Bordered by the Channel of Sicily to the south and by the provinces of Caltanissetta, Catania and Siracusa from west to east, the province of Ragusa has a mainly mountainous territory which is almost entirely covered by the Iblean Mountains; this is why is often referred to as the Iblean area; the highest peak, the Lauro Mount, rises up to 986 meters. A flat area, being the main agricultural resource, stretches in the northern reaches of the province: it is the valley of the Ippari river, where the cities of Acate, Vittoria and Comiso have grown.
The Iblean landscape is rather dry and rocky, the grounds being richest in limestone. Nonetheless, especially during the spring, it is able to offer the amazing colors of a wild and harsh beauty. The countryside is often crossed by gorges resulting from the rivers’ erosion throughout the centuries.
The construction of dams on the Acate, Mazzarrone and Irminio rivers have resulted in precious reserves of water, in an effort to solve what has been a deep-rooted problem for the entire island. The province’s vegetation, varying according to the altitude, is largely Mediterranean. Oaks and plane-trees grow especially in the mountainside; while the oleander, the fig-tree, the acanthus, the caper, reeds and, most of all, the carob-tree can be found in the plain areas. The fauna, not very abundant because of the intense deforestation of the past centuries, is mainly comprised of wild rabbit, weasel and winged animals in the mountain side, rare birds like the pink flamingo, the soon-bill and the osprey in the marshy areas (notably near the dams), and several species of sea-gulls on the coast.
The Mediterranean climate is characterized by cold winters and hot and dry summers in the mountainous and inland areas; while the coast is milder and more humid.
Despite its not very propitious climate and grounds, the province of Ragusa is primarily an agricultural area. The hard work of generations of peasants and farmers, intense works of deforestation and reclamation over the centuries have resulted in a modern agriculture with high output and income levels. The technological development of the last years has been also fundamental to the economy.
The Valley of the Ippari river is a major agricultural area, important for the output of early fruit, vegetables, citrus fruit and flowers, and for the presence of the agricultural market of Vittoria, a precious support for the trade and marketing of the products. The hothouse cultivation, mostly located on the coast, is also worth-mentioning.
The industry, that in Sicily has only recently developed in comparison with the rest of Italy, has been played an increasingly important role, and represents today a considerable source of income and employement. The main industrial activities are those involved in processing and marketing the agricultural products. Thus, a great number of oil and flour mills, cheese, confectionery and wine factories are spread across the entire territory. The building (notably stone, asphalt, and black-stone factories), and the mining industry (oil is extracted in the area of Marina di Ragusa), have been growing rapidly.
The tourism is as much important today, at last able to take advantage of the range of archaeological, artistic and naturalistic riches of the province. Notably, the last decade has seen an outstanding growth, with the construction of new tourism facilities.
The historical roots of the province of Ragusa are entwined with those of Sicily. The Sicans and the Sikels (18th-8th century BC) are considered to be the earliest inhabitants of the island; the Phoenicians and the Greeks were the earliest colonizers in the 8th century BC; then came the Romans (3rd century BC) who made Sicily a Province of the Empire; the Byzantines and the Barbarians (Goths, Visigoths and Vandals) ruled between the 4th and 8th century AD; the Arabians (8th-10th centuries), like the Greeks, are remembered for having fostered the economical and cultural growth of the Island; under the Normans (11th-13th century) the Island likely achieved its highest economic prosperity; finally there were the French Angevins (13th century) who would be driven by a general revolt broken out in 1282, known as the The Sicilian Vespers.
Sicily became a Province of the Spanish Kingdom of Aragon, under King Peter III, who soon fostered a policy of administrative autonomy. So came the two Counties of Modica and Ragusa, that would join into one after Isabella Mosca’s (heir to the county of Modica) marriage to Manfredi Chiaramonte (heir to Ragusa’s).
The Chiaramontes, descendants of Charlemagne, ruled for over a century of economic and political prosperity, gaining, through marriages of convenience and political intrigues, an outstanding position in the Sicilian society. The County remarkably expanded its dominions, that soon included Cefalù, the territory of the Marca Anconitana and the estates of Caccamo and Gulfi. The count and his close relatives were granted important titles and privileges, like that of Captain Executioner of Palermo, General Vicar, Grand Seneschal (Manfred I), Lord of Nicosia (Giacomo), Vicar (Manfred III) – who was entrusted to rule one of the four administrative areas (Vicariates) of Sicily at the time of King Frederick. In 1392, Giacomo, the last of the Chiaramontes, was arrested and sentenced to death for leading a coalition against the king.
So ended the cycle of this dynasty who in a few decades had become one of the wealthiest and mightiest of all Sicily, a specimen of that local power that in the feudal age even surpassed the King himself’s.
There came the rise of a new dynasty, the Cabrera (or Caprera), whose most distinguished member was Bernardo, who took possession of all the Chiaramonte properties and brought about a period of serious disorders within the County most fostered by Chiaramonte’s loyal followers. Attempts at revolt were soon repressed through killings, tortures and imprisonments, allowing Bernardo Cabrera to rule and extend the County to an area as large as the current province of Ragusa. He, a devoted vassal of King of Sicily Martin I of Aragon, was proclaimed Captain of the Army. Following Martin I’s, and his successor Martin II’s (1411) death, Bernardo’s attempt to interfere with the role of Bianca of Navarra, Vicar of Sicily and Martin II’s daughter-in-law, resulted in a dispute lasted several years that led up to the designation of Ferdinand I as King of Sicily. Hit by plague, Bernardo died that very year (1411), and buried in the Cathedral of St. George in Ragusa (migrated to the new one following 1693’s earthquake).
A period of repeated insurrections followed, people still displeased with Cabrera’s policy. In 1447, in Ragusa, a revolt would result in the fire of the County’s Archive and the murder of Giovanni Bernardo Cabrera, the newly proclaimed Count, who, in king’s honor, had conquered Naples few years before (1442). Because of the disorders the County’s Chancellery was transferred from Ragusa to Modica, that thus became the main city in the County.
Giovanni II (1466) and then Giannotto (1474) succeeded Giovanni Bernardo. A tragic event took place in 1474, when an accident in the Jewish quarter of Modica, known as Cartellone, spread out as a chase after the jew across all Sicily; the event is still sadly reminded as the Massacre of the Jews. In 1480, Anna Cabrera, Giannotto’s sister, married Federico Henriquez, a descendant of the royal family of Aragon. A new cycle was to begin for the County: that of the Henriquez dynasty, during which the County was handed down from father to son till 1702, when Giovan Tommaso Henriquez was executed for rebelling against the kingdom, by having supported a coalition led by Charles of Austria.
On the whole, both under the Henriquez and the late members of the Cabrera family the County lost much of the importance and prestige achieved at the time of the Chiaramontes. Repeated insurrections and rebellions would characterize the following years, attesting to the subjects’ displeasure at the new dynasty’s policy. Only worth-mentioning was the foundation of the city of Vittoria around 1600, in Vittoria Colonna’s – Luigi Henriquez’s wife – honor. A new tragic event was recorded in 1693. A terrible earthquake hit the Eastern Sicily, razing to the ground entire towns, among which were Catania, Lentini, Noto, Scicli, Ragusa and Chiaramonte. Others like Modica, Spaccaforno, Niscemi, Vittoria, suffered heavy damages. Effects were catastrophic: over 60,000 dead; tens of thousands among houses, buildings, monuments, works of art and precious specimens of the past ages were irreparably lost. A sumptuous reconstruction followed, notably in the fifty years following the earthquake, meant, on the one side, to celebrate the magnificence and the power of local elites – Aristocracy and Clergy – who economically supported it, and, on the other, to show the pride and superiority of human over nature.
Giovan Tommaso’s execution put an end to the autonomy of the County, whose title would, ever since, consisted of a mere formal meaning. Under the successive Alvarez and Fits-Stuarts dynasties the County was directly governed by the Kingdom, whose fate it would share till nowadays.
In 1713, Sicily passed to the Kingdom of Savoy, who ceded it few years later to the Austrian Hapsburgs. In 1734, it was conquered by Bourbon’s Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, comprising most of the Southern Italy. In 1861, the year of the independence from Spain, it was assimilated into the Kingdom of Italy. Till 1926, when Ragusa was proclaimed a province, the territory of the former-County fell within the administrative control of Siracusa.