Friday, April 22, 2011

The Ear of Dionysius

In Siracusa today I visited an ancient archeological site that Caravaggio himself toured while in Sicily. He arrived in Siracusa by boat, the morning after escaping from prison in Malta. And even though he was a hunted man and living on the edge of madness, his fame was so great that his appearance in this Spanish-ruled city was celebrated, and he could live in public somewhat safely.

The archeologist and architect Vincenzo Mirabella was beginning a project in which he would map the Ancient Greek caves and catacombs around Siracusa, and he invited Caravaggio to the hills above town to see these caverns carved into the limestone. Caravaggio was shown a man-made grotto that was used as a prison by the tyrant Dionysius in about 400 B.C. The acoustics in the cave are incredible. A person can speak at a normal volume inside the cave and the sound will carry well enough to be heard outside through small openings cut high in the cliffs at each end of the grotto.
Legend has it that Dionysius was a paranoid ruler who used the acoustics to eavesdrop on his prisoners. Caravaggio heard this story, and he noticed that the shape of the cave -- with its strangely curved walls tapering into a kind of funnel at the pinnacle of the 75-foot-high ceiling -- resemble the human ear. He pointed this out to Mirabella, naming it the Ear of Dionysius, which it is still called today.



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