by Jeremy Dummett
The province of Ragusa, in the south-eastern corner of Sicily, contains some of the most spectacular scenery on the island. It stretches from the Monti Iblei (the Hyblaean Mountains), with its peak of Monte Laura at 986 metres, through an ancient rural landscape containing rivers and deep gorges, to a sparkling coastline facing Africa. Along the coast lie fishing villages and holiday resorts made up of rows of low lying white buildings with small harbours and sandy beaches.
The population of the province, which is around 300,000, is spread among twelve towns, all of which are decorated in the local baroque style. The urban scenery of the province is among the finest in all Italy. This is where, according to the art historian Anthony Blunt, the best examples of Sicilian baroque are to be found. These towns, with their cupolas and campaniles, sit astride peaks in the rocky landscape divided from one another by steep valleys. Flights of stairs weave their way through the towns leading up to flamboyant church façades that dominate the surrounding countryside. The quality of the architecture has been recognised by UNESCO which has made three of the towns, Ragusa, Modica and Scicli, World Heritage Sites.
This scenery, both urban and maritime, is used as the setting for the Italian TV series featuring Inspector Montalbano, based on the novels by Andrea Camilleri. Hugely popular in Italy, the series spread to reach international audiences. The province of Ragusa, made famous by the TV series, has become known as Montalbano territory, as it is here that most of the episodes were filmed.
Human habitation of the province dates back to pre-historic times, with ancient tombs visible in the rocks. In the nearby province of Syracuse lies the site of Pantalica, which dates back to the thirteenth century BC. The earliest recorded people in the Ragusa province were the Sicels, who came from central Italy, and who established themselves in eastern Sicily early in the tenth century BC. It was from the Sicels that Sicily took its name. The Monti Iblei were probably named after a Sicel goddess, Ibla. After the Greeks arrived on the island, establishing settlements around the coast, the Sicels moved further inland, with their King Hyblon granting territory near Syracuse to the Greeks on which to build another city, Megara Hyblaea.
Many of the different people who ruled Sicily left their mark on the province. Kamarina was founded by Greeks from Syracuse in 599 BC, as an outpost of their city. At this time the whole of south-eastern Sicily was Syracusan territory. The town of Chiaramonte Gulfi, to the north of the province, is on the site of a staging post used by the Greeks of Syracuse on their way to the coast. Kaukana shows signs of both Roman and Byzantine civilisations. It was from the port of Kaukana that the Byzantine general, Belisaruis, sailed in 533 AD to defeat the Vandals in North Africa.
In the Middle Ages the Normans established estates here, as did the Chiaramonte, a powerful family based in Palermo who became the Counts of Modica. It was the Normans who introduced one of their favourite saints to Sicily, St George, who became a patron saint in both Ragusa and Modica. The county became famous for its agriculture, which because of its geography, developed differently to that in most of Sicily. The combination of hilly country with a central plateau and a narrow coastal plain was more suited for mixed farming than for growing grain. As a result local farms produced cattle and other livestock as well as olives and wine. This kind of farming led to greater independence for agricultural workers than elsewhere on the island and the county gained a reputation for liberal attitudes and a crime free environment.
In 1693 a powerful earthquake hit eastern Sicily causing widespread destruction. For the work of reconstruction the Spanish rulers of Sicily, together with the island’s aristocracy, chose the local baroque style and Sicily’s skilled architects and craftsmen were given the opportunity to design major new projects. By this time Sicilian baroque had matured into a style of architecture and sculpture with original features of its own that were rich in exotic decoration. In this way the re-building in eastern Sicily, following the earthquake, saw one of the greatest flowerings of artistic talent in the island’s history.
Mussolini, who visited Sicily in 1924, made a personal intervention in Ragusa, making it capital of the province in 1926, while at the same time redefining its borders. Up to this point Modica had been the capital. According to local legend, the reason for this was the lack of an adequate turnout to welcome Mussolini at Modica’s railway station, during the Duce’s tour of eastern Sicily. Representing a liberal minded city, residents showed their disapproval of the Fascist government by refusing to give Mussolini the usual rapturous welcome. This was taken as an insult and the status of Capo Provincia was taken from Modica and granted to Ragusa.
Today Ragusa, the smallest province on the island, is also one of the wealthiest. Oil was discovered here in 1953 and is now drilled offshore and piped to refineries at Augusta on the east coast. The supply of stone as a building material continues, as it has for centuries. The tradition of mixed farming goes on, with dairy farming and the production of livestock taking place on the plateau below the hills. Typical products include milk, pork and a cheese known as caciocavallo. Wine is widely produced and the town of Vittoria is renowned for the quality of its red wine, called Cerasuolo. Intensive market gardening is carried out on the coastal plain, producing fruit and vegetables, including cherry tomatoes in large quantities.
Tourism, which is thriving and includes an increasing number of foreigners with holiday homes, has recently been helped by the opening to international traffic of the airport at Comiso. The airport, which is less than twenty kilometres from Ragusa, has direct flights to London, Frankfurt, Brussels and Dublin, as well as to cities on the Italian mainland. Another boost to tourism is the so-called Treno Barocco, a train which runs from Syracuse on Sundays in the summer months, calling at Noto, Modica and Ragusa, enabling visitors to see the most famous baroque towns in a day’s outing. Not to be missed are the frequent feasts and saints’ day celebrations, when elaborate processions go through the streets, combined with a chance to try the local food.
Ragusa has two separate centres, the upper town, Ragusa Superiore, and the lower, Ragusa Ibla, linked by a flight of over 240 steps and by a steep road full of hairpin bends. Ragusa Superiore is laid out with wide streets according to the reconstruction plan which followed the earthquake. The imposing cathedral of San Giovanni Battista (St John the Baptist), with its wide façade and fine campanile, dominates the middle of the town. Close by is the archaeological museum, containing a statue of a Sicel warrior from the seventh century BC as well as Greek and Roman artefacts. Above the cathedral is a vantage point, known as the Rotonda, which provides panoramic views over the lower town.
Ragusa Ibla, with ravines on either side, occupies the site of the medieval town destroyed by the earthquake and that of the ancient Sicel town, Hybla Heraea. It is the more spectacular of the two centres and contains thirteen baroque monuments listed by UNESCO. Built of golden stone, it consists of small squares, churches, narrow streets, crumbling palaces, ornate balconies and sudden, breath-taking views over the countryside. This is a place to be explored on foot, with cars left at the lower street level. Starting at Piazza della Repubblica, where the two centres meet, a winding street leads through the middle of Ibla to the Giardini Iblei, the public gardens. Close to the piazza is the church of Santa Maria dell’Itria, which was originally built for the knights of Malta. The church has a richly decorated interior while its blue tiled dome has become a symbol of the town.
At the heart of Ibla stands the Cathedral of San Giorgio (St George) designed by Vincenzo Gagliardi, one of the top architects of the baroque era, who worked also in Noto. The three-tiered façade of the cathedral fills one end of Corso XXV Aprile, a wide street containing palm trees, cafés and two decorative buildings, the Circolo di Conversazione and the Palazzo Donnfugata. The cathedral’s interior contains statues of St George, one by the Gagini school, as well Gagliardi’s original plans for the building. Among the palaces of note in Ibla are the Cosentini, known for the grotesque figures supporting the balconies; Battaglia, with a classical façade and La Rocca, famous for its six balconies.
Like Ragusa, Modica consists of an upper and a lower town, Modica Alta and Bassa. There is also a third, modern centre for commercial activity. The town lies on the SS 115 road some fifteen kilometres before arriving at Ragusa when approaching from Ispica and Noto. The town’s social centre is Corso Umberto, a wide street containing several fine palaces, laid out in the reconstruction period. Around it are the alleyways and courtyards recalling the town’s medieval layout. On the right can be seen the remains of the castle of the Counts of Modica. From the Corso, a series of steps decorated with statues of the apostles, leads up to the church of San Pietro, whose broad façade topped by more statues, looks out over the town. Two churches are of particular interest, the church of the Carmine, containing sculpture by the Gagini school, and the church of Santa Maria di Bethlemme, which has a Palatine Chapel in the Arab-Norman style.
Steps climb steeply towards Modica Alta, along a road lined with palaces and the church of San Giovanni Battista at the highest point. The Cathedral of San Giorgio, probably by Rosario Gagliardi and inaugurated in 1738, was built on the site of a Norman church. It is one of the outstanding examples of Sicilian baroque, with an unusual curved façade, and stands at the top of a flight of 250 steps. The view of the old town from outside the cathedral is exceptional.
Modica was the birthplace of Salvatore Quasimodo, who won the Nobel Prize for poetry in 1959. He takes his place among Sicily’s writers who achieved international fame including Pirandello, Lampedusa and Sciascia. Quasimodo wrote lyrical poetry about Sicily while working far from home in northern Italy.
The town has a vibrant economy based on agricultural produce. There is an excellent, robust local cuisine. The best known local product is Modica chocolate, now produced on a large scale. It is unusual in that it contains no fat and is based upon an ancient Aztec recipe, brought to Sicily by the Spanish. It comes in a variety of natural flavours such as orange, lemon and almond.
Smaller towns and the seaside
The smaller towns of the province are full of character. Scicli, not far from the sea, lies between two gorges and has some of the most striking architecture. Around the central Piazza Italia cluster churches and palaces of note including the church of San Matteo (St Matthew) and the Palazzo Fava. Wrought iron balconies supported by fanciful creatures carved in yellow stone are a feature of the town. Strange heads also appear on the façade of the Palazzo Beneventano. The church of San Bartolomeo (St Bartholomew) stands out for being the only one from the fifteenth century to have survived the earthquake.
On the high ground above Ragusa stands Chiaramonte Gulfi, originally built in the early fourteenth century as an outpost to protect Modica from the north. Panoramic views of the province can be seen from here. The town centre contains fine baroque buildings around a core of medieval side streets.
Close to Santa Croce Camarina, on the coast, are two small archaeological sites, Kamarina and Kaucana. Kamarina was an outpost of Syracuse in the ancient Greek era and Kaucana has Roman and Byzantine origins. Their archaeological sites and museums can be found nearby.
Other towns of interest include Ispica, Comiso and Vittoria. All contain significant monuments from the baroque era and are worth exploring. Comiso was the birthplace of another well known Sicilian writer, Gesualdo Bufalino, who died in 1996.
For seaside holidays there is a choice of locations in spectacular surroundings along the province’s eighty-five kilometres of coastline. Centres such as Donnalucata and Punta Secca stretch along the seafront with their traditional low, white houses. Fishing boats go out in the evenings to maintain the supply of fresh fish to the many small restaurants. The sea is clear and the environment in summer is hot. The temperature is capable of reaching over 40 degrees centigrade while the scirocco, the south wind, can make it feel even hotter. The most developed resort is Marina di Ragusa, which has a yacht harbour and a seaside promenade lined with palm trees. Smaller holiday centres include Scoglitti and Sampieri, which were once fishing villages, while one of the best sandy bays is to be found at Cava d’Aliga.
The Montalbano trail
The success of the Montalbano TV series has led to an increased interest in the province. Italian fans, landing at the airport, ask taxi drivers to take them to Vigàta, the fictional town where much of the action takes place. In reality the sets used in the TV drama are often composite, drawing upon images from several different places. However, certain locations can be identified, as Maurizio Clausi makes clear in his book, I luoghi di Montalbano (Montalbano’s places). Montalbano tours have become a popular feature of the local tourist trade.
Punta Secca, a cluster of houses behind a small harbour near Santa Croce Camarina, is the main location for the filming of Marinella, where Montalbano lives. The white tower of the lighthouse is instantly recognisable from the opening sequence of the TV drama. Montalbano’s apartment, with its terrace overlooking the beach, is a busy B&B when they are not filming. The small restaurant favoured by the inspector, known as Enzo a Mare on TV, can be found along the seafront. Some of the scenes in the fictional Marinella are also shot in Donnalucata.
Scicli is the principal location for Vigàta, where Montalbano has his office. A number of central streets are used for the set, together with the town hall which acts as the inspector’s headquarters, both internally and externally.
Ragusa Ibla features prominently in the TV drama. The opening sequence includes aerial shots of the town and surrounding hills. The square in front of the cathedral of San Giorgio is where Montalbano can be seen heading for his usual café. In the nearby Piazza Polo is a palace, next to the church of San Giuseppe, which is sometimes used as the inspector’s office. The restaurant named La Rusticana (Calogero in the TV series), to be found close by, is where Salvo and Mimì like to have lunch and enjoy a glass of Grillo, their favourite white wine.
Andrea Camilleri, author of the novels on which the TV series are based, comes from Porto Empedocle which lies further along the coast near Agrigento, and lives in Rome. In the Sicilian literary tradition, his work is steeped in the character and social mores of the island. The context of the stories, in which Montalbano and his small team of policemen fight crime and corruption, is contemporary Sicilian life with its political problems, mafia background and huge differences between rich and poor. The stories explore how the traditional Sicilian way of life is changing in the face of modern pressures such as increased tourism and the influx of refugees from Africa and the Middle East. Thus the books provide not only entertainment but also a way to increase our understanding of this extraordinary island.
Anthony Blunt, Sicilian Baroque (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1968).
Leonardo Sciascia, Fatti diversi di storia letteraria e civile, la contea di Modica (Sellerio, Palermo, 1989).
Maurizio Clausi, I luoghi di Montalbano. Una guida (Sellerio, Palermo, 2006).
Andrea Camilleri, The Shape of Water and Round the Mark (Picador, London, 2003 and 2007) are examples of the Montalbano novels, while the author’s website is at: www.andreacamilleri.net (in Italian).
www.ragusa-sicilia.it/english Province of Ragusa’s website.