by Jeremy Dummett

(Extract from Sicily, Island of Beauty and Conflict)

Catania and Mount Etna in 1809

Catania is a large, sprawling city situated at the foot of Mount Etna facing the Ionian Sea. It is Sicily’s commercial capital, and the second largest city on the island after Palermo, with a population of 315,000. Catania’s relationship with Palermo is comparable to that of Milan’s with Rome at national level; one is the commercial capital, the other the political capital.

Catania is an ancient city with its origins in pre-historic times. Its strength lies in its position, surrounded by the most productive agricultural land on the island, thanks to the minerals spread by volcanic ash from Mount Etna. Etna, the largest volcano in Europe, rises to the north-west, its huge, conical shape forming a backdrop to the city.

Disaster has overwhelmed Catania on many occasions. Greek tyrants, Carthaginian generals, German emperors and Bourbon kings are among those who brought destruction on the city. In addition, it was destroyed many times, wholly or in part, by volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. From all these disasters Catania arose again, phoenix-like, to be rebuilt in the same place. Following destruction by the earthquake of 1693, the city was redesigned on a grid plan in an elegant, late baroque style.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, once freed from war and natural disaster, the city developed on the back of its agriculture as the commercial centre of eastern Sicily. After World War II, which brought more destruction, Catania went from strength to strength to become the most prosperous city on the island.

Foundation and early history

For the early settlers, the site of Catania held many attractions. The gulf on the Ionian Sea offered a good harbour while fresh water was provided by two rivers. The volcanic soil at the foot of Mount Etna, and in the coastal plain that extended to the south-east, was highly fertile giving ideal conditions for agriculture. The risk of volcanic eruption, which was known from ancient times, was accepted by the local population as the price to pay for the otherwise prime location.

Finds made by Paolo Orsi, the pioneering archaeologist, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, show that the site was inhabited before the arrival of the Greeks. Bronze-age implements and fragments of ceramics, discovered in caves and grottoes, link the site to the Sicels, people who lived in settlements along the east coast and inland at Pantàlica. The Sicel name for the settlement was Katana, meaning grated, referring to the rough soil that was mixed with pieces of lava.

According to Thucydides, Naxos was the first Greek city to be founded in Sicily, by men from Chalcis in Euboea, in 734 BC. Syracuse was founded in the following year by men from Corinth. In the fifth year after the foundation of Syracuse, the men from Chalcis drove out the Sicels and founded Leontini (Lentini), on the hills overlooking the rich plain. They went on to the site of Catania, where they found all they needed to turn a small Sicel village into a substantial settlement and chose as their founder a man named Eurarchus. They called the settlement Katane. The date was around 728.

In the Greek era, Katane never possessed the ability to unite the local Sicel and Greek communities into a unified force to defend itself. The city was overshadowed by its more powerful neighbour, Syracuse, which came to dominate eastern Sicily. Unlike Syracuse, which had strong, natural defences, Katane was vulnerable to attack from the sea and fell to hostile forces on many occasions. In 476 Hiero I of Syracuse took Katane, renaming it Aetna, putting his son in charge and exiling the city’s residents to Leontini. Fifteen years later the exiles recaptured the city.

During the Athenian War of 415-413, when the Athenians laid siege to Syracuse, Katane supported Athens and became the Athenians’ base of operations. After the Athenians’ defeat, Katane paid the price for this alliance when Dionysius I of Syracuse captured it and sold its residents into slavery. During the Greek wars with Carthage, Katane was occupied by the Carthaginians, and was among the first cities to surrender to the Romans. After further destruction during the civil wars of Rome, Katane flourished under the Romans, demonstrating that given peaceful conditions the city could prosper from its agriculture.

Sant’Agata, Catania’s patron saint

Christianity came early to Sicily, either from Rome, or directly from the Middle East. It may have initiated in the Jewish communities or among the slaves brought in large numbers to the island by the Romans. Syracuse became an important centre for the early Christians whose extensive catacombs, second in scale only to those in Rome, can be seen today. The earliest burials took place there around the year 200.

Sant’Agata (St Agatha) was one of the first recorded Christian martyrs in Sicily. Agatha was a young girl of 13, from a noble family in Catania, when she was brought before the Roman governor, Quintian, to answer for her Christian faith. This followed a decree from Decius, the Roman emperor, ordering a persecution of the Christians. According to the legend, when she refused to renounce her faith, she was subjected to torture during which her breasts were mutilated. After receiving a vision of St Peter, Agatha recovered, but was then condemned to be burnt. Miraculously, the fire did not harm her, while an earthquake caused the Romans to flee the city. Agatha died in prison on 5 February 251.

A year later, Catania was threatened by an eruption of Mount Etna, with molten lava streaming down the mountain towards the city. The Catanese recovered Agatha’s silken veil from her tomb and took it to the advancing lava. When the lava met the sacred relic, it stopped in mid flow, saving the city from destruction. From that point, the cult of Agatha spread rapidly throughout Sicily and on to the wider Christian world. The saint’s body, representing an important Christian relic, was taken to Constantinople in 1039 by George Maniaces, a Byzantine general who temporarily recaptured eastern Sicily from the Arabs. Two soldiers brought the body back to Catania in 1126 where it has remained ever since.

St Agatha is a hugely popular figure in Catania, celebrated on her feast days in February and August each year. Spectacular festivities, attended by up to 300,000 people, take place during the first week in February when a gigantic float containing the saint’s relics is drawn through the city, culminating in a firework display.

Agatha was among the first of the patron saints to be adopted by her city, a practice which later became common across the island. The patron saint’s role was perceived as protecting the community and, when required, interceding with God on its behalf. The insecurity of the population in the face of natural disaster and oppression was among the reasons for this development. People felt the need of protection and preferred an intimate relationship with their own saint to the more distant one offered by an authoritarian church. The patron saint fitted into the Sicilian pattern of life based around the family and a close-knit community.

Rebirth as a baroque city

In January 1693, a powerful earthquake hit eastern Sicily causing destruction in 58 cities from Catania to Ragusa. In total, more than 50,000 people died, while coastal areas were hit by an after-shock of giant waves. Following the collapse of buildings, disease spread among the surviving population. Catania, along with Noto, was among the cities worst hit by the earthquake. It was reduced to rubble with the old buildings destroyed, except for the medieval Castello Ursino and parts of the Norman cathedral. The Spanish authorities were quick to organise a programme of reconstruction under the direction of Catania’s bishop.

It was decided to rebuild the city on its old site using a grid plan, a method of town planning which goes back to the ancient Greeks, and which can be seen, for example, in Selinunte. The grid plan incorporated wide streets running at right angles to each other, interspersed with large squares and public buildings. As well as representing an improvement in layout, the plan with its increased open spaces offered some protection against damage from earthquakes. In the nineteenth century, a British visitor to Catania, Colonel William Light, was so impressed with the city’s plan that, as the first surveyor general of South Australia, he applied a similar approach to the city of Adelaide.

Catania’s cathedral

The style of architecture adopted for Catania’s reconstruction took a new direction in 1730 with the arrival of Giovan Battista Vaccarini, an architect from Palermo. Vaccarini had trained in Rome and was imbued with the artistic ideas of master architects such as Bernini and Borromini. The grandeur and monumental qualities of Roman baroque architecture formed the basis of his vision for Catania. He gave the city its unique modern character and uniformity through the creation of impressive street facades together with grandiose churches and municipal buildings. The city’s open and sunny aspect suited the use of the local black lava stone which added an elegant touch to his buildings. On his arrival, Vaccarini worked closely with two architects already working in the city, Giuseppe Palazzotto and Francesco Battaglia. Vaccarini’s most famous work, the façade of the cathedral of Sant’Agata, dominates Piazza Duomo, in the city’s centre. Facing the cathedral, built by Vaccarini in 1736, is a fountain consisting of an obelisk supported by an elephant.

Vaccarini and Rosario Gagliardi were Sicily’s most talented architects of the eighteenth century. While Vaccarini’s career was spent in Catania, Gagliardi worked exclusively in Noto and the surrounding district. Both were sons of carpenters, and though contemporaries, there is no evidence that they ever met. They both added new elements to the late baroque style and left strong imprints upon the cities in which they worked. The results, however, were very different, reflecting the characters of both the architects and the cities. While Noto was built in golden stone, exuberant and imaginative in style, Catania’s architecture was sombre and impressive, using black stone, in a style appropriate for a big city.

After Vaccarini died in 1768, the reconstruction work in Catania continued throughout the eighteenth century. When Brydone visited the city in 1770, he noted: “The whole city was rebuilt, after a new and elegant plan, and is now more handsome than ever”.

The modern city

Catania developed rapidly as the main commercial centre of eastern Sicily in the second half of the nineteenth century. This was the island’s most progressive region, along with the province of Ragusa, where society was more open and forward looking, and where crime was less endemic than in the west. Catania’s rich agricultural hinterland led the way in terms of investment, reform and modernisation. As a result, early in the twentieth century Catania replaced Palermo as the most important port on the island for overseas trade.

During World War I, cut off from its export markets, Sicily’s economy stagnated. In the following years, emigration from the island soared due to unemployment, with most emigrants going to North America, Argentina and Brazil. In the inter-war years Catania continued to expand and develop its trade. Edward Hutton, the English travel writer who visited the city in 1926, found it the most prosperous in Sicily and was impressed by its vivacity.

World War II brought more destruction to Sicily through allied bombing of the major ports, including Catania. Following the Allied invasion of Sicily in July 1943, some of the fiercest fighting of the campaign took place on the plain of Catania for control of the bridge over the river Simeto.

Catania consolidated its position as Sicily’s leading commercial centre following World War II. Building upon its strengths in the wholesale markets for fish and agricultural products, it added capacity for manufacturing and technology. Catania’s university, the oldest in Sicily, became the training ground for new generations of skilled workers.

The city’s communications are good, as it is served by motorways which head along the coast in both directions, as well as across the island to Palermo. The airport is one of the busiest in southern Italy, handling nearly 10 million passengers in 2017, compared to Palermo’s 6.6 million. Catania’s port deals with much of Sicily’s export trade, as well as offering a ferry service to mainland Italy and berths for cruise ships.

Visiting Catania

First time visitors should make their way to Piazza Duomo, the heart of the city. It is a large open square containing the cathedral and other public buildings, where the city’s two main streets meet at right angles. Running east towards the harbour is the Via Vittorio Emanuele and running north, the Via Etnea. Overlooking the square is the cathedral, impressive in scale, its conservative lines softened by decorative elements such as statues and free-standing columns. Vaccarini’s façade completed the work done by Palazzotto on the cathedral’s structure.

The interior is spacious and simple with a chapel of St Agatha, to whom the cathedral is dedicated, to the right. Facing the cathedral is Vaccarini’s curious fountain on which stands an elephant, the symbol of Catania, carved in black lava stone, supporting an obelisk. Both the elephant and the obelisk are thought to be ancient but much restored.

Behind the cathedral, is the church of St. Agatha, also by Vaccarini. The façade contains some fine decorative details in the capitals, celebrating the saint’s virtues, the palms of martyrdom, the lilies of virginity and the crowns of eternal life. On the other side of the cathedral, in Via Dusmet, stands the Palazzo Biscari, one of the finest private palaces in Catania. West of the cathedral lies an elegant baroque street, Via Crociferi, which is filled with eighteenth century churches and palaces.

One of Sicily’s great writers, Giovanni Verga, is remembered in a small museum in the house where he lived at No 8, Via Sant’Anna, a ten-minute walk from Piazza Duomo, heading west. In his short stories, such as the collection entitled Vita dei campi (Life in the fields), Verga described the hard life of the peasants in realistic terms. One of the stories, Cavalleria Rusticana, became the subject of an opera by Pietro Mascagni. By 1884, Verga was considered the greatest living Italian writer.

There are few remains from ancient times due the damage done by earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Among the surviving monuments are two from Roman times, the Roman Theatre and Amphitheatre. The Theatre, which dates from the third century AD, held 7,000 spectators and was probably built on the site of a Greek theatre. The amphitheatre, underlying the importance of Catania in Roman times, was exceptionally large, and could hold 16,000 spectators. Built from blocks of lava it dates from the second century AD.

One important monument survived the earthquake of 1693, the Castello Ursino, a castle built for Frederick II in the thirteenth century. It is now a museum holding a rich collection of finds from the prehistoric era to the eighteenth century.

Further to the north, in Piazza Carlo Alberto which leads off Piazza Stesicoro, is a vast, colourful street market known as Fero ò Luni (the Monday fair) open every day except Sunday. Almost every conceivable item of domestic use is on sale here, from clothes to kitchen utensils, together with a huge choice of fruit and vegetables. A sign of the times is the fact that many of the stalls are in the hands of the Chinese community. A lively fish market can be found on the western side of Piazza Duomo.

In Piazza Stesicoro stands a statue of Vincenzo Bellini, who was born in Catania on 3 November 1801. He developed rapidly as a composer of romantic operas in the bel canto style, and by the age of 30 had produced two favourites of the international repertoire, La Sonnambula and Norma. Most of Bellini’s career was spent first in Milan and then in Paris, where he died aged 34. His body was returned for burial in Catania in 1876, when he was given a state funeral.

The memorials to Bellini include a museum holding mementoes of his life, together with the scores of some of his operas, and the house where he lived for 16 years. The city’s opera house, the Teatro Massimo Bellini, puts on a full operatic repertoire including the composer’s work. Bellini’s operas can sometimes be seen in Taormina, at the outdoor Greco-Roman theatre, in a spectacular setting facing Mount Etna and the Ionian Sea.

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