to make every lesson an example of high comedy or tear-jerking melodrama, and he proceeded to show us how. Every time he did this the lady batted him vigorously over the head with a packet of breadsticks. When the meal was over, the schoolteacher, still clowning, drove me to another city where I was staying. Then he sped off, laughing.
Dan Hofstadter’s latest book is ‘The Earth Moves: Galileo and the Roman Inquisition’ (WW Norton)
L’Antica Dolceria Bonajuto, Corso Umberto, 159; www.bonajuto.it
Museo Tommaso Campailla is connected to the excellent Museo Ibleo delle Arte e Tradizioni Popolari, in the Palazzo Mercedari, in Via Mercè
Casa Natale di Salvatore Quasimodo, Via Posterla 84, www.salvatorequasimodo.it
Trattoria l’Arco, Piazza Corrado Rizzone, 11. Also moderately priced, in upper Modica (Modica alta)
Hosteria San Benedetto, Via Nativo, 22
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