Capo Gallo’s hermit is creating a work of praise and devotion…

9 June, 2010

Sicily’s north west coast is mountainous and dramatic. Steep rocky promontories, one after the other as far as the eye can see, jut out into a clear, turquoise sea; layer upon layer of mountains, in varying shades of the softest blue, dissolve into the sky like a Japanese watercolour.
The steep promontory of Capo Gallo forms the northern end of the ring of mountains that surrounds Palermo, separating Mondello, Palermo’s famous beachside suburb, from the nearby fishing village of Sferracavallo. It is a headland of sheer, pale limestone rock walls, well known to rock climbers and cavers, but also readily accessible to walkers.  And the climb to the top is well worth the effort. The air there is fresh and pure, the light bright and clear; and everything is silent, except for the sound of wind in the trees, birds in the sky, and an occasional boat far below leaving a white trail behind it on the water. The sky and the sea seem vast – endless – and on a clear day, looking back over Monte Pellegrino and the city, along the coast to the east, you can see as far as the Aeolian islands.

Fourteen years ago, a bricklayer by the name of Antonino was living with his wife and four daughters in the city below Monte Gallo when God spoke to him and told him he should go and live on the mountain. Antonino answered God’s call and has been there ever since, living as a hermit in an abandoned lighthouse, working silently and industriously to decorate every surface with mosaics and paintings.  It is an act of devotion, in praise of God. I had heard about the hermit of Capo Gallo before, and I’d been to the top of the mountain and seen the paintings on the outside walls of the lighthouse.  But the building had always been locked and silent. I had seen no sign of the hermit, or had any opportunity to see inside the building.  This time, thanks to Pippo, a knowledgeable local who was acting as our guide, I was able to do both. 

The walk up the mountain starts in via Tolomea, above Mondello, at a point that is accessible by car and already part way up the mountain. From here, it takes just an hour or so up a steep forestry track to reach the top. Because the area, now a nature reserve of about 586 hectares managed by the State Forest Authority, is apparently rich in native animals and plants, it was surprising to find ourselves, initially, in the middle of a pine forest. Pippo explained that when the Forest Authority took on responsibility for the reserve, it felt it had to show the people it was doing something, and that the best way of doing that would be to do something dramatic. So, instead of planting Mediterranean macchia, native scrub and bushes, and carob trees, which would have been the sensible thing to do, it planted a quick growing pine forest.

In places the track was rocky, with loose stones, and here and there on the rocks and stones the hermit had painted various religious symbols and the words ‘via Santa’ – the Holy Way. Once out of the pine forest and getting nearer the top, we had the first glimpse of the lighthouse that has been home to the hermit for the last fourteen years.  There are the remains of two other, much earlier, watch towers on the mountain, part of the network of towers on Sicily’s coast that were used to warn the population of the approach of pirate ships. These towers definitely warrant further investigation, but that is for another day. Today, we are paying a visit to Antonino.

I haven’t yet been able to find out when the lighthouse was constructed, though I suspect probably in the 19th century, or how it was that Antonino was able to take up residence there. Presumably, he just moved in and the State Forest authority has never objected. Two things were surprising: first, the extent of the work and the skill with which it was done; and secondly, the obvious order, discipline and commitment in this man’s life. He seemed to be living a truly monastic existence, with unwavering devotion and purpose.

The ground floor has six rooms, or spaces, which include a chapel and a bedroom. The floors are all painted, sometimes white with dark blue stars, sometimes in geometrical patterns of yellow, black and white. The walls are covered in meticulous mosaics made of tiny stones collected from the beach, and small pieces of tiles or mirrors and here and there pieces of glass or metal. In the centre of the structure is a circular staircase that takes you up to a large terrace area that overlooks the sea, surrounding mountains and the city. And from there, up again to a room in the tower, not yet finished, with pointed arched windows. As a result of its scale, quality and obvious seriousness, the work is now sometimes referred to as an example of ‘outsider art’ i.e. art that is created quite outside the mainstream world of art and culture, often by an artist who is completely self-taught.

The scale of the work, the dedication and concentration necessary to carry it out, and the order and discipline that was apparent everywhere, in every room, suggested that, strange as he might be – almost certainly is –this hermit has developed and maintained a focus, dedication and devotion that is rare. True, in order to do so he has removed himself from family life and worldly worry, but even so, what he is doing seems quite extraordinary.

In front of the lighthouse, a stone edged path leads down towards the top of the cliff where an iron cross has been planted among the rocks, and below it an iron construction that might represent a plant, or perhaps a torch. Both are drenched in light, with a backdrop of nothing but sea and sky. I sat there in the warmth of the sun, looking out over the water to the horizon and thought that God had been kind to this bricklayer. Perhaps it is only right that he should be devoting his life to this work of praise and devotion.

5 Responses to “Capo Gallo’s hermit is creating a work of praise and devotion…”

  1. Antonio Says:

    Extraordinary tale, Kate, very Sicilian. It sounds such a beautiful spot – only an hour’s climb yet removed to another world from the metropolis below – and the views amazing. I gather you actually met Antonino – what was he like? I think you are right that God has been kind to him.

  2. kateludlow Says:

    I left out the most interesting bit! I did meet Antonino, but only briefly. Difficult to say what he’s like really: a good looking man, medium height, dark, greying hair, a bushy grey beard and, probably the most striking thing about him, piercing dark brown eyes. I had the sense there was nothing spare about him, no excesses, nothing indulgent. Possibly influenced by the context, I was reminded of pictures of Christ. He’s articulate, and enthusiastic when talking about God. Otherwise, I felt a strange sort of distance. Thank you for the comment -you are right, up there it does feel like another world.

  3. Antonio Says:

    From your description, Kate, he does sound Christ-like. An interesting man, devoted to and communing with God from his eyrie.

  4. CateM Says:

    A fascinating story – and certainly ‘off the beaten’ track’! What an extraordinary man. I wonder if he is still involved with his family and what they make of his devotion. Perhaps they enable him to live up there by bringing him food etc? Also, how did he react to your presence? Was he surprised by your visit?

    • kateludlow Says:

      It is off the beaten track! I wondered about his family too. I don’t know. In particular, I wondered what his daughters might think. Pippo had let him know we were coming, so he wasn’t surprised by our visit and was welcoming. It’s difficult to explain, but somehow I felt there was something different about him. He seemed to keep himself at a distance. Thank you for the comment.

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