Thursday, 19 January 2017

Sicily - melting pot of the Mediterranean - BBC TWO 31st Jan 2017 9pm

Following hot on the heels of Italy's Invisible Cities on BBC One, my new series on BBC Two starts on Tuesday 31st Jan 9pm. Sicily: wonder of the Mediterranean.

The subject of this two part series is the island of Sicily.  From treading grapes in an ancient wine press, scrambling across a 20ft Lava wall on mount Etna, reciting Shakespeare in an ancient Greek theatre, excavating child bones from a possible human sacrifice, salt mining old-fashioned style, having a cut throat shave from an 80 year local barber, trying my hand at Sicilian martial art of stick-fighting, making puppets and chocolate and exploring the underground Arab aqueducts of Palermo, we travel across the length and breadth of this extraordinary island.

We look at its history from the Neolithic through to the present day, and along the way ask two key questions. First what does it mean to be Sicilian - especially to the people we meet along the way. And second what can we learn from Sicily in the 21st century?

The answer to the first question is so fascinating because Sicily - probably more than any other part of Europe - has been subject to so many invasions and waves of migration over the centuries. From the Greeks, Phoenicians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, French, Spanish, to finally becoming part of Italy only with the unification of Italy in 1860. As such its people feel themselves a real melting pot of cultures. Everywhere you turn in Sicily you see remnants of each of these different cultures - from the Greek temples and theatres across the island to the Arab Balaro markets in Palermo to the Norman Palatine chapel to the jail cells of the Spanish inquisition.

And even more interestingly, you also see the more unique creations of the interactions of all these different worlds - like the Duomo in Syracuse which is still today part Greek temple, part Church, and was once an Arab mosque. Or in the food which today screams 'Sicily' - like granita (Sicilian ice-cream) introduced to Sicily by the Arabs in the 9-10th centuries.

And we also explore the extraordinary spaces possible it seems only in sicily - like the Capucin catacombs, where hundreds of mummified bodies are displayed proudly. Every Sicilian we spoke to feels proud of this mix of cultures in their blood and in their island, but at the same time every Sicilian feels differently about what being Sicilian really means.

And what can we learn from Sicily in the 21st century? In 2016, the British Museum, the Ashmolean museum hosted exhibitions on Sicily - and the BBC commissioned a series on it. Sicily seems to speak to us right now. And it's not hard to see why. Given Europe is facing its biggest migration 'crisis' since World War II, Sicily is the island with the most experience of living with migration over the centuries and an ideal place in which to think about and examine its effects. Especially since Sicily is once again at the forefront of this current migration movement - with its coast guard operating daily to rescue migrants from the sea fleeing the coast of Libya and bringing them back for processing to Lampedusa and Sicily. So what is Sicily's answer, given its long experience? We spoke to Leoluca Orlando - mayor of Palermo - who argued that Sicily, more than ever, was offering its arms open and welcome. "Welcome" as he put it "was the best guarantee of safety" especially in light of the recent terrorist attacks in London, Paris and Brussels.

Of course Sicily has not always been the safest place. Think Sicily and we think the Mafia - particularly the Godfather. There are 'godfather tour' buses around Sicily taking in the sights used in the famous trilogy film. We visited Bar Vitelli - which still keeps the exact same look as in the film to speak to its current owners about what the Mafia means in Sicily today.

It still clearly exists, and has power, but it has lost its sheen of 'honour' that once cloaked its activities in a form of macho Mediterranean respectability. We spoke to those who have lost family members in Mafia killings and who now dedicate their lives to ensuring the Mafia don't ever claim the same kind of power again. Sicily is not done with the Mafia. But it is beginning to link its attitude to its internal problems with its attitude to the outside world. As the Mayor of Palermo put it - a 'closed' Sicily is one in which the Mafia flourished - and could again. An 'open' one helps continue their transition to be 'ordinary' criminals.

I have been fascinated by this journey through Sicily - from the warmth of the people and the way in which we have been welcomed, to the kaleidoscopic amounts of history and culture that is crammed into this island (the largest in the Mediterranean). It's often said that Sicilians have a sadness about that - that comes from the centuries of invasions and conquests. But we did not find that - we found an optimism about what Sicily has achieved and can achieve in the future. And that makes it a great example for Europe and the world in the 21st century. 

Monday, 2 January 2017

Italy's Invisible Cities - Naples, Venice, Florence - BBC 1 starting 4th Jan 2017

Xander Armstrong and I are back on BBC 1 starting this Wednesday 4th January with a new series: Italy's Invisible Cities. Together we are exploring Naples (4th Jan 9pm), Venice (11th Jan 9pm) and Florence (1st Feb 9pm).

These are cities close to my heart: Naples is a place I have been too many times as a gateway to the wonderful archaeology and ancient history of the region. Venice I have family in and so am a frequent visitor. And Florence - well I lived in Florence for a while when I was 18-19 and it was where I first learnt Italian - so the place is full of memories for me.

But in each case in making these programmes, I felt I was discovering these cities afresh. Naples perhaps was the most startling - a place people often pass through rather than spend time in, it is filled with an infectious energy that sweeps you up and carries you along. That energy comes from, I think, the fact that the people of Naples are long used to living on a geothermal hotplate (the Campei Flegrei - the Burning Fields) and so are very used to the mentality that each day could be their last (the motto of the region is Carpe Diem - seize the day!) Wherever you go in Naples beauty and danger are two sides of the same coin and it is a beguiling combination! It also led to some very bizarre experiences: like coming across this 1930s taxi (see pic below) - buried in the Bourbon tunnels underneath Naples having been confiscated by the Fascists! And equally a chance for me to scuba dive and discover the remains of a beautiful Roman villa floor mosaic (see pic too!)

Venice on the other hand is a testament to humanity ingenuity and ability to survive and thrive in unlikely locations. The photo at the top of this post is of Xander and I standing in the mud of a Venetian lagoon island that has not yet been built on - this IS Venice (or at least how the first settlers in the 6th century found it). And from that has arisen the unique city of Venice today - thanks to a number of invisible magic tricks we uncover in the series. The picture below is me scuba diving in a venetian canal in search of one of them... as you can see, visibility was an issue as we hunted in the murky depths for the secret of Venice's success and survival!

They called the city 'la Serenissima' - the 'Most Serene' But there was nothing serene about Venetian power and naval might in the 11th-16th centuries. Venice was THE gateway from Europe to the East and reveled in the trade and plunder that it got involved in - you only need to look at the front of St Marks to see how Venice liked to show off the wares it has brought back to the city.

Florence is also a serene looking city. When I was living there, it was a delight to wonder its streets, gaze along the Arno river and let time slip away sitting in a cafe. But what we discovered on this trip below was the frantic competition and rivalry that flowed underneath its serene countenance - competition that was on-going at every level of Florentine society.

For me the big revelation was seeing the tiny traces of this street level competition still present in the Florentine landscape - e.g. small markers on building in squares denoting the territory of rival gangs, and the plaques with the titles that the leaders of these gangs gave themselves. Titles like 'Royal King' - and they took other gang leaders to court if they tried to use the same title! From this, through to the 'calcio storico' - a football/rugby combo with no rules (bar dont kick the other person in the face) that is played between the different sectors of the city (see the photo below of the players after the match - they had all been wearing tops at the beginning but they got ripped to sheds in the wrestling tackles); to the dark power politics of the city's leadership - particularly the Medici family who executed 80 people following a conspiracy against them.

Throughout the programmes, we were working with the scanning team ScanLabs who were mapping the cities in 3D laser scans, as well as underwater scanning. Awesome work from them meant we - and you - are able to experience these cities in Virtual Reality. Here's Xander and I with the team in Florence overlooking the Arno and the Ponte Vecchio

Hope you enjoy the series - and don't forget to let me know your thoughts by completing a quick 2 min questionaire at  - many thanks! M