Ragusa (258km from Ragusa; 68000 inhabitants; 502m a. s. l.; zip code 97100; area code 0932) is the province’s capital city, interesting for both its artistical and historical heritage. Set on a wide limestone hill between two deep valleys (the Cava San Leonardo and the Cava Santa Domenica), it is divided into two distinct areas: Ragusa Ibla (the lower side) and Ragusa (the upper side), separated by the so-called valle dei ponti (valley of the bridges), a deep valley that is crossed by four successive bridges, among which that known as dei cappuccini (of the Capuchins), dating from the 18th century, is especially renowned. Its diverse architectonic features are evidence for an intense seismic activity in past times. After the 1693’s earthquake the residents settled on the site known as Ibla, that, today, with its medieval layout and lovely baroque architecture, is a most attractive historical centre and a major goal of tourists. The new quarters developed on a more modern orthogonal grid, with large and versatile streets.
Ragusa Ibla was founded on the site of ancient Sikel town Hybla Herea, of which remains have been found, such as rectangular burial niches in the Gonfalone valley, along the road to Modica. Some of these have been faithfully reconstructed within the Archaeological Museum of Ragusa. Few centuries later, Ragusa was taken by the Greeks who would largely influence all Sicily’s culture. A few necropolises discovered in the surrounding territory (along Cartolillo, Cava Pece, Cucinello and Tabuna districts) is all that remains of that period. Hybla Herea maintained its independence until the Roman invasion in the 3rd century BC, eventually becoming a Province of the Empire. Under the Byzantine rule it changed its name to Hereusium in Reusia. During that period the town, like many in Sicily, was repeatedly raided by the Vandals, the Goths and the Visigoths. A few tombs like that known as Trabacche in the Buttino’s valley have survived of that age. In 848, the city had to surrender to the Arabs and to accept hardest conditions. In 868, after some attempts of rebellion that would be harshly put down, the city changed its name to Rakkusa or Ragus, definitively accepting the foreign rule. Two centuries of Arabian domination would bring about a remarkable growth, the city becoming an outstanding cultural and economic centre, as much as many other Arab dominions of the day.
In the 11th century the Normans conquered Sicily; Geoffrey, Roger I’s son, was proclaimed first Count of the newly born County of Ragusa. The town was definitively named Ragusa, successively ruled by the Swabian and the French Anjous.
A revolt led by Giovanni Prefolio broken out in Ragusa on 5 April 1282, would finally liberate the city. Prefolio was first proclaimed Governor and then Count of Ragusa. Joint to the neighboring County of Modica, Ragusa was successively ruled by the Chiaramontes, the Cabreras and the Henriquez. In April 1695, the old and the new Ragusas were administratively and politically separated because of continuous fights between the elites of the two sides. In 1703, local disputes still persisting, the city was reunified.
Ever since, Ragusa would share the same fate as the rest of Sicily.
The “Treaty of Utrecht”, in 1713, ceded the Island to the Savoy Kingdom, although the County remained a Spanish dominion. Then it passed to the Austrian Hapsburg (1720) and to the Borbone’s Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (1738). Following Garibaldi’s exploit in 1860, and the subsequent Plebiscite, Sicily was assimilated into the Kingdom of Italy. Fights and divisions between the two Ragusas were to continue up to 1926, when the city became the capital of a province of the Italian Kingdom (Italian Republic since 1948).
The presence of oil and hydrocarbons on its territory represent a major resource for Ragusa’s economy. The earliest wells were drilled in 1953. The agriculture, as in all Sicily, is still the main activity, notably the hothouse cultivation and breeding, the latter related to the production of world famous “caciocavallo” cheese, that is still hand-made along with the ricotta and other food specialties in the masseria (farm); honey, notably that of “satra”, which is a bush growing on the plateaus, is also much renowned. Factories for the processing of agricultural products are spread all across the province.
Ragusa’s craft production is as much renowned, notably copper and wrought-iron’s, and embroidery.
The local traditional products are promoted by festivals and events able to draw people from Sicily and beyond. Among the religious festivals a special mention goes to San Giorgio’s celebration. On this occasion the church is all illuminated and decorated with flowers as the statue of the Saint on horseback – which is not very heavy – is carried shoulder-high by a group of worshippers throughout Ibla streets. The statue is preceded by a silvered holy ark containing the relics of the Saint.
Tour of the town
The tour of the town starts with the Basilica of San Giorgio, an impressive specimen of Sicilian baroque. The church, erected in 1775 by Rosario Gagliardi, well-known architect from Siracusa, has an elegant façade with three tiers of columns and is flanked by a side-bay surmounted by a volute. The stairway and the volute, though recently constructed, were harmoniously adapted. A beautiful decorated mirror, representing the Martyrdom of San Giorgio, by painter Vito D’Amore, adorns the nave; the sacristy contains a marble ancona, sculptures of the Gagini school, and the precious “treasure” of the Saint.
The Chiesa di San Giuseppe, in Pola’s square, has a façade very similar to San Giorgio’s, hence attributed to Gagliardi. It houses precious stuccoes, paintings and several baroque pieces. Its elliptical front, inside, is adorned with a nice portal, a baroque bell-tower and a beautiful silvered 17th century statue of San Giuseppe.
The Chiesa di Sant’Antonio (formerly Santa Maria La Nuova), on Via Orfanotrofio, is accessed by a nice ogival portal, a remain from the original Gothic construction, and, on the other side, by a baroque portaletto (small portal). The sacristy portal also is a remain of the original structure.
The splendid Villa Comunale (public gardens) is situated at the far end of Ragusa Ibla. Very well-mantained, it offers beautiful sights of the mountain ranges and down over the Irminio valley. The Villa hosts three churches at its inside: San Giorgio il Vecchio, San Giacomo and the Capuchins.
The Chiesa di San Giorgio il Vecchio (Saint George the Elder) has an amazing Gothic-Norman doorway bearing a portray of Saint George killing the dragon and the Aragon’s eagles. The church, dating back to the Chiaramonte’s age, was erected towards the mid-1300s and must have been very important and large, given its sumptuous, albeit damaged, portal and dramatic sculptures inside.
The Chiesa dei Cappuccini Vecchi (church of the old capuchins) has a simple façade enriched with four parastas with Corinthian capitals that support a neo-classic front with two small bells. Inside, it has a truss roof and one of the most beautiful paintings in Ragusa, a Triptych by Pietro Novelli, depicting the Virgin Mary surrounded by angels and saints (one of them represents, self-portrayed, the painter himself).
The 14th century Chiesa di San Giacomo, also inside the Villa, is better known as the Church of the Crucifix, due to a wooden effigy to the left of the main altar.
The Chiesa di Santa Maria delle Scale, on Via 24 Maggio, was largely rebuilt after the earthquake in 1693 and retains of the original structure only the Gothic portal and the bell-tower. Inside, there are remarkable Gothic-Renaissance arches and a 16th century terracotta image of the virgin Mary, of the Gagini school. An elegant flight of steps from the church leads to Ragusa Ibla.
There stands the 18th century Chiesa di Santa Maria dell’Idria, dated 1639, built at the behest of the Knights of Malta order. The doorway bears, still visible, the Cross of the order; the altar, inside, is sumptuously adorned with the order’s ornaments. A bell-tower stands left of the church, ornamented with lovely floral panels of majolica from Caltagirone.
The Palazzo Cosentini and Palazzo Bertini sit nearby. The former is the most typical of all the 18th century buildings in town, with elegant balconies supported by ornamented corbels and sculptured animals and masks typical of the Baroque Art. The Palazzo Bertini, erected by the Florida family towards the end of the 18th century and successively acquired by the Bertinis, a local aristocratic family, also has masks on its façade. According to tradition, these personify: the pauper, the noble and the merchant.
The Cattedrale di San Giovanni – dedicated to Ragusa’s patron saint – rising from the square of the same name, was built between 1706 and 1760; it has a front elevation in Baroque style with an imposing doorway flanked by a belfry. On the inside are precious stuccoes and the lovely Canonical House.
The Corso Italia street leads to Piazza del Carmine, where stands a 18th century Sanctuary of recent construction.
The Iblean Archaeological Museum, on Via Natalelli, under the Ponte Nuovo (the new bridge), is housed in the first floor of the Mediterraneo hotel; it displays the archaeological finds from excavations in the territory of Ragusa. The collection is topographically and chronologically arranged. The first section displays relics ranging in date from the Neolithic to the Bronze Age. The second, exclusively devoted to material recovered in Kamarina, contains Necropolises’ equipment and material, artefacts, Hellenic and Roman ceramics. The third section displays relics from the most ancient Sikel settlements. Here, worth-mentioning is the material pertaining to the necropolises of Monte Casaia, Castiglione and Ragusa Ibla. The fourth displays documents referring to Greek sites, notably to excavations at Scornavacche, and a faithfully reconstructed workshop of a ceramist. The fifth section collects Roman and late-Roman’s specimens, mainly from Kaukana and Santa Croce Camerina excavations, where floor mosaics belonging to an early-Christian church were discovered.
The earliest bridge in Ragusa, called Ponte Vecchio or Ponte dei Cappuccini, above mentioned, was built at the behest of the Capuchin Friars, who first understood the necessity of a bridge spanning the Gonfalone valley. Designed by engineer Giarruso, this was inaugurated in 1835.
A latomia – a rock-cut tomb – of the early-Christian Age (4th century BC) was brought to light 2 kilometres away, in the vicinity of limestone quarries.
The Castello di Donnafugata, situated in proximity to Santa Croce Camerina, about 20km from Ragusa is a major attraction for tourists. Thanks to its scenery, it was the setting of many films. It derives its name from an Arab place-name meaning ‘Fountain of Health’, hence the Sicilian Ronnafuata. The present structure, built by Corrado Arezzo, Baron of Donnafugata, dates back to the mid-1800s. The style, because of the many refurbishments, is not clearly defined. Externally, an elegant Venetian neo-gothic loggia dominates the central section of the main façade. After notice to the municipality of Ragusa, the guests are received in the first-floor rooms. They can enjoy the traditional cuisine of the restaurant and the splendid eight-hectares beautiful park surrounding the Villa, hosting a Neoclassic coffee-house and an unusual labyrinth.
The Duomo di San Giorgio is a precious example of the Sicilian Baroque. Erected on the old Church of San Nicolò, it was destroyed by the 1693 earthquake. The reconstruction was initiated in 1738 and completed in 1775. The design, whose project is still preciously preserved, belongs to Rosario Gagliardi from Siracusa, a major author of the post-quake reconstruction of the Noto Valley.
The church has a nice stairway that is slightly asymmetric, as is the square before it. Its eye-catching façade, with three storeys, features a richly decorated main entrance and a Neoclassic dome that was made by Carmelo Cutrano in 1820. The interior has a latin-cross design with three naves and houses numerous works of art among which several altar-pieces by Vito D’Anna are outstanding. The image of Saint George on horseback and killing the dragon adorns both the façade and the fence.
The beautiful piazza before the church is surrounded by such striking aristocratic palazzi as Palazzo Arezzi and Palazzo Donnafugata.