It all started with Isola Bella, a tiny island which today, together with the panorama from the Greek theater, is the most photographed subject in Taormina.
I had decided to write about it, as it truly is a beautiful place, as its name states, with its jagged profile crowned with trees standing out in the middle of transparent water. To get there, you just need to walk on an uneven path of pebbles gradually crumbling into sand, up to a gate that announces the access to the islet. Beyond it thick vegetation of Mediterranean species such as mastic, euphorbias, pistachios, and the characteristic tufts of cornflowers of Taormina, alternate with dracaena, strelitzia, chicas, bougainvillea. The latter plants, they explain to me, were not born here naturally, but were introduced by Florence Trevelyan, an Englishwoman who in 1890 bought the island which at the time was called Scoglio di Santo Stefano.
This is how Florence’s name entered my story, soon overshadowing the rest. Because yes, the visit to the island is really interesting, with the beautiful vegetation, the views of the sea and the coast. There is a small museum that tells its story, from the Bourbons to the town of Taormina, from Florence Trevelyan to the Bosurgi brothers, who bought it in 1954 and, to respect the nature of the places, carved nearly everything in the rock, from the rooms to the stairs to the swimming pool as well as the niche in which they hid the intercoms.
But Florence’s story in Taormina is fascinating. It starts in 1884, the year in which the young woman arrived in Taormina from the United Kingdom, determined to settle in Sicily. It had been love at first sight when, a few years earlier, she had visited Taormina during a trip to Europe and North Africa. Florence took up lodging at the newborn Hotel Timeo, and immediately began to search for a property to buy. She liked Taormina for several reasons. The climate, so much better than that of Northumberland in which she had grown up, the quiet atmosphere and the pleasant company of a changing community of foreigners (I’ve written about the first years of tourism in Taormina here). And above all, she loved the place because here she could give free rein, so to speak, to her passion for gardening. And not only to that.
Florence bought several properties, in and around Taormina and the nearby village of Castelmola. On Mount Venere, for example, she bought a large expanse of sloping land with an enchanting view on Etna and the coast. Here she created woods and cultivated areas as well as a panoramic road, along which, for a long time, there even was a café (now in ruins) for the refreshment of foreigners who came up here. She bought Isola Bella, as mentioned, the same year she married doctor Salvatore Cacciola, mayor of Taormina. The two met as one of Florence’s many dogs, a mastiff named Sole, fell ill, and Florence, desperate because there was no veterinarian in Taormina, asked the doctor for help. He healed the dog and won the heart of the young lady.
The two bought a house near the Timeo Hotel and soon Florence started her umpteenth project here: the creation of a park on the hill that slopes down to the sea. Helped by a team of farmers, she had all sorts of Mediterranean trees planted, flower beds and paths created as well as small buildings, the “beehives”, gradually giving shape to her “Hallington Siculo” (Sicilian Hallington), in honor of the Hallington estate where she grew up.
What today is the municipal villa of Taormina is a place with a particular atmosphere. Those who will take time to look for them will find many signs that refer to theosophy, a doctrine that in Taormina had numerous followers and that fascinated Florence as well as other foreigners, including Robert Kitson, the eclectic owner of Casa Cuseni, who was a good friend of hers. Just think that, in March 1912, some members of the Theosophical Society gathered here to proceed with the ceremony of elevation to the second mystical degree of Jiddu Krishnamurti. There is no shortage of references to Freemasonry, too. Florence’s husband was affiliated with it and in Taormina there was an important lodge. In 1923, the Municipality obtained the expropriation of the park to use it as a public villa thanks to the initiative of Giovanni Antonio Colonna, Duke of Cesarò, Grand Master of Freemasonry. Some historians think that this was done in a spirit of brotherhood, to preserve the esoteric soul of Florence’s garden.
On the right, miss Daphne Phelps, who inherited Casa Cuseni from Robert Kitson.
Florence Trevelyan died in 1907. In her will, she ordered absolute respect for the environment in her property, and also arranged to be buried in her beloved estate on Monte Venere. Up to twenty years ago, a small mausoleum kept her remains, then it was destroyed. Only the memory of Florence is left, and a bust of her in Hallington Siculo.
One last note. Upon her death, Florence arranged for all her possessions to go to her English family and so a huge fortune went to George Macaulay Trevelyan, one of the greatest English historians. Thanks to that financial support, he was able to embark on a journey on foot in the footsteps of Garibaldi and the Thousand, from Marsala to Palermo. He then wrote a three-volume work, “Garibaldi and the Thousand”, which is still available on the market.
(I want to thank Dr. Francesco Spadaro, owner of Casa Cuseni, for his precious help)