True, passionate, always present in the minds of the islanders: the volcano has been an integral part of the territory for millennia and has often been mentioned in Sicilian literature. From the words of Rapisardi to the ones of Verga, the magnificence of Mongibello is similar to those who it frightens and protects at the same time
A mantle of fire that gushes from a crater, lighting the landscape of a steaming liveliness, a majestic quiet that stands in front of its incredulous spectators: here is Mount Etna, the highest active volcano in Europe. Sicilians of any generation have dealt with its two complementary sides, whether directly or thanks to ancient tales converting it in an almost mythological figure. Loved and personified, feared and respected, “’a muntagna” (as it is still called today) is an integral part of Sicilian consciousness, a geographical and existential reference point without whose verticality anyone would feel lost in the endless horizontality of the sea. Such a characteristic element of islanders’ modus vivendi could not have gone unnoticed by the pen of many great writers, who have always known how to glorify it, but also how to face it bravely.
«Silfs and mermaids dance at your feet,/wise men and giants quiver inside you,/while you quietly cover /your vast surface of woods,/fruits and vermilion sand». Thus recites an excerpt from the poem All’Etna, included in Mario Rapisardi’s collection of poems of 1895, which no wonder was entitled Religious Poems. A kaleidoscope of blooming nature and mythical figures seems to animate the volcano: a distant golden age that pities the restlessness of the poet and of an entire land remembering their happy days only when they’re immersed in the pristine beauty of the top of the mountain, unattainable but coveted just like eternal happiness. And if, according to Rapisardi, staring at Etna provokes deep and positive vibes, Giovanni Verga unveils the most dramatic side of Etna and sets two of his most dramatic works on the slopes of Mongibello.
On the one hand there is Maria’s agony in Storia di una capinera, where the young woman only savors for a few moments the restoration of the countryside before returning to the claustrophobic convent to which she is doomed, to the point that she writes to her friend Marianna: «If you could only see how beautiful our Etna is! From the belvedere of the convent I could see one great isolated mountain […], now I count the peaks of all these mounds surrounding it». On the other hand, we find the passionate commitment of the peasant Nedda, a widow and a victim of a countryside filled with lava rocks, which in addition to fatigue cause her wounds and fears, not to mention the many chronicles of Federico De Roberto about the panic provoked by eruptions and seismic shocks.
Similar to those who have lived at his feet for millennia, this bipolar mountain is therefore a monster leaving its dark dust on what it touches, but also a sight of unparalleled beauty. It is the symbol and condemnation of an entire population, as well as perhaps the best metaphor to understand the complexity of Sicily. For Etna seems to have forged Sicilians’ character – or maybe, on the contrary, Sicilians have transmitted something of themselves to the mountain, making it sadly grumpy and pungent, but also warmly cozy. Moreover, this lonely volcano represents the life cycle of a land that is constantly looking for itself, often buried under a blanket of smoke and ashes just as are its problems, but always ready to awaken. After all, Etna is nothing but a giant mechanism allowing Sicilians to protect themselves from those who want to overwhelm them, or a natural business card for those who want to know them. It reminds them every day of what they have been and what they will be: a fiery, impulsive, authentic, unbreakable community, just like Etna is.
Translated by Eva Luna Mascolino