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Sicily: Island of Art 

ASAG Journal

Sicily is dotted with a rich array of art and architecture, primarily due to its strategic location and rich history. The island's archaeological sites offer a rich insight into its ancient past, with some of the most striking examples being the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento and the Temple of Zeus in Syracuse. The Baroque architecture, which was introduced by the Spanish in the 16th and 17th centuries, also dominates the island. Catania, Palermo, Noto, and Ragusa boast some of the finest examples of Baroque architecture, with theatrical facades and a stark contrast of light and dark colors.

In addition to ancient temples and Baroque palaces, the Byzantine period also left an imprint in the artistic landscape of Sicily. One of the most striking examples is the Cappella Palatina, located within the Palazzo dei Normanni in Palermo. The chapel boasts exquisite mosaics, intricate carvings, and a range of Islamic and Byzantine motifs. The Norman-Arab architecture also has a presence in Sicily, with the Zisa and Norman Palace showcasing a blend of Moorish and medieval motifs. Overall, Sicily's diverse range of art and architecture offers a snapshot of its complex history and serves as a cultural testament to the island's cultural richness.

The Roman Mosaics at Piazza Armerina


Randy H. Sooknanan

ASAG Journal

October 1, 2023

*It is not certain when was the first two-piece bathing suit in history invented. However, a "terminus post quem", one of the earliest depictions of the now modern attire, can be seenin a beautiful image of the "Palestrite". This fantastic mosaic, one of the most famous from history, is located inside the villa of the Casale in Piazza Armerina, in the province of Enna in Sicily. Dating back to 320-350AD, the spectacular infrastructure has many themes depicted throughout the pillars, walls and flooring.

In this particular scene, nine women are shown wearing the same clothing that can be seen today in a 21st-century sports center.  We see them covered by the "strophium" (bra) and the "subligature" (briefs) while participating in an athletics competition. In the beautiful artifact, strong women lift weights, others throw a puck, run, or play with the "pila paganica" a ball full of feathers. There is also a female in a toga, preparing to donate rose crowns to the honored and to hand the palm of victory to competitors. Unlike today, in the modern era, in this ancient scenario, the two-piece (bikini) was not used for sunbathing but was used to free the body for athletic movements, gymnastics, and even dancing. The white color of the background allows the elegance of the female figures represented to dominate the visual effects. The artist wanted to avoid the use of strong colors so as not to distract the eye from the beauty and the grace of the turning, athletic bodies-extraordinarily highlighting all the physical dowry.

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Although most of the images are as they were, weather and flooding damage left only the legs of the first woman in the picture intact. One of the two girls on the left side of the mosaic is covered to the feet by a light veil, allowing only glimpses of everything beneath: perhaps in order to convey a game of seduction to the observer. In certain mosaics kept in Rome in the Vatican Museums of the same time period, sportsmen are represented with stocky and ungainly musculature. However, this sublime and unique representation of agile and muscular females who devote themselves to sport, elevates athleticism to a new place of artistic and human potential.

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The Villa has many other magnificent mosaic themes preserved. The largest size 66 meters and 5 wide, illustrates how complex the organization of the shows in the arenas were. The detail in the mosaic describes the capture of animals for the Colosseum in Rome and other venues built for competition. At the time of Augustus, the Colosseum of Rome did not yet exist, however, the mosaic represents the entire Roman Empire, from Morocco to India and beyond. It is a unique document detailing the techniques for capturing animals and their transport. It tells meter by meter, in exquisite mastery the acquirement of animals for the arena matches, and even those sent to private zoos. It beautifully encapsulates the historical developments and importance of these monuments throughout the Roman Empire.


The image begins from Morocco with the imperial troops crowned with laurels, creating a semi-circle with their shields to lure the leopards into a trap consisting of a wooden crate with a dead goat inside. The first in the scene is a leopard mother with her young son, most likely a symbol of the young gladiators "venatores", being led to be sacrificed by fighting to the death.


Now the journey continues, and as you move along the tiles, you meet a Berber lion, the same one that the American media company Metro Golden Mayer adopted as its film production symbol. There is a leopard that kills an antelope, a house with colonnade with curtains symbolizing a village, and then you see the transport of the crates with the captured animals put on a wooden wheel wagon full pulled by oxen. The crate in the center has red tiles, indicating a blood state, usually meaning suffering for us in the modern world, but for the Romans, it indicated strength and courage

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After days of walking, you arrive at a port, perhaps Carthage, and you see the animals being boarded as if it were the Ark of Noah. There are two men with two well-kept ostriches with beautiful plumes, two others forcefully push an antelope, while two sailors deploy the sails. Upon arrival at the boardwalk at the unloading dock,  only an ostrich and a single wooden crate remain in this portion of the image, a cue to emphasize how easy it was for the animals to die during the long journey to Rome. It was an ecatombe, the Romans caused the extinction of many animals on all the shores of the Mediterranean and beyond.


Further in the scene, the large mosaic shows an enormous tiger who has landed on the other side of the shore, symbolizing all the animals captured in the East, while the ship that carried the creatures remains in view. An elephant that is in chains and ropes writhes amongst the activity. Transporting these animals was very dangerous and many methods and artifacts, often cruel, were used to subdue them. The tiger has a kind of muzzle aggressively forcing its mouth open, and a piece of wood protrudes from the horns of wildebeest and an oryx, preventing them from killing their human keepers. Finally, we arrive on the easternmost bank of the Roman Empire, and in the scene on the Nile mosaic, there is a crocodile, a hippopotamus, and the animal keepers pulling a half-submerged rhino from the water.


However, in the image, there is an inconsistency. In Africa, rhinos have two horns and live in savannas in arid environments, and the mosaic creature here lives in water and has only one horn. A mistake? No, this species of rhinoceros is found in India, and this piece shows how the Romans managed to capture exotic and delicate, aquatic animals, restraining them in the Nile before sending them to Rome.

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Going forward along the massive scene we enter Mesopotamia, where there is a concerned official, and at the top, you see a legionnaire attacked by a lion, an oryx attacked by a leopard, two legionnaires on horseback escorting a large wagon with a very large crate. A smaller boatload of men on horseback who arrives in a state of urgency, and behind this is a large tiger that attacks his own image reflected in a mirror. Puppies can be seen being taken away to be raised as pets, and a Griffon tries to devour a man who is hidden in a wooden crate.


The Griffon vulture is a fantastical animal of the imagination, most likely representing the gateway beyond to the unknown world to the Romans. So, with this mystical beast ends the amazing exploration through this historically phenomenal mosaic inside the villa of the Casale in Piazza Armerina that had immense significance to the ancient Romans, and stands as one of humanities greatest relics of their past.


The Roman Mosaics at Piazza Armerina

Milazzo Castle:
Surviving Through The Ages

Elvira Valentina Resta & Randy H. Sooknanan

ASAG Journal

June 18, 2020

*The fortified citadel, known as "Castello di Milazzo", was built on Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Muslim, and Spanish settlements and is the largest castle in Sicily and covering almost 14,000 square meters. It is also the most important historical monument in the area and an impressive site in position and stature, while perfectly illustrating the last thousand years of Sicilian history.

Castello di Milazzo is located on the top of a hill overlooking the city of Milazzo in Sicily, Italy. This castle and adjoining structures, along with the land it sits upon itself has a very storied history. It is an archaeological site that has spanned many eras and has been subjected to many different ruling nations, just like the beautiful island of Sicily.  Around the waters surrounding the cliffs, archaeologists have found shipwrecks dating back to the earliest of ship faring times. It was during these times without the advent of lighthouses that the site was a most dangerous place to approach in the night, adding to the strength of its location. These wrecks also show us the amount of history connected to the area, which is astounding.

The castle is surrounded by the ocean on 3 sides, which is interestingly a great analogy for the island of Sicily itself, as it is locally known as a land being surrounded by "the three seas". The cultural symbol of Sicily is in fact Medusa with 3 legs extruding from her head, which represents the three seas. 

This particular site was first fortified all the way back in the Neolithic era near the very end of the stone age nearly 12,000 years ago. Its location and geographical traits have always made it an ideal spot for fortification. The first intricate fortifications were built around 4000 BC. 

Over the centuries we can see the ancient Greeks, who modified it into an acropolis. In ancient Greece, an acropolis was a settlement or 'a citadel, built upon an area of elevated ground—frequently a hill with precipitous sides, chosen for purposes of defense.' (1) 

Later in the world of antiquity, the site of Castello di Milazzo was enlarged into a fortified military camp, known as 'Castrum' in Latin, by the Romans and then the Byzantines. After the dark ages and fall of the Roman empire, the Arabs eventually came along and 'built a castle, which was further modified and enlarged during the Medieval and Early Modern periods.' (2) 

The castle was in Habsburg hands for the first half of the 18th century, before being taken over by the Bourbons. They controlled the castle until losing Milazzo to Giuseppe Garibaldi in the year 1860. Then the castle was subsequently converted into a prison in 1880, and underwent a number of alterations.

Even though this fortified citadel was built on Greek, Roman, Byzantine and Muslim settlements the first documents date back to the Norman era (11th-12th century AD).

In the 13th century, King Frederick II of Swabia took care of the defensive structures of the island of Sicily and entrusted Richard da Lentini with the task of expanding the fortification of the Milazzo Castle which became a fortified citadel.

In the second half of the 14th century, Sicily became part of the Kingdom of Aragon, at the behest of Alfonso the Magnanim the castle was modernized. Ferdinand the King of Spain then built the "Aragonese town wall" encompassing the medieval structures.
In 1525, during the Empire of Charles V of Spain, under the Viceroy Ettore Pignatelli, work began on the construction of the Spanish Belt that enclosed the medieval village, civil and religious buildings, military structures. Spaces for stables and warehouses were built within the new walls; there were also numerous water cisterns distributed throughout the large territory. Archive documents inform us that at the end of the sixteenth century there were 1200 civilian inhabitants with a slow movement out of the walls towards the lower part, towards the sea.

 In 1608 the construction of the Old Cathedral began inside the fortification.
In 1718/19 with a great siege on the fortified city, Spain loses the island of Sicily that becomes part of the Austrian kingdom.

From 1734 to 1860 Sicily is part of the Bourbon kingdom with capital Naples (Crown Bourbon of Spain).
The Citadel was no stranger to the Liberal/Republican revolt movements of 1820 and 1848.

After the creation of the Kingdom of  Italy in 1880, the Castle, losing its military function, was converted into a men's prison. 'The prison then closed in 1959 and the castle remained abandoned for a couple of decades.  The structures are still in good condition and open to the public now.

All in all this impressive site and has passed ownership from Antiquity with Phonetician, Greek, Roman rule to Arab, Norman, and Swabian rule to Aragonese and Spanish rule to finally the Bourbons. The castle we see today was erected as a result of the strategic importance in 'the Milazzo peninsula, which commands the Gulf of Patti, the body of water that separates Sicily from the Aeolian Islands.' (3) To this day, commands one of Sicily's most important natural harbors.


1. Acropolis - Wikipedia.
2. Castello di Milazzo - The World of Castles.
3. Castello di Milazzo - Wikipedia.

The Taormina Theatre 

Randy H. Sooknanan

ASAG Journal

May 23, 2020

*Why would the ancient Greeks build such a place upon such a dangerous environment? Why would the Romans continue to as well right under the nose of an active and volatile volcano?


Well, put simply, it was too beautiful a spot not to.

The Greek theatre of Taormina, was born to accommodate dramatic performances and musicals, then it transformed during the Roman period to make room for games and gladiatorial battles. During this time, there was an expansion to the orchestra section, which in the Greek period designed for musicians, was adapted to be a new functional arena for brutal sport.

What was the purpose of the Greco-Roman amphitheaters?

Ancient Roman amphitheaters were large public venues, they were of a circular or oval design and had seating tiers around the perimeter. The height of the Classical Greek age (480 BC – 323 BC) pre-dates the Roman Empire by a number of centuries. Within the timeline of Ancient Greece, emerging around 800 BC to its subjection to the Roman Empire in 146 BC, saw fundamentally different uses for amphitheatres in general. The biggest difference? The Greeks used them for dramatic plays and the Romans used them primarily for major events such as gladiator combats, chariot races, venationes (animal hunts), and executions.

Initial ideology behind Amphitheaters 

The old Greek Theatres are irrevocably important from an anthropology viewpoint because the idea of Theater became significant to general Greek culture when it became an integral part of festivals honoring the gods. The Greek empire was far-reaching, and as a result, the concept was spread throughout much of the world, along with the mythological tales that many plays were based upon. Culture was more easily spread with the advent of massive structures where audiences could indulge in the art of militaristic Rome, games of violence for entertainment.

Location, location, location

If it is true that "the utmost pleasure of travelling is attained when movement in space is united with movement in time," then a trip to the extraordinary world of Naxos Taormina Archaeological Park is a perfect journey. We might start by asking ourselves why, in 734 BC, the first Greek colonists, having the whole Ionian coast at their disposal, should have selected precisely that point, on that small lava peninsula, the final outcropping of the majestic volcano, to found the first colony, Naxos. But Count Otto von Geleng would immediately provide his answer, and on arriving at Giardini, in the course of his stay in Taormina, in the early days of February 1863, he called it "the island in the sky," an authentic "region of the soul." To convey his happiness at having found such a paradise, he sent his watercolors to Berlin, where they were not well received. "Is there really," asked the critics, "a place where trees in blossom frame the snowy volcano, or are those paintings merely the fruit of the imagination of a young romantic artist?" This is the same wonder that still today amazes and bewitches the visitor to the Park, as happened to Frances Elliot, who, after her tor in 1879 and 1880, exclaimed: "The memory of what I saw during the journey by rail from Messina to Taormina makes me melancholy. Now I understand why the gods loved Sicily so profoundly."

The ancient theatre is without question the most important feature for sight-seers in Taormina, also because of its very fortunate natural setting, with a splendid view toward the Calabrian coast, the Ionian coast of Sicily and the spectacular cone of Etna. (1)


The theatre is divided into several parts: The Scene, the Orchestra, the Cavea, the Portici, and the Access Stairs. The Greek Theatre of Taormina is the second-largest theater of Sicily, after the one in Syracuse, it is also the world's best known and most admired.  The construction of the amphitheater starts by the Greeks around the third century. BC, at the time of Hiero II. To allow the construction was necessary to remove manually from the mountain over 100,000 cubic meters of rock. The plant was later renovated and expanded by the Romans, who inserted columns, statues, and ingenious covers. (2) 

In modern times

Since the 1950s the theatre has hosted various forms of entertainment such as plays, concerts, award ceremonies of, symphonies, operas and ballet performances. 

1. Greek Theatre of Taormina - Sicily -

2. Greek Theatre of Taormina - Sicily -


Milazzo Castle


Teatro Antico di Taormina

The Cloak of King Roger of Sicily

Elvira Valentina Resta

ASAG Journal

August 12, 2020

A masterpiece made in the hizanat at-tiraz, a laboratory that was located next to the Royal Palace. The Fatimid inscription in kufic characters found on the edge of the cloak indicates exactly the city of the realization: Palermo. This cloak together with other precious clothes were taken away from the royal treasure by the new king of the Romans and of Sicily Henry VI Hohenstaufen (Swabian), husband of Costanza d'Altavilla and father of Federico II after that in 1194 he received as dowry of his wife Costanza the Norman kingdom. All the treasure was brought from Sicily to Germany and since then it is still kept there in Vienna in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Shatzkammer.

The cloak is an embroidery masterpiece in silk, gold, pearls, precious and semiprecious stones. It has a semicircular shape 345 cm long and 146 cm high and is adorned with a thin palm tree which symbolizes the tree of life which divides the cloak into two equal parts in which there are a lion and a camel. The lions have a straight head, an arched chest and a moving tail triumphantly on a camel with bridles and gualdrappas that characterize a domesticated animal. The embroideries are in gold thread on chermés red silk and a double row of small river pearls follow the contours of the figures and some parts of the internal design. The mustache and claws had to be embroidered in dark silk, now lost. The front edge is embroidered with strings of pearls that frame palmettes and diamond shapes in gold and enamel, one has a rabbit.
The decoration is an ancient oriental motif particularly loved and widespread in Palermo: it is found in the mosaic of the floor and ceiling of the Palatine Chapel, in the mosaics of the Zisa, the Martorana and in the Roger Room of the Royal Palace. The lion is a symbol of power that is found in the past up to the ruins of Persepolis and in Sumerian art but the lion that overpowers the camel is really rare, what is the symbolic meaning? If the camel represents the Arabs of Sicily, it could be the recognition of power relations in a non-violent way. When the Normans conquered Sicily they obtained political power but the value of the culture and science of the Arabs was not affected and their religion tolerated. But the meaning could be cosmic: the medallions and rosettes embroidered on the joints and muzzle of the lions correspond roughly to the positions of the stars in the zodiacal sign of the lion on a celestial globe made around 1225 in Egypt and kept in the Capodimonte Museum in Naples. These decorations are found on silks made in Syria, Iran and Iraq to testify that the symbolism of the zodiac is a further oriental tradition absorbed by western culture and used for the cloaks of kings.
A round stud in gold and enamel set between precious stones and filigree is sewn over the head of the lions of Ruggero's cloak. Each stud is decorated with two overlapping squares to form an eight-pointed star that encloses a sun. It is a "cosmogram", a much loved decoration in Coptic textile art. The intertwining of the squares is a symbol of the cosmos and to the relationship of the world with the divine, this decorative theme is repeated in the wooden ceiling of the Palatine Chapel in Palermo. The gold and enamel elements were probably made by goldsmiths from Byzantium and in 1980 the names of the embroiderers were found written in Arabic on a strip of linen under the embroidered scapulars: Marzuq, Ali, Mahmud under the guidance of Damyan. 

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Zoom in of lining of Cloak
(Credit: Funci, 2021)

It is the oldest lining and applied along the inner edge in order to be visible when, walking, the cloak opens. Made of silk in bright colors, red, green, blue, lilac yellow ocher, white and black. The decorations have different themes "tree of life", "dragons", "birds". In the published image, stylized trees are seen from whose branches come the heads of dragons that have pointed ears and show their tongues. Under each tree to the right and left there are human figures with long dresses and beside the heads fantastic birds and bizarre rabbits.

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The second is of a zoom of cloak of material Italian manufacture from the second half of the 14th century, red with flowers 
(Credit: Funci, 2021)

The second is of Italian manufacture from the second half of the 14th century, red with flowers.

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The Cloak of King Roger of Sicily

The third lining is green, coming from the Near East, from the 12th century. It is a silk with iridescent colors, some parts are in gray and light brown. The decorations are vegetal with lotus flowers 
(Credit: Funci, 2021)

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