Marsala lineage, in the flesh

“I’d like to drop in and say hello to the Boy of Mozia,” says Christopher Richards, a charming, elderly Brit with floppy canvas hat who happens to be one of the last remaining relatives of Joseph Whitaker.

Any Marsala lover will recognize that name. Joseph Whitaker Jr.andhis uncle Benjamin Ingham were among the first wave of British merchants to produce Marsala wine and the very first to export it beyond Europe’s shores.

On this day, we’re standing on the dock of Mozia, an island the Whitaker family once owned that is their other claim to fame. Located in a large, protected lagoon not far from their villa overlooking Marsala and the saline where sea salt is made, Mozia was a bustling Phoenician trading hub. This merchant civilization, active here from the 6th to 4th C. BC, were master sailors. The idea of the curved hull is credited to them. They also invented the alphabet, were famed for their purple dye culled from mollusks, and developed the art of mass production.

It was Joseph Whitaker who first noticed some archaeological remains poking out from the dirt. Having a passion for archaeology (as well as ornithology), he led a systematic excavation on Mozia that continued from 1906 to 1927 and unearthed a Punic necropolis, mosaic floors, part of the belt wall surrounding the island, and many fine Phoenician artifacts that form the core of the collection in the Mozia museum, housed in the villa that was once the family getaway.

That’s where I’m headed today, along with Elaine and Roger Hamm, here for our Discover Sicily wine tour. Elaine’s niece is related by marriage of Richards, and this assignation was set after they discovered they’d be on Mozia the same day. Richards wanted to hand-deliver some olive oil from the family’s property, and Elaine—meeting him for the first time—wanted to quiz him about the family tree.

Enchantingly, Richards always refers to Joseph Whitaker by his family nickname: Pip. Whitaker had two daughters: Norina, who married, and Delia, who did not. Richards is a cousin of Norina “two or three times removed” on his father’s side. “My grandmother was Pip’s niece,” he says.

“There are still Whitakers, but they’re not in that line,” he continues. “The last of that line was Hubert, and he was killed at Gallipoli in 1915. So that was the last of that lot. Otherwise, they were all daughters. Along that line, we’re the only surviving lot.” (Pip was one of 12 children, so there were Whitaker cousins aplenty.)

As Elaine and Richards chat, he throws out casual recollections that tickle the mind: Playing on the island as a lad when it was still privately owned. Grapes from Mozia being transported across the lagoon on the submerged road built by the Phoenicians—a prosaic use of a priceless archaeological artifact that continued until 1965. There was also an interesting conversation about his relatives’ comfort during WWII thanks to Norina’s marriage to a general who became War Minister during the Fascist regime.

Richards also remembers when the Boy of Mozia was unearthed here in 1979. The white marble sculpture came from Greece, one of the Phoenicians’ trading partners, and dates from the 5th C. BC—the height of Greek classicism. It’s an exquisite example. The life-size statue depicts a charioteer, one truncated arm raised in victory. His muscular form is revealed by folds of drapery that cling like wet muslin, cinched by a high belt worn by charioteers. He’s gorgeous, and is rightfully given pride of place in a black-walled niche.

“The only reason it’s intact is because it was incorporated into a structural wall,” Richards reveals. That saved it from ruin over the 2500 years—a tidbit I never knew.

I would love to know so much more. But our groups split and we go our separate ways. Still, I feel I’ve brushed a bit of living history, so it's been a good day.