Rich in history and with a plural identity, Catania still bears the marks of the cultures that have dominated and marked it: Greek in origin, then Roman, Byzantine, Arab, Norman and Swabian faces are still visible, on which, however, imposes the rich and magniloquent Baroque architecture. A city with a strong and multi-faceted personality, the fruit of its many lives, the ability to be reborn from the ruins: "Melior de cinere surgo", in other words I rise brighter from my ashes, written the inscription carved on the gates of the city (Ferdinandean Gate, that the people of Catania called U furtinu) accompanied by the image of a phoenix, demonstrating how it has been able to reborn, and to draw a new strength from the devastation caused by earthquakes that for two times have almost torn it to soil.

CATANIA

Etnea Street (Via Etnea)

The best way to get ready to discover the historical and architectural riches of its multiform charm,  it is likely to start from the main route, via Etnea that, crossing the city from north to south ideally connects its two protagonists: the sea and Mount Etna. Needless to say that the street name originates from its volcano, in the direction which it has been built, and that in the distance dominates the look of who walks through it. A symbolic approach, which shows a majestic presence, loved and feared, and symbolizes the continued influence that Etna has had on the city since its founding, influencing the events. There was the Duke of Camastra, after the earthquake in 1693, which decided to trace the ways of the town starting from the remains of the cathedral, just pointing in the direction of the volcano.

Our itinerary could therefore go from Uzeda Gate, named in honour of the Spanish viceroy who, after the earthquake of 1693, went into the city to see the work of reconstruction. A few years later, in 1696, it was inaugurated officially as the main entrance of the city.

It has been said before that the via Etnea is a kind of a thread between the sea and the volcano: Well, the entrance to the city was then lapped by the water, which flowed until not long ago under the arches of the Navy, the bridge railway whose construction dates back to the last decades of the nineteenth century, and today we see behind the gate. Unlike then, today it appears to us as a bridge that rests on the mainland, as the result of the renovation of the port needed, around the thirties, by the Fascist regime, when the old Saracen harbour had been buried and then proceeded to build a new pier.

Let’s go back to our itinerary, therefore to the Uzeda Gate. From here it departs, and extends for a length of about three kilometres, the Etnea Street. To open this charming path, marked by airy squares with Mediterranean charm, one of the most exciting Baroque scenarios that the city possesses: Cathedral Square.

 

Cathedral Square (Piazza Duomo)

CATTEDRALE DI SANT'AGATA

Among the elements that compose it, what undoubtedly attracts at first glance of those who come to visit is the Elephant Fountain. Situated in the centre of the square, it is made of a white marble base supporting a lava stone elephant on its back, in turn, is placed an obelisk: the local population calls it u liottru, a dialect translation of Heliodorus. The meaning of the name will be discussed later, for now let’s just emphasise that this animal has a very special meaning for the city of the volcano, and it is the official symbol since 1239.

The monument, in its entirety, was built by Giovanni Battista Vaccarini between 1735 and 1737, imitating the obelisk of Minerva by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. What we do not know is the date when the elephant was made, nor the name of its author, a gap that has led to the proliferation of uncertain hypothetical reconstructions based on historical information and a wealth of myths and legends. The hypothesis today is that due to the construction of the statue to the period of Byzantine domination or Carthaginian, furthermore accredited by Idrisi, a geographer at the court Fridericiana, who visited the city in the twelfth century, when already, according to his testimony, the liottru was inside the city walls. The really interesting element obtained by its record, however, it concerns the meaning that this sculpture was very important for the inhabitants of the town: it was believed that the statue had magical powers, and came to protect Catania and its people by volcanic eruptions. The name, as already mentioned, is rather to be interpreted as the Sicilian translation of the name Heliodorus, a noble from Catania who lived in the first century AD, who had tried unsuccessfully to become archbishop of the diocese. For this reason, one of the uncertain legends associated with the realization of the lava stone statue, there is one that says that it had been carved by Heliodorus himself, and then ridden during the magical rituals that he loved to dedicate his time.

The elephant trunk directs our attention to another important element of the square: the Cathedral of St. Agatha, a splendid example of Baroque architecture, dedicated to the patron saint of the city.

St. Agatha Cathedral

What has been said, generally, about the city is particularly true for its cathedral: the splendid Baroque facade overlooking the square is actually the final result of a series of events that the religious building had seen being destroyed and rebuilt for several times. It is the first work in 1078 construction, moreover, made ​​on the ruins of the Achillean Baths, which still can be accessed by passing through the Diocesan Museum of Catania, along a corridor built between the Roman structures and the foundations of the cathedral. The earthquake in 1169 had demolished almost the entire building, leaving safe the apse; to complete the destruction also there had been a terrible fire in 1194, and later, in 1693, the before mentioned earthquake of the Val di Noto. Among the works of reconstruction that followed the disaster returned clearly to the Cathedral, which was designed and rebuilt by Vaccarini, to be completed in 1711, as now appears: the front, Carrara marble, is divided into three composite tiers in attic and Corinthian style, all decorated with marble statues representing St. Agatha, on the right and left of the portal, respectively, the statues of San St. Euplius and St. Beryl.

The interior, with a Latin cross plan and divided into three naves, as well as maintaining numerous works of artistic interest, contains the chapel dedicated to the patron saint, particularly dear to the people, protected by a robust railing of a wrought iron.

The water or linzolu. The fountain of River Amenano (Fontana dell'Amenano)

In addition to the Cathedral, the square is bordered by the Palace of the Clerics and the Palace of the Elephants, the town hall. On its right, the Amenano Fountain, better known to locals inhabitants as the fountain of  linzuolu water, or water as a sheet, a curious dialect name due to the fact that the flow of water that comes out of the fountain, pouring on a bath placed below it, creates an uniform very thin cascade, whose image refers to that of a sheet. The real name makes reference to god that, as required by the classical myth, was transformed into a river, and which was represented here as a young man holding a horn of plenty, from which comes the stream of the water. The sculpture, still a strong evidence of the presence of classical culture in the area, recalls the origins of the name of the underground river that bathes the city, in other words the outcome of the legendary and romantic love story between the god and the nymph Gemma. It is said that the god Pluto, fallen in love with the nymph, had sparked the jealousy of Proserpine, which in anger decided to turn Gemma into a source. The gods, moved by despair of Amenano, decided to transform him also into a source, so that he could meet his beloved in the well of Gammazita, the place that unites the waters of the two rivers that transforms the unfortunate lovers, and that is located near the ancient city walls.

The Collegiate Church and the Four corners.

Proceeding to the Etnea Street before it crosses Via Antonino di Sangiuliano (about which we will talk later) on the left side of our path it offers us another wonderful example of religious architecture in Baroque style: the Basilica of Holy Maria of charity better known as the Collegiate basilica. One of the first details that impress the observer is certainly the wide gate that closes the churchyard, beyond which extends a large staircase which is the base for a rich facade tower, divided into two orders. The interior is divided into three naves and three apses, houses numerous works, including paintings by Francesco Gramignani and Giuseppe Sciuti. From the latter are the frescoes of the vault and the dome.

Ahead we can find the intersection known as the four corners, or the point where the Etnea Street intersects the Sangiuliano Street, characterized by a peculiarity: the four buildings which determine the corners are rounded, making them therefore acquire an original octagonal shape. If you look towards the left, you can notice the presence of a rise characterized by a slope so steep as to be unusual: it is the so called chianata the Sangiulianu, a stretch of the same street mentioned above that is particularly dear to the citizens because every year there is held the most spectacular and exciting part of the Festival of Saint Agatha: it’s here that, after traveling for two days the entire city, the palanquin (litter) of Santa is being pulled by in the race of devotees.

The Collegiate Church and the Four corners.

Proceeding to the Etnea Street before it crosses Via Antonino di Sangiuliano (about which we will talk later) on the left side of our path it offers us another wonderful example of religious architecture in Baroque style: the Basilica of Holy Maria of charity better known as the Collegiate basilica. One of the first details that impress the observer is certainly the wide gate that closes the churchyard, beyond which extends a large staircase which is the base for a rich facade tower, divided into two orders. The interior is divided into three naves and three apses, houses numerous works, including paintings by Francesco Gramignani and Giuseppe Sciuti. From the latter are the frescoes of the vault and the dome.

Ahead we can find the intersection known as the four corners, or the point where the Etnea Street intersects the Sangiuliano Street, characterized by a peculiarity: the four buildings which determine the corners are rounded, making them therefore acquire an original octagonal shape. If you look towards the left, you can notice the presence of a rise characterized by a slope so steep as to be unusual: it is the so called chianata the Sangiulianu, a stretch of the same street mentioned above that is particularly dear to the citizens because every year there is held the most spectacular and exciting part of the Festival of Saint Agatha: it’s here that, after traveling for two days the entire city, the palanquin (litter) of Santa is being pulled by in the race of devotees.

Stesicoro Square (Piazza Stesicoro)

Another mandatory on Etnea Street is Stesicoro Square. Its central location makes it one of the busiest areas of the city centre, adjacent to the fera'o luni, the historic market town, which we will discuss later. A curiosity probably little known to the citizens of Catania is that in the past the square gave the name to what is now known as Etnea Street. This is certainly due to the fact that, at the time the road was built it gone right up to Piazza Stesicoro, for a shorter length than a kilometre. A name which, it should be noted, does not correspond neither to the original: its first name was in fact one of Uzeda Street, named in honour of the Viceroy to whom the Duke of Camastra wanted to baptize soon after its construction. The charm of this square of a simple, rectangular shape probably lies in the fact that it hosts the great historical architectural items, and at the same time it is situated in an area close to the modern city.
It is divided into two opposing wings from Etnea Street that crosses it, and praises itself on the west side, about ten meters below the street level, the only visible portion of the Roman amphitheatre, exciting testimony of the splendour of the imperial era: dating to the second century BC, was brought to light, after many vicissitudes, in the early years of the twentieth century. Since the Middle Ages it was used several times as a quarry for building materials, in the fourteenth century its entrances were walled up, and the whole amphitheatre was incorporated in the network of fortifications built by the Aragonese kings. When the earthquake in 1693 buried it under the ruins, the first and the second floor of the bastion had already been torn down for more than a century. Above it raised therefore new homes, as well as the facade of the church of St. Agatha to Furnace (so called because here was the furnace where Santa was conducted for the last of the martyrs suffered), that we now see behind the archaeological excavations. On the east side of the square, we find a memorial statue dedicated to Vincenzo Bellini, the famous composer, a native of Catania. Behind the statue dedicated to him winds up the Course Sicily, built between 1956 and 1958 as a result of the demolition that led to partial demolition of the historic district of St. Beryl, the street has a width greater than 20 meters, and it is a main location to many banks and insurance companies.

Villa Bellini. Botanical Garden. Cavour Square.

Your walk to the Etnea Street could now continue towards the oldest of the four major gardens of Catania, which keeps the face in the eighteenth century Prince Ignazio Paternò Castello, the owner, wanted to give to it. Rich maze of hedges and boulevards, along which they alternate with statues and gush fountains, is now favoured destination for joggers.

Botany enthusiasts might still be interested in satisfying the curiosity inherent in the Mediterranean flora: at this point they cannot miss a visit to the Botanical Gardens, where among of the numerous examples they will enjoy special collections of plants such as succulents, palms, and wild Sicilian plants.

 

If you decide to proceed further along the path, it will lead you, just ahead, to the Cavour Square, known to locals as Borgo Square. A name linked to the events that followed the volcanic eruption of 1669. On this occasion, in fact, the lava reached the nearby village of Misterbianco, its inhabitants chose to head towards Catania and settle down in the area of ​​ Cavour Square, who was outside the city walls then. In the area overlooking the square there are three churches, whose names show traces of the origins of the area: St.Agatha of Borgo, the Blessed Sacrament of the Borgo, St. Nicholas of Borgo.

 

CROCIFERI STREET

The steep slope of the rise of Sangiuliano Street could probably discourage the viewer from below. However, there are good reasons to engage in this "climb". The first, and most basic, is that from the top you can enjoy the spectacular view of the city that stretches out over the sea. But above all, not undergoing this small sacrifice means precluding the opportunity to visit two unique places, that on several occasions served as the backdrop to the events enclosed in major films: Crociferi Street, the heart of baroque of Catania, that in 200 meters contains some of the most beautiful churches in the city, and the labyrinthine and majestic former Monastery of St. Nicholas l'Arena, located in Dante Square.

Located on the hill slope of Montevergine, that determines the slope of the rise which crosses it, the Crociferi Street takes its name from the church of St. Camillus of Fathers Crociferi, whose construction was begun during the first years of the eighteenth century, as a result of arrival of the religious order of the Fathers Crociferi to Catania, shortly after the 1693 earthquake. Even in this case, following the disaster, started up works thanks to which this small Baroque museum, considered one of the most beautiful streets of eighteenth-century Italy, was brought to light: in a short time down the road the churches and buildings were built, by the most influential families in the city.

 

Starting right from the mentioned church of St. Camillus, or by the final stretch of the road, we cross the Sangiuliano street and meet, to greet us on the left, the church of Sangiuliano. The choice of the convex tendency of the façade and the fence that surrounds it is a work of Vaccarini, who studied, for the interior layout of the building, a single octagonal nave. Just in front of it, the church of St. Francis Borgia, annexed to the former convent of the Jesuits. The latter, the main location of the Art Institute until 2009, contains within it a significant cloister, with columns and arches. On the right, a little further on, the church of St. Benedict. Built between the first and second decades of the eighteenth century, it is part of the convent of Benedictine nuns, which also includes the Major Abbey and the Minor Abbey, interconnected by arch bridge overlooking the street. Outside the basilica, it would be already enough the view of the famous Angel’s staircase to attract the attention of the observer, in other words the marble staircase placed at the entrance, adorned with statues of angels and surrounded by a beautiful wrought iron gate. And its inside, however, deserves a special mention: simple in structure, with a single nave, houses once entirely frescoed by Sebastiano Lo Monaco, Giovanni Tuccari e Matteo Desiderato, depicting scenes from the life of St. Benedict, a masterpiece of artistic stunning beauty. To complete the picture of this sacred jewel, the main altar, made of polychrome marble inlaid with semi-precious stones and bronze panels.

 

MONASTERO DI S. NICOLÒ LA RENA

Inhabited by Benedictine monks until 1866, now the Department of Humanities of the University of Catania, is one of the largest monastic complexes that Europe possesses, the second one only to that of Mafra, Portugal. Patrick Brydon, in Journey in Sicily, called it the Sicilian Versailles.

The work of construction of the building, rectangular in drawing, had started in 1578, while it was only towards the end of the century that was begun the building of the church, which was however destroyed by the volcanic eruption of 1669. The reconstruction work was begun in 1687, under the Roman architect Giovanni Battista Contini.

 The earthquake in 1693 came, however, to cause new devastation: the church suffered almost no damage, still under construction, however the same cannot be said of the monastery, whose few surviving structures formed the basis for further reconstruction, which in 1702 was assigned to the project Antonino Amato. On this occasion, the structure was expanded and enriched, in line with the will and the way of life of the monks, animated by ideas of grandeur and wealth. It must be noted that the power taken from the Last Supper during the centuries was enormous, as well as there was the enormous wealth accumulated by the monks. The construction, expansion and decoration works persisted for much of the eighteenth century: in particular, the architects Francesco Battaglia Giovanni Battista Vaccarini had to deal with enlargement of the monastery on the north side, while in the following century were finally completed the cloisters, designed by architect Mario Musumeci.

Today the structure of the monastery shows a lower ground floor, with doors that overlook the courtyard, upon which there are two main floors, characterized by an opening to the outside and large balconies with the windows, which make the structure very original than most of the monastic buildings. The south and east areas, with the abundance of late baroque and Churrigueresque (Spanish Rococo) motifs, testify the artistic ability of the greatest Sicilian lapidic masters, who came to Catania to take part in the work of reconstruction. The exhibitions of the windows are also decorated with a series of scrolls, fruit, flowers, monstrous gargoyles, cherubs and nymphs: ornamental elements which, once again, confirm their willingness to create a richly decorated work, as well as majestic.

 

The cloisters

For the geographical position that they take within the structure of the monastery, the cloisters are called Di Levante and Poniente cloister. The most recent one of the two is the cloister of Levante, which began in XIVIII century and completed in 1842, characterized by the presence of a white stone porch, and neo-Gothic shrine, a fine example of traditional artistic syncretism of ‘800. On the contrary to what we would expect, however, more than a place for prayer and meditation, it is a winter garden where the monks entertained and welcomed intellectuals during their Grand Tour that made a stop here, and that were housed on the first floor (hence passed Goethe and the already mentioned Brydon), sipping hot chocolate, coffee, tea: the neo-Gothic shrine had in fact function of a Kaffee-haus.

The oldest one of the two, to the west, is that around which the sixteenth-century monastery was developed. It is characterized by the presence of a white marble fountain in the centre, the material they are made of also the porch columns and balustrades.

The Roman house and the newspaper library

Inside the newspaper library of what today the Department of Humanities of the University of Catania has become is retained a Roman house of the second century BC. A bridge made of iron and wood, designed by De Carlo, now makes it possible to access the classroom study and observe from above, without the passage cause harm to the excavation.

The garden of the novices

On the second floor, it was built in 1739, designed by Vaccarini. The peculiarity of the roof garden, designed as a recreation area for the novices who lived in the adjacent corridor, is to be situated at the huge banks of lava deposited by the 1669 eruption, about 10-15 meters above the ground level. After that in 1977 the monastery was transferred to the Faculty of Philosophy and Letters, the architect Giancarlo De Carlo inserted the new elements, or the chimneys of thermal power plant which is under the garden and fountain.

The church of San Nicolò l'Arena

As already mentioned, it was the Roman architect Giovanni Battista Vaccarini that took care of its project in 1687. Inside, as well as valuable blades of important artists, it guards the largest baroque organ of Donato del Piano, and the long sundial (40 meters) by Sartorius and Peters.

Vincenzo Bellini Square

Going down the hill of Montevergine again, not far from University Square, we find the square Vincenzo Bellini, better known under the name of Massimo Square. Right here in fact is based the opera house of Catania, Massimo Bellini, dedicated to the great Sicilian composer: an architectural splendour inspired by French eclecticism of the second half of the nineteenth century, whose stage has seen performing the greatest Italian and foreign opera artists. An enchanting presence by day and magical at night, when the square, full of young people, transforms, wearing the clothes of Catania’s scene queen.

 

 

THE HISTORICAL MARKETS

You cannot say to know Catania if you haven’t first breathed the atmosphere of its historic markets. Here the colourful tents, the smells, the shouts of the hawkers, the comings and goings of hundreds of people that every morning wanders through the stands, create a unique and lively atmosphere: an unmissable bath of folklore which is one of the fundamental tiles of identity of this multi-faceted Mediterranean city.

 

After crossing the Cathedral Square, passing behind the Amenano fountain, we arrive in St. Peter Alonso Square, a location of Piscaria, or the fish market, where the fresh fish of the day is sold. A tradition dating back to two hundred years ago, when there was especially created a gallery, to host the city fish market. The intense smell of fish, the sound dry and dull knives on the benches, the red blood flowing from their surfaces, offer the perception of the pedestrian as all-in-one indistinct, mixed with shouting in the background and uciate of hawkers, who attract the attention of passers-by. To dominate this primitive and charming scenario, the shimmer of a fresh fish, that intensifies the extraordinary variety of species from the various shapes, sizes and colours. The main protagonist, the bluefish, a king of the ichthyic fauna indigenous lives side by side to large heads of swordfish and purple tentacles of the polyps.

 

Not far from Stesicoro Square, in Carl Albert Square, there is another ancient market town of Catania: a Fera'o luni, i.e. the Monday fair, the only day in which it was originally opened. Today you can visit it every day of the week, except on Sundays. Even in this case the hawkers, with their dialectal slogan, make the original sound frame in this melting pot of goods and ethnicities. On the fair there are local products, most cheeses, cold meats, fruit and vegetables, alongside the clothing sale, shoes, household, unthinkable goods and products of all kinds.

The feast of St. Agatha

In order of importance, after their families, the inhabitants of Catania place two untouchable entities: the patron saint of the city, affectionately called "a Santuzza" (a diminutive reveals a deep attachment to it), and Catania football, the city football club.

It is difficult to fully understand how their religious devotion heartfelt and deep is, if you do not have the opportunity to attend the city celebrations that take place in the first days of February, during which the whole city stops in order to honour the one true lady that they recognize: a great event and well-known in the world, a vital resource of the Sicilian folkloric kit, confirming  it with the title awarded to it in 2002 by UNESCO, Ethno-Anthropological asset of the city of Catania in the world.

From 3rd to 5th of February the roads appear crowded with men, women and children are wearing the white clothing of devotion, il sacco (a devotional habit, in fact), and a black cap. On the 4th and the 5th of February, in particular, the palanquin (litter) of the Saint is carried in procession to all the districts, followed by the devoted. Some of them carry the candles of devotion in hand, the candles that, in many cases reach a large size. Another important detail that makes the feast unique is the presence of cannalore: 12 Candlemas, representing the guilds of arts and crafts, presented as large buildings carved and gilded in the Sicilian Baroque style, containing a votive candle. Although their weight fluctuates between 400 and 900 kilos, they are carried on the shoulders, around the city by a knot of men, with a characteristic caracoling gait: the 'nnacata.

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