parallax background

Aretusa at the time of the Crusades

Gastro-archeology of Siracusa
January 31, 2022
The Chapel of the Sepulchre of S. Lucia
February 11, 2022
Gastro-archeology of Siracusa
January 31, 2022
The Chapel of the Sepulchre of S. Lucia
February 11, 2022
So-called Ebstorf Map, National Library of Paris, Gervase of Tilbury? 1239 cc. Thirty pages of parchment, destroyed in 1943. Photographic reproduction of the facsimile published in 1898 by Konrad Miller (diam. 1 m). BnF, Mappe e Planimetrie (Ge AA 2177)

Aretusa at the time of the Crusades

 
Ortigia, the island on which in 734 B.C. the thousands of years of history of the city of Siracusa began, is a many-faceted diamond. It attracts the admiring glances of travellers and in return offers tales and “architecture” woven together in intricate stories. It’s a journey in time under the bright blue Mediterranean sky, which runs along the outlines of its multilayered white stones, hiding many iconographies of landscape; from Prehistory to the more recent Baroque age, the island’s buildings have merged in a unique embrace which in 2005 put Ortigia on the World Heritage List. So it’s become Heritage for Humanity, as it is a rare testimony of the settlements that have characterised the whole of Sicily.
It is as a response to this wealth of stimuli that you can always find new aspects of Ortigia to study, even when walking towards its best known “monuments”. This is the case of the famous “Spring of Aretusa”, epicentre of Greek culture in the West, which in the union of the nymph Aretusa with the river Alpheus who in love with her, continuously celebrates the birth of the land of myth, and the profound connection with its motherland, Greece. If during the Classical age, that connection was really a given, what changed during the Middle Ages? The answer could make long-dormant facts and memories re-surface, further embellishing the perception of the cultural heritage of Siracusa.
 
Our story begins by consulting the cartography produced in Europe between the 12th and the 13th centuries, which tells a tale of images and words, about how the urban space of the powerful, beautiful Siracusa was perceived in the Middle ages, about the city which blossomed under the domination of the Normans and then the Swabians. In the vast production of mappa mundi which were produced in the cradle of Western Christianity with the intent of representing all the lands known, yet filtered by a Biblical vision, a first response is supplied by an example from over the Alps, the Ebstorf map (fig.1) from around 1300 AD. Here, within the representation of Sicily, Siracusa is identified with the famous, classical Fonte Aretusa. The exceptionality of this document lies in the geographic distance from the place where it was created, an isolated monastery in Switzerland, where the story of the spring had clearly reached. This fact fits within the well-known context of the “geography of the monstrous”, so dear to Christian map-makers, but also opens up to interesting reflections on the great cultural circulation of the Norman-Swabian lands during the Crusades.
Tales about the city of Siracusa are found in the chronicles of peregrinatio ad loca sancta - pilgrimages to the Holy Land - in which we learn about the evolution of the harbour, started by the Normans between 1081 and 1085, and intensified during the Swabian domination. If we turn our attention to the Sicilian documents produced during the 10th-12th centuries, we can confirm once more the centrality of “Aretusa” and the city’s harbours in the description of the urban landscape.
Al-Idrîsî, Libro di Ruggero. Sicilia, 1154. Copia del XIII secolo, Maghreb. Sessantotto mappe, secondo la divisione tolemaica
Al-Idrîsî, Libro di Ruggero. Sicilia, 1154. Copia del XIII secolo, Maghreb. Sessantotto mappe, secondo la divisione tolemaica
 
The main voice is that of the Arab geographer Al-Idrisi who from 1139 compiled an ambitious geographical text for Roger II, which laid the scientific foundations for early Western geography.
Entertainment for those who harbour the desire to wander around the various parts of the world”, better known as “Al-Kitab al-Rujari, the Book of Roger” described Siracusa in these terms:
[...] “From Lentini a long day’s walk takes you to SARAQUSAH, which is one of the most celebrated and most noble cities in the world (...) it is on the sea, which laps the shores on all sides, except for the entrance it has to the north from which you enter and leave. It is superfluous to describe in detail such a famous place, this illustrious metropolis and renowned fort. It has two harbours unequalled in the entire world. The one to the South is larger than the other to the North, and is better known. It is in Siracusa that you can see the marvellous spring known as AN Nabuddi, which springs from rocks right by the sea (...)” The exceptionality of the place is also confirmed in earlier texts by Arab travellers such as the brief description by al-Muquaddasi who around 985 wrote: “Siracusa is made by two connected cities: it has a marvellous harbour; it is surrounded by a moat full of water”.
This excursus is completed by the miniature known as c. 142 of the Liber ad Honorem Augusti by Pietro da Eboli, preserved in the civic library of Bem, indicated as codex 120. of the 12th century. It is interesting to note how this text was written in Sicily during the reign of Emperor Henry VI to celebrate his triumph. The illustrator, almost a co-author of the text, translates the verses into an eloquent image, representing the physical space of the teatrum imperialis palaci.
The fons Arethuse, as the caption reads, is inserted in a central position, marked as a sun with a human face from which water flows. In its presence the feudal lord Markwald von Anweiler unsheathes his sword of imperial fealty and a chancellor receives tributes from the personifications of the Arabs and the Indus. The pseudo-rectangular space which hosts the scene is bordered at the top and the bottom by interlocking arches whose internal spaces are filled by twenty four names of regions or kingdoms of Europe. Since medieval architecture is a complex phenomenon that does not only involve the art of construction, the interpretation of the miniature opens up an interdisciplinary dialogue for a reading of the unique architecture of the Swabian castle in Siracusa, Castello Maniace.
Liber ad honorem Augusti, Pietro da Eboli, sec. XII, Burgerbibliothec, Bern, cod. 120, c. 142, r
 
In any case, the comparison of the references cited demonstrates how over the centuries the classical-mythological tradition of Aretusa has progressively changed, from a cartographic element that characterised the urban context of the medieval city tout court (10th- 12th centuries), to a geopolitical symbol of the Norman crown then absorbed by the power of the Hohenstaufen (13th century). The Norman-Swabian writings adopted and modified the tradition of Aretusa: from a symbol of communication, connected to the well-known minting of Greek coins, it became the “symbol of a society” modelled on the medieval garden. The Fountain of Aretusa is Sicily, Sicily is the garden of the Empire, the Emperor’s hortus; the spring is a symbol of peaceful coexistence, it’s the centre of the Empire, but above all it is the Emperor. The sacrality of the Empire is built on Old Testament images of the garden. Frederick II, King of Jerusalem and commissioner in 1232 of the castle on the extreme tip of Ortigia, a “garden” overlooking the harbour, confers on the city the perennial role of “gateway” to the East of the Empire.
October 2021
A detail from the Bern codex
 
LUANA ALIANO

She teaches History of Art and is president of the SiciliAntica Association for the province of Siracusa. She has studied education and teaching applied to cultural heritage; she has worked in an Ethnographic museum in Noto, taught materials in the Faculty of Architecture and has published various writings on technological innovation applied to cultural heritage. She couldn’t not write for SiracusaCulture.