(left/centre) Lava in Monastero di S. Nicol˛ l'Arena; (right) house standing on lava near Castello Ursino
Catania Friday, May 4, 1787. We drove up the streets where the lava, which, in 1669,
destroyed a great part of this city, remains visible to this
day. The solid lava had been worked like any other rock,
- streets had even been marked out on its surface, and partly
built. I placed under the seat of the carriage an undoubted
specimen of the molten rock, (..) and I did so in many other places (including Mount Vesuvius in March 1787),
in order to have several varieties.
J. W. Goethe - Italian Journey - Translation by Charles Nisbet
Catania is reviving with great splendour, and,
when all the houses now building are finished, will be a very handsome city. It has already much more the
features of a metropolis and royal residence than Palermo;
the principal streets are wide, straight, and well paved with
lava. An obelisk of red granite, placed on the back of an
antique elephant of touchstone stands in the centre of the
great square, which is formed by the town-hall, seminary,
Henry Swinburne - Travels in the Two Sicilies. 1777-1780
Swinburne visited Catania in 1778 and he found the city in the process of being rebuilt, not so much because of the 1669 lava eruption, but chiefly because of a major earthquake which in 1693 struck Val di Noto, south-eastern Sicily. It caused extensive damage in Catania and Syracuse and it razed Noto and other minor towns to the ground.
Catania gained from the Arab occupation of Sicily in the IXth-XIth centuries, not because the new rulers expanded the town, but because they introduced new effective irrigation techniques in the surrounding countryside, a fertile volcanic land. In 1094 the Normans developed the new layout of Catania by erecting the Cathedral, an ecclesia munita (fortified church) near the harbour of the town, similar to what they did in Cefal¨. The southern transept in particular had a commanding view over the harbour; it was not affected by the lava stream in 1669 and it withstood the 1693 earthquake when most of the Cathedral collapsed.
Cathedral: (left) fašade; (right) side entrance with a 1577 portal by Giandomenico Mazzolo, son of Giovan Battista Mazzolo; another older portal was eventually reassembled in S. Agata al Carcere
greatest figure of the reconstruction period, Giovan Battista Vaccarini (1702-68), turned Catania into one of the most fascinating eighteenth-century cities in Europe.
Born in Palermo, he was educated in Rome in Carlo Fontana's studio, but, being a contemporary of the Roman Rococo architects, his development parallels theirs. A protect of Cardinal Ottoboni (nephew of Pope Alexander VIII), he settled at Catania in 1730 and in the next two decades
brought about a Sicilian Rococo by blending the Borrominesque with the local tradition. (..)
The list of Vaccarini's works is long and distinguished, from the facade of the cathedral (begun 1730, reminiscent of Juvarra's style), which shows an interesting play (*) with
the position of the orders, and the powerful and extravagantly imaginative design of the
Palazzo Municipale where, keeping abreast with the times, he is well on the road to a new classicism.
Rudolf Wittkower - Art and Architecture in Italy 1600-1750 - Penguin Books 1958
(*) Wittkower makes reference to the fact that the orders of the fašade are Ionic (ground floor), Corinthian (middle storey) and Doric (top storey), rather than being Doric, Ionic and Corinthian, a feature of the design of Colosseo which was regarded as a tenet of good architecture.
Cathedral: details of the fašade (similar to those on the fašade of the Cathedral of Syracuse): (left) statue of St. Agatha; (right) angels at the tip of the fašade
The Cathedral is dedicated to Agatha, patron saint of the town (and of one of the historical quarters of Palermo). She was killed during the persecution of Emperor Decius in 251. Of the many miracles attributed to her one is referred to in the inscription above her statue M(entem) S(anctam) S(pontaneam) H(onorem) D(eo) E(t) Patriae Liberationem. According to tradition in 1231 Frederick II, German Emperor and King of Sicily decided to destroy Catania after a rebellion. Prior to giving the final instructions he attended Mass in the Cathedral and suddenly he read Noli offendere Patriam Agathae quia ultrix iniuriarum est (Do not abuse the City of Agatha because she will take revenge of this offence - It. patria means homeland) in his prayer book. He immediately changed his mind and since then Agatha was regarded as the liberator of Catania.
S. Agata; a circular church with an ugly fašade.
A Handbook for Travellers in Sicily - Murray - 1864
Vaccarini's most important ecclesiastical work, S. Agata (begun 1735), has a facade with a deep concave recession between flanking convex bays, altogether an unexpected transformation of Borrominesque ideas and wholly unorthodox in the detail. Wittkower
In 1652 a Benedictine nunnery was founded opposite the northern side of the Cathedral. In 1693 when it collapsed it housed 28 nuns, so it was not a large institution. The nuns, or at least some of them, belonged to very wealthy families. Eventually enough donations were made to the nunnery to begin the construction of new richly decorated buildings. Another large Benedictine nunnery was located in Via dei Crociferi and the monks resided in an imposing palace at S. Nicol˛ l'Arena.
The Cathedral of Catania is adorned with the
columns which once belonged to the theatre. In
a square before it is an elephant sculptured in lava,
and supporting on its back an Egyptian obelisk.
The idea was probably taken from that at Rome,
executed by Cavaliere Bernini.
Sir Richard Colt Hoare - A Classical Tour through Italy and Sicily - published in 1819.
The fountain was designed by Vaccarini, but the stone elephant was a symbol of the town since 1240. The small obelisk has some carvings, but they are not hieroglyphs. It most likely decorated a lost Roman circus near the harbour together with another one, now at Castello Ursino, similar to what occurred at Circus Maximus in Rome. It is thought that also the statue of the elephant was made to embellish the circus.
Palazzo del Municipio (Town Hall): portal by Vaccarini with the coat of arms of the City of Catania depicting St. Agatha and the elephant; the statues portray Faith and Justice
The building is also known as Palazzo degli Elefanti, but Palazzo del Senato was its original name. Sicily did not experience the development of Comuni (independent medieval towns), but Palermo, Catania, Messina, Syracuse and other towns had a Senate, a local body of a few members chosen among the noble families. This body represented the town's interests to the kings and had some authority on local matters. These privileges were mainly granted by Peter III, King of Aragon when after the 1282 Sicilian Vespers, he was offered the throne of the island by the Sicilian nobility. In 1720 the Treaty of the Hague assigned Sicily to Emperor Charles VI of the House of Habsburg. His viceroys repeatedly attempted to withhold the authorities of the local Senates. In 1735 the Sicilians welcomed the passage of the island to Charles of Bourbon, son of Philip V who had been King of the island in 1700-1713. The new monarch and his successors however developed a very centralized type of government and they usually resided in Naples or Caserta.
Palazzo del Seminario dei Chierici
The architects who redesigned Catania after the earthquake gave overall consistency to the aspect of the new town by utilizing a white stone and a greyish paint which contained volcanic sand to clad their buildings. The use of black and white decorations was typical of medieval monuments at Messina, Taormina and most likely at Catania itself. Over the centuries pollution and dirt turned Catania into a town having an overall blackish and unattractive appearance, but when appropriately cleaned its XVIIIth century buildings fully show the elegance of their design.
The southern side of Piazza del Duomo is closed by the city walls, but when Catania was rebuilt their view was hidden by Palazzo del Seminario dei Chierici and nearby Palazzo Arcivescovile; the southern gate of the town lost its military features because the two palaces were united by a short wing which incorporated it. It is named after Juan Francisco Pacheco, Duke of Uzeda and Viceroy of Sicily in 1687-1696 who promoted the reconstruction of Catania. The orientation of the gate is at an angle with the walls in order to allow the view of Via Etnea, a wide street which was opened after the earthquake and crossed the town from the southern gate to Porta d'Aci, the northern gate near the ancient amphitheatre. It was called Via Uzeda, but it was renamed Via Etnea because one can see the volcano (it opens in another window) from it.
(above) Palazzo Biscari seen from outside the city walls which provided it with a long balcony; (below) two of its windows; the image used as background for this page shows a detail of their decoration
We first went to the famous Museum of Prince Biscari which is well worth seeing being a collection of antiques of all sorts and arranged with taste in rooms built for the purpose. (..) There is a room with old armour, various bronzes, lamps, volcanic productions etc. The late Prince who formed the collection had also a fine set of coins and medals, but they are not now shewn. Some persons say they have been sold.
Sir George Cockburn - A Voyage to Cadiz and Gibraltar: up the Mediterranean to Sicily and Malta in 1810/11.
The Biscari were a branch of the Patern˛ Castello, a family of Norman origin. In 1633 they acquired the title of Princes of Biscari, a small fiefdom near Ragusa. They were allowed to rebuild their palace upon the walls of the town. Ignazio Patern˛ Castello, Prince of Biscari (1719-1786) promoted the first archaeological excavations of Catania and he gathered a fine collection of ancient statues and reliefs in his palace.
Vaccarini entirely superseded the popular churrigueresque style - that exuberant manner which owes so much to Spain and of which Catania has splendid examples in the Palazzo Biscari and the Benedictine monastery, the largest in Europe, the impressive bulk of which dominates the town. Wittkower
The elaborate ornamentation of the seven balcony windows was completed in the early XVIIIth century and Wittkower calls it churrigueresque with reference to JosÚ Benito de Churriguera (1665-1725), a Spanish sculptor and architect, known for the rich decoration of his buildings and altarpieces. The fašade of S. Maria Maddalena can be regarded as an example of churrigueresque style in Rome.
Palazzo Scammacca della Bruca at Piano di S. Filippo (Piazza Mazzini)
In June 1694 Giuseppe Lanza, Duke of Camastra, envoy of Viceroy Uzeda, endorsed the plan for the reconstruction of Catania. It established that the new streets should be straight and wide enough to prevent buildings from collapsing on the opposite ones. It also planned for squares where people could gather in case of earthquakes without being hit by falling walls because of the limited height of the surrounding palaces. Piano di S. Filippo, one of such squares, is located at a short distance from Piazza Duomo and its porticoes housed a market. Palazzo Scammacca della Bruca is the only one which has retained the original height.
Churches with the bell tower on the fašade: (left) S. Placido; (right) S. Filippo Neri al Teatro Romano
Vaccarini's manner was continued in the second
half of the eighteenth century by the festive art of the Roman Stefano Ittar. His S. Placido, a refined and subtle jewel of classicizing Rococo taste, has its nearest parallels in Piedmont. Wittkower
Catania does not have many bell towers; that near the Cathedral was built in 1868 and those of S. Francesco in 1855. Many XVIIIth century fašades of churches had a loggia for the bells in a central position and they were not too high.
(left) S. Agata alle Vergini near the Odeon; (right) S. Chiara in Via Garibaldi
September 14th. The heat is still so great that the use of cold water and partial bathing is indispensably necessary. (..) The windows are large and open from the floor with balconies in front and in consequence of the heat of the climate are open all day in Summer or rather nine months of the year so that the opposite neighbours may see every thing done. Cockburn
A characteristic of the churches of some nunneries is the presence of large loggias on top of the fašades. There the nuns could enjoy the evening sea breeze during the hot summer months without being seen. Similar high loggias can be seen at Madonna di Monte Oliveto, a nunnery in Palermo and at a Benedictine nunnery in Noto.
XVIIIth century balconies
The white stone which was used to highlight the architectural elements of the palaces was used also for an elaborate, but usually bizarre, decoration of the balconies, something which was very much in fashion when Catania and the other towns hit by the earthquake were being rebuilt. You may wish to see the balconies of Palazzo Nicolaci at Noto and of Palazzo Cosentini at Ragusa.
In the 1870s municipal authorities began to think of providing Catania with a new entertainment venue. Initially they considered a Politeama, a building which could house different kinds of shows (see that at Palermo), but eventually it was decided to build an Opera House (see that at Palermo). It was dedicated to Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835) who was born in Palazzo Gravina Cruyllas. He acquired international fame by composing La Sonnambula, Norma and I Puritani for theatres in Milan and Paris where he died very young. In 1876 his body was brought back to his hometown and buried in the Cathedral. The theatre was inaugurated in 1890 by a performance of Norma.
We next went to the old Castle, a very ancient building, it was formerly washed by the sea, but in the great eruption of 1669 from Monte Rosso the current of lava which made its way into the sea and now helps to form the harbour, went quite round it in a most wonderful manner without doing it any injury though red hot; and now close to its walls it looks like an original rock and has made it an inland building, though formerly more than half washed by the sea. There are several old towers in this Castle which is now used as a sort of prison and a barrack for invalids. Cockburn
Castello Ursino and the lava stream which surrounds it
At last the lava came down sweeping before it every saint in the calendar who were drawn up in order of battle on purpose to oppose its passage; and marching on in triumph annihilated in a manner every object that dared to oppose it. Brydone.
The 1669 eruption of Etna began in February and reached its peak on March 25. It created three streams of lava, one of which sloped towards Catania. By digging ditches and erecting palisades authorities managed to avoid lava entering the very centre of the town. On April 23 it reached the moat protecting Castello Ursino and it continued into the sea. It had the lasting effect to fill the harbour which was eventually relocated to the east of the old one.
Castello Ursino: details: (left) Swabian eagle; (centre) graffiti of prison inmates and soldiers; (right) columns, capitals, architectural fragments and coats of arms in the courtyard
Castello Ursino was built in 1239-1250 by Frederick II of the House of Swabia. It has a square layout similar to Castello Maniace in Syracuse and the Swabian fortress of Milazzo. Its current aspect is the result of a 1934 restoration aimed at enhancing its medieval aspect, because it was modified by the addition of bastions in the XVIth century to upgrade it to the requirements of cannon warfare. Today the interior houses the City Museum.
Castello Ursino: hall housing exhibits of Museo Civico di Castello Ursino
Plan of this section:
Agrigento - The Main Temples
Agrigento - Other Monuments
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