Piazza Armerina is rather overshadowed by the fabulous Roman villa of Casale, yet its attractive historic centre, clustered around a Baroque cathedral, is worthy of interest in its own right.
The town comes to life on 13 and 14 August when the townsfolk don medieval garb in order to re-enact the arrival of the Gran Conte Ruggero d’Altavilla and his troops.
The palio and its legend – It all stems from locals’ admiration for Great Count Roger; In those days, the town was held by the Saracens, the infidels, so the Norman advance in Sicily was considered as a kind of holy war. Very soon, the inhabitants of Piazza rose in revolt acclaiming Roger Guiscard de Hauteville (known in Italy as Ruggero d’Altavilla) as their leader. On arrival, the paid mercenary/condottiere gave the town a banner which earned great admiration from the faithful. This would be furled and put away until the mid-1300’s, when it was recovered and borne with great ceremony to the town church. As if by a miracle, a plague which was then decimating the town, suddenly died out and the banner became a cult object. According to tradition, the standard in question is the one bearing the Madonna delle Vittorie now in the cathedral.
The little town is visible from a good distance away, with, at its centre, the Duomo dominating the highest point (721m). Around the great church grew up the old town threaded by a jumble of narrow medieval streets, lined by fine Renaissance and Baroque town houses.
Duomo – The monumental Baroque building, crowned with a great dome, towers over its own piazza, an open space which is also overlooked by the Baroque Palazzo Trigona.
The current church was built on the 15th century foundations of another church, from which a bell-tower survives down the right side, with Catalan-Gothic windows on the two lower levels and Renaissance equivalents above. The front elevation comprises a broad façade ornamented with pilasters and engaged columns; a sandstone string-course articulates the horizontal planes balancing the important emphasis given to the elegant central doorway. This is framed by spiral columns, surmounted by a single wide, square window, with the eagle above, the heraldic emblem of the Trigona family who originally commissioned the church. A number of notable works of art is preserved inside. On the right, the baptismal font stands through a Gagini-style Renaissance archway. Above the main altar, at the far end of the nave, sits the Madonna delle Vittorie, the Byzantine image which is popularly linked to the banner given by Pope Nicholas II to his legate Roger I at the council of Melfi, which was the capital of the Norman Kingdom of Puglia. The little chapel to the left of the chancel is a fine painted wooden cross from 1455, with the Resurrection depicted on the back. Overlooking the nave there are two gilded wooden organ cases: one ornamented with a medallion enclosing the Trinacria, the ancient symbol of Sicily (on the left), the other bearing Count Roger on horseback (on the right).
A walk through the streets – In Via Cavour, behind the Duomo, stands a 17th century Franciscan complex (now a hospital); its sandstone and brick church is marked by a bell-tower with a conical spire covered in maiolica tiles. The south face of the convent buildings is graced with an elegant balcony supported by Baroque brackets.
Continue on down the street to Slargo Santa Rosalia and Palazzo Canicarao, which now comprise commercial offices (Azienda di Promozione Turistica). The main buildings enclosing Piazza Garibaldi include the Chiesa di Fundrò, dedicated to St. Roch, and the 1700’s Palazzo di Città. Turn down Via Vittorio Emanuele which opens out before two church fronts face to face: Chiesa di Sant’Ignazio di Loyola is preceded by a staircase that divides into two above the first flight; the Chiesa di Sant’Anna with a noticeably convex façade. Above, towers the solid, square profile of the Aragonese castle (1392-96m). From here, return to Piazza Duomo so as to take Via Monte down to the Chiesa di San Martino di Tours, which was founded in 1163.
ON THE OUTSKIRTS
On the western side of town, at the far end of Via Sant’Andrea, stands a 12th century hermitage, called the Eremo di Sant’Andrea, and, a little furhter on, the precincts of Santa Maria del Gesù (1600’s), now sadly abandoned but which preserves nonetheless its fine portico with a loggia above.