“Modica. Noble, opulent and populated city, seat of the ancient and vast County”.
This 18th century description by historian and clergyman Vito Amore elegantly summarizes the political, economical and cultural importance of this city whose history is rooted in remote ages and events. Historical sources maintain that a town called Motyca, hereabouts, was inhabited by prehistoric peoples, called Sikels, around the 7th century BC., at the time of the Greek Colonization of Sicily; the historian Mario Carrafa, in the 18th century, told of Greek coins discovered the area, bearing the inscription Motayon. Traces of a Roman settlement are clearer, it being perhaps a Roman Città Decumana (that is, liable for tax). Clearer signs were left by the Arabs who conquered a Castle in Mudiqah in 845. The city yet changed its name to Motica, Motuca and Mohac. The Normans, led by Roger of Hauteville, who had driven Arabians from Sicily, took it in the 11th century. He, lately known as The Norman and devoted to St. George, established the cult of this Saint who is now Modica’s patron saint.
Modica became the centre of an important county. Gualtieri, one of Ruggero’s lieutenants, was the first Count. It enjoyed its greatest prosperity under the Spanish Aragon (13th and 14th century), and was successively governed by the Mosca, Chiaramonte and Cabrera dynasties, representatives of a local power – so typical of the feudal period – that for authority, richness and magnificence, was not inferior to the king himself.
Under the successive Henriquez, Alvarez and Fits-Stuart dynasties, the County declined, and the title of Count reduced to a formal meaning since it had lost any of its old privileges. On the whole, the county totalled seven centuries of history, almost entirely under the Spanish rule, that so much have contributed to Sicilian culture – visible in its languages, foods and architecture.
Today, Modica is depicted in several different ways: it is the “one-hundred churches town”, after the historian and writer F.L. Belgiorno’s count, that also included the ruins of churches in the city surroundings. It is the birth-place of Salvatore Quasimodo, a 20th century writer and 1959’s Nobel Prize, and of Tommaso Campailla, an 18th century scientist and philosopher. It is the town of the famous bridge, among the tallest in Europe (300m), overlooking the whole City and joining the new and the old Modicas. It is the city of the Castle, whose remnants consist of a 18th century tower and a more recent clock, both symbolically representing it. It is the town of the Baroque and of the County, both testifying to its glorious past. Finally, it is a city of disasters: natural, as were earthquakes in 1613 and 1693 and floods in 1833 and 1902; and human, as appear certain ugly modern buildings in its beautiful historical centre – a feature that, alas, recurs in most of the historical Sicilian cities.
Modica has much evolved throughout the centuries and had to cope with many difficulties, notably of economic nature. Nevertheless, of late, it has regained some of its ancient splendor also thanks to the policy of its last administrators – somehow focused at preserving the city’s heritage.
Modica is one of the most lovely cities in all Sicily. It grew up in the southern reach of the Iblean mountains and was originally divided into two areas: Modica Alta (Upper Modica), whose picturesque stone houses nestle on the slopes of a mount, and Modica Bassa (Lower Modica), lying down in the valley once flown by the rivers Ianni Mauro and Pozzo dei Pruni – covered at the beginning of the century because of frequent floods – where now runs the Corso Umberto, the city’s main thoroughfare and historic centre of the town. Over the years the town has extended its territory to new areas, namely Modica Sorda, Monserrato, Idria, etc., now considered as the “new” Modica.
The town heart baroque look mainly resulted from the 18th century post-quake reconstruction, the disaster having completely razed the old city.
The few surviving remnants include: the gothic portal of the Chiesa del Carmine; ruins of the 16th century Chiesa di S. Maria del Gesù; the 15th century Chapel of the Sacrament within the Chiesa di Santa Maria di Betlemme; the recently discovered 12th century cave-church of San Nicolò Inferiore (St. Nicholas), in a late-Byzantine style, preserving decorations ranging in date from the 8th through the 16th century.
What makes Modica so unique and charming are undoubtely its baroque look that dominates the old town centre, but also the maze of narrow streets bordered by old shops, houses and buildings, that characterize both Modica Alta and Modica Bassa. A tour of the churches and palazzi of the city is highly recommended.
The stately Cathedral of San Giorgio is one of the most important and impressing religious monuments in all Sicily. Its origin is partly unknown. According to historian Carrafa, the original structure of the church dated from the early Middle ages and was destroyed by the Arabians in 845; in the beginning of the 12th century it was rebuilt and dedicated to Saint George by Roger The Norman. Highly damaged by the 1613’s earthquake, it was rebuilt at the behest of Count Giovanni Alfonso Henriquez-Cabrera. Another, more devastating earthquake in 1693, razed it to the ground; the reconstruction, sumptuous like never before, it is alleged, was entrusted to celebrated architect Rosario Gagliardi, from Siracusa, already author of the San Giorgio’s in Ragusa. Some claim it resulted from a collaboration of architects from Noto.
The church, with nave and double aisles, was re-opened in 1738; the magnificent flight of 250 steps, that starts down from Corso Garibaldi, pays homage to the stately front elevation; it was finished in 1818 by Jesuit Francesco di Mauro. The façade rises through three levels to a single bell-tower; a sense of sweeping movement is imparted by the projecting convex central bay, flanked to each side by twin bays that accommodate the double aisles. A balustrade and a pair of compact volutes act to soften the strong horizontal transition between the ground and first levels. Inside, it contains a highly prized chased silver altar front upon which sits a fine polyptych (1513) by Bernardino Niger. The three tiers show the Holy Family between St George and St Martin, with, above the Joyful Mysteries and the Glorious - Mysteries. The transept floor is inlaid with a 19C meridian by A Perini. The third chapel on the right contains an Assumption altarpiece by Francesco Paladini. The aisles are richly ornamented with stuccoes and paintings, such as the 1513’s Events of the Gospel and of the life of Saint George, by Girolamo Aliprandi, who was known as the “Raphael of Sicily”.
The Chiesa del Carmine, near Piazza Corrado Rizzone, was a convent of Carmelitani friars. Both the church and the convent date back to the 16th century, when the religious order first came to Sicily. The church was highly injured by the 1693’s earthquake and retains of its original structure a splendid doorway and a sumptuous rose-window. The inside, with a nave, has altars on both sides, one of which holds the Annunciation, a precious sculptural group, dating from the 16th century, by Antonio Gagini. The main altar contains notable relief stuccoes.
The Church of St. Mary of Betlehem, in Modica Bassa, along the main Corso, by Prince of Piedmont’s Square, originates from a 15th century highly damaged construction, of which a portal in the right aisle has only survived. Inside is a finely decorated truss roof. At the back of the right aisle is the Chapel of the Sacrament, with an octagonal cupola decorated with Arabesque pendentives in gothic style and enriched with Arabian, Norman and Catalan elements. The church preserves the tombs of noble Cabreras. The left aisle contains a beautiful terracotta Christmas Crib, made by Father Benedetto Papale in 1882.
On the main street also stands the Chiesa di San Pietro, dedicated to the patron saint of Modica Bassa; erected in the 14th century, it was but rebuilt after the 1693’s earthquake. It has an elegant flight of steps which is flanked by statues of the twelve apostles. The basilica has fourteen pilasters bearing Corinthian capitals. The nave is decorated with Scenes from the Old Testament; two important works adorn the right aisle: La Madonna di Trapani, attributed to Giovanni Pisano, and a polichrome work depicting Saint Peter and the Paralytic, by Paolo Civiletti (1893).
The 18th century convent of the Mercedari friars is an elegant building housing two museums: the Town Museum, displaying archaeological finds from the Paleolithic and ancient Christian Ages, and 18th and 19th century paintings; and the Iblean Museum of Popular Arts and Traditions, holding a rich display of agricultural tools and antique furniture, and some faithfully reproduced shops providing a picturesque picture of the old activities and lifestyle.
The Chiesa di S. Maria delle Grazie, adjacent to a convent, was built thanks to the recovery, in 1615, of a slate tablet bearing the image of Mary and Child. This tablet is today kept into the main altar of the church.
The upper side of the town, Modica Alta, also accommodates attractive churches and buildings; the Palazzo Tomasi-Rossi, has an impressive stone portal and beautiful balconies at the top floor supported by corbels with masks – suggestive of the Baroque style.
The Cathedral of San Giovanni, with its impressive belfry, 449 m in height, rises at the top of a beautiful flight of steps. The façade is on two tiers and is enriched with two couples of columns.
The Palazzo De Leva, in Modica Bassa, is one of the most stately buildings in Modica. It accommodates a public office and temporary art exhibitions. It is especially renowned for its amazing 18th portal, the in Arab-Norman style, which is here commonly referred to as Chiaramonte style. The Palazzo Polara stands right of the Cathedral of San Giorgio. It is a splendid building in the baroque style with an elegant flight of steps. Its front elevation dominates Modica Bassa and its overhanging hills. It accommodates a lovely art-gallery.
Modica has a mainly agricultural economy, with major outputs of olive, carob, legume, flour and all kinds of cereals. The cattle-breeding is by far the most important activity, the Modica cattle being well-known for the excellent quality of its meat and milk. A quantity of cattle factories is spread all across the territory. Especially during the last decade, the commerce has seen a remarkable growth, thanks to the development of a flourishing commercial zone gathering factories and businesses of different kinds: textile, house furniture, household appliances, cars, foods, etc. Tourism has played a major role in the last years, the town, at last, taking advantage of its cultural and naturalistic riches. The construction of accomodation and recreational facilities has also contributed to boost the tourist influx.