30 July 2015

Noto: a monument to the golden age
of baroque architecture in Sicily

Looking through the doors of the Duomo in Noto on the Palazzo Ducezio below (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

After spending most of Wednesday [29 July 2015] in Syracuse, I visited Noto in the late afternoon, a unique town in the south-east corner of Sicily. The town and its architecture are a monument to the golden age of baroque architecture in Sicily.

Noto is a traffic-free town and a former provincial capital, 32 km south-west of Syracuse at the foot of the Iblean Mountains. But this is a relatively new town, and was built to replace the older town, Noto Antica, 8 km away, after the earthquake of 1683.

The old town to the north was ancient Netum, where legend says Daedalus stopped after his flight over the Ionian Sea, and where that Hercules completed one of his twelve labours.

When the Arabs conquered Sicily in 1866, they made this one of their three district capitals on the island, and it became the last Muslim stronghold in Sicily to fall to the Christians at the end of the 11th century.

The old city and its economy were totally destroyed by the earthquake in 1693, and a new city was then built on the bank of River Asinaro, nearer the Ionian Sea.

The Porto Reale, the entrance to Noto (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

The new city was the vision of Giuseppe Lanza, Duke of Camastra, and was laid out on a grid system by Giovanni Battista Landolina. The architects Rosario Gagliardi, Vincenzo Sinatra, Paolo Labisi, Francesco Sortino and others, made the new Noto a masterpiece of Sicilian Baroque.

We crossed the Giardino Pubblico or Municipal Gardens and entered the city through the Porta Reale, built as recently as 1838, and strolled along the Corso Vittorio Emanuele, the heart of the city.

The Duomo, completed in 1776, is the most prominent building in Noto (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Most of the buildings are built with a soft tufa stone, and in the summer sunlight they reflect a warm, bright honey tone. They include cathedrals, churches, convents, bell towers, religious buildings, and several palaces.

Halfway along the Corso Vittorio Emanuele, in the Piazza del Municipio, Noto’s imposing cathedral or Duomo, the Cattedrale di San Nicolò di Mira, in the Piazza, was finished in 1776. Dozens of steps climb up to the towering cathedral its twin towers and an imposing dome that was restored after it collapsed dramatically in 1996.

The Palazzo Ducezio is the town hall of Noto (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Down below on the street stands the Palazzo Ducezio, now the town hall. It was designed by Vincenzo Sinatra and is notable for its columns and balconies, with concave and convex twists and turns.

Before leaving, we stopped for a while and sipped coffees at the Caffe Sicilia, admiring the view up Via Corrado Nicolai, lined by the Palazzo Villadorata and the Palazzo Landolina, with the Church of Monte Vergine at the top.

In 2002 Noto and its churches were declared a World Heritage Site by Unesco.

Via Corrado Nicolai, lined by the Palazzo Villadorata and the Palazzo Landolina, with the Church of Monte Vergine at the top (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Syracuse, ‘the greatest Greek city
and the most beautiful of them all’

The ‘Teatro Greco’ in Syracuse is one of the largest and best preserved Greek theatres (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015; click image to enlarge)

Patrick Comerford

There is a Greek saying «Μια Φάτσα Μια Ράτσα» (Mia fatsa, mia ratsa). In Italian it is Una faccia una razza. They both mean the same thing, “One face, one race,” and give popular expression to describe how close Greeks and Italians feel to one another.

The two people share many historical and cultural characteristics, although Greeks can also be heard to say dismissively: “Italians! They only care about their hairstyle and their mothers!”

That said, Greek memories of the Italian occupation during World War II are very different to the legacy of Germany, and those two attitudes explain many political debates today.

At times, I almost have to pinch myself this week and look at the lettering to remind myself that Naxos, despite its name, is not in Greece. It looks and feels like a bustling, popular holiday destination in Crete. Although hand and head gestures may differ, conversations on the streets, in tone, tenor and temperament, sound like the same conversations in Crete.

Why, even the buskers are playing tunes from Captain Corelli on their mandolins.

I spent much of Wednesday [30 July 2015] in Syracuse or Siracusa, a city rich in Greek history and culture, with classical theatres, temples and other architectural sites.

This 2,700-year-old city, known to the Romans as Syracusae, to the ancient Greeks as Συράκουσαι and to the mediaeval Greeks as Συρακοῦσαι, was once one of the major powers in the Mediterranean. It was the birthplace of Archimedes who had his Eureka moment in his bath here, Aeschylus saw his last plays, Prometheus Bound and Prometheus Realesed, staged here in the Greek Theatre, Sappho and Pindar were visitors, and Plato taught here.

Syracuse was allied with Sparta and Corinth against Athens, dominated Magna Graecia, and was its most important city. By the fifth century BC, the city equalled Athens in size. Cicero once said Syracuse was “the greatest Greek city and the most beautiful of them all.”

In Biblical times, the Apostle Paul stayed for three days in Syracuse on his way from Malta to Rome (see Acts 28: 12), and it once served briefly as the capital of the Byzantine Empire.

Swimming by the shores of Syracuse (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Syracuse was founded in 734 or 733 BC by Greek settlers from Corinth and Tenea, led by Archias. It was known as Συράκουσαι (Syrakousai), Συράκοσαι (Syrakosai), or even Συρακώ (Syrako), and may have taken its name from marsh called Syrako. The ancient city began on the small island of Ortigia, and grew to become at one time the most powerful Greek city in the Mediterranean.

When Gelo came to power in 485 BC, he expanded Syracuse, and built the new quarters of Tyche and Neapolis outside the walls. His building programme included a new theatre, designed by Damocopos, which gave the city a flourishing cultural life. The theatre attracted leading Greek cultural personalities, including Aeschylus, Ario of Metimma, Eumelos of Corinth and Sappho, who had been exiled from Mytilene (Lesbos).

When Gelo defeated the Carthaginians under Hamilcar at the Battle of Himera, he commemorated his victory by building a temple to Athena.

In the fifth century BC, the walls of Syracuse embraced a city of 120 ha (300 acres). But by the 470s BC the people building outside the city walls. By 415 BC, the population of greater Syracuse was 250,000, the same size as Athens.

Gelo was succeeded by his brother Hieron I (478-466 BC), who was eulogised by poets and visited by Pindar.

In the late 5th century BC, Syracuse was at war with Athens during the Peloponnesian Wars. Syracuse enlisted the aid of a general from Sparta to defeat the Athenians, destroying their ships, and leaving them to starve on the island.

The cave known as the Orecchio di Dionisio or the Ear of Dionysius was given its name by Caravaggio (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

In the early 4th century BC, after preventing the Carthaginians from capturing the whole of Sicily, Dionysius the Elder (405-367 BC) built a massive fortress on Ortigia and walls around Syracuse. He was described as “cruel, vindictive” and “profane.”

Syracuse expanded its territories, conquering Rhegion and establishing outposts in the Adriatic, including Ancona, Adria and Issa. Dionysius was as a patron of art, and during his time Plato visited Syracuse several times.

Syracuse was engaged in successive wars with the Carthaginians until Hieron II came to power and inaugurated a period of 50 years of peace and prosperity.

The mathematician, philosopher and engineer Archimedes lived in Syracuse during the reign of Hiero II. His contemporaries included the writer Theocritus.

The Romans, led by Marcus Claudius Marcellus, besieged Syracuse in 214 BC. The city held out for three years, but fell in 212 BC. The Romans learned that people of Syracuse were about to celebrated the annual festival of Artemis. A small party of Roman soldiers approached the city at night, scale the walls, took control of the outer city and killed Archimedes. After an eight-month siege, a captain named Moeriscus betrayed the city and opened a gate near the Fountains of Arethusa, letting the Romans in.

Syracuse was plundered and its day glory had passed.

Under Roman rule, the decline of Syracuse set in slowly, although the city remained the capital of Sicily and an important port for trade between East and West.

The Altar of Hieron at the entrance to the Archaeological Park (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

I began my visit to Syracuse on Wednesday at the main path into the Parco Archeologico and the new altar or Ara erected and enlarged in the mid-third century BC by Hieron II (265-215 BC) to commemorate the liberation of the city by Timoleon. It was the biggest altar of its kind in Magna Graecia, and 450 bulls were slaughtered there at the annual Panhellenic feast.

From there, we entered the park and first visited the Latomia del Paradiso. Today this Paradise is a garden of citrus, oleander and bay trees, but for the slaves who worked in the quarries here, including 7,000 captured Athenians, it was their hell on earth, as they carved out the rock for temples, theatres, pillars and monuments.

The Latomia del Paradiso were no paradise for the Athenian slaves who carved out the rockface (Patrick Comerford, 2015)

One of the caves they carved out is known as the Orecchio di Dionisio or the Ear of Dionysius, because of its shape and its echo. The cave is 60 metres long and 20 metres high, and the legend grew that through a hole in the top of the cave Dionysius could listen to the planning and plotting of the slaves as they worked away at the rockface.

Nearby is the grave of Archimedes, and we then moved on up to the Teatro Greco, one of the largest and best-preserved theatres from Greek civilisation. The cavea of the theatre is one of the largest ever built by the Greeks. It has 59 rows, of which 42 remain, and is divided into nine sections with eight aisles. At one time it could seat 15,000 people.

The theatre was modified by the Romans, who used it for circus games and gladiatorial battles. Only traces of the scene and the orchestra remain, but the theatre is still used to this day.

We passed the Amfiteatro Romano and the site of the Forum as we made our way to the island of Ortigia and the heart of the first Greek city at Syracuse. The Fountain of Arethusa is a freshwater spring planted with papyrus and filled with bream, mullet and carp.

The Fountain of Arethusa is a freshwater spring planted with papyrus and filled with bream, mullet and carp (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

It is said to have been described in the Delphic sayings that brought the first Greeks to this site. According to a legend, the nymph Arethusa, hunted by the river god Alpheus, took shelter here after swimming across from the Peloponnese and was changed into a fountain by Artemis.

The Piazzo Duomo and the cathedral of Syracuse (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

From there, we walked on into the Piazza Duomo with the imposing cathedral built around the Temple of Athena, first built ca 530 BC. The Temple of Athena was a Doric temple with six columns on the short sides and 14 on the long sides. The statue of Athena on the roof of the temple carried a golden shield that caught the glittering rays of the sun and served as a beacon for sailors on the Ionian Sea.

The first cathedral or Duomo was built in the seventh century by Bishop Zosimo incorporating the great Temple of Athena, with the temple columns used like a skeleton for the walls of the cathedral.

Under Arab rule, the cathedral became a mosque, but it became a cathedral once again when the Normans captured Syracuse. They built the roof of the nave and provided the baptism font with a marble basin, cut from a block still marked with a Greek inscription and supported by seven bronze lions.

The cathedral was rebuilt after the earthquake in 1693, and the façade was rebuilt by Andrea Palma in 1725-1753, with a double order of Corinthian columns, and statues by Ignazio Marabitti.

The columns of the Temple of Athena provided the skeleton for the walls of the cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Nearby, in the Basilica of Santa Lucia all Badia, we saw Caravaggio’s The Burial of Saint Lucy, painted hurriedly after he fled Malta in 1608.

After lunch in a narrow lane, possibly dating back to the days when Sicily was part of the Arab world, we visited the Piazza Archimede, named after Archimedes but lined with some restored mediaeval palazzi and some ugly fascist-era buildings. In the centre, the Fountain depicts the nymph Arethusa at the moment she was transformed by Artemis into a spring.

The Fountain of Artemis and Arethusa is the centrepiece of the Piazza Archimede (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

As we left Ortigia, we stopped at the Temple of Apollo, at Piazza Emanuele Pancali. This was the first of the great Doric temples built in Sicily. It was adapted as a church in Byzantine times and was used as a mosque when the Arabs ruled the city.

After the fall of Rome, Syracuse was recovered by the Byzantine Empire in 535, and from 663 to 668 Syracuse was the capital of the Byzantine Emperor Constans II.

The city remained the centre of Byzantine resistance to the advancing Muslim conquest of Sicily until it finally fell to the Aghlabids in 878. During two centuries of Muslim rule, the capital of Sicily was moved to Palermo, the cathedral became a mosque and Ortigia was rebuilt along Islamic styles.

In 1038, the Byzantine general George Maniakes reconquered Syracuse and sent the relics of Saint Lucy to Constantinople. The castle on the cape of Ortigia still bears his name.

Syracuse fell to the Arabs again, but in 1085, the Normans captured Syracuse after a long siege. The Normans rebuilt parts of the city and restored the cathedral and other churches.

Syracuse was struck by two earthquakes in 1542 and 1693, and a plague in 1729. After the 17th century, much of Syracuse was rebuilt in the Sicilian Baroque style. Today it has a population of about 125,000 today, and the city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The ruins of the Temple of Apollo … the first of the great Doric temples built in Sicily (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)