Sicily is full of history and hidden gems, none more special than the tiny island of Mozia just off the far western coast. Barely rising from the sea, the Stagnone islands were for centuries Phoenician settlements. But Mozia - also known as Motya - has another more recent history with a fascinating connection to an English merchant and Marsala wine. On our way to catch the ferry, the first sightings that morning were of ancient windmills, surrounded by mounds of white salt which is still gathered today from the pans. The Fenecia drew alongside and soon we were crossing the shallow lagoon and watching sea anemones waving gently in the sand below. They thrive in the warm sheltered waters, as do many species of fish which come to lay their eggs. The islands lie low and suddenly the landing stage appeared. We decided to explore what is called the open air museum and headed for the Mosaics House. Although no building has survived, there are the remains of streets and a town plan but, it is the size and quality of the mosaic floors which are so remarkable. The path then continued south past ancient walls and steps until it reached the Cothon, a rectangular basin hewn out of the rocks more than 2,000 years ago to form part of a small port and dry dock. Still hugging the shoreline we headed towards the main excavations at the Tophet, stopping to enjoy our picnic lunch and the views over the perfect blue sea to Marsala. The Tophet used to be a sanctuary. It is also where the Phoenicians sacrificed their first born sons, although analysis of the ashes found in the vases showed mainly animal remains. Death was still not far away with the nearby necropolis and its funeral urns and yet, everywhere colourful wild flowers had colonised and softened the ancient graves. By now the sun was at its zenith so, the time seemed right to seek shade in the museum and find out more about Joseph -or Giuseppe - Whitaker. Back at the beginning of the 19th century, one of his uncles from Yorkshire built up a formidable business in Sicily, involving everything from insurance and shipping to banking and wine. Joseph eventually took over the company and soon the Whitakers became one of the richest families on the island. A lavish lifestyle, however, was not what interested him, rather it was botany and archaeology and birds, although, ironically, it was his wealth that allowed him to indulge his passions when he purchased Mozia for himself in the early 20th century. Excavations then started in earnest and continue to this day under his name. It was a pity that so little of the man or his family was on display in the museum but, his dedication was obvious in the number of objects on show. Cabinets and cases housed pottery and amphoras, weapons and pots together with many decorative steles or grave markers while, in a separate room we found the Whitaker Collection organised it seems as Joseph would have done. The condition of many of the vases was breathtaking, though it was the necklaces with their bold geometric beads that really caught my eye. For such a small island we were amazed at how much there was to discover. But the museum had one more secret to reveal. In the entrance stood a dramatic life size marble statue of a young man, one hand on his hip in a provocative and erotic pose. Tight curls wound round his forehead, while a pleated tunic clung to his buttocks and broad shoulders and athletic limbs. The flowing details were such that you forgot for a moment it had been carved from stone and, the beauty was such that the missing arms did not detract. Its provenance too is no less impressive. Back in 1979 it was uncovered during a routine dig and the archaeologists could not believe what they had found. As one of the largest Greek statues ever discovered outside Greece, there is still today much mystery surrounding the history and identity of the Motya Youth. We now had to return to the landing stage and await the next boat which, by chance was the Fenicia again. There was no one else on board so we chatted to the skipper about how fascinating the day had been. Then from out of a locker he produced a bottle of Whitaker Marsala wine, plus three plastic cups and together we drank to a most remarkable man. "Salute Giuseppe. Cheers Joseph. Grazie and thanks!"
You can currently see some of the masterpieces of ancient art from Sicily at the Getty Villa museum in Malibu, California Ancient Sicilian Masterpieces On Show At Getty Villa
To know more about Joseph Whitaker visit http://www.fondazionewhitaker.it
Marsala, Mozia and its Mysterious Youth
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