renowned port and Sicily’s second largest city, after Palermo,
with its 350,000 inhabitants, Catania is among Italian hottest cities
with a summer temperature that can exceed 40° degrees. It was
home to such great artists as the composer Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835)
and the writer Giovanni Verga (1840-1922). A great, very longed-for
celebration takes place every year from 3 to 5 February in honor
of Saint Agatha, when a huge crowd of believers process through
the city’s historical centre celebrating their beloved Patron
Saint. The event draws thousands of visitors from all Sicily and
– Catania is overshadowed by the Etna Mount, the volcano that
often has betrayed the trust of the local people, sending forth
great flows of lava, on one occasion down into the town itself.
Reminders of its presence is the dark color of most monuments and
buildings in town. Some of them is of plaster painted to look as
lava. Black and white are the two dominating colors of the city
that combine to produce a magnificent effect. The 17th century was
particularly catastrophic for Catania. First (1669), following Etna’s
eruption, a devastating lava river flowed into the city; few decades
later (1693), an earthquake razed it to the ground. It followed
a sumptuous reconstruction, the main protagonist being the architect
Giovanni Battista Vaccarini (1702-1768) who designed the most prestigious
buildings. The baroque covered nearly every ruined specimen of the
past ages, that is hidden, with the exception of few remnants –
below the new buildings and the city heart.
DEL DUOMO – It is the very heart of the city, designed
by celebrated architect Vaccarini, surrounded by magnificent Baroque
buildings which impart it a great elegance. At its centre rises
the Fontana dell’Elefante (Fountain of the Elephant) which
is the symbol of the town. On the South side is the fine 1800’s
Amenano Fountain, partly offset by the Chierici and Pardo palaces.
The Cathedral façade, flanked by the Bishop’s Palace
and the Porta Uzeda, dominates the square. On the left, slightly
set back, is the lovely Badia di S. Agata. On the North side stands
the elegant Palazzo Senatorio or degli Elefanti, now Town Hall.
dell’Elefante – Conceived in 1735, it recalls
Bellini’s famous obelisk in Piazza Minerva, Rome. The black
lava elephant, perhaps of Byzantine epoch, graces the square since
the 1500’s; it stands on a stone platform and bears on its
back an ancient Egyptian obelisk covered with hieroglyphics that
celebrate the cult of Isis.
Duomo – Dedicated to S. Agata, Catania’s patron
saint, the Duomo was erected in the late 11th century at Roger I’s
behest, rebuilt after the 1693’s earthquake. Its façade
stands among Vaccarini’s masterpieces. Along via Vittorio
Emanuele II, by the courtyard of the Bishop’s Palace, one
can admire the tall lava apses, of Norman age. The cathedral’s
solid-looking structure suggests that it was conceived as a fortified
church. On the North side is a fine portal ornamented with an entablature
Interior – From the North entrance. Restoration works
of the floor have revealed column bases from the original Norman
structure. Against the second pilaster, on the right side, in the
central nave, is the funerary stele of Bellini, who died in Puteaux,
France, for long his residence, and where he was formerly buried.
Renaissance archs give access to the two chapels in the transept.
The one on the right, dedicated to the Virgin, contains the sarcophagus
of Costanza, wife of Frederick III of Aragon, died in 1363. The
Southern chapel, dating from the Renaissance, is dedicated to St.
Agatha. A richly decorated Spanish doorway leads through the reliquary
and the treasury (on the left). Opposite to it is the fine funerary
monument of Viceking Ferdinando de Acua, the figure depicted on
his knees (dated 1495). The carved stalls in the choir illustrate
scenes of the life from St. Agatha. In the sacristy there is a large,
albeit damaged, fresco, depicting the city before the 1669 eruption,
with the Etna volcano in the background and the spewing lava about
to invade the city. The remains of the Terme Achilliane reside beneath
the church (normally accessible through a trapdoor before the building,
but temporarily closed).
di S. Agata – Located beside the Duomo, it contributes
to the overall splendor of the square. The serpentine lines of the
façade are contained by a cornice that emphasizes the ground
level, with at its centre a triangular pediment. This is another
work of art by Vaccarini.
– Named after the river that supplies it on its way past some
of the principal monuments of the Roman age (notably the Theatre
and the Terme della Rotonda). Behind it is the Piazza Alonzo di
Benedetto, where a picturesque and bustling fish market takes place
daily. The gate used to be part of the 1500’s fortification,
its main frontage still visible from Pendo square. Back in Piazza
Benedetto, by Palazzo Chierici, stands the Fontana dei Sette Canali.
surrounding quarter – a number of important buildings
is nestled along the eastern stretch of Via Vittorio Emanuele running
alongside the Cathedral down to the sea. In a small square on the
right, rises the Church of S. Placido, with a gently undulating
façade by Stefano Ittar, dated 1769. Opposite the right side
of the church (on Via Museo Biscari) sits a former convent that
has conserved very few of its original structure. In the courtyard
(access from Via Landolina) lie the remains of Palazzo Platamone
(15th century) consisting of a decorative balcony.
Biscari – It is likely the most beautiful secular
building in Catania. It was erected after the earthquake in 1693,
and was at its height some sixty years later when Ignazio Biscari
– a man with an abiding passion for art, literature and archaeology,
promoter of many of the excavations at the area – pushed for
a museum of archaeology to be set up within it. The South wing of
the palace shows a rich decoration of figures and volutes, cherubs
and racemes, that fill the window frames along the long terrace
relieving the sombreness of the dark façade. The entrance
of the palace, on via Museo Biscari, consists of a rich portal that
leads into a courtyard with a fine stairway. On the first floor
are the main reception rooms. In the back is a splendid Salon with
frescoes by Sebastiano Lo Monaco and enriched with stuccoes, gilded
mouldings and mirrors. The centre of the ceiling opens out into
an oval dome with gallery, behind which musicians once played, conceived
as if the music would descend from the heaven. The fresco portrays
the Triumph of the Family celebrated by the council of the Gods.
A lovely spiral staircase situated in the gallery next to the hall
provides access to the little platform. From the gallery the south
terrace of the building can be admired.
WESTERN DISTRICT – It stretches along Via Vittorio
Emanuele II that, together with the commercial Via Etnea, represents
the very heart of the city. Beginning with Piazza S. Francesco,
where is a monumental church dedicated to the Saint, it turns down
to the beautiful Via Crociferi.
Crociferi – It is regarded as Catania’s baroque
street par excellence. A number of buildings, particularly in its
first section, give the place a magnificent effect. It can be accessed
through the gateway Arch of S. Benedetto, flanked by the Badia Grande
and the Badia Piccola. On the left are the churches of S. Benedetto
and S. Francesco Borgia aligned. A narrow street runs between the
two with at its end Palazzo Asmundo. Further along Via Crociferi
you meet the building complex of the Jesuites, now accomodating
the Institute of Art. The first courtyard, attributed to Vaccarini,
has a nice two-tiered portico. On the right rises the elegant curvilinear
façade of S. Giuliano, likely designed by Vaccarini. The
street terminates at the gate of Villa Cerami, seat of the Faculty
Belliniano – The birth-home of Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835)
houses a museum displaying relevant documents and object, portraits,
a harpsichord and a spinette belonged to his grandfather. The last
room gathers some autographed scores.
Emilio Greco – It collects the complete graphic output
of this Catanian artist especially renowned as a sculptor (1913-1995).
The subjects of his works, mostly female heads and nudes, attest
to his predilection for the graceful lines and elegant forms derived
from his study of the Hellenistic art.
Antico – Entrance at 266 of Via Vittorio Emanuele
II. The current layout of the theatre goes back to the Roman Age.
But it is possible that it was built on a older Greek site whose
existence is only told in literature (Speech of Alcibiade addressing
the people of Catania during the Peloponnese War). It was made of
lava stone, while seats were of white limestone or marble (for important
people), and had a capacity of up to 7000 spectators. In the Norman
time, the theatre was largely despoiled of its marble that was re-used
to build the Cathedral. Next to the theatre stands the Odeon, which
is later in date. It served as a more intimate context for musical
shows. Some galleries of unknown use are situated behind the cavea.
On request, the theatre custodians can lead you to the Terme della
Rotonda (on Via della Rotonda) – a thermal complex retaining
very little of its original structure, that is a circular domed
chamber later turned into a Christian church – or to the Terme
dell’Indirizzo (in Piazza Currò) – a second thermal
complex comprised of some ten doomed chambers.
S. Anna, 8. Here writer Giovanni Verga (1840-1922) spent many years
of his life. The house is preserved much as he left it; some furniture
has been added from his home in Milan (notably to the last rooms).
His study offers the opportunity of browsing through his literary
preferences, among which are Capuana, D’Annunzio and Deledda.
ETNEA – It is a straight 3km long thoroughfare running
North-South, through Piazza Duomo, Piazza dell’Università,
Piazza Stesicoro and the Villa Bellini – the city’s
public gardens – bordered on each side by Catania’s
best shops and boutiques.
dell'Università – It is a square room surrounded
by elegant palazzi. On the right stands Palazzo Sangiuliano, one
of Vaccarini’s works; on the left is the University, arranged
around a lovely courtyard surrounded by a portico with loggia above.
The square is illuminated at night by four fine lamps (dated 1957)
by a sculptor from Catania. Further down rises the lovely concave
façade of the Collegiata (Church of S. Maria della Consolazione)
designed by Stefano Ittar in the 18th century. Few distant is the
Palazzo San Demetrio (17th-18th century), with elegant portal and
corbels. The 1700’s Church of S. Michele Arcangelo contains,
past the entrance, a double marble staircase on top of which are
two fine baroque stoups.
– At the centre of the square lie the remains of a grand Roman
amphitheatre that could accomodate over 15,000 spectators. Much
of the structure unfortunately lies hidden below the square and
the surrounding baroque buildings.
S. Biagio (S. Agata alla Fornace) – This building
dating from the 1700s was built on the foundations of an original
chapel dedicated to S. Agatha, who was here martyred. Within the
church, a chapel (at the far end on the right) preserves the so-called
carcara (furnace) where Agatha is believed to have met her death.
Other sources claim that she died in prison. According to popular
tradition the Church of S. Agata al Carcere, rising behind the square,
was built on the site of the jail where she was imprisoned in 251.
At the entrance is a fine Romanesque doorway. A wild olive-tree
was planted behind the church, on the spot where, still according
to legend, a plant had sprouted at the Saint’s stopping, on
her way to the prison.
Bellini – It is a large and luxuriant park with a
great variety of exotic plants. From the top of the hill, where
is a little kiosk, one can enjoy a beautiful view of the city and
out towards the Etna volcano.
Orto Botanico – Entrance in via Longo. The botanical
garden, founded in the 1950s, shows species from across the world.
Some remarkable specimens of Dracena Drago and Euforbia Brachiata
are also included.
– This grandiose monastery was built by Benedictine Fathers
– one of the wealthiest and most powerful orders in the city
– between the 16th and 18th century, with an imposing church
alongside, its façade unfortunately remained incomplete.
Inside the grand church, behind the altar, there is a fine organ
case from the 18th century, currently under restoration. In the
transept floor is a Meridian, dated 1841, that catches the sunlight
13 minutes past midday (once at midday).
Monastery – The present building dates back to the
1700s. The impressive doorway on the left gives access to a courtyard
from where the east and south wings of the building, designed by
Antonino Amato, can be admired. The opulent decoration recalls that
of the contemporary Palazzo Biscari (see above). The monastery now
houses the Faculty of Literature and retains of its original structure
a nice oval-shaped refectory, now main lecture-hall.
S. Maria del Gesù – Built in 1465, it was
later extensively refurbished. The lovely Paternò Chapel
complete with Renaissance archway is the only remain of its original
structure. It contains works by praised Antonello Gagini.
Ursino – It is an austere and solid-looking structure
built on the sea-front by Frederick II of Swabia, now not so close
to the sea because of the lava flow that invaded the city in 1669
pushing the water offshore. The castle derives its name from the
Roman consul Arsinius or possibly from the Orsinis, a Roman family
who refuged here in the Middle Ages after being banished from Rome
for siding with the Ghibelline sympathisers (who supported the emperor
against the church). The castle is square in plan, with a large
round tower at each corner and two additional towers half-way along
– The art-gallery has a collection of paintings by artists
from the South-Italy ranging in date from the 15th to the 19th century.
Among these are a polyptych of the Virgin Enthroned with St. Anthony
and St. Francis by Antonello de Saliba (15th century), a pupil of
Antonello da Messina; works by Pietro Novelli, Guzzone, Lorenzo
Loiacono and local artists Michele Rapisardi (1800’s) and
Bellini – The city’s Opera House is dedicated
to Catania’s most illustrious musician. His Norma inaugurated
the theatre in 1890. The acoustics of its beautiful auditorium is
considered to be among the best in the world.
Manganelli – It is a richly decorated palazzo where
scenes of the celebrated Leopard by Luchino Visconti – drawn
from omonymous novel by Tomasi di Lampedusa – were filmed.