You may wish to read an introduction to this section first.
(left) Porta Reale; it was erected for a visit by Ferdinand II, King of the Two Sicilies in 1838, thus its design is not consistent with the general XVIIIth century architecture of Noto; (right) pelican on the top of the arch, usually a symbol of the Passion of Jesus Christ, but it can be seen in a non-religious context also on Malta
Leaving Noto by the Porta Reale,
you cross the Flora, or public promenade, and descend the wooded slopes to the plain. (..) Though inferior in
size and population to many towns in
Sicily, it is surpassed only by Palermo,
Messina, and Catania in the imposing
character of its buildings, and in its
general appearance of wealth and
civilisation. It is, in truth, one of the
neatest and best built towns of Sicily,
with regular streets, palaces of much pretension, and handsome churches and
convents in considerable numbers. (..)
Noto is quite of modern construction. The original town stood 6 or
7 m. further inland in the mountains to the N.W.; but on its entire
destruction by the terrible earthquake
of 1693, the citizens removed to this
A Handbook for Travellers in Sicily - Murray - 1864
Thursday, April 1, 1790. The whole country was almost destitute of habitations. The first appearance of Noto and its territory was equally striking and agreeable. After so dreary and cheerless a journey, it seemed like the garden of Eden. Having a letter to the Regente of the Padri Conventuali di St. Francesco, I fixed on their convent as my abode, and was received with the usual Sicilian hospitality.
Sir Richard Colt Hoare - A Classical Tour through Italy and Sicily - published in 1819.
The convent and its church were located outside Porta Reale and they were demolished in the 1920s.
After the earthquake of 1693 the eastern part of the island saw a fabulous reconstruction period. (..) Magnificent structures arose in small towns such as Modica and Ragusa; Noto and Grammichele were entirely rebuilt on new sites; Noto, in particular, with its array of
monumental structures erected by Paolo Labisi, Rosario Gagliardi,
and the late, neo-classicist Vincenzo Sinatra, is matched, only by Catania itself.
Rudolf Wittkower - Art and Architecture in Italy 1600-1750 - Penguin Books 1958
This church was built in 1704-1745 and it was designed by Rosario Gagliardi and Vincenzo Sinatra, two local architects. The decoration of the interior was almost entirely based on stuccoes, similar to what had occurred in some oratories of Palermo.
This nunnery was built between 1710 and 1791 and it is the largest building of Noto. Vincenzo Sinatra was involved in its design. Its rear side was very elaborately decorated in order to leave no doubt about the social rank of the nuns. They belonged to the wealthiest families of the town, similar to what applied to the monks of a Benedictine monastery of Catania. Benedictine abbots and abbesses had some discretion in the interpretation of the rule of St. Benedict. At Noto and Catania restrictions on food were nominal, individual cells were spacious, family furniture could be brought in and the chores were done by servants.
(left) Nunnery of SS. Salvatore along "Il Cassaro", today Corso Vittorio Emanuele; (right) portal of S. Chiara, the church of another Benedictine nunnery, opposite that of SS. Salvatore
From the surprising number of monasteries and convents, it appears to be the land
of chastity and solitary retirement. Colt Hoare
The new town was built on the slope of a hill. It was crossed by a long level street which, similar to the main street of Palermo was called Il Cassaro. The most important convents and churches and the Town Hall were built along this street. Those which were situated uphill of Il Cassaro were often preceded by flights of steps to make them seem more imposing. This characteristic can be seen in other towns which were rebuilt after the 1693 earthquake, e.g. Palazzolo and Ragusa.
Cathedral or Chiesa Matrice
In the Via Cassaro, the principal
street, is a square called Piano della Matrice, on the N. side of which, approached by 3 long flights of steps,
rises the Chiesa Matrice, a handsome domed church of
yellow stone. 1864 Murray Handbook
After the dreadful earthquake of 1693, which totally destroyed the city, the inhabitants removed five or six miles nearer the sea. So recent a foundation accounts for its neat and handsome appearance; but the architecture of many buildings, particularly that of the churches and convents, seems to have been designed on too magnificent and expensive a scale for a provincial town; and of course many are left unfinished. Colt Hoare
The construction of the new town began from Chiesa Matrice, perhaps by following an initial plan by Angelo Italia, a Jesuit architect from Palermo. The fašade was completed in ca 1768 by Vincenzo Sinatra who took over from Rosario Gagliardi. The end result is a summary of architectural elements of different styles. The church became a cathedral in 1844 when the diocese of Noto was created; until then the town was part of the diocese of Syracuse.
Cathedral: (left) interior; (right) detail of the 1777 monument to Giovanni di Lorenzo, Dean of the Church and Chaplain of the Knights of Malta
The interior is rather bare because in 1996 the dome and the roof of the main nave collapsed, a delayed consequence of an earthquake occurred in 1990. Its decoration however was mainly based on paintings made in 1950-1956. The interior was rebuilt in 2007.
On the S. side
stands the Casa Comunale, or Town
Hall, an Ionic pile of a single story, with an inscription over the doorway recording the history of the town. 1864 Murray Handbook
The Town Hall was designed by Vincenzo Sinatra. The upper storey was added in the XXth century.
Palazzo Ducezio: details of its rear side
The building was originally known as Casa Senatoria and it was eventually renamed after an ancient king of the Siculi:
The original name of Noto was Neas, or
Neatum and it was built and inhabited by the
Siculi. Its first situation was on an eminence,
difficult of access; but afterwards, according to
the testimony of Diodorus, it was removed into a
more level ground, by Ducetius, king of the
Siculi. Colt Hoare
The original city stood some miles inland. (..) Of the wrecks of 1693 little now remains, but a confused heap of ruins. 1864 Murray Handbook.
Recent research has identified the location of a Casa Senatoria in the centre of the old town.
(left) Salita Nicolaci; (right) Chiesa di Montevergine at its end
All the streets departing from Il Cassaro go either uphill or downhill, but because of the steepness of the ground they are usually interrupted by steps or buildings, so Noto does not have a crossroads similar to Palermo's Quattro Canti. Salita Nicolaci is named after the Nicolaci, Principi di Villadorata, whose palace stands on its left side. It is closed by a 1748 church attributed to Vincenzo Sinatra which provides a fine view to those who go uphill. In May the street houses L'Infiorata, when it is covered with petals of flowers to form a sort of tapestry, similar to what occurs at Genzano.
Almost all the buildings, including churches and palaces are not tall and the streets which divide them are rather wide because the plan of the new town was aimed at reducing the impact of new earthquakes.
Palazzo Nicolaci di Villadorata: decorations of its balconies
There is an aristocratic air about Noto
which it owes to the residence here
of the chief nobility of the province,
one of whom, the Prince of Villa
Dorata, was distinguished in former
years for his hospitality to English
travellers. 1864 Murray Handbook
The Nicolaci acquired noble titles in 1774. The family became very rich by owning a tuna fishery at Marzamemi, very near Capo Passero, the southern tip of Sicily.
The stone of Noto has a pale golden yellow colour that in the sun acquires an indescribable opulence: tender enough to allow an elaborate cut, it can be left also almost naked, to give free rein to the manifold language of matter.
Anthony Blunt - Sicilian Baroque - 1968
The quality of the stone, very unlikely that of Villa Palagonia at Bagheria, allowed a type of decoration which is characteristic of Noto and other nearby towns where this or a similar whitish stone were available e.g. at Syracuse and at Palazzolo and Ragusa.
S. Carlo Borromeo and Collegio dei Gesuiti
Views and descriptions of Old Noto indicate it had a very medieval aspect with narrow streets and no open spaces. It appears that its only major modern construction was the college of the Jesuits which was built in ca 1610 by Natale Masuccio, a Jesuit architect from Messina. The design of the college in the new town is attributed to Rosario Gagliardi. Its size and location along Il Cassaro shows the prestige and power the Jesuits enjoyed in the first half of the XVIIIth century, mainly because of their role in the education of the children of the ruling class.
(left) S. Carlo Borromeo; (right) Collegio dei Gesuiti
In the Cassaro stands the Collegio de Gesuiti, of Italian architecture, with a concave facade of 3 orders more pretentious than good.
1864 Murray Handbook
Concave or convex fašades of churches were poorly considered until a general reassessment of Baroque architecture highlighted their artistic value (you may wish to see a page on how opinions about the works by Francesco Borromini changed). The fašade of S. Carlo Borromeo brings to mind S. Carlo alle Quattro Fontane by Borromini and S. Marcello by Carlo Fontana, another leading Roman architect.
Friday, April 2. In the morning the wind and
rain were so violent, that I could not venture out
of the town. (..) The evening was better spent than the morning.
I accompanied some friends to the Dominican
church, where a meeting of the academy was held.
An oration was first pronounced by a Cavaliere;
and then the different members recited sonnets,
and pieces of poetry. Before we broke up, I was
so strongly urged to become one of the society,
that I accepted the patent. Two hours and a half
after sunset, we felt a small shock of an earthquake.
Sunday, April 4. I had fixed this morning for my departure, but was again detained by heavy rain. I consoled myself with the reflection, that I had fixed my residence in the neatest and best city I had found since I quitted Palermo, where I could enjoy a good society of friends. Colt Hoare
The Dominican convent adjoining the church housed the meetings of Accademia dei Trasformati, which was founded in the XVIIth century in the old town and continued its activity until 1872. Its members discussed about literature, philosophy and theology. J. W. Goethe was admitted to Accademia degli Arcadi, a similar institution in Rome, in January 1788.
Similar to the Franciscans and the Jesuits, the Dominicans built their church along the main street on a commanding position (you may wish to see the churches of the main religious orders at Palermo). It was designed by Rosario Gagliardi and its convex fašade is perhaps the finest one with this feature which was built in the area destroyed by the 1693 earthquake (see also S. Giorgio at Ragusa, another work by Gagliardi).
In the Piazza di San Domenico is a handsome fountain with a marble statue of Hercules drinking from a wine-skin, which he holds in southern style at arm's-length above his head. 1864 Murray Handbook
Chiesa del SS. Crocifisso: (left) fašade; (right) interior: two medieval lions from the old town
Pianalto, the top of the hill upon which the new town was built was rather flat. The city plan expected it to be a neighbourhood more densely populated and less monumental than that along Il Cassaro. The construction of a large church at its centre began very early, but it was yet to finish in 1790 when Colt Hoare visited Noto. The dome was added in 1901. The fašade was redesigned a number of times. In 1955 a third storey was added and later on it was demolished.
(left) Dome of SS. Crocifisso; (centre/right) two other churches on the slope of the hill between "Il Cassaro" and "Pianalto"
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