As the road picks its way to Agrigento, the almond trees gradually become more numerous. When in flower (January and February), their blossom appear like little clouds of white against the green fields and the bare earth of the hillsides; it is precisely at this time of year that the town comes to life and puts on its Sunday best for the Sagra del Mandorlo in Fiore (Almond Blossom Festival) Visitors approaching Agrigento from the coast will be treated to a glorious sight, particularly if arriving at sunset when the houses along the crest of the hill are coloured with paste hues and the Temple of Heracles dominates the foreground from on high, illuminated by the last rays of sunlight (enter the town from the Valley of the Temples).
Having reached the town by way of the Porta Aurea, two high tufa walls mark and protect the entrance to the old town. The Church of St. Nicholas appears on the left, built of the same rich gold tufa which characterizes the vestiges from Antiquity and the old town.
Story of Akragas – The site upon which Agrigento was constructed has been inhabited since prehistoric times, but it was not until about 580 BC that a group of people from Gela, originally from Rhodes and Crete, decided to found Akragas, taking its name from one of the two rivers which confine the city. Under the tyrant Phalaris (570-554 BC), the city was fortified and organized politically. It is to him that the ancients attribute the idea of using a hollow bronze bull (commissioned from the sculptor Perillus) as an instrument of torture for his enemies. These
unfortunate victims were imprisoned in the belly of the animal and roasted alive; the screams of the condemned emanating from the animal were likened to the lowing of a cow. Hated by his people, Phalaris was publicly stoned to death.
The city reached its height under the tyrant Theron (488-472 BC): the military might, having defeated the Carthaginians several times, enforced a rule which, among other things, forbade
them from making human sacrifices. Economic stability, coupled with political strength, favoured a flowering of the arts: the Temple of Zeus was built, literature and the performing arts flourished.
The philosopher Empedocles (c492-c432 BC) advocated a moderate form of democracy which lasted for some time. In 406 BC, Akragas suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of the Carthagini-
ans, who destroyed it. It was rebuilt in the second half of the 4C BC by Timoleon, a mercenary general from Corinth engaged in the fight against the Carthaginians in Sicily. It was at this time that the Greco-Roman quarter was built, the remains of which give some idea of the town’s reformed urban planning.
In 210 BC, Akragas was besieged by the Romans. They conquered the city and changed its name to Agrigentum.
Vicissitudes of Girgenti – With the fall of the Roman Empire, the city passed first to the Byzantines, then into Arab hands (9C). They built a new town centre higher up (at the heart of the modern town), calling it Girgenti – this lasted until 1927, when its Latin name was restored – which became the capital of the Berber kingdom. In 1087, the town was conquered by the Normans, prompting a new phase of prosperity and power which also enabled it to repel the frequent attacks of the Saracens.
It was during the reign of Roger the Norman that the churches of San Nicola, Santa Maria dei Greci and San Biagio were built. After a turbulent period which resulted in a gradual decline in the population of the town, Girgenti enjoyed a change in fortune, most notably in the 18C when the town centre was shifted from Via Duomo to Via Atenea. In 1860, the inhabitants, dissatisfied like the rest of the island with Bourbon misrule, enthusiastically supported Garibaldi’s mission. During the Second World War, Agrigento suffered a number of air raids.
Two famous Sons – Agrigento has nurtured famous personalities both in Antiquity and in more recent times. Among the most renowned are the philosopher Empedocles (5C BC), who died, according to legend, by leaping into the crater of Etna attempting to prove his divine powers (and, as in confirmation of this, Etna is supposed to have thrown back his shoes, which had turned to bronze).
In the 20C, the greatest figure with which it is associated is Pirandello, the famous playwright and novelist born in the small village of Caos below the town, where his ashes are interred. The more fanatical Pirandello enthusiasts should visit the Biblioteca Luigi Pirandello at 120 Via Regione Sicilia, which also contains a vast selection of works by other Sicilian authors.
A FEW DIRECTIONS
Where to eat - The Kokalos restaurant-cum-pizzeria in Via Cavalieri Magazeni offers traditional cuisine in a rustic setting. There is also a well-stocked wine bar.
Where to sleep – Visitors wishing to sleep “among the Ancient Greeks” might check-out the Villa Athena, an 18C residence, situated right opposite the Temple of Concord.
Stoai – The age-old covered market where shop-stalls were once ranged opposite each other among the arcades, survives just outside Agrigento (1 Via Cavalieri Magazzeni - 0922606623), converted into a multimedia environment used for craft shows and other events.
OLD TOWN CENTRE
The broad Viale della Vittoria, shaded by trees, provides beautiful views of the Valley of the Temples and leads to a square before the station. On the right stands the 16C Church of San Calogero, dedicated to a saint who is particularly venerated in this area. The façade has a fine doorway with a pointed arch.
The nuns of this closed Benedictine order make exquisite almond sweetmeats (ricce, conchiglie, amaretti and paste nuove) and the famous cuscusu (even its name recalls the more typical semolina dish using coarsely-ground wheat, which is steamed and served with fish to make the Trapani variety of cous-cous) - a semolina pudding served in small bowls, sweetened with chocolate and pistachio nuts, and decorated with candied fruit.
A little further on is Piazza Aldo Moro, where the lovely Via Atenea begins. Along this thoroughfare are to be found: on the right Palazzo Celauro (best admired from the street of the same name) where Goethe sojourned when on his Grand Tour, and, on the left, the Franciscan Church of the Immacolata (Blessed Virgin), altered in the 18C. To the right of the church, beyond the gate, can be seen the façade of the 14C Conventino Chiaramontano, so called because of the style of the portal between the two-light windows.
Return to Via Atenea and continue to Piazza del Purgatorio, which is overlooked by the splendid façade of San Lorenzo (18C), its golden ochre tufa contrasting dramatically with the whiteness of the doorway, ornamented with twisted columns. The interior contains stuccoes by Serpotta and a painting by Guido Reni. Nearby, level with Via Bac Bac, stands the Chiesa di San Giuseppe, a church dedicated to St Joseph.
In Piazza Pirandello stands the Town Hall, formerly a Dominican monastery (17C), and an adjacent church with a fine Baroque façade overlooking an elegant flight of steps. Set back, on the left side of the church, is the bell-tower.
Abbazia di Santo Spirito – From Via Atenea, take Via Forcella, follow the steps up Salita di Santo Spirito. The church and its dependent convent date from the 13C. Sadly, the state of the buildings is gradually deteriorating. The front of the church has a fine Gothic doorway with a rose-window above. The Baroque interior consists of a single nave. On the walls are four high reliefs attributed to Giacomo Serpotta: The Nativity and The Adoration of the Magi on the right, The Flight into Egypt and the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple on the left. To the right of the façade is a doorway into the cloister, leading under two of the great buttresses supporting the church. At the far end is the beautiful entrance to the chapterhouse, consisting of an elegant doorway through a pointed arch, flanked by highly decorative Arabo-Norman two-light windows.
Via San Gerolamo – This street is lined with elegant palazzi: of note in passing, is the front of the 19C Palazzo del Campo-Lazzarini at no. 14 (opposite Santa Maria del Soccorso) and that of the 18C Palazzo Barone Celauro at no. 86, which has two rows of small balconies gracing the windows which are articulated with semicircular and triangular pediments.
Biblioteca Lucchesiana – The library founded in 1765 by Bishop Lucchesi Palli contains mare than 45,000 ancient books and manuscripts. The central hall, dominated by a statue of the bishop, is lined with beautiful wooden shelving. Books on profane subjects are kept to the left of the statue, while religious texts are on the right. This division is echoed by the two sculpted wooden figures behind the statue: on the left is a woman meditating; on the right, a woman holding a mirror, symbolising the search for truth in the inner self.
Cattedrale – The side of the cathedral facing onto Via del Duomo still bears traces of the Norman original (notab!y the 11C windows). The main church was rebuilt in the 13C-14C and remodelled in the 17C; it was then restored after the landslide of 1966. A broad double stairway leads up to the main door, marked by a tympanum, flanked by pairs of pilasters. On the right stands the unfinished bell-tower (1470), which on the south side is articulated with four blind arches in the shape of an inverted ship’s keel, and a series of pointed arches above.
lnside, the nave has a beautiful wooden ceiling with tie-beams decorated with figures of the saints, painted in the 16C. The section beyond the triumphal arch is coffered (18C): the great two-headed eagle in the centre is the symbol of the Royal House of Aragon. The Baroque exuberance of the choir, with its angels and golden garlands, contrasts dramatically with the sobriety of the nave.
Santa Maria dei Greci – The 14C church dedicated to St. Mary of the Greeks was built upon the foundations of a temple dedicated to Athena; it celebrated mass according to the Greek-Orthodox liturgy.
Chiesa di San Nicola – Built of tufa, the Church of St. Nicholas was erected in the 13C by Cistercian monks in a transitional Romanesque to Gothic style. The stone blocks used were taken from the Giant’s Quarry, as the ruined Temple of Zeus was known providing, as it did, an almost inexhaustible easy source of building material.
The façade is dominated by two imposing reinforcing buttresses (added in the 16C), which flank a beautiful pointed-arched doorway. The interior is enclosed within a single barrel-vaulted nave. Four chapels open off the south side. The second contains a fine Roman sarcophagus (3C AD), known as the Sarcophagus of Hippolytus and Phaedra, with which Goethe was particularly smitten. Inspired by Greek prototypes, all four sides are sculpted in high relief, the compositions are animated by clean flowing lines and the figures are endowed delicate features set in gentle expressions. The subject treated is the tragic story of Phaedras unrequited love for her stepson Hippolytus, who is banished from the kingdom and killed by crazed horses under the shameful (and unfounded) accusation that he had tried to seduce her. On the sarcophagus (going anti-clockwise starting from the first long side), the hero is shown making preparations for a hunting expedition, at the moment when he rejects the message brought by Phaedra’s nurse; Phaedra’s resulting anguish and delirium, as she is waited upon by nine handmaidens: Hippolytus hunting wild boar on horseback and, finally, the death of the hero.
Besides the altar, on the left, is a fine 15C wooden crucifix, nicknamed Il Signore della Nave (Lord of the Ship), which inspired Pirandello’s short story of the same name included in his anthology entitled Novelle per un Anno. From the terrace before the church, there is a beautiful view over the Valley of the Temples.
Oratorio di Falaride – According to legend, the oratory occupies the site of the palace built by the tyrant Phalaris (see introduction), hence its name. The present monument was probably a small Greco-Roman temple, converted in Norman times.
Next to the oratory are the remains of an Ekklesiasterion, a small amphitheatre used for political meetings (from the Greek ekklesia, meeting) – identified as an ancient agorà (market place or place of assembly).
Greco-Roman quarter – This extensive urban complex contains the vestiges of houses in which survive fragments of ancient pavements laid with stone tesserae (protected by roofing and plexiglass) with geometric or figurative motifs. The network streets follow the standard rules advocated by the Greek town planner Hippadamus of Miletus of having broad parallel avenues (decumani) bisected at right angles by secondary roads (cardini).
Chiesa di San Biagio – There is space to park in front of the cemetery. The church is on the left, and can be reached by a path. The Norman church, erected in the 3C, stands on the remains of a Greek temple dedicated to Demeter. Just below the church, there is another more rudimentary temple to her (Tempio rupestre di Demetra) although inaccessible, which bears witness to the popularity of the cult of the goddess in ancient Sicily.
ARCHEOLOGICAL MUSEUM AND EXCURSIONS
Museo Archeologico Regionale – Entrance from the cloisters of San Nicola. Partially housed in the old monastery of San Nicola, the museum contains finds from the province of Agrigento.
Pre-Greek conquest – Among the prize exhibits is a fine two-handled cup with a very tall base decorated with geometric patterns: its shape may stem from the custom of eating seated on the ground with the cup at chest level.
Others of note include a small elegant Mycenaean amphora, the mould of a patera with six animals (oxen) in relief, and two signet rings, again bearing animals. The most interesting, meanwhile, is a dinos (sacrificial vase) depicting the triskelos (literally “three legs”), the symbol of Sicily (in the guise of Trinacria, meaning “three-pointed”).
Colonisation – The superb collection of Attic vases (Room 3) consists mainly of black- and red-figure ware, including the Cratere di Dionisio (or cup of Bacchus) pointed with Pan: the god of wine, dressed in flowing robes, holding a sprig of ivy in his hand, and with a leopard-skin draped over his arm. Among the other vessels, look for a krater with a white background, depicting the proud figure of Perseus on the point of liberating Andromeda from her chains.
Room 4 contains a large number of votive statues, theatrical masks, moulds and other terracotta figures found during the excavations of the temples. The central well is filled by the massive figure of Atlas from the Temple of Zeus, the only one to survive of the original 38 male caryatids which once adorned the building. On the left, in a case, are the heads of another three such powerful figures, one of which has well-preserved facial features.
The Ephebus of Agrigento (Room 10) consists of a marble statue of a young man (5C BC), found in a cistern near the Temple of Demeter, which was transferred during the Norman period to the Church of San Biagio. It is thought to represent a young man from Agrigento who won various events at the Olympic games, and thus destined to be subjected to heroic status.
Other archeological finds – Artefacts retrieved from various other sites in the province include sarcophagi, prehistoric remains and the magnificent krater from Gela (Room 15), attributed to the painter of the Niobids.
The upper half depicts a centauromachia (battle between centaurs and Lapiths) while the lower section shows scenes from battles between the Greeks and the Amazons.
Favara – 12km north-east. A town of Arab origin, Favara reached its apogee under the powerful Chiaramonte family (13C-14G) who oversaw the building of the massive castle. Piazza dei Vespri is dominated by the imposing facade of the 18C Chiesa Madre, its tall dome resting gently on a ring of arches.
Racalmuto – 22km north-east. Fame for this little town comes from its status as the birthplace of Leonardo Sciascia, the 20C Sicilian writer and astute commentator who spent much of his life here. He is buried in the small cemetery. In the centre of the town are the remains of the Chiaramonte castle, marked by two large towers.