Where settlers once from Corinth 's ithsmus built
Between two harbours their great battlements.
Syracuse has forever depended upon the sea, railying herself around the island of Ortygia, overlooking a wonderful bay on the east coast; its name is synonymous with an ancient Greek past, a series of valiant tyrants, the rivalry between Athens and Carthage; a past which has left a number of vestiges for the modern day visitor to see and enjoy. Alongside this dramatic historical background, there exists another less obvious past that can be explored among the streets of the island, where time seems to stand still somewhere between the medieval and Baroque eras. Just behind Ortygia stretches a flat area called Akradina – yet another name inherited from Antiquity.
The district of Neapolis, literally meaning the ‘new town’, is one of the most evocative quarters claiming the theatre, the Ear of Dionysius and the Latomia del Paradiso within its boundaries. On the eastern side lies Tyche, so-called because there was a temple there dedicated to the goddess of fortune (from the Greek Tyche – fortune or luck). Dominating the remainder of the city is the part called Epipolae, guarded and defended by the Castle of Euryalus, strategically built in the most advantageous position.
Syracuse was colonized sometime in the 8C BC by Greeks from Corinth, who settled on the island of Ortygia. Soon this power base was seized by a succession of mighty tyrants. Under their rule the city enjoyed success and great splendour (5-4C BC); its population stabilised at the 300,000 mark, and established its supremacy over the rest of Sicily. Between 416 BC and 413 BC, there developed a furious conflict between Syracuse and Athens. The Athenian warriors were captained by Alcibiades. So the people endured one of the most famous and cruel periods of ancient history.
At last the city fell to the Romans, and so to subsequent invaders – Barbarians, Byzantines, Arabs and Normans.
Tyrants of Syracuse – The tyrant in Antiquity corresponds with the modem dictator, and several such figures populate the history of Sicily during the Hellenistic period, particularly in Syracuse.
Gelon, already tyrant of Gela, extended his dominion to Syracuse in 485 BC. His expansionist ambitions baited the hostile Carthaginians to such an extent as to provoke open conflict. Gelon, in alliance with Theron, the tyrant of Akragas (Agrigento), succeeded in defeating them at the famous battle of Himera in 480 BC. He was succeeded by his brother Hieron I (478-67), and it was during his reign that Cumae was assisted in averting the Etruscan threat (474 BC); from this battle there exists a bronze helmet, found at Olympia and now displayed in the British Museum, London.
After a brief period of democracy, punctuated by battles against Athens, the famous Dionysius the Elder acceded to the throne (405-367 BC). This shrewd strategist underpinned his government with popular consensus, which he secured with gifts and favours, and by his reputation as the defender against the Punic threat, which he did not, however, succeed in eliminating during his tyrannical rule.
Syracuse by sea – Boat trips around the Porto Grande and Ortygia by motor-launch aree provided by Selene from March to November (and out of season, weather permitting). Excursions along the coast offer unusual prospects of the town. Outings last on average 30min but can be extended on
request; they can also include lunch or dinner by prior arrangement. Those timed around sunset and nightfall are especially enjoyable for then the monuments may be seen dramatically floodlit.
It should be emphasized that this is also the only means of seeing Castello Maniace, since it is now a military bamracks and out of bounds; otherwise, the only view from dry land may be snatched from the eastern shore (see ORTYGIA).
More than a hotel – The Domus Mariae is a small, elegant hotel situated in the heart of Ortigia (modem Ortygia), administered by nuns.
Syracuse and its provincia offers a series of alternatives to the traditional hotel, inciuding a number of campsites and agriturism. Details of facilities and addresses are available from the Syracuse Azienda Provinciale per l'incremento del Turismo.
For dinner, we recommend staying in Ortigia, where the narrow streets conceal various typical and atmospheric restaurants.
Syracuse became an independent and mighty force in its own right. On a more personal level, Dionysius I appears to have been haunted with suspicions, ever fearful that someone might be plotting against him. His fears developed into manias of persecution and culminated in his decision to retreat with his court to the castle of Ortygia, which he made into an impregnable private fortress. The story of his life is dotted with strange happenings from which were hatched numerous malicious rumours, half fiction and half fact. Such writers as Valerius Maximus, Cicero and Plutarch describe how the tyrant was so distrustful of the barbers that he entrusted the task of shaving to his own daughters but fearing that even they might be tempted to murder him, he insisted that sharpened walnut shells be used rather than razors or scissors; he had a small ditch dug around his marital bed with a small bridge that he could remove when he retired for the night and, to show that the life of a ruler was fraught with danger, he had a sharp sword suspended from a single horsehair above the head of an envious member of his court called Damocles (hence the expression “the sword of Damocles” to allude to a looming threat). His greed, it is said, led him to take possession of the golden mantle from the statue of Zeus, replacing it with a woollen one.
Upon his death, he was succeeded to the throne by his young son Dionysius II, the Younger, who lacked the political astuteness of his father: he was briefly toppled by his uncle Dion in 357 BC who in turn was assassinated four years later (Dion’s life is celebrated in a poem by William Wordsworth). Dionysius II was expelled a second time following a desperate plea from the Syracusans to the mother-city Corinth; in 344 BC Timoleon, an effective general, was sent to the rescue, as a wise and moderate statesman he restored peace to Sicily. There followed Agathocles, who in order to secure power harboured no qualms in murdering the aristocracy; his attempts to rout the Carthaginians from Sicily were also unsuccessful (culminating in his defeat at Himera in 310 BC).
The last tyrant to govern Syracuse was Hieron II (269-216), a mild and just ruler celebrated by Theocritus (Idyll xvi), who oversaw the last golden age of Syracuse and signed up to an alliance with Rome against the Carthaginians in the First Punic War. In 212 BC, despite the clever devices designed by Archimedes, the town fell to Roman rule and became the capital of the Roman Province of Sicily.
Archimedes – There exists no reliable source of information for details on the life of Archimedes, the famous mathematician, born at Syracuse in 287 BC. It is said that he was so absent-minded and absorbed by his research that he even forgot to eat and drink; his servants were forced to drag him by force to the public baths and, even there, he continued to draw geometric shapes in the ash. It was while he was soaking in his bath that he came upon the principle which was to ensure his fame endured there-after: a body immersed in a liquid receives a force equal and opposite to the weight of the volume of the liquid that has been displaced. Thrilled with his discovery, he is supposed to have stood up suddenly and rushed out of the house shouting “Eureka” (I’ve got it). Besides his contributions to the study of arithmetic, geometry, physics, astronomy and engineering, Archimedes is credited with several significant mechanical inventions, notably the Archimedes’ Screw – a cylinder containing a spiral screw for moving liquid uphill, like a pump (see Saline dello STAGNONE); the cog-wheel; celestial spheres; burning glasses – a combination of senses and mirrors with which he succeeded in setting fire to the Roman fleet. According to tradition, Archimedes was so deeply involved in his calculations when the Romans succeeded in penetrating the city, that he died more or less oblivious of what was happening from a sword wound inflicted by a Roman soldier.
Poetic muses – Syracuse played its own part in developing its artistic prowess in Antiquity. Several of its rulers became so taken with the power of patronage and the benefits of promoting the arts that before long established foreign poets and writers were being welcomed to their court. Some, like Dionysius the Elder, tried to establish themselves as writers but without any great success. The first to take a truly effective interest was Hiemon who proclaimed himself protector of poets and invited to his court such illustrious figures as Bacchylides, Xenophon and Simonides, and highly competitive rivals Pindar and Aeschylus, one of the most eminent early Greek dramatists and author of The Persians (470 BC) and The Women of Etna (now lost); both plays are known to have been performed in the Greek theatre in Neapolis.
By contrast, Plato was to endure difficult relations with Syracuse, most particularly with its rulers, Dionysius the Elder welcomed him reluctantly only to expel him shortly afterwards; after his demise, the philosopher returned (under the protection of the regent Dion), to be expelled a second time by Dionysius II after failing to persuade the tyrant to accept the principles of his Utopian state (outlined later in his Dialogues in the section entitled Republic).
Theocrates, the protagonist of a kind of bucolic poetry at which Virgil was later to excel, was probably a native of Syracuse, in more recent times.
‘Sicanio praetenta sinu lacet insula contra
Ortygiam, Alpheum fama est huc Elidis amnem
occultas egisse vias subter mare, qui nunc
ore, Arethusa, tuo Siculis con funditur undis’
“Stretched in front of a Sicanian bay lies an island, over
against wave-beaten Plemyrium; men of old called it Ortygia.
Hither, so runs the tale, Alpheus, river of Elis,
forced a secret course beneath the sea, and now at thy
fountain, Arethusa, mingles with the Sicilian waves.'
Virgil, The Aeneid, Book III (line 692-695)
There are so many wonderful buildings and interesting outlooks as to make it impossible to set an itinerary including all that might be worth seeing. The descriptions given below therefore mention only the most interesting streets, leaving a large section of the historical city without commentary for visitors to explore at will according to inclination. A word of advice: remember to raise your gaze as often as possible so as not to miss any understated secret lurking in the narrow streets among their splendid buildings.
A look at the coast...
The island, the most ancient area of settlement, is linked to the mainland by the Ponte Nuovo, a natural extension of one of the main thoroughfares of Syracuse, Corso Umberto I. A powerful awareness of the sea and all things associated with it pervades this area: the harbour, filled with colourful boats, moored or going about their business, stretches both to the right and to the left.
As the eye roams the sea front, its attention is caught by the lovely neo-Gothic palazzo on the corner: this red-plastered house with two-light windows was once the home of the poet and writer Antonio Cardile (born in Messina 1883, died in Syracuse 1951), its distinctive appearance may perhaps arouse the curiosity of visitors to these parts, inspiring him to take a walk around the perimeter of the island, and explore the intriguing quality of the place, absorbing its atmosphere, quieter and more peaceful than elsewhere, and contemplating the attenuated sounds that signal life within its walls. To the right lies the sea; to the left, the old Spanish walls stand as a reminder of times when (until 1800) the old town was fortified.
The bold linearity of the Porta Marina is interrupted by a decorative Catalan aedicule framing the entrance to Passeggio Adorno, a walkway created along the top of the walls in the 19C. Finally, a glance will also take in the great Porto Grande, the scene of several major naval battles.
Fonte Aretusa – The Fountain of Arethusa played a significant part in persuading the first group of colonists to settle here in Antiquity. Legend relates how Arethusa, one of Dianas nymphs, tormented by the demonstrations of love from a hunter named Alpheus, turned to the goddess for help. Diana intervened by turning Arethusa into a stream so that she might escape underground and
re-emerge on the island of Ortygia as a beautifully clear fresh-water spring or fountain. Alpheus
meanwhile was not to be defeated: he too changed himself into an underground river, crossed the Ionian Sea and came up in Ortygia having mingled his waters with those of Arethusa. Today, the fountain sustains palm trees and clumps of papyrus, ducks and drakes.
The fronts of the houses painted in pastel shades make for an attractive picture, a harmonious three-dimensional visual entity that extends along the streets of the island. Looming on the horizon on the far side, sits the solid profile of the Castello Maniace (closed to the public), a sandstone fortress built by Frederick II of Swabia in the first half of the 13C, its name honours the Byzantine general, George Maniakes who, in 1038, tried to rescue Ortygia from the Arabs, and then fortified the island especially the area where Frederick II would later rebuild the castle. The massive square structure is a typical example of Swabian building: the architectural features are both functional and cosmetic suggesting that the castle was conceived to function as a defensive stronghold and also as a bold visual reminder of Swabian authority.
Cross the tip of the island to reach the eastern shore, from where, a series of wonderful views extend over the castle (the best view, however, is from the sea); pass before the Church of Santo Spirito, with its fine three-tiered white façade unified by volutes and decorative pilasters. Leave Forte Vigliena behind and make for Belvedere San Giacomo, once a defensive bastion, which offers a magnificent view back across to Syracuse.
... and a stroll through the narrow streets
Piazza Duomo – The attractively presented irregular square precedes the cathedral, curving gently at one end to accommodate its majestic front elevation. The open space becomes especially effective when the cathedral façade is dramaticaily caught by the setting sun or floodlit after nightfall. The other fine Baroque buildings enclosing the square include the striking Palazzo Beneventano del Bosco which conceals a lovely internal courtyard, and opposite, Palazzo del Senato whose inner courtyard displays an 18C senator’s carriage: at the far end stands the
Church of Santa Lucia.
Duomo – The area now occupied by the cathedral has been a place of worship since early Antiquity. A temple erected in the 6C BC was replaced by a temple dedicated to Athena, honouring the goddess with some of the profits from the fateful and decisive defeat of the Carthaginians at Himera (480 BC), in the 7C AD, the temple was incorporated into a Christian church: walls were raised between the columns of the peristyle and a double arcade of eight arches was inserted in the
cella to provide two lateral aisles. Still today, the majestic Doric columns may be seen among the left side of the church, both inside and outside the building. Possibly converted into a mosque during the Arab domination, it was restored for Christian use by the Normans. The 1693 earthquake caused the front façade to collapse, thereby causing it to be rebuilt in the Baroque style (18C) by
the Palermo architect Andrea Palma. He used the column as the basic unit module for his design.
The entrance is preceded by an atrium screening a fine doorway flanked by a pair of twisted columns, the spirals of which are decorated with vines and grapes (a symbol of the Passion).
lnside, the right side of the south aisle incorporates the columns of the temple; today these frame the entrance into the lateral chapels. The first bay on the right contains a lovely font made from a Greek marble krater, supported by seven small 13C wrought-iron lions. The next chapel, dedicated to St Lucy, is furnished with an 1BC silver altar-front. The silver figure of the saint nestling in the niche is by Pietro Rizzo (1599).
Elsewhere, the cathedral is furnished with several statues by the various Gaginis: the Virgin is by Domenico, St. Lucy is by Antonello (north aisle); the Madonna della Neve in the north apse is by Antonello.
Via Landolina, north of the piazza, accommodates the powerfully fronted Chiesa dei Gesuiti.
Galleria Civica d'Arte Contemporanea – The former Convento e Chiesa di Montevergini (entrance in Via delle Vergini) presently houses the municipal collection of contemporary art. This consists mainly of paintings by Italian and foreign artists (Sergio Fermariello, Marco Gingolani, Aldo Damioli, Enrico De Paris).
Galleria Regionale di Palazzo Bellomo – Via Capodieci. Palazzo Bellomo, initiated under Swabian Rule (13C), was extended and raised in the 15C. Such is the reason for the two markedly different styles: at ground level, the combination of the pointed archway and narrow arrow-slit openings give it the appearance of a fortress; the first floor is graced with elegant three-light windows separated with slender columns. The palazzo was built as a private residence before being acquired by the nuns from the adjoining convent of St. Benedict in the 18C. Today it is all part of the same rnuseum. The Church of San Benedetto, standing alongside, contains a fine coffered ceiling. Inside, the palazzo shelters a lovely internal porticoed courtyard with a staircase leading to the first floor. The top part of the parapet is ornamented with rosettes and trilobate tracery. At the top of the first flight of stairs, note the fine Flamboyant aedicule above the doorway.
Museo – The museum is dedicated in the main to Sicilian art. Byzantine influences clearly pervade a series of paintings (Room IV) by Venetian artists working in Crete (at a time when it formed part of the Venetian Empire). These show The Creation (six panels), Original Sin and Earthly Paradise. The upper floor is largely devoted to painting: perhaps the most striking, despite being damaged, is the Annunciation by Antonello da Messina. As with other paintings by the same artist, there is an inherent Flemish quality to this picture especially in its minute attention to detail (the saint’s mantle, crowded landscape through the window); the overall formality, spacious composition and precise definition of perspective is more typically Italian.
The Entombment of St. Lucy by Caravaggio might even be modelled on the saint’s actual
tomb in the catacombs which bear her name nearby in Syracuse. The characteristically dramatic and provocative style of this artists work is here evident in the arrangement of the crowd: the main figures jostling around the saint, who lies dead upon the ground, are the gravediggers, including one in the foreground turning his back to the onlooker. Atmosphere is imparted by the strong light which in turn casts disturbing shadows.
The museum also displays an eclectic collection of objects: furnishings, holy vestrnents, nativity figures, furniture and ceramics.
A short walk from here, tucked away in Via San Martino, stands a church dedicated to St. Martin with a Gatalan Gothic doorway. The original church was founded in the 6C.
Palazzo Mergulese-Montalto – Via Mergulensi. This superb palazzo, although rather dilapidated, dates from the 14C. The main elevation rises through two storeys separated by an indented string-course. The upper section is ornarnented with wonderful highly elaborate wlndows, set into richly carved arched settings subdivided by delicately slender twisted columns. The ground floor is graced with a pointed arched entrance surmounted by a decorative aedicule.
Beyond the palazzo lies Piazza Archimede. This square was inserted more recently. Presiding over the central space, overlooked by fine buildings, is the 19C Fountain of Artemis. Via della Maestranza leads off the piazza.
Via della Maestranza – Not only is Via della Maestranza one of Ortygia’s main thoroughfares, it is one of the oldest. It threads its way between a succession of aristocratic residences, predominantly Baroque in style. Among the most interesting, look out for: Palazzo Interland Pizzuti (no. 10) and, a little further on, Palazzo Impellizzeri (no. 17) with its sinuously linear arrangement of curved windows and balconies. Palazzo Bonanno (no. 33). which now accommodates the headquarters of the Tourist Office, is an austere medieval building sheltering a lovely inner courtyard and a loggia on the first floor. At no. 72 stands the imposing Palazzo Romeo Bufardeci with its exuberant frontage and Rococo balconies. The street opens out into a small square before the Church of San Francesco allIimmacolata flanked by a 19C bell-tower. The light-coloured, curved and elegant front elevation is gracefully articulated with columns and pilasters. At one time the church used to host a ritual rooted in Antiquity: during the night of the 28 November the Svelata (literally, the unveiling) took place, during which an image of the Madonna was unveiled. This event was timed to occur in the early hours of the morning before dawn (so that people could go off to work, in an epoch when the working day started very early) after a long vigil accompanied by local bands.
Almost at the end of the street may be discerned the curved façade of Palazzo Rizza (no. 110). Palazzo lmpellizzeri (no. 99) dominates the street rising to its full height through a sumptuous and highly original frieze ornamented with human faces and grotesque masks, surmounted with organic decorations.
Behind this last section of the street extends the Quartiere della Giudecca, a quarter that retains its medieval street plan, threaded by narrow perpendicular streets. During the 16C a considerable community of Jews settled and thrived there until it was expelled.
Mastrarua – Renamed Via Vittorio Veneto, this street was once the main thoroughfare of Ortygia. This was the route followed by kings as they entered the town, by official parades and royal processions. It is logical therefore that it should be lined with fine palazzi. Palazzo Bianco (no. 41) is graced with a niche in which stands a statue of St. Anthony on the outside and a lovely internal courtyard and staircase within. Casa Mezia (no. 47) has a doorway surmounted by a projecting griffin. Beyond the Church of San Filippo Neri there follows Palazzo Interlandi and Palazzo Monforte, badly damaged alas. This last palazzo marks the corner with Via Mirabella, which is also contained by yet more fine buildings. Note, right opposite Palazzo Monforte, the elegant Palazzo Bongiovanni: the doorway is surmounted by a mask, and, above, a lion holding a scroll bearing the date 1772 which in turn acts as a central support for a balcony: its central window is omnamented with volutes.
Continue along Via Mirabella. A small diversion to the right allows for a detour past the neo-Gothic Palazzo Gargallo (Archivio Distrettuale Notarile records office). Palazzo Gargallo graces Piazzetta del Carmine (no. 34), built in the same style. Via Mirabella also heralds the beginning of the Arab quarter, characterized by extremely narrow streets known as ronchi. One of these streets conceals the paleo-Christian Church of San Pietro distinguished by its fine doorway, which is now used for concerts and presentations.
A little further along Via Mirabella stands the Chiesa di San Tommaso which was founded in Norman times (12C). Turn back along the Mastrarua: no. 111 has a lovely doorway decorated with monstrous creatures. No. 136, on the other hand, is the birthplace of the writer Elio Vittorini (born 23 July 1908).
Tempio di Apollo – Piazza Pancali. The Temple of Apollo, built in the 6C BC, is the oldest peripteral Doric temple (that is, enclosed by columns) in Sicily. According to one inscription it was dedicated to Apollo; according to Cicero it was dedicated to Artemis – before being transformed into a Byzantine church, then a mosque, and back again into a church by the Normans. The remains of the peristyle columns and part of the wall of the sacred precinct are still in evidence.
Corso Matteotti, described as the drawing-room of Ortigia, leads off the piazza, flanked on either side with elegant shops.
PARCO ARCHEOLOGICO DELLA NEAPOLIS
There are two different entrances: one is in Via Rizzo and the other in Viale Paradiso. To follow the itinerary prescribed below, begin from the entrance in Via Rizzo.
Teatro Greco – This is one of the most impressive theatres to survive from Antiquity. The cavea was completely cut out from the bedrock, taking advantage of the natural slope of Colle Temenite. The date of construction has been established as the 5C BC, largely on the basis of factual reports documenting the first performance of Aeschylus’ play The Persians. It is also known who the builder was, namely a certain Damocopus, known as Myrilla, because he used miroi (unguents) at the official opening of the theatre. The theatre was modified by Hieron II in the 3C BC, when it was divided into fine wedge-shaped sections, and a passageway was inserted around the cavea about half way up. The wall in front of each section is inscribed with the name of a famous person or deity. Today, certain letters may still be distinguished including those spelling out Olympian Zeus in the central section; to the right, facing the stage, appear the letters naming Hieron II himself, his wife, queen Philistis, and his daughter-in-law, queen Nereis. It was altered in Roman times so as to host water sports (it is thought) and gladiatorial combats before the amphitheatre (see below) was completed. Later it was put to improper use. In fact, the Spaniards installed various water-driven millstones in it: the furrows left by two mill-wheels in the central part of the cavea may still be seen as can the drainage channel bearing the water away. Behind the cavea is a large open area with, in the centre the Grotta del Ninfeo (Nymphs Cave). The rectangular tank set before it was filled with water drawn from the aqueduct that was built by the Greeks to carry water over a distance of some 35km from the Rio Bottigliera, a tributaty of the River Anapo, near Pantalica (see PANTALICA). Having fallen into disuse during the Middle Ages, the aqueduct was restored in the 16C by the Marchese di Sortinoto in order to power the water-mills erected in the theatre.
To the left extends the Via dei Sepolcri (Street of Tombs). Pock-marking the rock face on each side are a series of Byzantine tombs and votive niches in which offerings used to be placed.
Today, the theatre is still used during the summer for performances of Classical Greek and Latin plays (in June of every even year).
Orecchio di Dionisio – The haunting cave known as the Ear of Dionysius is situated in one of the most striking former limestone quarries (Latomie) in Syracuse: the one that is aptly named Latomia del Paradiso, now a delightful garden shaded with orange-trees, palm trees and magnolias. As its name suggests, the cave resembles an auricle (cavity inside the ear) both in the shape of the entrance and the winding internal space beyond. It was the artist Caravaggio who gave the cave its
name during his visit to Sicily in the early 1600s on hearing the intriguing explanation of how Dionysius the Elder was able to hear his enemies thanks to the cave’s extraordinary echo, without seeing them.
The smoothness of the walls, so tall and even, together with the maze-like intererior permanently swathed in shadow, make it difficult to imagine that this was once a quarry. In fact, its peculiar shape is explained by the way the limestone was quarried. A small crack was made in the surface at the top, this was then broadened into a narrow channel that gradually was excavated downwards (possibly with the aid of water) until the good stone was reached. The cave has amazing acoustics which the occasional guide or visitor will put to the test by suddenly bursting into song. Many stories concerning the cave once quarrying ceased are circulated by guides and guidebooks: the most likely hypothesis is that it was used as a prison (like all the other latomie); the rnost imaginative tells of how it came to be used as a hearing trumpet by Dionysius; others sustain that it was used by choirs performing at the nearby theatre.
The neighbouring Grotta del Cordari earned its name from its use until fairly recently by ropemakers for twisting long stretches of sisal and twine, as it provided them with a pleasantly cool area in which to work. Although only visible from the outside (for safety reasons), it clearly shows how it was quarried.
Ara di Ierone II – This enormous altar, some 200m long and partly carved out of the rock, was commissioned by the tyrant Hieron II in the 3C BC for public sacrifices. Originally, there may have been a large rectangular area stretched out before it. Probably with a portico and a central pool.
Anfiteatro Romano – The Roman amphitheatre was built during the Imperial era. Its situation makes best use of the naturai lie of the land and required only half of the cavea to be cut out of the bedrock. This is the best preserved section. The other half of the circle was built using large blocks of stone which have been pillaged through the successive centuries. Two entrances may be discerned: one on the north and one on the south side. The rectangular pit in the centre of the arena is connected to the southern entrance by a ditch. This “technical” area was reserved for the stage machinery apparatus that provided performances with special effects.
Opposite the entrance to the amphitheatre stands the pre-Romanesque Church of San Nicolò dei Cordari (11C). To its right, sits a water tank built by the Romans for collecting water that was used to flood the amphitheatre for performances of naumachiae (sea battles re-enactments) and for cleaning the arena after the gory fights pitched by gladiators against wild animals.
Tomba di Archlmede – Visible from the outside only from the corner of Via Romagnoli and Via Teracati. At the eastern end of Latomia Intagliatella is the Grotticella Necropoglis. Among the many cavities hollowed out of the rock, one is ornamented with Doric columns (badly damaged), pediment and tympanum. This so-called Tomb of Archimedes actually conceals a Roman columbarium (a chamber lined with niches for funerary urns).
The limestone quarries
The latomie, from the Greek litos – a stone and temnos – a cut, are the ancient quarries that supplied blocks of limestone for the construction of public buildings and grand houses. Quarrying was initiated after a suitable site was selected on the grounds that it might yield regular, good-quality blocks of stone. Crevices were made in the bedrock into which wooden wedges were inserted: these were then dampened to make them expand, causing the rock to split. In the search for layers of compacted rock, the quarriers would excavate funnel-like tunnels that gradually broadened out the deeper they were dug. Pillars of rock would be left to prop up the ceilings of these hollows. It has been calculated that in such a way, enormous quantities of material could be efficiently quarried. Once the quarry was exhausted, the cavities would be used as prisons, as described by Cicero in his Speeches against Verres (or Verrine Orations): it is highly probable
that the 7000 Athenian prisoners captured in 413 BC were held in the latomie; all of these perished after eight months of incarceration there, save for the few who were lucky enough to be sold as slaves or those who, according to legend, were able to recite verses by Euripides from memory. The
caves, it should be noted, would have been very different in those days: they would have been wider, darker and more suited to accommadating large numbers of prisoners; what we see today
has been severely affected by falls of rock dislodged, for the most part, by earth tremors. In subsequent eras, the quarries have hosted lengthy funeral rites, have served as refuges and been used as garden allotments. Only recently was it thought appropriate to reassess their historical importance and restore them.
A map situating all the latomie (twelve have been identified but some are buried below buildings) reveals how they lie in a kind of arc that corresponds to the limestone terrace formation skirting more or less the edge of the two ancient quarters of Neapolis and Tyche.
The most compelling is the Latomia del Paradiso (see above), located in the Archaealogical Park: this in fact consists of a series of caves, around which a lovely garden has been landscaped. An overview (from beside the Greek theatre) provides a better understanding of how it was engineered, for where the ceiling has collapsed as a result of earth tremors, it is possible to see a number of the stone supports or pit props still in situ.
Continuing along the arc, from west to east, they appear in the following order: Latomia Intagliatella, Latomia di Santa Venera, Latomia del Casale and Latomia dei Cappuccini.
This last one is perhaps the most majestic and spectacular of them all, on account of its steep limestone walls.
MUSEO ARCHEOLOGICO REGIONALE PAOLO ORSI
The Paolo Orsi Museum nestles in the garden of Villa Landolina, virtualIy hidden from view. Its importance lies in the fact that it provides a fundamental benchmark in the understanding of Sicily’s prehistory right up to the period of the colonies of Syracuse. The museum presents the inception and development of the various cultural phases in chronological order. The three main sections, all extremely well laid out, are provided with a centrally-located introductory area, below which, in the basement, is an auditorium where audio-visual presentations are given (see programme schedule at the entrance).
Section A: Prehistory and Proto-history – Displays open with a collection of fossils and minerals, skeletons and prehistoric animal remains along with an exhaustive supply of information about the fauna of the island. There follows various human artefacts representing the Palaeolithic and Neolithic eras, followed by specimens dating from successive phases. The majority of artefacts comprise fragments of pottery, including a large red-burnished vase from Pantalica – a simple yet of
a highly sophisticated tall-footed shape. Finally, a number of hoards are shown alongside groups of bronze objects (spear-heads, belts and buckles) recovered from containers that had been concealed or hidden (underground or in a cavity).
Section B: Greek colonisation – These objects mark and illustrate the foundation and development of Greek colonies in eastern Sicily. The three Ionic colonies included: Naxos, Katane and Leontinoi from where the beautiful headless marble kouros (Archaic male figure) came. The two Doric colonies rneanwhile were: Megara Hyblaea and Syracuse, both of which are extremely well-represented. The singular limestone figure of the Mother-goddess nursing twins (6C BC) was recovered from the necropolis at Megara Hyblaea. Seated and headless, the figure powerfully embodies maternity, extending her arms to embrace and contain the two babies which seem to melt into her, as if they were one.
The Syracuse collection is vast and includes two famous exhibits which are often reproduced: a polychrome shallow-relief clay panel with a gorgon from the Temenos of the Athenaion, and the bronze statuette of a horse, the symbol of the museum, found in the necropolis at Fusco. At the entrance to this section devoted to Syracuse, is temporarily displayed the splendid headless statue of Venus Anadyomene or Landolina Venus after the man who discovered her. This Roman copy of an original by Praxitebes is one of many made in Antiquity (others include the Medici Venus, the Capitoline Venus) graced with soft sinuous lines. The poise with which she holds the drapery is somehow underlined by the very delicate way in which the light fabric falls into folds that echo the perfect shape of a shell.
Section C: Sub-colonies and Hellenized centres – The first part, devoted to the sub-colonies of Syracuse, contains various fine anthropomorphous figures, including a clay acroterion representing a rider on horseback. The second part deals with the history of minor centres. Note the tall clay sculpted enthroned figure of Demeter or Kore dating from the half of the 6C BC. The third and last part of this section is devoted to Agrigento and Gela. The striking painted Gorgon’s mask, part of a decorative temple frieze, comes from Gela as does the fine Attic red-figure pelike (two-handled vase) by Polygnotos. Three wooden Archaic statuettes are rare examples of votive art: although these were probably extremely widespread, in most cases the wood will have perished and disintegrated with time.
Cyperus papyrus is a plant which grows rigorously in Egypt. It has also been known to man here in Syracuse, along the banks of the River Ciane (see Excursions). Since Antiquity, it consists of a perennial marsh plant which grows in various forms and sizes, and produces a profusion of tall stems ending with ruffs of bracts (inflorescence). In Ancient Egypt, it was used in all kinds of different ways that exploited its amazing versatility: stems were bundled together to build light-weight boats; they were used for making ropes, baskets and trays, for weaving fabric for clothes and wigs, even for making shoes (such as sandals). The ruff at the top was used to make fans and parasols for civil or religious ceremonies and funeral rites. It has even been suggested that the most tender spongy part of the stalk might have been eaten. The most famous product made from papyrus is paper; although this involves a fairly complex process. The variable factors are the age of the plant, the ablutions-applied to strengthen the thin strips sliced from the stalk length-ways, and the stabilising treatment following the bleaching process. The strips are laid in two perpendicular layers one on top of the other, pressed and dried. The resulting sheet has a flat surface (with horizontal fibres) suitable for writing, backed and supported by the vertical fibres. It is interesting to note that in many languages the word for paper actually comes from the word "papyrus" (French papier, German papier, Spanish papelm, English paper, Welsh papur and so on).
FOOTLOOSE IN "TYCHE" AND "AKRADINA"
Museo del Papiro – 66 Viale Teocrito. The rediscovery of papyrus in Syracuse can be attributed to Saverio Landolina who, in the 18C, reassessed the value of the plant which was being used by the local population at that time for decorative purposes. He also succeeded in reinventing the means of rnaking papyr (with several examples displayed in the museum).
The material displayed in the museum covers all the possible applications of papyrus. This includes documents from the time of the pharaohs (fragments of the Book of the Dead), objects made of rope fans all made from the same variety of plant, feather-weight boats with slightly raised prows and sterns adept for navigating through shallow waters and marshy areas, and still very much in use by hunters and fisherrnen in Africa. The last section is dedicated to paper: its actual production (reconstruction of a work-bench) as well as the pigments and instruments used by scribes.
Catacombe di San Giovanni – The catacombs are situated in the Akradina area which, until Roman times, was reserved for the cult of the dead. Unlike the Roman catacombs elsewhere in mainland Italy that are excavated from fragile tufa which restricted their size (less they collapse), these ones in Syracuse are cut from a layer of hard limestone and therefore could be extended into considerably larger underground chambers.
This complex system of catacombs was developed around the tomb of St. Marcian, one of the early Christian martyrs (4C-5C). The extensive network of rectilinear tunnels depend upon a central axis that probably followed the line of an abandoned Greek aqueduct. At right angles to this principal artery lead a series of minor vein-like passageways. The chambers vary in size according to whether it accommodated a single person or a number (maximum 20 people). Interspersed among these large cavities, are a number of smaller and shallower hollows for children (at a time when the infant mortality rate was high). At intervals, there appear round or square areas used by the Christians for interring martyrs and saints. The most significant of these is the Rotonda di Adelfia in which a wonderful sarcophagus was found intact, carved with biblical scenes (awaiting to be displayed, possibly on the second floor of the archeological museum). Note also, beside the main gallery, the Graeco-Roman conical cisterns that have later been used as burial chambers.
Cripta di San Marciano – The Crypt of St. Marcian, situated near the necropolis, marks the place where the martyr is alleged to have met his death. The Greek-cross chamber lies some 5m below ground level. The far wall accommodates three semicircular apses: the right one is the altar where St. Paul is supposed to have preached on his return from Malta, in AD 60 (Acts of the Apostles, Ch 28 v12); against the right wall of the central apse sits the tomb that is popularly believed to be that of the martyr. The peep-hole inserted on one side was to enable the pilgrims to see the body of the saint and to allow a cloth to be passed over it that might then be considered as a special relic-cum-keepsake. The four corners below the central vault are marked with pilasters and Byzantine capitals bearing representations of the Evangelists.
Basilica di San Giovanni Evangelista – The church stands over the crypt of St. Marcian. This picturesque ruin, open to the sky, is one of the most atmospheric spots in all Syracuse especially at sunset, and even more intensely on saint’s days and holidays when Mass is celebrated. The basilica was founded in association with the martyr’s crypt, for it was usual to mark a sacred burial place with a shrine of some kind. It was destroyed by the Arabs, and restored by the Normans. The main damage was incurred during an earthquake when the roof collapsed, never to be rebuilt. The front portico has been reconstructed using 15C building materials. The interior, now partly taken over by clumps of tree spurge (Euphorbia dendroides), preserves its original Byzantine style.
Lived in the 4th century, St. Lucy is the patron saint of Syracuse. Hence the reason why so many local churches are dedicated to her, including the Duomo. On 13 December (her dies natalis, when the saint’s earthly life came to end and her spiritual life began) she is celebrated with a procession headed by Her silver statue from the Duomo to the place where she was entombed.
Basilica di Santa Lucia extra Mœnia – This basilica faces onta its own piazza: a wide, rectanguiar area imbued with peace. According to tradition, it was erected to mark the spot where the saint was martyred in 303, as Caravaggio suggests in his painting of the subject (now in Palazzo Bellomo). The original Byzantine church has undergone a considerabbe number of changes over the years to arrive at its present form in the 15C-16C. The oldest extant parts are the front entrance, the
three semicircular apses and the two lower tiers of the bell-tower (12C). The painted wooden ceiling is 17C. Below the church lie the Catacombs of Santa Lucia (closed to the public) which by their very existence might substantiate the truth as to whether the saint was indeed martyred here. Still in the same square, the small octagonal building by Giovanni Vermexio, a 17C architect, contains the tomb of the saint. Her actual relics, however, were transported to Constantinople in the 11C by the Byzantine general George Maniakea, and thence to Venice following the fall of that city during the Fourth Crusade. They are now preserved in the Duomo here.
Santuario della Madonna delle Lacrime – The rather cumbersome mass of this singular modern conical structure in reinforced concrete (80m in diameter and 74m high) dominates the skyline from a long way off. The construction of such an imposing building was prompted by a miraculous event that occurred in 1953 (when an unassuming painting of the Madonna began to shed tears), since when the shrine has attracted large numbers of pilgrims. The architects of this project were the Frenchmen M. Andrault and P. Parat, and the Italian structural engineer R. Morandi. Inside, a dizzy sensation of lofty height is provided and accentuated with the use of vertical windows extending upwards to the apex of the roof.
Ginnasio Romano – The so-called Roman Gymnasium, situated on Via Elorina beyond the Foro Siracusano, formed with the Forum a part of the market place of ancient Akradina. The description, however, is erroneous, in fact it was part of a complex building that comprised a quadroporticus, with a small theatre – rows of seating are still visible in the cavea part – and a small marble temple which served as a stage set.
EPIPOLI – EPIPOLAE
Castello Eurialo – 9km northwest along Via Epipoli, in the Belvedere district. The road up to the fortress gives some idea of the scale of the defensive reinforcements imposed on the city by Dionysius the Elder. In addition to fortifying Ortygia, the able strategist decided to build a wall around the entire settlement, encompassing the districts of Tycho and Neapolis which, until then, had stood outside the city limits and had therefore been easy prey for attack. With this in mind,
he ordered the construction of the imposing Walls of Dionysius (mura dionigiane – 27km) across the Epipolae high plateau enclosing the north side of the town. The fortification comprised two parallel walls built of rectangular limestone bocks, in-filled with rubble. The enclosure reached 10m in height and 3m in width; posterns were placed at regular intervals around the perimeter so as to allow traffic to flow freely, and to provide constant surveillance in case of any thought of attack
by the enemy. The gates of the castle, being vulnerable, were flanked by defensive towers. One section of the wall is visible along the road up to Belvedere (on the left).
The top of the ridge provided a strategic position for the castle. Its name Euryalus is derived from the headland on which it stood which vaguely resembles the head of a nail (from the Greek: Euryelos). The fortress is one of the most impressive Greek defences to have survived from Antiquity. The heart of the fortress is ringed with a series of three consecutive ditches linked by a warren of underground passages that prevented garrisons from being controlled as a unit, let alone be supplied centrally with munitions, while at the same time, enabling any material fired by
the enemy into the ditches to be removed before it incurred any damage. Should the enemy ever succeed in entering the castle precinct, it would have been completely disorientated. The entrance to the archeological area coincides with the first of these ditches. A little further on, the second deep trench lined with vertical walls may be discerned before, finally, arriving at the third; making this a veritable Chinese-puzzle masterpiece of defensive design. Three tall square piers in the third ditch lead to the assumption that there must have been a drawbridge apparatus providing accoss to the inner stronghold (or keep).
The east side is riddled with a series of communicating passageways, one measuring some 200m in length led to a pincer-type gateway (trypilon) and a way out of the fortress. The west side of the ditch accommodated various underground rooms for storing supplies. Behind stood the square keep, preceded by an impressive series of defensive towers. Within the confines of the keep itself there is an open area with three square cisterns, visible on the right. The far corner provides a fine view down to Syracuse (opposite) and the plain stretching away to the left.
Tempio di Giove Olimpico – 3km out of town along Via Elorina, signposted right. The Tempio of Olympian Zeus, built sometime in the 6C BC, occupies a splendid position, slightly raised above the surrounding landscape. Its majestic appearance must have been worthy of the supreme power it represented.
Fonte Ciane – 8km southeast. The River Ciane, which almost merges with the nearby River Anapo, is the main link with the internal area of Pantalica (see PANTALICA). Its mouth is a favourite starting-point for boat-trips. Shortly after setting off, a splendid view of the Grand Harbour of Syracuse opens out before you. The boat then continuous in among an area of lush vegetation: predominantly reeds, ancient ash trees, and eucalyptus, before entering a narrow gorge and emerging in a luxuriant grove of swaying papyrus rising from the water. It was here, according
to the myth transcribed by Ovid (Metamorphoses: The Rape of Proserpine, Book 5, l. 409-437), that the water nymph wooed by Anapus, Cyane, tried to obstruct Pluto from abducting Persephone and, as a result, was transformed into a spring.