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The Noto Valley Baroque

The earthquake of 11 January 1693 was one of the most catastrophic events in Italy in historic times. The earthquake - to which experts today assign an intensity equal to the eleventh degree of the Mercalli scale - destroyed an area of hundreds and hundreds of square kilometres: practically all south-eastern Sicily. Yet, despite death and desolation, never has it been truer than in this case that "it's an ill wind that blows nobody good": the reconstruction, undertaken with heroic fervour, gave rise to what is now defined as the "Val di Noto Baroque", an inestimable patrimony of art and architecture that in 2001 UNESCO proclaimed World Heritage. The towns and villages chosen to make up this treasure are eight in number: Catania and, in its province, Caltagirone and Militello Val di Catania; Ragusa with Modica and Scicli; Palazzolo Acreide and Noto, in Syracuse province. Catania may not be the most beautiful Sicilian city, but certainly it has a splendour of its own, in addition to an environment of great vivacity, joyfully rediscovered by young people, artists and cultural personalities. Here you can admire the line of churches and monastic buildings in Via dei Crociferi, the gigantic San Nicola church and the refined backdrops of Piazza Duomo, with the building of the town hall, the seminary and the Elephant and Amenano fountains framing the Cathedral, dedicated to the beloved patron saint, St. Agatha, and the sumptuous Benedictine monastery, which has nothing to envy a royal castle. The Benedictines were also among the protagonists of the reconstruction, as can be seen at Militello Val di Catania, a town that, in spite of its limited size, can boast of a quantity of Baroque buildings of merit: from the monastery, precisely, that reprises the structure of the one in Catania, with the attached San Benedetto church, to the buildings of the nobility - including Palazzo Baldanza-Denaro and Palazzo Liggieri - and a large number of sacred buildings like the cathedral church, the Madonna della Catena church and the Sanctuary of Santa Maria La Stella. In Catania province we also find Caltagirone , well known for ceramics production since remote times. The quality of the production can be observed more or less everywhere, in the municipal park as on the risers of the monumental flight of steps of Santa Maria del Monte, which since 1608 has connected the lower and upper parts of the town. This is one of the best-known attractions in Caltagirone, and also the protagonist of numerous events like the flower procession in May, and the night-time illumination with coloured oil lamps in July. Below it there is the Baroque San Giuseppe church, but also worth seeing is the beautiful San Giacomo church, with an original bell tower on top of which there sit the four evangelists, St. Claire and the Most Holy Saviour. The other provincial capital, Ragusa, in addition to a profusion of churches - including the beautiful San Giorgio Cathedral, at the extremity of the oblong plaza in the heart of the Ibla district - also has quite a big quantity of noble mansions. With curious harmony, the new Baroque buildings done at the behest of the local aristocracy were grafted onto a street texture that was still markedly medieval, creating that authentic jewel that is Ibla. Walking around looking up, the visitor will discover decorations with overflowing pomp, for instance on Palazzo Cosentini and Palazzo La Rocca. Not far from Ragusa we meet the enchanting Modica, a town with ancient history and prestige, the chief place in a county that once was considered a kingdom in the kingdom, because of the wealth and influence of its seignior. Here the most famous monument is certainly the big San Giorgio church, with a long flight of two hundred and fifty steps preceding a high façade, as if it wanted to challenge the sky. San Giorgio is one of the most beautiful Baroque works in southern Italy, but there are other splendid churches in the town, like the beautiful San Pietro, Santa Maria di Betlem (inside which there is a the magnificent sixteenth-century Sacrament Chapel), and San Nicolò inferiore. There is also the birthplace of Salvatore Quasimodo, to whom a literary park is dedicated. A narrow little road goes down from here toward Scicli, allowing itself, at the end of a straight road along which there are the dry-stone walls typical of the Iblei countryside, big bends as far as the village. If you arrive in the evening, the houses, the church and the buildings appear to be illuminated by warm gilded light, a charming spectacle preluding so many decorations in stone on the buildings. There are flowers, carvings and geometries, but also grotesque representations like the two Moors' heads supporting the coat of arms of the owners on a cornerstone of Palazzo Beneventano, one of the most beautiful. Not to mention Palazzo Fava, the long succession of churches and palazzos in Via Mormino Penna, and the Carmelite church and monastery. Churches and monastic buildings are extremely well represented at Noto, which has always been considered the "capital" of the Baroque. They go from the Salvatore monastery to the Cathedral, an imposing and elegant building that at last, after laborious restoration, will reopen to believers and visitors in the spring of 2006. Then there is the San Domenico church, one of the most important, its façade framed by the palm trees in a neat little garden, and San Carlo. Then we have Palazzo Ducezio, which is the town hall, and Palazzo Villadorata, an old and very beautiful abode with a long façade adorned with balconies supported by decorated stone brackets, which dominates a whole street and in May acts as a backdrop to the preparation of a flowery scenario. Palazzolo Acreide is the last stage - but certainly not the least important - of our itinerary. Here there are a lot of richly adorned palazzos: they include the abode of Baron Gabriele Judica, who made himself poor in his efforts to bring to light the remains of ancient Akrai, as well as Palazzo Zacco and Palazzo Ferla. And the churches are very beautiful: San Sebastiano, in the piazza of the town hall, and that of the rival saint Paul, both enchanting Baroque buildings, and the Annunziata, with a stately portal of twisted columns around which turgid augural vine-branches wind.

(source: Sician World Heritage)

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