Michelin map 432 0 27
A renowned port and Sicily’s second largest city, after Palermo, with its 350,000 inhabitants, Catania is among Italian hottest cities with a summer temperature that can exceed 40° degrees. It was home to such great artists as the composer Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835) and the writer Giovanni Verga (1840-1922). A great, very longed-for celebration takes place every year from 3 to 5 February in honor of Saint Agatha, when a huge crowd of believers process through the city’s historical centre celebrating their beloved Patron Saint. The event draws thousands of visitors from all Sicily and beyond.
TOURISM – Catania is overshadowed by the Etna Mount, the volcano that often has betrayed the trust of the local people, sending forth great flows of lava, on one occasion down into the town itself. Reminders of its presence is the dark color of most monuments and buildings in town. Some of them is of plaster painted to look as lava. Black and white are the two dominating colors of the city that combine to produce a magnificent effect. The 17th century was particularly catastrophic for Catania. First (1669), following Etna’s eruption, a devastating lava river flowed into the city; few decades later (1693), an earthquake razed it to the ground. It followed a sumptuous reconstruction, the main protagonist being the architect Giovanni Battista Vaccarini (1702-1768) who designed the most prestigious buildings. The baroque covered nearly every ruined specimen of the past ages, that is hidden, with the exception of few remnants – below the new buildings and the city heart.
PIAZZA DEL DUOMO – It is the very heart of the city, designed by celebrated architect Vaccarini, surrounded by magnificent Baroque buildings which impart it a great elegance. At its centre rises the Fontana dell’Elefante (Fountain of the Elephant) which is the symbol of the town. On the South side is the fine 1800’s Amenano Fountain, partly offset by the Chierici and Pardo palaces. The Cathedral façade, flanked by the Bishop’s Palace and the Porta Uzeda, dominates the square. On the left, slightly set back, is the lovely Badia di S. Agata. On the North side stands the elegant Palazzo Senatorio or degli Elefanti, now Town Hall.
Fontana dell’Elefante – Conceived in 1735, it recalls Bellini’s famous obelisk in Piazza Minerva, Rome. The black lava elephant, perhaps of Byzantine epoch, graces the square since the 1500’s; it stands on a stone platform and bears on its back an ancient Egyptian obelisk covered with hieroglyphics that celebrate the cult of Isis.
The Duomo – Dedicated to S. Agata, Catania’s patron saint, the Duomo was erected in the late 11th century at Roger I’s behest, rebuilt after the 1693’s earthquake. Its façade stands among Vaccarini’s masterpieces. Along via Vittorio Emanuele II, by the courtyard of the Bishop’s Palace, one can admire the tall lava apses, of Norman age. The cathedral’s solid-looking structure suggests that it was conceived as a fortified church. On the North side is a fine portal ornamented with an entablature with cherubs.
Duomo Interior – From the North entrance. Restoration works of the floor have revealed column bases from the original Norman structure. Against the second pilaster, on the right side, in the central nave, is the funerary stele of Bellini, who died in Puteaux, France, for long his residence, and where he was formerly buried. Renaissance archs give access to the two chapels in the transept. The one on the right, dedicated to the Virgin, contains the sarcophagus of Costanza, wife of Frederick III of Aragon, died in 1363. The Southern chapel, dating from the Renaissance, is dedicated to St. Agatha. A richly decorated Spanish doorway leads through the reliquary and the treasury (on the left). Opposite to it is the fine funerary monument of Viceking Ferdinando de Acua, the figure depicted on his knees (dated 1495). The carved stalls in the choir illustrate scenes of the life from St. Agatha. In the sacristy there is a large, albeit damaged, fresco, depicting the city before the 1669 eruption, with the Etna volcano in the background and the spewing lava about to invade the city. The remains of the Terme Achilliane reside beneath the church (normally accessible through a trapdoor before the building, but temporarily closed).
Badia di S. Agata – Located beside the Duomo, it contributes to the overall splendor of the square. The serpentine lines of the façade are contained by a cornice that emphasizes the ground level, with at its centre a triangular pediment. This is another work of art by Vaccarini.
Fontana dell’Amenano – Named after the river that supplies it on its way past some of the principal monuments of the Roman age (notably the Theatre and the Terme della Rotonda). Behind it is the Piazza Alonzo di Benedetto, where a picturesque and bustling fish market takes place daily. The gate used to be part of the 1500’s fortification, its main frontage still visible from Pendo square. Back in Piazza Benedetto, by Palazzo Chierici, stands the Fontana dei Sette Canali.
The surrounding quarter – a number of important buildings is nestled along the eastern stretch of Via Vittorio Emanuele running alongside the Cathedral down to the sea. In a small square on the right, rises the Church of S. Placido, with a gently undulating façade by Stefano Ittar, dated 1769. Opposite the right side of the church (on Via Museo Biscari) sits a former convent that has conserved very few of its original structure. In the courtyard (access from Via Landolina) lie the remains of Palazzo Platamone (15th century) consisting of a decorative balcony.
Palazzo Biscari – It is likely the most beautiful secular building in Catania. It was erected after the earthquake in 1693, and was at its height some sixty years later when Ignazio Biscari – a man with an abiding passion for art, literature and archaeology, promoter of many of the excavations at the area – pushed for a museum of archaeology to be set up within it. The South wing of the palace shows a rich decoration of figures and volutes, cherubs and racemes, that fill the window frames along the long terrace relieving the sombreness of the dark façade. The entrance of the palace, on via Museo Biscari, consists of a rich portal that leads into a courtyard with a fine stairway. On the first floor are the main reception rooms. In the back is a splendid Salon with frescoes by Sebastiano Lo Monaco and enriched with stuccoes, gilded mouldings and mirrors. The centre of the ceiling opens out into an oval dome with gallery, behind which musicians once played, conceived as if the music would descend from the heaven. The fresco portrays the Triumph of the Family celebrated by the council of the Gods. A lovely spiral staircase situated in the gallery next to the hall provides access to the little platform. From the gallery the south terrace of the building can be admired.
THE WESTERN DISTRICT – It stretches along Via Vittorio Emanuele II that, together with the commercial Via Etnea, represents the very heart of the city. Beginning with Piazza S. Francesco, where is a monumental church dedicated to the Saint, it turns down to the beautiful Via Crociferi.
Via Crociferi – It is regarded as Catania’s baroque street par excellence. A number of buildings, particularly in its first section, give the place a magnificent effect. It can be accessed through the gateway Arch of S. Benedetto, flanked by the Badia Grande and the Badia Piccola. On the left are the churches of S. Benedetto and S. Francesco Borgia aligned. A narrow street runs between the two with at its end Palazzo Asmundo. Further along Via Crociferi you meet the building complex of the Jesuites, now accomodating the Institute of Art. The first courtyard, attributed to Vaccarini, has a nice two-tiered portico. On the right rises the elegant curvilinear façade of S. Giuliano, likely designed by Vaccarini. The street terminates at the gate of Villa Cerami, seat of the Faculty of Law.
Museo Belliniano – The birth-home of Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835) houses a museum displaying relevant documents and object, portraits, a harpsichord and a spinette belonged to his grandfather. The last room gathers some autographed scores.
Museo Emilio Greco – It collects the complete graphic output of this Catanian artist especially renowned as a sculptor (1913-1995). The subjects of his works, mostly female heads and nudes, attest to his predilection for the graceful lines and elegant forms derived from his study of the Hellenistic art.
Teatro Antico – Entrance at 266 of Via Vittorio Emanuele II. The current layout of the theatre goes back to the Roman Age. But it is possible that it was built on a older Greek site whose existence is only told in literature (Speech of Alcibiade addressing the people of Catania during the Peloponnese War). It was made of lava stone, while seats were of white limestone or marble (for important people), and had a capacity of up to 7000 spectators. In the Norman time, the theatre was largely despoiled of its marble that was re-used to build the Cathedral. Next to the theatre stands the Odeon, which is later in date. It served as a more intimate context for musical shows. Some galleries of unknown use are situated behind the cavea. On request, the theatre custodians can lead you to the Terme della Rotonda (on Via della Rotonda) – a thermal complex retaining very little of its original structure, that is a circular domed chamber later turned into a Christian church – or to the Terme dell’Indirizzo (in Piazza Currò) – a second thermal complex comprised of some ten doomed chambers.
Giovanni Verga’s house – (See http://www.sicilyweb.com/musei/ct-cngv.htm)
Via S. Anna, 8. Here writer Giovanni Verga (1840-1922) spent many years of his life. The house is preserved much as he left it; some furniture has been added from his home in Milan (notably to the last rooms). His study offers the opportunity of browsing through his literary preferences, among which are Capuana, D’Annunzio and Deledda.
VIA ETNEA – It is a straight 3km long thoroughfare running North-South, through Piazza Duomo, Piazza dell’Università, Piazza Stesicoro and the Villa Bellini – the city’s public gardens – bordered on each side by Catania’s best shops and boutiques.
Piazza dell'Università – It is a square room surrounded by elegant palazzi. On the right stands Palazzo Sangiuliano, one of Vaccarini’s works; on the left is the University, arranged around a lovely courtyard surrounded by a portico with loggia above. The square is illuminated at night by four fine lamps (dated 1957) by a sculptor from Catania. Further down rises the lovely concave façade of the Collegiata (Church of S. Maria della Consolazione) designed by Stefano Ittar in the 18th century. Few distant is the Palazzo San Demetrio (17th-18th century), with elegant portal and corbels. The 1700’s Church of S. Michele Arcangelo contains, past the entrance, a double marble staircase on top of which are two fine baroque stoups.
Piazza Stesicoro – At the centre of the square lie the remains of a grand Roman amphitheatre that could accomodate over 15,000 spectators. Much of the structure unfortunately lies hidden below the square and the surrounding baroque buildings.
S. S. Biagio (S. Agata alla Fornace) – This building dating from the 1700s was built on the foundations of an original chapel dedicated to S. Agatha, who was here martyred. Within the church, a chapel (at the far end on the right) preserves the so-called carcara (furnace) where Agatha is believed to have met her death. Other sources claim that she died in prison. According to popular tradition the Church of S. Agata al Carcere, rising behind the square, was built on the site of the jail where she was imprisoned in 251. At the entrance is a fine Romanesque doorway. A wild olive-tree was planted behind the church, on the spot where, still according to legend, a plant had sprouted at the Saint’s stopping, on her way to the prison.
Villa Bellini – It is a large and luxuriant park with a great variety of exotic plants. From the top of the hill, where is a little kiosk, one can enjoy a beautiful view of the city and out towards the Etna volcano.
The Orto Botanico – Entrance in via Longo. The botanical garden, founded in the 1950s, shows species from across the world. Some remarkable specimens of Dracena Drago and Euforbia Brachiata are also included.
S. Nicolò l’Arena – This grandiose monastery was built by Benedictine Fathers – one of the wealthiest and most powerful orders in the city – between the 16th and 18th century, with an imposing church alongside, its façade unfortunately remained incomplete. Inside the grand church, behind the altar, there is a fine organ case from the 18th century, currently under restoration. In the transept floor is a Meridian, dated 1841, that catches the sunlight 13 minutes past midday (once at midday).
The Monastery – The present building dates back to the 1700s. The impressive doorway on the left gives access to a courtyard from where the east and south wings of the building, designed by Antonino Amato, can be admired. The opulent decoration recalls that of the contemporary Palazzo Biscari (see above). The monastery now houses the Faculty of Literature and retains of its original structure a nice oval-shaped refectory, now main lecture-hall.
S. S. Maria del Gesù – Built in 1465, it was later extensively refurbished. The lovely Paternò Chapel complete with Renaissance archway is the only remain of its original structure. It contains works by praised Antonello Gagini.
Castello Ursino – It is an austere and solid-looking structure built on the sea-front by Frederick II of Swabia, now not so close to the sea because of the lava flow that invaded the city in 1669 pushing the water offshore. The castle derives its name from the Roman consul Arsinius or possibly from the Orsinis, a Roman family who refuged here in the Middle Ages after being banished from Rome for siding with the Ghibelline sympathisers (who supported the emperor against the church). The castle is square in plan, with a large round tower at each corner and two additional towers half-way along two sides.
Pinacoteca – The art-gallery has a collection of paintings by artists from the South-Italy ranging in date from the 15th to the 19th century. Among these are a polyptych of the Virgin Enthroned with St. Anthony and St. Francis by Antonello de Saliba (15th century), a pupil of Antonello da Messina; works by Pietro Novelli, Guzzone, Lorenzo Loiacono and local artists Michele Rapisardi (1800’s) and Giuseppe Sciuti.
Teatro Bellini – The city’s Opera House is dedicated to Catania’s most illustrious musician. His Norma inaugurated the theatre in 1890. The acoustics of its beautiful auditorium is considered to be among the best in the world.
Palazzo Manganelli – It is a richly decorated palazzo where scenes of the celebrated Leopard by Luchino Visconti – drawn from omonymous novel by Tomasi di Lampedusa – were filmed.