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In 1693 a serious earthquake hit Val di Noto. This event, which caused terrible destruction and the death of more than 60,000 people subsequently determined an intense period of reconstruction in the various cities hit by the quake. In Val di Noto thanks to the Duke of Camastra the reconstruction of cities such as Noto, Scicli, Modica, Ragusa Ibla, Palazzolo Acreide and many other cities which were seriously damaged by the earthquake including Catania, Caltagirone and Militello began immediately.
In 2002 UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) added the valley’s Baroque architecture to the World Heritage list recognizing the vast area of eastern Sicily including the provinces of Catania, Ragusa and Siracusa as invaluable and unique.
Our proposed Sicilian Baroque itinerary in the Val di Noto starts in Noto and heads towards Modica, Scicli, Ragusa, Palazzolo Acreide and the Pantalica Necropoli which was also included on UNESCO’s World Heritage list in 2005. This historic and interesting landscape provides the ending for the tour. Taking the 114 road or A18 motorway we arrive at Noto, the jewel of Sicilian Baroque. Noto is situated on top of an upland which dominates the valley of Asinaro. The old city which was destroyed by the 1693 earthquake is approximately 8km from the present city.
Noto was reconstructed during the 18th Century thanks to the intervention of the Duke of Camastra, Giuseppe Lanza, who sponsored the involvement of many famous architects, master masons and stone cutters who together created the plan for the city’s new design.
The city streets were separated by spectacular squares and impressive flights of steps that were used to scenographically connect terraces and different levels. These were constructed using soft, locally sourced rock which was golden rose in colour and richly cut.
An important place to visit is the Cattedrale di Noto dedicate a San Nicolò which from a lavish flight of steps displays its magnificent Baroque façade. The 1990 earthquake caused serious structural damage to the cathedral which later caused the collapse of the church dome and transept in 1996. The cathedral’s restoration has recently been completed.
Defined by the famous art historian Cesare Brandi as the ‘garden of stone’ the whole of Noto’s historic centre truly deserves to be admired.
Of note among the many historic civic buildings are Palazzo Ducezio, Porta Reale, Teatro Comunale Vittorio Emanuele and Palazzo Nicolaci-Villadorata. There are also many religious buildings worth viewing including Chiesa del Carmine e la Chiesa di S. Domenico, la Chiesa di Montevergine and la Chiesa di S. Carlo. The buildings in Via Nicolaci or Piazza dell’immacolata display a long list of architectural elements including beautiful ledges and balcony supports decorated with depictions of horses, lions and seductive sirens or with caryatids (sculpted female figures serving as architectural supports taking the place of a columns or pillars) or grinning masks.
In addition every year, on the 3rd Sunday in May there is the manifestazione dell’infiorata or flower festival which is one of the most beautiful festivals in Sicily. During this celebration Via Nicolaci is covered with a spectacular carpet of flowers depicting gigantic scenes and themes which change every year.
We then leave Noto to arrive at Scicli, which is 24km from Ragusa. This pleasant small town spreads out over a large plain and is set within three narrow valleys known as ‘Cave’ from its ancient origins. Victim of the earthquake of 1693 Scicli is an important centre of late ibleo Baroque of the Val di Noto which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Walking along the Via Mormino Penna you cannot fail to be impressed by the presence of a number of 18th Century buildings which truly demonstrate the creative genius of the late Sicilian Baroque age. Among the civil architecture is the celebrated Palazzo Beneventano with its characteristic ‘cheeky’ masks that adorn its two monumental façades linked to a spectacular cantonale. At the top of this towers the Beneventano coat of arms decorated with two Arab heads, now one of the symbols of the city. There is also the Palazzo Fava with its note-worthy Baroque decoration on the main portal entrance and balconies and the Palazzo Spadaro with its refined Rococo style which is home to the town’s main offices.
In addition to these buildings are the beautiful churches of S. Giovanni Evangelista, di S. Giuseppe, di Santa Teresa e di San Bartolomeo all exhibiting interesting elements of late Rococo Baroque.
From Scicli we move towards Modica, a large town in the province of Ragusa which is only 15km away. The town rises up on four hillsides characterized by its various terraces on which were built its houses and greatest monuments. It is these different terraces that give Modica a spectacular visual appearance which is unique in the world. After the earthquake of 1693, the town’s subsequent reconstruction created a scenographic experiment following a highly imaginative town plan. This incorporated all the architectural elements that existed pre-earthquake into the elements of late Sicilian Baroque.
Of note is the beautiful Chiesa di San Giorgio that stands at the top of a lavish flight of steps that allows this sacred building to reach up high, glorifying its architectural mass. Of equal beauty is the Chiesa di San Pietro also built at the top of a dramatic flight of steps decorated with statues of the 12 Apostles.
It is also interesting to visit the Chiesa di Santa Maria di Gesu which has been hit many times by a variety of earthquakes and always subsequently reconstructed. La Chiesa del Carmine which is one of the few monuments that withstood the violent quake of 1693 was built in the 13th Century and still today shows Gothic elements from the period of Chiaramonte.
Modica is also known as ‘the city of lace’ for the renowned tradition of embroidery but above all it is known worldwide for its traditional exhibition ‘Eurochocolate’ which takes place annually from 4th-12th March and offers visitors a chance to sample the typical Modica chocolate with its recipe ‘a freddo’ which comes from the time of Spanish domination.
From Modica to Ragusa the journey is short. The main provincial city presents two contradictory aspects of both modernity and strict conservation of ancient traditions.
The Cattedrale dedicate a San Giovanni Battista is of particular beauty with a majestic façade rich in detail and sculpture.
Ibla, a area of Ragusa, is positioned on a rocky hill full of numerous caves. It is identifiable from the rest of the city for its range of churches, alleyways and buildings in late Baroque style built after the terrible earthquake of 1693. Of particular beauty are the Chiesa di S. Giorgio and Sante Anime del Purgatorio which can be reached by crossing the beautiful steps which accentuate the churches architectural characteristics.
In the most eastern part, we find Giardino Ibleo in whose vicinity we can see the beautiful Portale di San Giorgio, built by the Count Goffredo for the namesake church which was totally destroyed by the earthquake. Today the portale is a symbol of the city of Ragusa.
The historic architectural heritage within this city is considerable and it has been able to conserve both its gastronomic traditions and ancient cultures which have been handed down from mother to daughter.
From Ragusa we head towards Palazzolo Acreide noted for both the architectural excavations of the ancient Akrai park as for its many Baroque buildings.
Under the protection of UNESCO are the Chiesa di S. Paolo and the Chiesa di San Sebastiano which are declared World Heritage sites. The Casa Museo di Antonino Uccello is also of interest conserving many artifacts of southern Sicilian peasant culture.
A few kilometers from Palazzolo Acreide is the beautiful Riserva Naturalistico-Archelogica di Pantalica which is also on the World Heritage list.
Pantalica is a natural canyon dug out of the calcareous rocks of two rivers, the Anapo and Calicinara. In pre-historic times during the Bronze age numerous tombs of artificial small caves (approx. 5000) were made from the rocky ridges which overhang the two river beds. These were divided into five different necropolis that gave the rocks the appearance of giant beehives. At the top of the rocky ridges on the plateau stands ‘Anaktoron’ which is the princely palace and is the only evidence of habitation on the site. The necropolis was used even in Byzantine times.
The reserve falls into the territory of Sortino, Ferla, Cassaro, Buscemi and Palazzolo Acreide but the official entrance can be found in the vicinity of Ferla and Cassaro.
Wonderful vegetation including trees, oleander, poplar, hawthorn, mastics, euphorbia and many other varieties of local plant life grow along the course of the river. The crystal clear water, thanks to naturally occurring torrents is the ideal home for Sicilian and Fario trout. On the river bed there are tench, however it is also possible to find eels and river crab and to see the peregrine falcon and the rare Bonelli eagle flying in the sky above the high crags.
We end our itinerary with Pantalica a natural historic oasis to underline as nature with its luxurious vegetation and rock shapes has always been for man, a teacher of the most beautiful artistic shapes. In Pantalico’s silent universe it is the grandeur of nature which dominates.