Slow travel seems to have become the new solution for travellers who want to have sustainable and less stressful vacation. The philosophy behind it consists in getting to know new small areas thoroughly by experiencing the local culture at a relaxing pace and leaving the rest to see on the next trip. The key is, in fact, to slow down and enjoy each moment of your exploration to the fullest! With this “slow” mindset I’ve had the opportunity to visit one of the most extraordinary archaeological museums of Europe: The “Paolo Orsi” Museum of Syracuse in Sicily.
Here is my personal slow trip experience in this enchanting place.
It was March 2019 when on a beautiful Saturday morning I decided to go to Syracuse, about an hour’s drive from where I live. I had been in that city a hundred times for several reasons, yet I had never seen this “Paolo Orsi” Museum prior to that day – crazy, right? So often we think to know a place well but if we stop and take a moment to observe its beauty and what it has to offer, we suddenly realise how blind we have been all along!
This time, though, I knew it would be different because I was going there with the specific aim to explore this still unknown museum.
Paolo Orsi and a bit of history
Before the visit, I had read up on the location, itineraries and history of the museum. I was curious about its development as a place showcasing the largest and most interesting collections of Sicilian antiquities.
Inaugurated in 1988, the building is today situated inside the park of Villa Landolina. It was transferred here from its historical location in Piazza Duomo: established by royal decree in 1878 as a National Museum, it gradually increased its collections which inevitably led to a change of venue. The new museum was built by the architects Vincenzo Cabianca and above all Franco Minissi, who gave the peculiar triangular shape to the building. It was named after the famous archaeologist Paolo Orsi, who was director of the museum for over thirty years starting from 1891 and one of the founders of the Archaeological Italian Society. He superintended numerous archaeological excavations in centre-eastern Sicily, making important discoveries and bringing to light unique findings that are now on view in the museum.
A journey to the Ancient History of Sicily
The first thing I loved when I arrived at the museum was the beautiful, surrounding garden which is of great archaeological and historical interest for the presence of the ruins of the ancient Greek necropolis. In fact, Syracuse was the first major Greek colony on the island. Here is the road system dating back to the Hellenistic period. There are pagan tombs, but also graves of some non-Catholic dead in the city from the early 19th century, such as the tomb of the German poet Augusto von Platen (1796-1835).
When I entered, I immediately noticed the interesting structure of the museum: it is composed of three areas arranged around a central body and is divided into three floors. The Auditorium is in the basement, along with a splendid numismatic collection of Greek coins and medals of the period of Syracuse’s greatest splendour. There are also some pieces jewellery, believed to be among the most beautiful in the world for their artistic quality.
The first floor (where the entrance and the ticket office are) and the second floor are the permanent exhibition spaces. There are four sections in total, A, B, C and D, which explore the ancient history of Sicily, from Prehistory up to Late Antiquity, through a sprawling collection of more than 18,000 archaeological finds on display!
Section A: Prehistory and Protohistory of Eastern Sicily
One of the tips given when slow travelling and visiting a museum – like in this case – is to fully immerse yourself in the visit and give yourself enough time to appreciate the artworks you encounter along the way. This gives you the chance to learn about the meaning of the objects you see and analyse both their historical and cultural impact.
This is exactly what I tried to do when I explored section A. Here are exposed incredible paleontological finds, rocks and fossils of the Quaternary faunas, including the casts of two beautiful dwarf elephants which were very common on the island back then, and a wide variety of items from the Palaeolithic to the Iron Age and the beginning of the Greek colonisation in Sicily.
I was in awe at the beauty of all those archaeological findings, most of them still in in such a great condition and with so much to tell about their history!
One of the highlights in this section that literally knock my socks off was two door slabs of the early Bronze Age, carved with anthropomorphic spiral motifs. Their location was originally at the entrance of a tomb from Castelluccio, a prehistoric village next to Syracuse where Paolo Orsi himself was excavating them. With their enigmatic symbolic representations, the slabs represent rare documents of the architectural sculpture of that period.
Section B: Greek colonisation of Sicily
Moving on in this fascinating journey, I got to section B dedicated to the time when Greek colonies settled in Sicily, starting from the 9th century BC onwards, with a main focus on Syracuse and the nearby Megara Hyblaea.
The well-preserved works of art located in this sector are absolutely stunning: ceramics, bronzes, votive statuettes, marble statues, grave goods, reliefs, architectural and ornamental elements of Greek temples and civic buildings, are just a few examples of what is on view here.
One area, in particular, is devoted to the reconstruction of the temples of Syracuse, including those of Apollo and Athena. and to the conservation of parts of their structures that, in some cases, still present traces of the original colours – a real rarity if we think that hardly ever have polychromatic pigments been found on archaeological findings.
Section C: the sub-colonies of Syracuse
My wander among the treasures of the Greek colonisation ended at the first floor with the visit of section C, which is all about the sub-colonies founded near Syracuse, including the indigenous but Hellenized centres of eastern Sicily and the two other major Greek colonies in the area, Gela and Agrigento. I was enthralled by the magnificence of the Attic black and red-figure pottery I found here, along with other precious artifacts such as votive bronzes, sarcophagi, and some very rare wood statues as well.
Section D: the Hellenistic and Roman period
The second floor of the museum hosts the fourth and final section which impressed me a lot, since it’s dedicated to the time when Syracuse became the most important political and cultural hub of eastern Sicily, starting from the 4th century BC. During the Hellenistic and Roman period, the city reached its greatest splendour as it is well-represented by the presence here of some of the most exceptional pieces of the entire museum collection: the Venus Landolina, the sarcophagus of Adelphia, and the two beautiful sculptures of the Greek god Priapus and Hercules dating to the Imperial age.
An experience that left a fingerprint on my soul
Visiting “Paolo Orsi” museum was memorable!
It was for me an opportunity to learn, grow and develop – and that’s what slow travel is about after all: on our trip we should choose to explore the little things we tend to take for granted so easily; we should open our mind to the possibility of playing the tourist within our own town or nearby places that just wait to be seen with different eyes. This switch of mindset will help us create a deeper emotional connection with the place, just like I experienced during my visit, and will give us more lasting and meaningful memories in return.
As I often emphasised in this article, this museum is such an extraordinary place to dive into. The preservation of the collections, the attention for the scientific details and the exquisite beauty of the finds exhibited make it a fundamental stop for those who love history and art, and are eager to learn more about the Ancient history of Sicily and the local culture.
There’s no denying my initial disappointment at seeing such a small number of visitors in there. It got me thinking how oblivious we are to the immense treasures we have locally, missing out on the chance to discover and fully appreciate them.
This calls for a change! Let’s try to get out of our typical frenetic lifestyle, especially when travelling; let’s start looking around and be curious about what surround us – we’ll never know what beautiful surprises we may find on our next slow trip!
Visit the “Paolo Orsi” Regional Archaeological Museum of Syracuse
I’d like to end this journey with you by sharing a bunch of info on the museum and the visit. In this ongoing pandemic it’s still not possible to travel wherever we want, but if you’d like to have a sneak peek of the “Paolo Orsi” Museum check out the virtual tour. For when you go visit Syracuse and its splendid museum, instead, make sure to consult the city website first with all the updated info on the opening hours and admission fees.
Bear in mind to take at least one morning or an entire afternoon to visit all the masterpieces of the museum – it’ll be well worth it!