Taormina Myth


he first name of the town was Tauromenium, which is up to now preserved even if transformed in Taormina, and it means built up area in Tauro the mountain upon which it rose. According to the historian Diodoro, Siculians and Greeks too gave that name to the town. But there are a lot of legends around the origin of the name. One of these tales is about a Minotauro, which is represented in ancient coins, and by which the name could derive. Another evokes two princes from Palestina, Taurus and Menia, who would have founded the town, giving it the Tauromena name. Around Taormina there are other many legends. Some of them have Pitagora as protagonist, who would have spoken in the same day to Taormina and to Metaponto, would have made Taormina adopt the laws of Caronda, would have placated the erotic furies of a young taorminese playing his magic flute.
In reality, Pitagora lived a historical period in which Tauromenium was not still founded.



uy de Maupassant in "La Vie errante", 1885, wrote: "if somebody might pass one day only in Sicily and asked: What should I visit? I would answer without hesitate: Taormina". Perfumed with zagara and jasmines, Taormina became through the centuries, with its wonderful views, with the sweetness of its climate, the rich history and precious monuments, a tourist international centre, more and more famousand wanted. It would be more correct, however, to say that Taormina was born touristic. The Siculi had chosen it as their home city. And after them the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines and Saracens, in other words all its conquerors, inhabited Taormina for long periods and not only because of political vicissitudes. The Normans, particularly, consecrated it like a tourist residential center and it became, since then, centre for congresses and conferences, visits and stays. If we wanted to anchor the tourist modern history of Taormina to an initial date, we could settle down the date of 1870, year in which the Siracusa-Catania-Messina railroad was completed.
Another important event was the inauguration in 1873 of the Hotel Timeo.


n 1904 the most important hotels in Taormina, as it results in a publication printed in New York, were Hotel San Domenico, Hotel Timeo, Hotel Metropole, Hotel Castello a Mare, Hotel Naumachie, Hotel Victoria. In more than one hundred years the tourism in Taormina have had ups and downs. But the town is still the dream of the tourists from all the world who love the beauties of nature and art. In 1770 Patrick Brydone arrived in Taormina and in 1787 the town was discovered by W. Goethe (accompanied by the draftsman Kniep) who dedicated exalting pages to the city in his book entitled "Journey to Italy".
Filippo Calandruccio in "Beehive" writes that "the travellers went and came in number always increasing and a lot of them represented artistically their emotional reactions". But it was only about the end of the 19th century that Taormina reached the apex of the notoriety as place of international stay. Nobles and well-off English men started to acquire more and more villas. Soon there came also the North Americans, Austro-Hungarians, Baltics, Belgians, Swiss, Dutchs, Germans. The most prestigious characters of the whole Europe visited Taormina.


aormina is famous as an international tourist centre thanks to Otto Geleng, a young red-haired Prussian painter, best known in his hometown of Berlin for his fine paintings, which he composed and painted in Italy but exhibited in Germany.
What distinguishes Geleng, however, is his choice to depict the more southern regions where he captured the spectacular views and lights of Sicily. He often painted the Greek colonial ruins' areas, including Taormina. It was Geleng's views that made its beauty talked about throughout Europe and turned the site into a famous tourist center.
The artist arrived in Sicily at the age of 20 in search of new subjects for his paintings. On his way through Taormina he was so enamoured by the landscape that he decided to stop for the winter. Geleng began to paint everything that Taormina offered: ruins, sea, mountains, none of which were familiar to the rest of Europe.
When his paintings were later exhibited in Berlin and Paris, many critics accused Geleng of having an unbridled imagination'. At that, Geleng challenged them all to go to Taormina with him, promising that he wouid pay everyone's expenses if he was not telling the truth.
He went back to Taormina, created the first hotel out of a noble mansion, now called the Timeo Hotel, and that was that: those paintings reflected the reality of absolutely unique natural wonders.


n the late 19th century, another German, Wilhelm von Gloeden, had his photographs distributed all over the world, especially those of nude boys adorned with crowns of laurel which made Berlin's upper classes go into raptures. He was claimed to be minor German aristocrat from Mecklenburg. Suffering from what appears to have been tuberculosis, he came to Taormina in 1876. He was wealthy and also scrupulously shared the proceeds of his sales with his models, providing a considerable economic boost in this comparativily poor region of Italy, which might explain why the homosexual aspects of his life and work were generally tolerated by the locals. During the early 20th century the town became a colony of expatriate artists, writers, and intellectuals. D. H. Lawrence stayed here at the Fontana Vecchia from 1920 to 1922, and wrote a number of his poems, novels, short stories, essays and a travel book, "Sea and Sardinia". He writes: "Here we feel as if we lived for a thousands of years. I know that Taormina isn't waiting only for me, it waits for all men." Charles Webster Leadbeater, the theosophical author, found out that Taormina had the right magnetics fields for Jiddu Krishnamurtito develop his talents. In 1927 the young Icelandic writer Halldor Laxness (born 1902) published his first major novel, Vefarinn mikli fra Kasmir (The Great Weaver of Kashmir), a panorama of social, literary, religious and sexual issues of his times. Laxness, who won the Nobel prize for literature in 1955, wrote most of his novel in Taormina which he then praised highly in his book of autobiographical essays, Skaldatimi (The Time of the Poet) from 1963.


etween 1948 and 1999 the English writer Daphne Phelps lived in the Casa Cuseni designed and built by Robert H. Kitson in 1905, and entertained various friends including Bertrand Russell, Ronald Dahl, and Tennessee Williams. Daphne Phelps, who has died aged 94, was for nearly 60 years the dutiful custodian and hospitable locandiera of Casa Cuseni, the villa built a century ago by her uncle, the artist Robert H. Kitson. The site commands spectacular views of Mount Etna and the Bay of Naxos over the rooftops of Taormina, and has ample cisterns to collect water for the 13 garden terraces and fountain courts. Daphne was also the author of "A House in Sicily" (1999), published by Virago, which provides her account of notable house guests and local people who enjoyed her patronage. Daphne embellished Casa Cuseni's terraces and courts with exotic plants and fruit trees. These flourished in the rich humus she produced, according to the principles of the Soil Association, of which she, encouraged by her friend Michael Bruce, became a life member. The gardens and house, itself a casa museo with a unique dining room furnished and decorated by Sir Frank Brangwyn and Sir Alfred East have been declared of "cultural and historic importance" by the Belle Arti in Messina, and Daphne's heirs intend to maintain this legacy, one of very few Sicilian properties still in the care of its expatriate creators.


he family fortune was built around Kitsons of Leeds, locomotive manufacturers from the 1830s. By the 1890s, Daphne's mother was on her way up to the stimulating company of Newnham College, Cambridge, and met Alys and Bertrand Russell, who put her name forward to the Fabian Society, and Sidney and Beatrice Webb, for whom she undertook research for their history of English local government. Marriage, 3 daughters and a son, and the depressive impact of the first world war on their father, curtailed her activities and profoundly affected Daphne. After St Felix School, Southwold, Suffolk, she trained in psychiatric social work at St Anne's College, Oxford, and the London School of Economics. Seeking further experience, she embarked for New York in 1939. The war blocked her return until August 1941, and her hand-to-mouth existence included taking a homesick Benjamin Britten for a drive on Long Island and enjoying the hospitality of the Russells on Lake Tahoe, and in the bizarre stockade of the Barnes Foundation, near Philadelphia. Back in London, she worked in Sir Solly Zuckerman's team, researching the effects of the blitz, and then at the London Hospital before joining the West Sussex child guidance service, set up by her guru from the LSE, Dr Kate Friedlander. The death of her uncle Robert in September 1947 redirected Daphne's life. He had just returned to Casa Cuseni, which had been commandeered in turn by Italian fascists, the German high command, Lieutenant Alan Whicker's Army Film Unit, and, as a rest camp, by a Canadian regiment. She went to sort out the estate and sell up, but the sale fell through, and by then she had a good working relationship with her uncle's cook. She reduced costly commitments, fended off local suitors with an eye on her inheritance and found she could just afford to live there if she had studio flats built on the roof terrace and took paying guests. These were attracted through an extensive network of artists and academics. Their friends, children and grandchildren were to follow. The first guests included the artists Julian Trevelyan and his future wife, Mary Fedden. His father, Bob, probably introduced Kitson to Taormina where a Trevelyan aunt had settled many years before, and his cousin, Raleigh, became a regular visitor. Gaylord Hauser took the house and reputedly entertained Greta Garbo. The Russells came, as did the novelist Jocelyn Brooke, Dame Janet Vaughan and other Somerville College alumni, Alison "Monroe of Arabia" and Janet Adam Smith, and Robina Addis of the World Federation for Mental Health. Dennis Mack Smith of All Soul's College, Oxford, drafted his History of Sicily at Casa Cuseni. Bob Macrae of Toronto University drafted his study of John Stuart Mill there. Daphne had misgivings about some guests, such as German matrons whose songs she associated with the Hitler Youth, and she kept out Caitlin Thomas, widow of Dylan, with her clinking bottles. But she always found room for the wayward Kentucky artist, H. Faulkner, and his menagerie, which sometimes included Tennessee Williams.


aphne provided a heaven for the young people who came with her nephew to support those made homeless by the Belice valley earthquake of 1968, and the Italian archaeologists whore vealed the ancient Greek city at Gela. American guests included Alfred Barr of New York's Museum of Modern Art and academics such as Bette and John McAndrew, the architectural historian and founding director of Save Venice. Bette McAndrew was so impressed by Daphne's Venice in Peril fundraising, that she left Daphne the residue of her estate. This enabled her, in the 1980s, to refenestrate the front of Casa Cuseni. Daphne did not publish her recollections of her uncle's close friend, Don Carlo Siligato, and never wrote up her scabrous tales about the Princes of Biscari who lived next door for some years, but her accounts indicate her close integration into Sicilian life. She was on good terms with the same Mafia boss as her uncle. And she is remembered with affection for continuing her uncle's support for the hostel for the aged poor, recommending struggling restaurants and shops to her guests, and patronising the now renowned Macri marionette theatre of Acireale. Daphne found a soul mate in her housekeeper, Concetta Cundari, who shared her love of horticulture, cooking, children and dogs, and was given the house at the garden gate for her family. When aroused, Daphne was formidable, and had no difficulty gathering a petition against the demeaning appendage of her uncle's name to an unkempt cul-de-sac. The Taormina Comune transferred it to a prominent highway. When Daphne had to give up travelling to England, she asked Concetta to implement her donation of her uncle's sketchbooks and a selection of his watercolours to Leeds University, for which Kitson had commissioned Brangwyn to design the ceremonial verge on its foundation in 1905. The success of "A House in Sicily" paid for repairs and air conditioning in her own apartment during what she termed her "yonderly" years. Many are glad to celebrate Daphne's indomitable vitality and her legacy to future generations.


mong so many artists and lettered, we remember Truman Capote, El Salvador Dali', Edmondo De Amicis, Alexandre Dumas, Gabriel Faure, Anatole France, Andre' Gide, Paul Klee, Gustav Klimt, Luigi Pirandello, Leonardo Sciascia, John Steinbeck, Oscar Wilde. Among musicians and conductors we remember Johannes Brahms, Leonard Bernstein, Nikita Magaloff, Richard Wagner. Among the men of cinema, theater and performance we remember Michelangelo Antonioni, Ingmar Bergman, Francis Ford Coppola, Marlene Dietrich, Eleonora Duse, Federico Fellini, Cary Grant, Marcello Mastroianni, Gregory Peck, Tyrone Power. Among the men of State, magnates of finance and ruling families we remember Willy Brandt, Lord Carrington, Kaiser William II, King Juan II of Bourbon, Urho Kekkonen, Francois Mitterand, Grand Duke Paul of Russia, Rothschild, Humbert I of Italy. Pietro Rizzo writes in his "Tauromenium" book: "From the Tauro Mount, from the Theater, from the Vergin Mary of the Fortress Church and from the Castle, the sight flows freely from the mountains to the sea and to the coast horizon of the south toward Catania, through the slopes to the smoking crater of the immense and imposing Etna. Northward we could admire the lines of the coast, always beautiful and picturesque, which runs toward Messina. From those different places perspectives open out before our eyes and marvelous landscapes of light and color, fluffy distances and verdant hills, foreshortenings and rural profiles and steep and leaning cliffs, green balconies crowned of white cottages and sea beaches on which the shades of the beach houses are inverted reflected in the water under a clear and dazzling brightness..." Filippo Calandruccio writes in Beehive: "as reading The Thousand and One Nights one feels himself like Bulukiya, the young sultan who goes around the roads of the world to meet Mohammed and to placate his anxiety of search which will be placated by an island seldom enchantment, very similar to the heaven of the Islam. Now this Taormina, glad island, is reality and it is fable."


ohannes Wolfang Goethe writes:
"View extends for the long hilly ridge of the Etna, for the beach to Catania, and farther as far as Siracusa. The colossal smoking volcano closes the endless view, without rawness, because the atmospheric vapours make it appear farther and fairer. If then we look at the passages built behind the anlookers, here on the left there are walls of rock, and between these and the sea there is the road which winds toward Messina, and groups and hoards of rocks, the coast of Calabria in the last background, which you could perceive only carefully watching through the clouds that sweetly rise.
Seeing how this country, in all its interesting details, sunk into an abyss, has been a scene of inexpressible beauty".

Alexandre Dumas writes:
"...We went into raptures at the sight of Taormina. On our left, closing the horizon, Etna rose, that sky column, as Pindaro called it, which with its violet mass was silhouetted against the reddish sky because all crossed by the borning rays of the sun. In a second plan, two tawny montains which one could have said covered with a boundless skin of lion.
After having appreciated a so great view, magnificent and bright, - so that Jadin, impressed, didn't want to make either a sketch, - we turned the bow towards the east."

Guy de Maupassant writes:
"If somebody might pass one day only in Sicily and asked: "What should I visit?" I would answer without hesitate: "Taormina". It is only a landscape, but a landscape in which you can find all that seems to be created on earth to seduce the eyes, mind and fantasy.
Where are the peoples who could make, today, things like these? Where are the men able in building, for the crowd pleasure, works like these?
Those men, the ones of a time, had soul and eyes different from the ours; in their veins, with blood, flowed something lost: love and cult for Beauty."


dmondo De Amicis writes:
"...What you see is a view that Naples, Constantinople and Rio de Janeiro haven't so great. Down, you see the little smiling town, which extends as an arc among almond and orange trees, cactuses, pines; on the back of the town, an half-circle of mountains which rush at sky its rocky vertexes crowned with castles and villages; further on there is the huge Etna, with its white head coloured with pink, overhanging the Jonio Sea, and it seems that it advances to dip there its flank; on the right and on the left you see almost the whole eastern coast of Sicily...and this huge view of breasts, promontories, woods, villages, gardens smiles upon the sea beauty and under the sky beauty of which the human word couldn't give idea. II don't believe in hell, but in paradise, because I've seen it ....and it's this one."

Truman Capote writes:
"...Sicilian spring begins in January, and it gathers in a bouquet worthy for a queen, in the garden of a magician where all is in bloom. April, writes Eliot, is the cruellest month: but not here. Here it's bright, as the snow on the Etna... I noticed with surprise, sat on that wall, an old man with velvet pants, winded in a black mantle...It was an astonishing theatrical apparition and nothing more; only after having watched with more attention I noticed he was Andre' Gide..."