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Englishwoman Caroline Seller met Marcello Manzo at a Halloween party in London in the mid-seventies. Although she spoke little Italian and he spoke practically no English, the chemistry between them was undeniable, and it wasn’t long before Caroline was invited to visit Marcello's family in Mazara del Vallo, Sicily. A large, eccentric, and loving clan living in a magnificent, crumbling villa, Santa Maria, the Manzos welcomed Caroline warmly, and soon she and Marcello were married. Together they traveled the world...
Englishwoman Caroline Seller met Marcello Manzo at a Halloween party in London in the mid-seventies. Although she spoke little Italian and he spoke practically no English, the chemistry between them was undeniable, and it wasn’t long before Caroline was invited to visit Marcello's family in Mazara del Vallo, Sicily. A large, eccentric, and loving clan living in a magnificent, crumbling villa, Santa Maria, the Manzos welcomed Caroline warmly, and soon she and Marcello were married. Together they traveled the world and started a family, but through it all, Santa Maria was never far from their thoughts. So when the Manzo brothers united to save the family's deteriorating estate, Marcello and Caroline eagerly signed on to the project—not entirely prepared for what they were getting into!
As seen through the eyes of Caroline Seller Manzo—an outsider who is often surprised and always delighted by her Italian family and adopted hometown—Casa Nostra is the captivating story of a villa's difficult, glorious rebirth and a celebration of the unique beauty and history of western Sicily and its people.
Castle in the Sun
"Christ, is it hot! I don't think I can stand much more of this."
About to melt under the sheer force of the Sicilian sun, my brother Charles takes refuge in the shade of a carob tree. Mopping a freckled brow with the edge of his sleeve, he leans his bulky frame against a conveniently upturned stone drum.
"That's a piece of Greek temple you're sitting on," I point out primly, guidebook in hand.
In order to impress Charles with the wonders of Sicily, I have brought him to one of my favorite haunts, the Cave di Cusa, a tufa quarry where the first Greek colonists of Western Sicily came to hack out massive blocks of calcareous rock for the construction of their temples. Eaten away by the elements, the once gray quarry walls have been bleached to a blinding white by two and a half thousand years of Mediterranean sun. Huge cylindrical blocks are still attached to the bedrock, while finished drums the size of a large dining table, hewn and detached from the stone, lie among the dust and the rubble, ready for transport. The scene bears all the signs of sudden interruption of work in progress, like a building site where the workers, in their various stages of production, have downed tools and walked out, albeit two and a half thousand years ago. Since the why and the wherefore of the abandon have never been explained, an air of mystery pervades this scene of dust and stone and more dust, the dryness relieved only by the odd dwarf palm or wild olive tree sprouting haphazardly from the rocky terrain. Beyond the quarry, row after row of lush green vines merge into a hazyhorizon of purple hills outlined against a great expanse of blue.
"How far are the temples from here?"
"About eight miles."
"How the heck did they transport such enormous blocks?"
"Slaves presumably, or mules."
I wave at my brother-in-law to come over and provide an authoritative answer. Silvio, l'architetto, is our cicerone, the acknowledged brain of the family. He strides over, immaculate in white linen and Panama hat, only a damp mustache and an unwontedly flushed complexion betraying his discomfort in the heat. Putting me right, he explains, "Slaves yes, but not mules—oxen. They used oxen to drag the stones all the way to Selinunte." While Silvio delivers a detailed lecture on Greek temple design, Charles, his captive audience, stares glassy-eyed into the crevices of the quarry. Meanwhile, I scan the site for my husband and two daughters. By now I am used to this automatic dispersal on arrival at places of cultural interest. All three are remarkably adept in the art of opting out of sightseeing expeditions. Marcello, identifiable by his khaki safari jacket, is just visible in the distance, half hidden by a clump of bush. Bottom up he seems to be poking at cracks in the wall of the quarry with his walking stick. Lucy, a fox terrier of a certain age, is in the same humiliating position. Obviously convinced that she has a vital role to play in her master's mysterious enterprise, she is barking frantically at his side. What on earth are they doing? They are too far away and the afternoon far too hot to make it worth trying to catch their attention. I look around for the girls. Subjected to relentless sightseeing from a tender age, Melissa and Clemency have learned to deal with such excursions by perfecting a mode of passive endurance; finding a comfortable spot where they can sit the whole thing out is their preferred strategy, while mother and visitors exert themselves. And there they are, stretched out under an olive tree, plugged into their respective music devices. Melissa, the English Rose, fair and freckled like her Uncle Charles, bats crossly at an overattentive fly. Clemency, the Sicilian Jasmine, with glossy dark tresses and an olive complexion as smooth and cool as marble, proffers long-lashed eyelids to the sun, languidly reveling in the sultry afternoon heat. Jack, the Airedale, who has been aimlessly loping about, occasionally lifting a leg on a slab of classical Greek masonry, has finally flopped down to rest beside the "Flowers."
Suddenly Marcello and Lucy emerge from the bushes, covered in dust. Never having seen the point of poring over ancient rocks and stones in the first place, my husband has combined the cultural excursion with an alternative agenda and come up with something far more compelling than ancient history. Triumphantly he brandishes the fruits of his and Lucy's joint efforts—not fruits exactly, but berries.
"Look what I've found: capers! We'll take them home and put them in salt. There's a whole forest of them growing out of the rock. Come and see." Somehow Silvio and I fail to share his excitement. We are all too used to Marcello's habit of treating the landscape as a potential larder. It is a well known fact that capers grow out of rocks and stones, which is why they are often to be found thriving among ruins. Charles, relieved at the break from the lecture on the finer points of Greek architecture, examines the buds and coin-shaped leaves with interest.
"Hmm. Looks exactly like the plant growing in my bedroom at Santa Maria."
"Growing in the bedroom? What are you talking about, Charles?"
"Yep, there's a plant like this with little berries growing right into the bedroom. In fact I can't even close the door to the terrace."
Back at Santa Maria it turns out that capers are indeed growing inside our villa. Charles, who enjoys a comfortable lifestyle as an investment banker in Bangkok, has been in Sicily for just twenty-four hours, but during that time he has endured rigors to which prosperous bankers are rarely subjected. Due to lack of space on the first floor, where we are staying with Maria, my mother-in-law, and Silvio's family, we have had to accommodate . . .Casa Nostra
Posted August 3, 2007
Caroline Seller Manzo does for Sicily what Frances Mayes did for Tuscany with this capitivating memoir. The author follows a similar formula, chronicling the restoration of an Italian home with humor and insight. The difference, here, is that she married a Sicilian, falling in love not only with her husband, Marcello, but his creative, boisterous family, and Sicily itself. The reader will too.
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Posted May 25, 2010
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