The Glorious Ruins of Sicily

Although a large portion of this Italian island was devastated by a 17th-century earthquake, much of its splendor was rebuilt from the rubble

Sicily, Italy's large island off the southern tip of its boot, has had a less than quiet history.

Invaded by Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Muslims, Normans, and the French; torn by occasional earthquakes, and rattled by Mt. Etna - its still-active volcano - much of Sicily's past magnificence has survived to lure adventuresome tourists and artists alike.

Rich in history and architecture, Sicily claims some of the most ancient Greek ruins, some dated earlier than the acropolis in Athens. So much here is worth seeing and talking about.

It's surprising, then, to find that Sicilians are not particularly friendy or talkative. Prying information from them can be exhausting, but most will mutter a word or two when asked about the "great earthquake" that hit southeastern Sicily back in 1693.

The devastation brought about by that quake was beyond anything even Sicilians - with a long, often violent history of foreign rule - had ever endured. Forty cities were flattened and an estimated 59,000 people, 30 percent of the population were killed.

By the time larger cities, like Syracuse and Catania, and smaller towns like Noto, Modica, and Ragusa had buried their dead, their inhabitants had set up shacks in the country.

"We set up tents and beds in the countryside," an anonymous chronicler of the time reports, "and for a full year none of us dared go near a wall or a fortification."

Yet the period following the earthquake was also one of the most vibrant in Sicilian history. Out of the ruins came the single largest urban undertaking of the 18th century as entire cities were carefully rebuilt in the lavish Baroque style of the time.

Unexpected treasures

The result is a trail of unexpected treasures all along the southeastern coastline of Sicily, from the well-known islet of Ortygia on the easternmost tip of Syracuse to the less hospitable but stunning towns of Noto and Modica.

Of these places, Ortygia offers the greatest contrasts. It is not uncommon to stand awestruck in front of a beautifully ornate, 17th-century building and realize that bits of it are simply falling to pieces. Nor is it unusual to walk into a Baroque palace and find that half of it has been condemned.

Many of the homes in Ortygia were abandoned some 30 to 40 years ago in a collective rush toward the comforts of modernity. As elevators and private parking spaces turned into ultimate status symbols, Ortygia - its cramped spaces and screaming pipes - became something of an embarrassment for those who lived there.

Abandonment has led to decay and the city's administration, constantly strapped for cash, has been unable to stop or contain the degradation.

Once a powerful city in cutthroat competition with Athens, it was a magnet for foreign invaders who learned of its natural ports, its spring of fresh water - the Fonte Aretusa - and the rich, arable land surrounding the islet.

The church in Piazza del Duomo clearly shows how each dominating culture tried to leave its mark.

To get into the church, however, one has to tread lightly past the slouched frames of locals sunbathing or sleeping on the steps. The piazza is one of the few open spaces in the labyrinth islet.

Dozing off among them is the owner of a horse-drawn carriage parked in front of the church whose persistence with potential customers had earned him a mention in many guidebooks. If he suspects you're a tourist, he will first inform you that failure to ride on his cart will result in the loss of your hair - or worse!

The church, or duomo, is an impressive sight. It was built in the 7th century directly atop a Greek temple to Athena. It still incorporates some of the original columns, three of which are clearly visible from the outside and bear virtually no trace of the many quakes that shook the area before the one in 1693.

The duomo was rebuilt after the earthquake and is now a peculiar mix of styles and shapes: it has a Gothic vault reworked in Catalan style, Byzantine traits and a splendid Baroque faade and chapels, all built after the quake. The towers on the left flank of the duomo's exterior were erected by Arabs, who briefly used it as a mosque.

Syracusans are understandably proud of their church. The pastry shop down the road exhibits a beautifully crafted miniature marzipan reproduction of the Baroque faade.

An outstanding example of Baroque architecture in Ortygia is the church of Santa Lucia alla Badia. Santa Lucia is the patron saint of Syracuse. According to local history, she was martyred under the emperor Diocletian and centuries later her remains were spirited away by the Venetians for reasons that remain unclear.

The "theft" as Syracusans bitterly refer to it, is still a cause of friction between the two cities. A leaflet pasted by the church tells passersby that "the time has come to bring our Saint back where she belongs and away from cold, foggy Venice."

Leaving Ortygia's curious mix of grandeur and decay behind and heading south along the coast, one is bound to a stop in Noto, a small town of some 25,000 people 32 kilometers from Syracuse.

Almond and lemon groves line the only road to the town, built a few miles away from where it first stood after the 1693 quake that turned 56 churches, monasteries, and chapels into rubble.

Noto's glow

Only 12,000 of the town's 26,000 inhabitants survived the earthquake, and the reconstruction of Noto took many years of hard labor and planning. Roads were laid out, some 40 churches and chapels built, and grand palaces erected by the exceptionally wealthy local aristocracy. The generous use of a soft limestone found in the area gives the town an orange glow that flares up at sunset.

Cutting the stone was, and still is, an extremely costly procedure, so much so that the few stonecutters around today have become something of a protected species.

And Noto will need them too. The town's deeply loved cathedral literally imploded in March last year, sending shock waves throughout the region.

The causes of the implosion have yet to be established, but many of its supporting pilasters had apparently been damaged by another earthquake, which hit Noto and the surrounding area in 1990.

The beautiful Baroque faade, surprisingly severe when compared with others in the town, was remarkably left intact. Perhaps more surprising was that the young choir's rehearsal had ended only minutes before the edifice came crashing down, burying the coffin of a man whose funeral was to be held the following morning.

The collapse of the cathedral deprived the town of one of its five functioning churches. The rest have been shut down but only a handful are actually under renovation.

Maybe because of their traumatic history, the people here are a closed, diffident bunch. There are no accommodations in the town for tourists and most attempts at striking up a conversation tend to fail miserably. A stab at dialogue between a young woman and the owner of a local shop went as follows:

"This rain is impossible."

Silence.

"It's been raining so long it's just miserable."

More silence.

"Really miserable, don't you think?"

The bar owner shrugged.

"You know, I am absolutely soaking wet."

The bar owner shrugged again, although somewhat sympathetically.

"One can't go on like this, can one?"

"No. It's quite bad."

Thrilled by the owner's laconic contribution to the conversation, the woman went on. "I suppose it's good for the countryside," she said, "I mean the lemons, the oranges, and so on."

The bar owner turned a suspicious glare on her but said nothing.

"I remember that terrible draught five years ago ... I suppose rain is better than no rain in the countryside, wouldn't you agree?"

The bar owner's frown deepened. Enunciating slowly, almost painfully, he said: "I don't own land in the countryside."

With that, the conversation came to a screeching halt.

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