In Search of Lawrence's Villa in Taormina (continued from page 1)


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eventually track down though not able to enter because privately owned.

Suspicion and grubbiness

We decided anyway to enquire at the Tourist Office located within the town walls on the first floor of the beautiful predominantly 15th century Palazzo Corvajo, in a Renaissance courtyard, off the lovely Piazza Santa Caterina . I approached the counter attended by three ladies busily engaged in a lively discussion.  After a while one of them disengaged and smiling asked me how she could be of assistance.

The Tourist Centre

Pointing at my little map and at the Via Lawrence I enquired whether they could direct us to the location of Fontana Vecchia the Lawrence house? Consternation ensued as she consulted her colleagues and it became evident that they had no knowledge of Lawrence, despite the street, let alone of the villa. After further exchanges the best they could suggest was that we try the Fontana Vecchia ‘bed and breakfast’ establishment.  I thanked them and we departed.

On reflection, this less than helpful experience seemed to confirm our feeling in moving around Sicily that the local people are inherently suspicious of strangers and unforthcoming, that is, at least until they get to know you and feel they can trust you.   Their first reaction in response to a question is to deny any knowledge. No doubt this trait is one of self-preservation in the face of a history of conquests and a culture of organized crime so richly evoked in ‘Midnight in Sicily’ by Peter Robb. Once you penetrate this natural wariness they are delightful and generous, proud to share with you their rich culture.

Immediately you walk beyond the town walls through the Porta Messina heading for via Lawrence the town takes on a less salubrious air, transitioning from the clean, historic and well maintained tourist center to the decidedly more grubby and considerably less aesthetically pleasing streets and apartments of the regular town dwellers. Sad to say, that driving round Sicily we were struck in a number of regions by the frequent disparity between the idyllic if often rugged scenery of the island and the grubbiness of its contemporary man-made locales and habitations; there is a widespread disregard for public amenity and cleanliness exemplified by numerous roadside garbage dumps, scavenged by birds, vermin and local dogs, of the most putrid household waste that appeared to be collected infrequently, at best, if at all. Might this we wondered be put down to a deep-seated history of poverty, a condition that persists to this day in Sicily.

I was now having trouble reconciling this part of the scene with the picturesque setting I had conjured in my mind for Villa Vecchia based on Lawrence’s descriptions of the house, the neighbourhood and the scenic pastoral walks he was accustomed daily to take. I can only conjecture that much has changed and for the worse since he visited here nearly one hundred years ago. Perhaps not surprisingly the population has grown considerably and the modern, cheap and unsightly apartment blocks have probably in filled the many green large plots of land upon which must have stood the original and grander villas such as Villa Vecchia on the slopes outside town.  Mind you, it was also proving difficult to find many such examples.

Encountering disappointment

To our relief and growing sense of excitement after a few minutes meandering around we came across via Lawrence. The street sign was clear enough, mounted on a post at the bottom of the road heading up hill but alas in keeping with the general look of the neighborhood it was in a rusty and unkempt condition.  Still, a promising discovery buttressed by our seeing nearby a small fountain in the middle of the cross road with the Via Vecchia; might this be the Fontana Vecchia echoing the name of Lawrence’s villa which surely must lie close at hand, or did we recall reading that the fountain was in the grounds of the villa itself? At this stage our eyes alighted upon a sign on a nearby three storey, yellow stucco building called Fontana Vecchia ‘bed and breakfast’; could this be the house we were looking for?

Fountain with B&B in background




Our closer inspection was disappointing; the house looked neither old nor impressive enough, nor did it have a view of the sea or a large terraced garden filled with olive trees as we had read. After all, we had read, too, about how Lawrence would observe the frolics of a local lady with a donkey-driving farm worker in the olive grove terraces below the house...or was that Freida herself? Had this been an inspiration for the character of Constance Chatterley? But, hadn’t we read also, in researching our visit that Lawrence’s villa had indeed been converted in recent times to a small and welcoming bed and breakfast place? Our attempts to arouse a resident by repeated knocking on the door at the B&B entrance and calling out were to no avail; the whole place looked sleepy and shut down in this off-season. We were lost and confused in welter of conflicting and seemingly unanswerable questions.

The B&B

Blissfully unaware, the road wound ahead of us steeply in the growing heat of the day, and we inspected in great expectation a couple of the more substantial free standing houses along the way, especially those on the downhill side of the street but to no avail. Expectantly we would gaze up at the walls half hoping to find a sign or a plaque, like those wonderful blue circular plaques they use in London to denote residences of past famous inhabitants, or the similar historic marker signs used on Paris dwellings, but not a sign was to be seen.  No one appeared in the sleepy street whom we might ask for information, not that at this stage we would have expected anyone we had encountered to know or care the first thing about Lawrence or his house, or indeed willing to respond to our questions.  

‘I am tired of it’

There was nothing for it but to admit defeat, a defeat particularly frustrating having so readily and tantalizingly found Via Lawrence that had so raised our expectations. Perhaps inevitably and on a philosophical note, as Ruskin has implied, we are doomed to never be able to fully appreciate and satisfy our perception of place, and possess it for ourselves.

dhl via
Via David Herbert Lawrencr

Thus the tale of our thwarted quest for the Lawrence house in Taormina made more bitter by the subsequent realization that is was there all the time but marked as Capote’s residence. Why did the Tourist office and the map not inform us of Lawrence? I seek some consolation in our feeling in our disappointment an  echo of the continual sense of frustration with place that drove the lifelong peripatetic journeys of Lawrence. He was evidently in search of something, ‘his insatiable hunger for meaning’ which to his anger he could never find in the physical world, despite his genius for capturing the fullness of the physical reality of place in the written word ‘instantaneously and without effort’. Clive James sees in this the great pathos of Lawrence’s ‘extraterrestrial un-belonging’.   

Lawrence, after 18 months in Taormina came to the conclusion that ‘the Taormina natives are as mean and creeping as ever…..one must have done with Italy…I have been hating Taormina but one hates everywhere in fits and starts”. And with his restless spirit in search of the spiritual he inevitably decided to move on and left in February 1922 for New Mexico via Ceylon and on to Australia where in writing Kangaroo he once again showed his mastery of quickly capturing a spiritual sense of place.  Reacting too against the growing fascist mood he wrote as he left Italy:  “…the country is sickening …I am tired of it.".

How fleeting too is the local fame of the visiting celebrity even in a town that takes pride in and promotes its artistic and literary heritage. Literary tastes and fashions come and go and it seems that at this juncture, in Sicily at least Lawrence is not a writer in vogue.

What does stay with me despite the disappointment is the spirit of place, of the very beautiful landscape of Sicily, of its difficult history and of its hardy people and of the charms of the old town of Taormina which initially so enchanted Lawrence and Frieda. And as for literary pilgrimages and the quest for places visited and lived in by Lawrence I remain as committed as ever. Such itineraries not only add to an appreciation of his work and character, but also serve to introduce us to wonderful new places, cultures, and experiences, initially through the eyes of Lawrence. My next call may be to visit Eastwood in Nottingham in search of his birthplace and other homes there, or Metz among his first places, or Scandicci or Vence his last places, or…..….

“You need a change of soul rather than a change of climate’ (Seneca)