It was a scene unimaginable in the Caltanissetta of ten years ago, when I was last here. The Corso Umberto was full of kids playing table tennis, table football, chess, fencing, archery, weight lifting and chucking around a rugby ball – yes, a rugby ball, in central Sicily. There was kick boxing going on the the Municipio and gymnastics and football shooting practice on a side street.
Caltanissetta, almost the dead centre of Sicily, had been a very depressed town ten years ago. Once it had been the richest and most magnificent cities on the island, but the wealth of the sulphur mines, that had built the magnificent town houses, had long gone, and the monuments to capitalist greed and good taste were crumbling away. There were no new industries to provide work. There was a general air of gloom and despondency about the town.
I don’t know what’s happened since, but I had the distinct impression that Caltanissetta, of not exactly thriving, was definitely on the up. Sadly, the market in the via Consultore Benintende seemed a shadow of its former bustling, thriving self, but that may be because it was a Saturday afternoon. But many of the town houses had been restored, the streets colonised by some major brands. More than just a sprinkling of Muslims had obviously made their home there, which seemed quite natural in a way, as Caltanissetta is the Sicilian version of the original Arab name, Qal’at al Nisa, meaning Fort of the Women. People walked around as if life meant something rather than just being a burden.
I popped into one of my favourite buildings in Sicily, the Cathedral of Santa Maria Nova. It handsome enough from the outside, if plumed here and there by shrubs growing in its upper reaches. But inside it”s a wonderful whirligig of baroque and rococo cherubs, cherubims, swirls and twirls, flowers and leaves, mouldings and trompe l’oeil, in gold leaf and ice cream colours – dusty strawberry pink, chocolate brown, fior di latte cream, pistachio green. And in a side chapel there was the bust of Johannis Jacono, bishop of Caltanisetta, his arm flung out, his mouth agape, his mitre as firmly on his head as the helmet of a knight about to go into battle, his chins flowing down over the collar of his vestments, the very embodiment of the Church Militant and the Church Gluttonous. He always makes me laugh.