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View of the eastern side of Monte Erice from Castello di Venere, the assumed site of a temple to Venus
There was a (highly celebrated) temple in Sicily. It was dedicated to Venus Erecina, and it was built on the summit of a high mountain. The ancient name of this mountain was Eryx, or as the Sicilians call it Erice, but it is now called St.
Juliano. Both mountain and temple are often mentioned by the Greek and Latin historians. Diodorus says that Dedalus, after his flight from Crete, was
hospitably received here, and by his wonderful skill in architecture added greatly to the beauty of this temple. (..) Its fame and glory continued to increase for many ages and it was still held in greater veneration by the Romans, than it had been by the Greeks. Fazello says, and quotes the authority of Strabo, that seventeen cities of Sicily were laid under tribute, to raise a sufficient revenue to support the dignity, and enormous expenses of this temple.
Two hundred soldiers were appointed for its guard, and the number of its priests, priestesses, and ministers male and female, were incredible.
At certain seasons of the year, great numbers of pigeons, which were supposed to be the attendants of Venus, used to pass betwixt Africa and Italy; and resting for some days on mount Eryx and round this temple, it was then imagined by the people that the goddess herself was there in person; and on these occasions, he says, they worshipped her with all their might. Festivals were instituted in honour of the deity, and the most modest woman was only looked upon as a prude that refused to comply with the rites. However there were not many complaints of this kind; and it has been alleged, that the ladies of Eryx were sometimes seen looking out for the pigeons long before they arrived; and that they used to scatter peas about the temple to make them stay as long as possible.
Patrick Brydone - A Tour through Sicily and Malta in 1770.
My stay at Trapani, the
site of the ancient Drepanum, is chiefly rendered interesting by the poetical celebrity which it owes to Virgil. On this shore Aeneas landed after the
destruction of Troy, and here lost his father Anchises. The following year after his departure from Carthage, he is enveloped in darkness and tempest; and by the advice of the pilot Palinurus, makes for this shore.
"See! from the west what thwarting winds arise!
How in one cloud are gather'd half the skies !
In vain our course we labour to maintain.
And, struggling, work against the storm in vain.
Let us, since fortune mocks our toil, obey.
And speed our voyage where she points the way;
For not far distant lies the realm that bore
Your brother Eryx, the Sicilian shore."
Virgil - Aeneid - Book V - translation by Cristopher Pitt
Mons Eryx, here mentioned, is now known by the name of Monte di Trapani or Monte St. Giuliano. It is reckoned one of the highest mountains in Sicily, and the summit is seldom free from clouds. It is five miles distant from Trapani. The temple itself, from which the goddess derived the title of Venus Erycina, was long afterwards celebrated for its riches and splendour. I was prevented from ascending to the summit, by the uncommon badness of the weather. But the only remains of antiquity still extant are a few large stones, which were part of the substructions of an ancient building.
Sir Richard Colt Hoare - A Classical Tour through Italy and Sicily - published in 1819.
View over Golfo di Bonagia in the Tyrrhenian Sea from the church of S. Giovanni
Mount Erice stands isolated at the north-western end of Sicily and from the height of 750 m/2500 ft it has commanding views over the Tyrrhenian Sea and the Strait of Sicily which separates the island from Africa. The town however was not founded by settlers coming from the sea, such as the Greeks and the Carthaginians, but by the Elimi, an indigenous ethnic group. They lived in the interior of the island and Segesta, their main town, was not very far from Erice.
Towers of the walls of the Elimi/Carthaginians
In the Vth century BC the Elimi felt threatened by the growth of the Greek towns in Sicily and in particular by that of Selinunte. They made an alliance with the Carthaginians and they eventually became their vassals. Erice was affected by the long conflict between Carthage and the Greek towns which lasted until the First Punic War. In 249 BC the Romans seized Erice, but the town was retaken by the Carthaginians soon afterwards.
The scene of warfare now lay in the country adjoining the lofty Mount Eryx, Drepanum, and Panormus; and the possession of the fortified mountain was most strongly contested. And here I must insert a remark of the historian Polybius respecting the actual state of the contending armies. He compares them with those generous and valiant birds, which, when they have fought so long together that they are quite disabled from making any farther use of their wings in the engagement, yet retaining still their courage, and exchanging mutual wounds, at last unite by a kind of instinct in a closer combat, and maintain the fight together with their beaks, till the one or the other of them falls beneath his adversary's stroke. In the same manner, the Carthaginians and the Romans, exhausted by continual expense, and weakened by the miseries and the losses which the war had brought upon them, were now reduced on both sides to the last extremity. Colt Hoare
These long fights greatly reduced the population of Erice.
Notwithstanding the difficult access,
there is a large town, with several churches on the top of this mountain, and a very old
castle. I do not recollect to have seen one
that has a greater appearance of antiquity.
There was a magnificent temple on Mount
Eryx, dedicated to Venus, one of the most beautiful in the universe. (..) If we are to believe tradition, this temple of
Venus was licensed for all sorts of debauchery; and to such lengths can the human mind be brought, that virgins thought themselves
highly favoured by being admitted to the rites of this licentious abode. Of course, beauty was a requisite. (..)
There is not the slightest vestige of it remaining.
Sir George Cockburn - A Voyage to Cadiz and Gibraltar: up the Mediterranean to Sicily and Malta in 1810/11
The Elimi who founded the temple most likely dedicated it to a local goddess of fertility. The Carthaginian influence led the shrine to be dedicated to Astarte, a Phoenician goddess of fertility and sexuality, whom the Romans associated with Aphrodite/Venus. A dove/pigeon was both a symbol of Astarte and of Venus. The practice of sacred prostitution was not uncommon: a similar usage occurred at a famous Temple to Aphrodite at Acrocorinth and at a Temple to Venus at Sicca Veneria.
(left) San Giuliano; (right) statue portraying St. Julian
Venus was succeeded in her possessions of Eryx by St. Juliano, who now gives his name both to the city and mountain; and indeed he has a very
good title, for when the place was closely besieged, the Sicilians tell you, he appeared on the walls armed cap-a-pie, and frightened the enemy
to such a degree, that they instantly took to the heels and left him ever since in quiet possession of it. It would have been long before Venus
and her pigeons could have done as much for them. Brydone
St. Julian made his appearance at the side of the Normans at Erice in 1076 when they were in the process of conquering Sicily from the Arabs. The church which was immediately built to celebrate the Saint's intervention was replaced by a new one in the XVIIth century. The bell tower was added in 1770.
(left) Porta Trapani; (right) Porta Spada
The Normans repopulated Erice and rebuilt its walls. The town acquired a triangular shape which it still retains. Porta Trapani, the main gate, is located at its western end where the access to the mountain is less steep. The fortifications of medieval Erice included two castles at the eastern and northern ends of the town.
Torre di Re Federico near Real Duomo/Chiesa Matrice
A tall tower near Porta Trapani strengthened the defence of the gate. It was built by King Frederic III of Sicily. He was the third son of King Peter III of Aragon to whom the Sicilian barons offered the crown of the island after the 1282 Sicilian Vespers. The building was eventually embellished by some fine windows.
View of the town from Torre di Re Federico
S. Giuliano (in 1934 the town was renamed Erice) is built on the highest pinnacle of the mountain and commands an enchanting prospect of the surrounding objects. The inhabitants of this town are about 7,000. There are nine convents, fifteen churches, hospital and Monte di Pieta. Here the people are remarkable for their longevity owing to their enjoying the finest atmosphere in Sicily and as to the women of San Giuliano their uncommon beauty has long been proverbial. This may account in some degree for the establishment of a temple dedicated to Venus; at all events it evinces the good taste of the founder.
Edward Blaquiere - Letters from the Mediterranean - 1813
Real Duomo/Chiesa Matrice
In Sicily the main church of a town which is not an episcopal see is usually called Chiesa Matrice. That of Erice is known also as Real Duomo because it was founded by King Frederic III in 1314. According to tradition stones from the temple to Venus were employed for its construction. The small portico was added in 1426. Some changes were made to the fašade in the XXth century by opening a rose window.
Real Duomo/Chiesa Matrice: (left) main portal (a detail of the side portal can be seen in the image used as background for this page); (centre) 1513 marble main altar; (right) XVIth century statue of the school of Antonello Gagini, the leading sculptor of his time in Sicily
In 1853 the interior of the church collapsed and it was redesigned in Neo-Gothic style. The building retains two original portals and some interesting XVIth century works of art.
S. Giovanni is a large church on a commanding position near Castello di Venere. It was enlarged and redesigned in 1631, but it retains a fine medieval portal with a zigzag moulding which is often seen in Sicily.
The enrichments of the mouldings of the Romanesque style are of great variety; in parts of Italy and in the south of France they were largely influenced by Byzantine work; but in Sicily, Apulia, Normandy and England the Normans introduced a series of purely geometrical forms in which the chief peculiarity is the rare occurrence of foliage. The most characteristic example is that of the zigzag or chevron.
The Encyclopaedia Britannica (1911)
S. Orsola is a church with an unusual design: its first nave had pointed arches, but in the XVIth century it was enlarged by the addition of a second nave in Renaissance style.
Castello di Venere: details with a coat of arms of a Habsburg King of Spain and of Sicily
After sleeping at Trapani, Travellers usually make an excursion to the summit ot Eryx, one of the highest Mountains in Sicily. The ascent, though tedious, is easy, till within a short distance of the summit; and commands beautiful views. Travellers who ascend by the usual mule-path arrive first at the modern Town (..); hence proceeding to the remains of Norman Fortifications, (which are considerable), pass through the Gates of the present Prison, probably part of the Norman Citadel. This Prison stands on the summit of the Mountain in a Piazza, at the extremity of which is a Fragment of a very ancient Wall, reputed to be the remains of the celebrated Temple of Venus erected by Eryx, which once embellished this spot. The Wall stands on the brink, and seems indeed to make part of a perpendicular Rock; and is composed of very large and smooth quadrilateral stones, fixed together without cement.
Mariana Starke - Travels in Europe for the Use of Travellers on the Continent and likewise in the Island of Sicily - 1838 Edition - based on a travel to Sicily made in 1834.
The fortress was built by the Normans in the XIIth century and a ditch separated it from the town. It was the residence of the Bajulo, the governor of the town. Eventually it was turned into a prison.
Mount Eryx is a very strong military position, and
well worth seeing. (..) It certainly might be easily made an impregnable post. (..) The bird's eye view of Trapani from hence and of
all the coast and surrounding country is very fine. Cockburn. In 1810 General Cockburn was appointed to the staff of the English army in Sicily when the island was at risk of being invaded by the French. In his book he suggested: Great commercial and other advantages might be derived to England from the possession of the island, not to mention the danger of its being annexed to France.
Castello di Venere was not big enough to house a large garrison. In the XVI/XVIIth centuries the coastal towns of Sicily were at risk of being raided by Ottoman corsairs. Had they been able to seize Erice, an invasion of the island by an army could have followed. For this reason large barracks were built at the eastern end of the town.
S. Martino: (left) portal; (right) courtyard
S. Martino was a XIIth century church, but it was entirely redesigned in 1688. The changes did not affect a small XVth century very interesting courtyard. Today the complex houses an exhibition of wooden artifacts from other churches and monasteries.
S. Martino: (left) wooden statue of St. Martin cutting his cloak (1556 by Gianluca Curatolo, a local sculptor); (right) wooden altar
The influence of Spain can be noted in many churches of Sicily which house polychromed wooden statues or altarpieces (see an example in Seville).
Erice watches over the port of Trapani from the legendary mountain of Eryx, situated a giddy 750m above sea level. It's a mesmerising walled medieval town. 2017 Lonely Planet Guide of Sicily
Actually Erice is not as medieval as generally thought. There is a XIIIth century palace (Palazzo Chiaramonte), but it is very much ruined. Palaces which call for the attention of the visitor are mainly buildings of the XVII/XVIIIth century. Some of them belonged to rich families of Trapani who escaped the summer heat at Erice.
Streets: they were most likely paved in the late XIXth century
Plan of this section:
Agrigento - The Main Temples
Agrigento - Other Monuments
Catania - Ancient Monuments
Catania - Around Piazza del Duomo
Catania - Via dei Crociferi
Catania - S. Niccol˛ l'Arena
Palermo - Gates and City Layout
Palermo - Norman-Arab Monuments
Palermo - Martorana and Cappella Palatina
Palermo - Medieval Palaces
Palermo - Cathedral
Palermo - Churches of the Main Religious Orders
Palermo - Other Churches
Palermo - Oratories
Palermo - Palaces of the Noble Families
Palermo - Public Buildings and Fountains
Palermo - Museums
Piazza Armerina and Castelvetrano
Reggio Calabria - Archaeological Museum
Selinunte - The Acropolis
Selinunte - The Eastern Hill
Syracuse - Main Archaeological Area
Syracuse - Other Archaeological Sites
Syracuse - Castello Eurialo
Syracuse - Ancient Ortigia
Syracuse - Medieval Monuments
Syracuse - Renaissance Monuments
Syracuse - Baroque and Modern Monuments
Taormina - Ancient Monuments
Taormina - Medieval Monuments
Villa del Casale