| ART AND HISTORY OF SYRACUSE|
Syracuse experienced three distinct movements of exceptional development in art
The first was the Greek era, when the city was a metropolis comprising hundreds of thousands of inhabitants
and a fleet that sailed throughout the Mediterranean.
The second was the period of gothic art and the early renaissance, when it was the capital of the Camera Reginale ("Queen's Chamber"), a sort of personal fiefdom of the queens of the Kingdom of Sicily and Naples.
The third was the baroque period, when Syracuse had to be partially reconstructed after suffering damage from an earthquake in 1693.
A Large Greek Metropolis on the Mediterranean
Few recall that before the Roman conquest Syracuse was, for a long time, one of the grand metropolises of the Mediterranean
and the only one able to fight the Carthaginians, defeat the fleet of the Etruscans, or engage in battle with the fleet of Athens,
to the point of suffering – and repelling! – a double attack (in 433 and 416 BC).
One is perhaps misled by the memory of Syracuse as it returned to being after
the fall of the Roman Empire: a city of a certain political and cultural weight
but restricted once again to the island of Ortigia where it originated. Instead,
at the time of the “tyrants” (the somewhat flattering name by which the kings
were called by their enemies), Syracuse had a footprint equal to that of today,
as anyone traveling from Ortigia to the archeological area will notice.
Syracuse was the object of a careful plan of reconstruction and expansion (helped by the forced deportation of the populations from several defeated cities),
evidence of which is still noticeable in many places.
Moreover, it says something that for the construction of the wall and fortifications, at a time of war against the Carthaginians for control over Sicily, Syracuse could mobilize as many as 60,000 men at a time, manage to build the
ramparts in record time, and thus thwart the enemy attack.
Its extraordinary power and wealth made the ancient city a point of international
attraction for the most famous Greek intellectuals. Among the illustrious names
that stayed in Syracuse we find: Plato, Pindar, Aeschylus, Simonides, Bacchylides,
Being familiar with these circumstances allows one to more easily understand
the splendor and size of Syracuse’s monuments from the Greek period. Even if
they were, unfortunately, half demolished in modern times to recover their stones, what remains is enough to rank them among the most important and beautiful
that the Greeks had left in Italy, thus rendering Syracuse worthy of a leisurely
A Middle Age not so Dark
The Christian re-conquest on the part of the Normans
left Syracuse competing in importance with Palermo. The medieval period was
certainly not “dark” for the city (which saw a period of prosperity) and left
its mark on the plan of the city as well. The Maniace Castle
, built under the reign of the Swabian dynasty
, and with its gothic architecture still visible today, is certainly the most
renowned and best-preserved monument of this period.
Beyond this, it is worth noting how much remains of the gothic buildings constructed
during the period in which Syracuse had the rank of capital of the Camera Reginale (1302-1537), among them the Palazzo della Camera Reginale itself (located a few meters from Piazza Archimede).
The Camera Reginale constitutes a sort of “state within a state” and was formed
from a fiefdom of a group of cities from which revenues were used for the personal
patrimony of the ruler of the kingdom of Sicily and Naples. It was a sort of
endowment given to the bride by the groom himself, and passed down from queen
consort to queen consort.
The presence of Court fostered the rebirth of a local political-bureaucratic
class and left the city with an elegant gothic imprint that bears the impression
of local characteristics, which owes much to the Catalan gothic (less bound by the presence of the pointed arch, less likely to feature soaring
surfaces, much more sober, and favoring closed and smooth surfaces than those
that characterize the international gothic style, especially “flaming”).
The relative decline caused by the suppression of the Camera Reginale would hold back further building, conserving the fundamental gothic and renaissance
flavor of the city, until an earthquake intervened in the baroque period, forcing
the rebuilding of a large part of Syracuse in the dominant style of the time.
The palazzo della Camera Reginale
Despite this, several very elegant buildings that survived this and other earthquakes
and are scattered throughout the city can be admired even today.
Among these are: the Palazzo Bellomo (seat of the Galleria regionale), Palazzo Mergulese Montalto, Porta Marina, Palazzo Chiaramonte, the Maniace Castle, the church of San Martino, Palazzo Gargallo, and the church of San Pietro al Carmine.
Jewels of the Baroque
The great earthquake of January 11, 1693
was judged to be the most devastating that Sicily had ever suffered in its history,
if one excludes the 1908 Messina earthqauke
More than 45 villages were destroyed and resulted in approximately 60,000 deaths.
Several towns were literally razed to the ground, as was the case with the not-so-distant Noto, which was reconstructed from the ground up, thus producing the “capital of
the baroque” that everyone knows.
The courtyard of the Palazzo Bonanno, a beautiful example of the Syracusan baroque
Even if, in the case of Syracuse, complete reconstruction from scratch was not
necessary, the rebuilding resulted in a prevalently baroque style with just a
few surviving gothic and renaissance monuments.
The local limestone, easy to work with, allowed the stone cutters and the sculptors
to indulge in those lacy stone balconies and facades that the buildings display
The local baroque style is lighter and less elaborate than that, equally known, of Lecce, and leads to an airier result. But no less fanciful: no two baroque balconies are the same among them and all compete in the pursuit of “invention” so dear to the baroque
Given the sheer quantity, it is impossible to list all of the baroque buildings
One is advised to follow on foot the principal streets of Ortigia (such as Via Vittorio Veneto – on which sits the Algilà Ortigia Charme Hotel – Via Maestranza, Via Giudecca…) to discover the thousands of surprises of baroque Syracuse.
Following the explosive building period of the baroque, the city would enter
a period of economic and political stagnation up until the unification of Italy,
when expansion began again reaching up to the borders of the Greek city, and in
the end, overtaking them.
Decadence and Resurrection of Ortigia
Those who visited the island of Ortigia 20 years ago will remember the abandoned condition in which it was found: the
social changes of Italy after the war (the area of Syracuse saw in that period
a significant process of industrialization), and emigration brought progressive
depopulation to the island.
Emptied of its inhabitants (who moved to new and more spacious houses on the
mainland), and no longer undergoing maintenance, Ortigia literally began to fall to pieces.
Fortunately, after the mobilization of many people and associations who had fought
a substantial battle to save its heritage, the island in the last 15 years (in
the meantime proclaimed a World Heritage Site by UNESCO) was able to benefit from intervention and financing.
With this triggered a beneficial wave of restoration and redevelopment that has
literally changed its face.
While it is true that one can still notice while walking around Ortigia buildings
that are crumbling and propped up (albeit still beautiful), by now a large part
of the island exhibits a new face, returned to its original splendor.
However, this phenomenon unfortunately also has its disadvantages. The decision to save all of the island at once has, in fact, resulted in delays and difficulties. Visitors can therefore find some of the monuments they had hoped to visit “closed for restoration”.
Plaque at the Palazzo del Senato that records the proclamation of Syracuse as
a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
Fortunately, the wealth of history and art of Syracuse is such that despite the
sacrifices, it would be difficult to see everything, and at least be consoled
by the thought that the restoration work, in this case, was truly urgent and truly
a “question of life or death.”
It is worth being patient in the face of a story that for once, after all, has
a happy ending.
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