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When the North meets the "key to everything". From Ragnar Östberg to Erik Gunnar Asplund

«Beyond the city there was a wide plain, which sloped gently towards the sea and it was dominated by a semicircle of mountains. The soil of such plain was shimmering red, the sea looked blue enamel, the mountain slopes were brilliant yellow. It was a country completely influenced by Eastern culture in the spirit and splendour of colours. But it was more than this. Old temples laid scattered across the valley». The Swedish writer Selma Lagerlöf ["Antikrists mirakler", 1897] illustrates the impressive peculiarities of Agrigento monuments immersed in the magnificent Sicilian landscape, but Sicily is more than classical masterpieces. As a matter of fact, the southern island of Italy was the scene of subsequent dominations which established different cultural atmospheres, resulting in a dynamic melting pot, also on the architectural side. The present paper aims to demonstrate it through the travelling experiences conducted by two Swedish architects at the turn of the 20th century: Ragnar Östberg (1866-1945) and Erik Gunnar Asplund (1885-1940). Even though Swedish academies stressed the mere and distant re-drawing of classical examples, they were fascinated by the aura emanated from this extraneous world. Nonetheless, they were also capable of exploring other architectural treasures of Sicily, including Saracen and Norman ones. After receiving a three-year Royal Academy travel scholarship, Östberg departed from Marseilles’ harbour for the South of Italy in January 1897. He spent approximately two months travelling around Sicily. By contrast, at the end of 1913, Asplund left Stockholm for a short journey on the proceeds of his own work. In February 1914, he departed for Palermo by way of Naples. Compared to Östberg’s itinerary, the promising pupil added some pioneering and unconventional cities which broadened his interests. It is likely that the largely spread Baedecker suggested some of them; in fact, the same Östberg stressed the considerable utility of those travel guides. The time gap of seventeen years between their respective journeys reveals a development in the art of ‘contemplating’, literally far from the traditional 18th century aristocratic Grand Tour. Something that owed so much to the master’s input yet became manifest in what Asplund would go on to make of it. The timespan between the two generation is also evident in the way that the older preferred charcoal sketches, while Asplund employed many disparate sketching styles as well as photographs. Their sketchbooks captured the attention of later generations. On the Östberg’s 75th birthday the Academy students, a group of Swedish architects and the Association of Swedish architects re-printed a selection of his sketches about Italy and Greece, while the Asplund’s travel notes and drawings were partially published ten years after his death by the Swedish historian Hakon Ahlberg. But, even now, they remain an enduring benchmark for understanding the multifaceted nature of the Sicilian landscape and architecture.

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