What may well be Sicily’s most enticing city is actually three places: the vast Greek and Roman city that played such a prominent role in the ancient world, the cultural island of Ortigia, where the narrow streets are lined with classical monuments and intricate Baroque churches, and a modern town of broad avenues and seaside promenades. A walk almost anywhere in Siracusa, which is 59km (37miles) south of Catania, brings you to a remarkable structure or two.
The remains of ancient Syracuse litter every corner of the city, but many are concentrated on the mainland in the Parco Archeologico della Neapolis, on the western edge of the modern city. Looking at these monuments, it is easy to appreciate the power Siracusa once wielded. Corinthians colonized Siracusa in the 8th century BC, settling on the island of Ortigia. Soon they set their eyes on the rest of Sicily and much of the Mediterranean world, defeating the Carthaginian and Etruscan fleets and eventually, in the so-called Great Expedition of 413BC, the forces Athens sent to quell the ambitious Siracusans. Under such powerful and often tyrannical rulers as Hieron I and Dionysius the Elder, the city thrived and welcomed Pindar, Aeschylus, Plato and other great minds of the Hellenistic world.
The Romans, against whom Siracusa fought in the Second Punic War, finally subdued the city in 211BC. Though Siracusa never again regained its power, natural harbors ensured the city would remain an important trading post. Early Christianity, bolstered by a visit from Saint Paul, flourished in Siracusa, and extensive catacombs beneath the city served as both tombs and churches.
The Parco Archeologico della Neapolis
Much of ancient Siracusa was built of limestone that slaves, captured in the city’s numerous sea battles, dug out of quarries called the Latomie. Now overgrown with tropical foliage that lends a garden like aspect to the archeological park, the Latomie were also used as prisons. The cavern dubbed Orecchio di Dionisio, Ear of Dionysius, seems to have been especially well suited to this purpose, legend has it the tyrant made use of the unusual acoutstics, which allowed him to stand at the entrance and overhear anything a prisoner or guard within might whisper. The dampness of the adjoining Grotta dei Cordari (closed indefinitely) provided ideal conditions for rope makers, rendering the strands more pliant, the ropes fashioned here thousands of tears ago have left deep indentations in the rocks. Just beyond the ear of Dionysius is the Teatro Greco, one of the largest Greek theatre in the ancient world. Aeschylus wrote work to be performed on its stage. Of the original 59 rows of seats, 42 still remain and are filled during the summer months for popular performances of some of the ancient Greek dramas. The Anfiteatro Romano served less refined tastes: built in the 3rd century AD, it staged circuses and gladiatorial events. Kieron II, who ruled all of Sicily from Siracusa throughout much of the 3rd century BC, commissioned his eponymous Ara di Ierone II. The largest sacrificial alter in the Greek world was 200m (660ft) long and could accommodate 450 bulls at a time.
Basilica di San Giovanni and the Catacombs
Other remnants of inaction Siracusa are scattered about the city, often neglected and choked by week. A much visited site in the city’s oldest church, the Basilica di San Giovanni, just north of Via Teocrito. Though the church has been a roofless ruin since the earthquake of 1693, it is possible to find the spot where Saint Paul delivered a sermon and the pillar to which Saint Marcian, the first bishop of Siracusa, was tied and flogged to death in 254. Steps descend to the Catacombe di San Giovani, part of a vast network of caverns that often follows the paths of subterranean Greek aqueducts. The provided a place of refuge for Christians during times of Roman persecution, and as a Christian burial was forbidden under Roman law, so the passageways also served as tombs, it is believed that more than 20.000 early Christians are buried beneath San Giovanni.
The Museo Archeologico
Many of the finds from ancient Siracusa are displayed in the Museo Archeologico Regionale Paolo Orsi just south of San Giovanni on Viale Teocrito. This is one of the most extensive archeological collections in Europe and ranges far beyond Siracusa in the rest of the Mediterranean world. The prize of the collection, though, is ffrom Siracusa: a headless Venus Anadiomene, modestly covering her nudity as she emerges from the water. Among the votive statuettes, burial urns and torsos, are tools and skeletons of the Stone and Bronze Age people who inhabited this cornes of Sicily long before the Greeks arrived. The small Museo del Papiro next door displays ancient papyrus manuscripts and other artifacts. Ancient Siracusans are believed to have brought the plant back from their exploits in North Africa, and you may notice clumps of it in the city’s gardens, the only place in Europe to grow.
This picturesque island, once ancient Ortigia, is separated from the mainland by a narrow channel, and crammed with the remnants of more than 2500 years of history. After decades of neglect it has undergone regeneration and is looking lovelier than ever.
The Tempio di Apollo is at the end of Ponte Nuovo. A few broken columns and marble fragments are all thatt remains of the structure, which dates from 565BC and is thought to be the oldest Doric temple in Sicily. This temple was dedicated to Apollo, whose name is legible on the steps of the base. The Corso Matteotti leads from the temple to Piazza Archimede, the grandiose centre of Ortigia and named for the Greek mathematician and inventor who was a 3rd century BC resident of the city. The Piazza Duomo, just south along the Via Roma, is one of the most attractive squares in Italy, providing an appropriate setting for the cathedral and some of the island’s grandest palaces. The Duomo is a blend of architectural styles from Siracusa’s long history. It incorporates the body of a temple of Athena the Siracusans built in thanksgiving for their victory over the Carthaginians at Himera in the 6th century BC, you can see 12 columns from the temple, including one of the most splendidly decorated in the ancient world located in the north wall. The church took on Byzantine elements when it became the first Christian cathedral of Siracusa in AD640, a Norman facade that was replaced when it collapsed in the earthquake of 1963, and the Baroque elements that are much in evidence today. The interior is quite sparse, but houses a number of statues by the Gagini, the illustrious clan of Baroque sculptors, and a fine paintings of Saint Zosimus by Antonello Da Messina.
Fonte Aretusa and Regional Gallery Art
The western shore of Ortigia, just a few steps in front of Piazza Duomo, is the long seaside esplanade, the Foro Italiaco. This is where Siracusan come for an evening passeggiata, accompanied by a view of setting sun. Lord Nelson docked here, beside the Fonte Aretusa, to take on fresh water en route to the Battle of the Nile. He drew from a renowned source: the fountain was famous throughout the inaction world as the metamorphosed nymph Arethusa.
Fleeing the unwanted attentions of the river god Apheius, she called on the goddess Artemis for help. Artemis turned her into a spring, and she flowed beneath the Mediterranean and emerged here, to no avail, since Alpheius followed her and forever mingles his waters with hers. The fountain continues to gush into a pool overgrown with papyrus. The promenade running south, the Lungomare Alfeo, is flanked by sea view restaurants and bars. At its end the Castello Maniace is a massive Swabian fortress which has been newly restored and opened to the public.
The Via Capodieci leads inland again to a handsome group of palaces. One of them, the 13th to 15th century Palazzo Bellomo, houses the Regional Gallery Art, the regional art gallery, highlight of which is Antonello da Messina’s Annunciation. Caravaggio’s Burial of St. Lucy, which used to hang here, is now in the church of Santa Lucia up the street.
The building combines elements of its Swabian construction (c. 1234) with alterations of the 15th century. The splendid collection, recently rearranged, includes some great masterpieces. Entrance is through the two courtyards. In the first are stone inscriptions, including some from Jewish cemetary. In the second one are aristocratic coats of arms carved in stone, and a large window affording a view of the 18th century state carriages of the city. In the small rooms opening onto this courtyard are elements of medieval art as sculptures and some lustre-ware bowls from Spain. The principal galleries are in the first floor. To the left is Gallery 1, displaying the Madonna Annunciate by Antonello da Messina, painted for the church of the Annunziata of Palazzolo Acreide in 1474, and discovered by chance in the church in 1807. Painted on wood and much decayed, apart from the figures of the Virgin and the Angel in, the fragments of color sere transferred onto canvas during a long and difficult restoration. In the other part of the room, in front of the huge fireplace, is the Madonna of the Goldfinch by Domenico Gagini, and the marble tombstone of Giovanni Savastida, who died in 1472, showing his effigy on one side and a Pietà on the other, probably the work of Francesco Laurana. Gallery 2 has a collection of crib figurines in wax and cloth, and Sicilian ceramic bowls and jugs in the centre. Gallery 3 shows 17th century paintings, mostly anonymous, and a model in wood and ivory of the city of Siracusa. Gallery 4, a stunning Immaculate Virgin with Saints by Willem Borremans. Paintings by Mario Minniti and by Giuseppe and Giovanni Reati as a Martyrdom of St Lucy are in gallery 5. In Gallery 6 there is a sketchbook belonging to Filippo Paladini and a large statue-reliquaries. In the middle of the room, gallery 7, there is a marvellous collection of old Byzantine icons, a series of pictures portraying episodes from the Old Testament and panel-paintings of saints.