Founded in the Byzantine age when it acquired its eastern sounding name (possibly a corruption of “Città di San Nicolò”), the little town clusters around the castle (now reduced to ruins) that once dominated the highest crag. Nicosia shares the same fate as the rest of Sicily, having been occupied by the Norman, Swabian, Aragonese, Castillian and then Bourbon. A long rivalry has faced, most in the past centuries, the upper and lower parts of the town, with each faction clinging fiercely to their respective church (San Nicolò and Santa Maria); the predicament, also facing other towns in Sicily (Ragusa and Modica being two examples), here assumed an unusual level of determination and aggression with even scuffles broken out in the street, during religious processions. A gate was finally set up to mark the official division of the town into two. Even as recently as 1957, two Crucifixes were borne through the town in separate processions celebrating Good Friday.
The historical centre is formed by a network of cobbled streets which narrow and then widen, go up and down with the lie of the land in a typically medieval way, sometimes revealing cave-houses (now often converted into stores or garages) – now a mere reminder of the troglodyte cave-dwellings that were widespread in former times, particularly in south-eastern Sicily. The town contains a number of interesting buildings and monuments, especially churches and palazzi, albeit most closed due to staff-shortages or restoration works.
Piazza Garibaldi – The piazza at the heart of the little town, becomes especially atmospheric in the evening when it is suffused with artificial light. It is lined with distinguished-looking buildings, including San Nicolò and the 1800’s Palazzo di Città which encloses an elegant internal courtyard ornamented with a fine wrought-iron lamp.
Cattedrale di S. Nicolò – The cathedral was originally built in the Gothic style (conceived in 1340 as an extension to a chapel), but has undergone several changes through the centuries. Evidence of its original splendor, however, can be found in the elegant main doorway decorated with flowers, acanthus leaves and palmettes, and the bell-tower which, although much altered, retains enough on its second level to suggest the impact of two and three arched openings enclosed within elaborate ogive arches. The left flank of the cathedral overlooking Piazza Garibaldi has an entrance ornamented with pointed arches, also from the Gothic period. Further up towards the apsed east end, carved into the external walls are a set of sample weights and measures. The interior results from many alterations undertaken; not least the ceiling completed in the 19th century and crowned, in the dome, by an unusual statue of St. Nicholas “suspended” from on high. This 1600’s figure is by Giovan Battista Li Volsi, who, with his son Stefano, also built the choirstalls out of walnut (1622), and finely decorated it with flowers and putti. The first stalls harbour four scenes depicting Christ entering Jerusalem (first on the left) and, opposite, the Coronation of the Virgin (note, in the lower section, a representation of Nicosia before the landslide of 1757 which seriously affected the higher part of the town), while the Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew (second on the left) has as its pennant the Miracle of St. Nicholas.
The roof of the church, however, holds a secret: above the vault spans another earlier trussed and painted wooden ceiling from the 14th-15th century; sadly this is no longer accessible to the public, although a virtual recreation has been instigated at the Centro Civico in Palazzo Nicosia (opposite the Town Hall). Attached to the inside wall of the main façade is an organ by Raffaele della Valle installed in a wooden loft by Stefano Li Volsi. The church preserves examples of Gagini workmanship (baptismal font and pulpit), a sculptural arrangement of Christ in Glory between the Virgin and John the Baptist, attributed to Antonello Gagini (second chapel on the left), while the chapter house is hung with three fine 1600’s paintings, such as “Madonna and Child between John the Baptist and Santa Rosalia” by Pietro Novelli, a St. Bartholomew by Giuseppe de Ribera, known as the “Spagnoletto”, in which the flayer and other onlookers are animated by intense realism, and a Martyrdom of St. Sebastian by Salvator Rosa.
Find, then turn up Salita Salomone between buildings from a more splendid age; continue along Via Ansaldi to Chiesa di San Vincenzo Ferreri which is frescoed by Guglielmo Borremans, and then on to Santa Maria Maggiore, strategically situated with glorious views of the hills and the lower part of the town.
S. Maria Maggiore – In 1757, a landslide swept away the upper part of the town including Santa Maria Maggiore. Very soon after, work was initiated on a replacement church, slightly taller than its predecessor while all the local residents set to work in order to meet the cost. The noble La Via family gave a lovely 1600’s doorway from their palazzo, that now adorns the main front. Inside, the eye is immediately caught by the Cona, a large marble composition in six tiers illustrating scenes from the life of the Virgin, crowned with a figure of St. Michael, a work by Antonello Gagini and his pupils. At the end of the south aisle is the throne of Charles V, so called since the Emperor used it when he passed through the town in 1535.
Atop the steep rocks behind the church stood the castle, now reduced to a mere ruin. This is accessible by car along Via San Simone, a road leading uphill from just outside.
Castle – Little remains of the castle other than a pointed entrance archway, in a bastion, and the paltry vestiges of a tower. From here, a wonderful view extends over the town and the mountains all around.
Returning towards Piazza Garibaldi, take Via Fratelli Testa. On a rise off to the right sits the Chiesa del Santissimo Salvatore.
SS. Salvatore – The church, graced by a portico, stands on a rise enjoying a fine view over the town.
Continue along Via Fratelli Testa, then Via GB Li Volsi; at the intersection with Via Umberto I, turn left uphill.
Chiesa dei Cappuccini – Inside nestles a fine 18th century wooden tabernacle attributed to Bencivinni and a prized series of paintings by the so-called “Zoppo di Gangi” (the lame man of Gangi) Gaspare Bazzano, depicting the Madonna of the Angels, St. Barbara and St. Lucy.