(left) Cathedral and Palazzo Vermexio (Town Hall); (right) fašade of the Cathedral
A most destructive shock happened in the sixteenth century but was slight in comparison of the horrid concussion of 1693. On the 11th of January the earth shook during a space of four minutes and overturned almost every city on the eastern coast. One fourth of the inhabitants of Syracuse perished under the ruins of their houses. The portico and frontispiece of the Cathedral were destroyed by the earthquake and a new facade erected which reflects little honour on the judgement or skill of the architect; he has composed a front of the Corinthian order quite different from the style of the inside and loaded it with so many frivolous ornaments and subdivided it into so many trifling parts that all grandeur of effect, symmetry and taste are completely banished.
Henry Swinburne - Travels in the Two Sicilies. 1777-1780
The front of this Church is modern and handsome with large statues.
Sir George Cockburn - A Voyage to Cadiz and Gibraltar: up the Mediterranean to Sicily and Malta in 1810/11.
Cathedral: details: (left) statue of the Virgin Mary; (centre) stucco angels on the tip of the fašade; (right) portal with columns similar to those of the Baldachin of S. Pietro
The Cathedral did not collapse entirely thanks to the columns of a Temple to Athena which were incorporated into its walls. The construction of the new fašade began in 1728 and it was completed by 1754. It was designed by a team of local architects and it resembles that of S. Maria in Campitelli in Rome, because of its imposing columns. Today art historians praise its design, unlike Swinburne, who was so fond of the classical world that he despised everything which departed from the canons of beauty established in Vth century BC Athens. He was most likely familiar with Johann Joachim Winckelmann's views on art which were published in 1764.
Interior of the Cathedral: (left) Cappella di S. Lucia; (right) main altar with a painting portraying the Nativity of Mary to which the church is dedicated
St. Lucy is to Syracuse what St. Rosalia is to Palermo, but unlike Rosalia she is one of the most popular saints throughout the whole world, also because her Feast on December 13 coincided for a time with the winter solstice and her name brought to mind lux, lucis, light in Latin. She was born and lived at Syracuse until her death in 304 during the persecution of Emperor Diocletian. According to tradition George Maniakes, a Byzantine general who in 1040 conquered Syracuse, removed her body to Constantinople. Eventually some relics were seized by the Venetians and others ended in a number of European towns. The chapel dedicated to St. Lucy in the Cathedral houses some fragments of her left arm inside a solid silver statue which is usually kept in an iron cupboard for security reasons.
Palazzo Beneventano Del Bosco at the northern end of Piazza Duomo: (left) fašade; (right) wing which closes the courtyard with a marble staircase
Baron Bosco's house is magnificent; there is a beautiful stair case and steps ten feet long of red marble highly polished ascending to the top of the house most beautiful. This Palace, the Cathedral, the Bishop's Palace and Senate House are all near and in a sort of open place, but I know not what name to give the situation they stand in being neither street, square, circus nor octagon; they are all good buildings. Cockburn
The palace was built in 1778-1788 on the site of a previous XVth century building which was damaged by the earthquake. It is regarded as the finest work by Luciano Alý, an architect who was involved in the design of other buildings of Syracuse.
(left) Palazzo Vermexio (Town Hall) opposite Palazzo Beneventano; (right) detail of the fašade with a coat of arms of King Philip IV held by the double-headed eagle of the House of Habsburg
The palace is named after Giovanni Vermexio, the architect who designed it in 1628. It has a very solid aspect and as a matter of fact it withstood the impact of the 1693 earthquake. It was built to house the Senate of the town. Syracuse, similar to other important Sicilian towns had a small body of noblemen in charge of local matters, including the building and maintenance of public facilities, e.g. Fontana di Orione at Messina and Fontana Pretoria at Palermo.
Palazzo Arcivescovile (Syracuse became an archbishopric see in the XIXth century): (left) fašade in Piazza Duomo; (right) courtyards with ancient columns
The design of the fašade is very plain considering that it is dated 1618. The inscription says it was built at the initiative of Bishop Juan de Torres y Osorio. He belonged to an important Spanish family and he eventually became Bishop of Catania in 1619, of Oviedo in 1624 and of Valladolid in 1627. Other members of the Torres family were Archbishops of Monreale between 1573 and 1609.
Badia di S. Lucia: (left) fašade; (right) detail of its lower section
A nunnery closed the southern end of Piazza Duomo; the entrance to its church was on a side street, but after the 1693 earthquake the abbess decided to build a new grand church having its entrance on the square. The fašade significantly exceeds the height of the interior and it has a very rich decoration. According to tradition the building stands on the site of the brothel to which St. Lucy was sentenced to be brought. The account of her life is very similar to that of St. Agnes of Rome.
(left) Chiesa S. Lucia alla Badia: Burial of St. Lucia by Caravaggio (detail - the painting was made for S. Lucia "extra moenia", outside the walls); (right) Galleria Regionale di Palazzo Bellomo: Martyrdom of St. Lucia by Mario Minniti
We heard high mass in a very handsome Church and looked into several other churches in some of which are tolerable pictures, but all represent the murdering of Saints and such disgusting subjects. Cockburn
Caravaggio came to Syracuse in 1608 after being forced to leave Malta, where he had lost the protection of Grand Master Alof de Vignacourt. Mario Minniti is more than a follower of Caravaggio's style. He was born at Syracuse and he moved to Rome when he was very young to learn painting. He befriended with Caravaggio who portrayed him in Boy with a Basket of Fruit now at Galleria di Villa Borghese and in other paintings. In 1606 he returned to his hometown where he became a locally renowned painter. He helped Caravaggio when his former master fled Malta. Paintings by Caravaggio and Minniti can be seen also at Museo Regionale di Messina.
S. Lucia "extra moenia" (left) and Tempietto di S. Lucia (right)
At a little distance from St John is the Church of St Lucia like the former two miles from Modern Syracuse. There is a handsome colonnade attached and it has much the appearance of an unfinished temple, but I could not learn if that was the case or if the modern Church was begun on a scale which they had not means to finish. (..) We went by a subterraneous passage and stairs into an octagon building where they shew the tomb of St Lucia. Her Ladyship is kept in the Cathedral most of the year, but always comes to spend a few weeks in Summer in this her country house and is carried there and back in great form and procession. Cockburn
By "Modern Syracuse" Cockburn meant Ortigia, the islet of the first Greek settlement, which when he visited Syracuse was the only populated part of the ancient town, because the four neighbourhoods on the mainland had been abandoned, perhaps already before the 828 Arab invasion.
(left) S. Lucia; (right) Tempietto di S. Lucia
The church was built in the XIIth century on the site where St. Lucy was buried. Changes were made in the XIVth century and eventually in the early XVIIIth century a long portico was added. In 1629 Giovanni Vermexio designed a fine octagonal building in the proximity of the church above some ancient catacombs. Although the body of the saint was removed by Maniakes, the site of her burial continued to be a place of worship. Today however Santuario della Madonna delle Lacrime, a very new shrine near S. Lucia, attracts the devout, although it is not related to Lucy.
Castello Maniace: (left) XIXth century photograph showing its entrance; (right) 1545 coat of arms of Emperor Charles V with an inscription in Spanish saying it was relocated to the castle in 1614 by King Philip III
Before the modern castle is a rich and well executed gateway, which is supposed to have been built by Maniaces. Fazellus asserts, that he adorned this gate with the two brazen figures of rams, which
are now preserved in the palace of the Viceroy at
Sir Richard Colt Hoare - A Classical Tour through Italy and Sicily - published in 1819.
In the XVIth century Syracuse was turned into a city-fortress because of fears it could be the target of an Ottoman invasion. Castello Maniace, a medieval castle at the southern tip of the town was strengthened with new bastions.
(left) Plan of the main fortress: 1) hornwork; 2) crownwork; (right-above) a remaining wall; (right-below) harbour facilities which retain the shape of the fortifications
Ortigia, the only remaining part of Syracuse, was anciently an island. (..) In latter ages, and probably of the ruins of this mighty city, the strait that separated it from the coastland was filled up; and it had now been a peninsula for many ages; till the king of Spain at a vast expence cut through the neck of land that joined it to Sicily, and has again reduced it to its primitive state. Here he has raised a noble fortification which appears to be almost impregnable. There are four strong gates, one within the other, with each a glacis, covered way, scarp and counterscarp, and a broad deep ditch filled with sea water. (..) The ditches are very useful; they are perpetually covered with fishing boats; and they can use their nets and lines here with the greatest success, even in the most stormy weather; though I dare say this was none of the motives that induced his majesty to make them. The nobility of the place have likewise barges here, for their amusement.
Patrick Brydone - A Tour through Sicily and Malta in 1770.
On the isthmus stands a hornwork within a crownwork, covering a front, in the curtain of which are the gates of the modern town. It is a long winding road of 1/2 m. through this fortress. Three bridges and five gateways have to be crossed before you reach the town.
A Handbook for Travellers in Sicily - Murray - 1864
Galleria Regionale di Palazzo Bellomo: coats of arms of the Kings of Spain from the northern fortress; they are placed inside the collar of the Order of the Golden Fleece, the highest chivalry order of the House of Habsburg and two of them have also the coat of arms of the Kingdom of Portugal (inset) which was associated with that of Spain in a dynastic union between 1580 and 1640
In 1893 the fortifications were demolished because they hindered the development of Syracuse on the mainland. Unfortunately a fine grand gate was not spared. It was known as Porta di Ligny after Claude Lamoral, Prince of Ligne, a fiefdom in Belgium, Viceroy of Sicily in 1670-1674.
Chiesa dello Spirito Santo on the eastern seafront of the town and details of its fašade
The Esperito Santo is a very pretty church. Cockburn. This church was designed in 1727 by Pompeo Picherali, a local painter and architect. The statues which were expected to be placed in the niches of the fašade were never made, similar to what occurred at Tempietto di S. Lucia, Palazzo Vermexio and other monuments. The reconstruction of Syracuse, Noto, Palazzolo and other towns of south-eastern Sicily after the 1693 earthquake was facilitated by the availability of a fine and durable sandstone which could be easily cut. At Noto it had a warm yellowish tint, at Syracuse and Palazzolo it was almost white.
(left) S. Francesco; (right) S. Giuseppe
The design of S. Francesco is attributed to Picherali, but some art historians suggest Rosario Gagliardi had a say in it, because of its convex fašade, the only one at Syracuse, which is typical of churches Gagliardi designed at Noto, e.g. S. Domenico.
Similar to what occurred in Rome, the guild of the joiners dedicated a church to St. Joseph. The elaborate fašade hides a rather plain building, but this is a characteristic of many Italian churches of the Baroque period, e.g. S. Gregorio al Celio. The image used as background for this page shows the 1768 portal of Chiesa dei Cavalieri di Malta.
Chiesa del Collegio dei Gesuiti: (above) detail of the portal; (below) view from the harbour
The Church formerly of the Jesuits is a very fine one with some tolerable pictures and beautiful marble altars. Cockburn
The Jesuits built a college with a large church on a commanding position along the main, but very narrow street of Ortigia which led to Piazza Duomo. The rear side and the dome of the church could be seen by seamen from a great distance similar to what had occurred in the past to a bronze shield on the top of the Temple to Athena. The church was built in ca 1650 and many names have been suggested for the architect who designed it. However, because the portal resembles that of S. Ignazio in Rome it is possible that a Jesuit architect from outside Sicily was involved in the design of the fašade.
Via della Maestranza: (left) Palazzo Rizza; (right) Palazzo Blanco
We are already completely tired of Syracuse which of all the wretched places we have yet met with is by many degrees the most wretched for, besides that its inhabitants are so extremely poor and beggarly, many of them are so overrun with the itch that we are under perpetual apprehensions. Brydone
In Syracuse (..) the entrance passages and marble stairs of the palaces are ingeniously destined to answer two purposes: first to afford a road to the different apartments and secondly to afford a retreat to those who are disposed to pay their offering to Diva Cloacina. The dirt and stench is intolerable, but what is to be done, as there are no temples built to the Goddess, a corner on the Palace stairs is more secluded from observation than the streets. Cockburn
Brydone, Cockburn and other travellers of their time had some basic worries to deal with and they did not pay much attention to the palaces of the local nobility.
Balcony of Palazzo Blanco in Via del Castello Maniace
Unlike those at Palermo, the palaces of the rich did not have imposing portals perhaps because of the narrowness of the streets. More care was devoted to the decoration of windows and especially of balconies, similar to what occurred in other nearby towns, e.g. Ragusa or Palazzolo.
(left) Passeggio Adorno, after the name of the Mayor of Syracuse in 1862-1865 who promoted its construction; (right) Hotel des Etrangers (1906) near Fonte Aretusa
There was not an inn to be found and after visiting all the monasteries and religious fraternities in search of beds, we found the whole of them so wretchedly mean and dirty that we preferred at last to sleep on straw, but even that we could not have clean, but eaten up with vermin of every kind. Brydone
Two English gentlemen told us they heard by accident of another inn in the town kept by a Frenchman; after some difficulty we found it out and got excellent apartments, clean beds, and a tolerable supper. (..) The landlord is a famous cook; in short it is the best inn I have seen since I left England so here again our information was as usual incorrect for we were told that there was only one miserable inn at Syracuse which we first went to and indeed several said there was not any. Cockburn
Syracuse is the mildest climate for a winter's residence I ever lived in. Two or three days of sharp easterly winds excepted, the remainder of the winter months is in reality what we unfortunate inhabitants of the north would call spring. Swinburne
Ortygia is chiefly famed at the present moment for its excellent Hotel. The Albergo del Sole which contains large airy cheerful apartments and is in every respect comfortable the want of good water excepted. The vin du pays however in some measure compensates for this deprivation it being the best in Sicily and famous throughout Europe.
Mariana Starke - Travels in Europe for the Use of Travellers on the Continent and likewise in the Island of Sicily - 1838 Edition - based on a travel to Sicily made in 1834.
During the early XIXth century the Ottoman threat faded away and the ports of the Near East were opened to foreign trade. In 1869 with the inauguration of the Suez Canal Syracuse became a port of call for ships heading to Egypt and beyond and after 1912 to Tripoli. The hotels along the promenade catered for transit passengers until the 1950s. Today some of them have been refurbished for the increasing number of tourists who visit the town.
Piazza Archimede was opened in the early XXth century to provide Ortigia with a central open square; at that time a significant part of the population had left the old town for the new neighbourhoods on the mainland. In the 1930s a new street with shops was opened between the area of Tempio di Apollo and Piazza Archimede, but the decline of Ortigia continued. Beginning with the 1980s incentives were given for the restoration of its houses and its overall maintenance was improved. Today its picturesque narrow streets and accommodation facilities no longer deserve Brydone's negative assessments.
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
Taormina - Ancient Monuments
Taormina - Medieval Monuments
Villa del Casale