Sicily's city of love and death

Phillip Blom explores Catania, birthplace of the great 19th-century opera composer Bellini, where life appears to have changed little since his day

"AND THIS", said the guide in his carefully memorised English, "is the woman Bellini loved too much."

No explanation given, none obtainable; elaboration exceeded his vocabulary. The woman is identified, by a plaque underneath the painting, as Giuditta Turina, a vision of 1830s loveliness with a long white neck and softly undulating curls, shoulders free, slender arms lying in her lap, a rose in her hand. Next to the portrait is a photograph of the same woman many, many years later, cruelly swaddled in Victorian finery, the face thinned and hardened, sunken eyes looking out from under a frilly bonnet, the hands barely peeking out from heavy sleeves. "Gather ye rosebuds while ye may."

The Museo Belliniano in Catania is a curiously affecting place. In these rooms, the birthplace of the opera composer, mementoes of his short life are crowded together, seemingly untouched for decades. In the alcove in which he was born (a plaque on its back wall reads: "In questo alcove vene alla luce Bellini") is his piano, unrestored, as if he had been the last person to touch it. The chair in front of it in the form of a shell with dolphin legs has been allowed to rot away like its owner - and like its owner's city.

Decay holds no terrors here. Displayed in a niche of the museum is the coffin in which Bellini's corpse was transferred from Milan to Catania, 41 years after his death in 1835. The purple velvet is bleached and torn. A death mask was taken from the corpse so many years afterwards that the nose is all but gone. Inside the niche, contemporary photos in tasteful gilt frames show a corpse in an advanced state of mummification, on the opposite wall is the dead composer in the "official version": Bellini as youthful hero ascending to the heavens with angels and muses. Death and transfiguration.

It does not seem strange that a precocious genius like Bellini was born so far off the beaten track. What is surprising is that Catania did not bring forth more operatic composers. The young Vincenzo would have had no difficulty imagining the heroines of his later works in this city. The Roman theatre only a street away would make a fine backdrop for Norma, while the 13th-century Castello Ursino would be fertile ground for any medieval operatic fantasies, with its high grey walls and heavy towers. And then there is San Nicolo on the Piazza Dante - a church that would have had the largest Baroque facade in Europe but was left unfinished when the money ran out - standing there like a gigantic abandoned stage set.

The Catania of today derives its unified appearance from catastrophes. When Bellini was born there in 1801 the city had been rebuilt after being destroyed first by an eruption of Mount Etna, and then by an earthquake. A Baroque city had been created, with a regular grid of broad alleys, with innumerable churches, intimate piazzas and imposing palaces. Bombing during the Second World War, the absence of effective building regulations and the involvement of the Mafia in the construction industry have spoiled some of this beauty, but large parts of the city centre remain intact.

This is a city of a softly decaying, continuous past where the 18th-century seems not to have come to its end. Every now and then, a lighted window in a discoloured facade reveals the glory of a hidden ballroom. Designer shops, discreet jewellers and couture houses testify to secret wealth. Rich Catanese live in apartments that are luxurious on the inside only. Nothing but the heavily secured doors betray their existence to the passer- by. Once these doors have opened, shining displays of silver, antiques and porcelain proclaim the taste and money of their proud owners.

As in centuries past, wealth and poverty often live cheek by jowl. Nobly dressed attendees of a premiere at the Teatro Bellini (gold, plush and frescoes) must watch their step; across the road begins the quarter in which the prostitutes ply their trade. Washing hangs across the narrow streets. Some women are already standing in the doorways and calling out to passers-by.

I arrived at the market, a square full of people buying fish, fruit and vegetables, cheese and meat of every kind and description, fresh, fresh, fresh, as the stall owners cried at the tops of their voices from everywhere. Only the part with the shoes and clothes was a little quieter.

Catania comes alive in the evenings; it is reputed to be Sicily's best night-spot. In front of the old university building the young and the beautiful promenade, eat, drink, and listen to live music. I ate Sicilian dishes in a restaurant dedicated to "slow food": wonderful cheeses and meat dishes, accompanied by surprisingly dense red wine similar to a good Cote du Rhone. The tables had been set up in the street, the via Cruciferi, which boasts seven Baroque churches within 200 yards.

Nobody should be allowed to stage Bellini without visiting Catania. If a libretto seems far-fetched in London, it makes perfect sense here. A Catanese acquaintance nearly died after being poisoned by his ex-lover, whom he had left for another woman. The poisoner was never prosecuted. It was felt by all concerned that our friend had got what was coming to him. A female cousin of the same family fell in love with the wrong sort of man and was locked in her room by her parents for several weeks to come to her senses. She escaped with the help of a servant.

She married him, her wrong sort of man. He was a traffic policeman. Not quite up to the parents' expectations. On the Piazza Bellini I watched one of his colleagues in his white sola topi bossing about the traffic with a white baton and a whistle which he used solely to illustrate his gestures. One peep for every wave. He did not direct the traffic, he conducted it.

And Giuditta Turina, the woman Bellini loved too much? I found a little book about their affair in a local bookshop. Our guide's English had let him down after all. It was she who loved too much. Married at 17 to a rich merchant, she had a passionate five-year affair with Bellini. On tour through Europe, the composer was consumed with jealousy when she did not respond to his letters and broke with her. Her husband turned her out and she remained penniless and abandoned, though not a day passed without her thinking of her great love.

FACT FILE

catania

Getting there

Catania is on the east coast of Sicily and is the island's second centre after Palermo. Flights to Catania from the UK are usually via Rome or Milan.

Flight Traders (tel: 0800 3897379) offers returns flight via Rome or Milan with Al Italia for pounds 262 departing after 8 November. It also offers direct charter flights to either Catania or Palermo for pounds 219 return.

Where to stay

Badia Verde (tel: 0039 95 491 522) is by the sea and built into the lava rock. Rooms cost from pounds 130, including breakfast.

The Excelsior, built in the Sixties, is a rather engaging throw-back to that era (tel: 0039 95 537 071).

More moderately priced are the Villa Dina (tel: 0039 95 447 103) and the Nettuno (tel: 0039 95 712 5252). There is little commercial tourism in Catania, and the city is an ideal base for exploring places of interest such as Syracuse, Naxos, Taormina, and Mount Etna, all of which are less than one hour's drive away. Day trips can be made to the Roman villa near Enna, the temples of Agrigento, and to Messina.

Further information

Contact the Italian State Tourist Board at 1 Princes Street, London, W1R 8OY (tel: 0891 600 280, calls cost 50p per minute).

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