“Piazza Duomo” or Cathedral Square, starting point of every touristic visit, can be considered a monument itself: in fact, from this square began the reconstruction of the city after the catastrophic earthquake in 1693. Here there were the most important sites of both of the Government and Clergy of the City: the Town Hall and the Cathedral. During the eighteenth-century the most talented architects and skilled workers from all over Sicily, have designed it and carried out a splendid Baroque style, that nowadays has become UNESCO heritage. ‘Duomo’ Square is also the place where the Catanese citizens meet during the most important moments and celebrations, like the important Saint Agatha’s ceremony –the patron saint of the city – it has become the third religious celebration in the world! At the centre of the square there’s the “Fontana dell’Elefante” a fountain with a lava elephant that is the symbol of Catania; turning your eyes clockwise from the north-side you can see the Town Hall, the and the ex “Seminario dei Chierici”, nowadays divided into two parts: the Diocesan Museum and, in the south side, “Palazzo dei Chierici” the Clergy Palace now where the Town Hall offices are joined, “Porta Uzeda” Uzeda Gate, and the “Fontana dell’Amenano” the Amenano Fountain. But ‘Duomo’ Square conceals other surprises: in the underground, where there are “the Terme Achilliane”, and behind the Amenano Fountain, where there’s the typical fish market, the “Pescheria”, to remind us the sea is just a few steps away from there.
Duomo or The Cathedral
After the1693 earthquake the city Senate decided to rebuild the Cathedral where the location of the Norman Cathedral (1092) was. On the original three naves church the architect G. Palazzotto in 1709 began to create the reconstruction using the pre-existing architectural elements. The problem was to harmonize the massive load-bearing structures to the façade ant it was brilliantly resolved by G. B. Vaccarini , abbot and architect of Palermitan origin, who was one of the brightest and professional contributors to the 18th century reconstruction of Catania. He used many precious materials that came from the ancient Catanese monuments as to emphasize the idea of continuity between past and present. Inside the Cathedral against the second pillar to the right there is the tomb of Vincenzo Bellini, the great Catanese musician (1801-1835). For the citizens of Catania it is really important the chapel of Saint. Agatha which stores in the so called “cammaredda” (the little room), the relics of Saint. Agahta and the Shrine. When the Shrine is taken out the “cammaredda” on the 4th of February, it is one of the most touching moment the ceremony.
The Elephant Palace
“The Elephant Palace” or “Palazzo degli Elefanti” is Catania’s Town Hallsite of the government of the town: the Mayor and the town council gather for their meetings in the beautiful halls of this palace. The Palace has been built immediately after the earthquake in 1693 in place of the sixteenth-century “Palazzo Senatorio” (Catania has had a local government since 1320, thanks to the privilege given by Friederich II of Aragon). It has been designed by different architects, among them Giovan Battista Vaccarini who was nominated to project many of the most beautiful buildings of the old town centre. “Palazzo degli Elefanti” is quadrangular in shape and has got an entrance atrium on each of the four façades to underline its open nature and the idea of service to the community. Inside the Palace there are paintings of Giuseppe Sciuti, Emilio Greco and Francesco Contraffatto. From “Piazza Duomo” or The Cathedral Square Entrance, that is the heart of the city, which is the south- side of the Palace, there is a great portal and you can see on the upper floor the tribune (central balcony). Just in the Entrance Courtyard you can see the ancient “carrozze del Senato”: two magnificent wood carriages of the end of the eighteenth-century, the small wood carriage is more simple than the other one now used during Saint Agatha’s celebrations and on the 3rd of February and the city authorities travel in the carriages to the Church of Saint Biagio in Stesicoro square (Piazza Stesicoro) to offer a candle as a votive offer to the Patron Saint.
The Castello Ursino or ‘Ursino Castle’(the origin of the name is still uncertain) was built by order of Friederich II of Schwaben, between 1239 and 1250, to fortify the areas along the borders of the empire. The architect in charge “praepositus edificiorum” was Riccardo da Lentini. Originally the castle rose by the sea and was surrounded by a ditch and by very advanced defensive works. During the eruption in 1669 it was surrounded by the lava flow, which proceeding towards the sea distanced the castle from the shore of several hundred meters far from the sea. After long and accurate excavations the Castle returned to its original look. During 1400 the castle hosted the Aragon Royal family members, later it became a garrison‘s headquarter and as a prison . In the Thirties, the castle was restored and it has become since 1934 a Civic Museum. In its halls there are exhibited archeological finds from the Greek and Roman period, works of art from different historical periods which are high proofs of the Catanese artistic production, thanks to the contributions of the Prince Biscari, the Baron Zappalà-Asmundo and the Benedictine Fathers, moreover there are the most important acquisitions of the past centuries. Among the exhibited paintings the most interesting is the Virgin with the holy Child “Madonna con bambino” by Antonello da Saliba (1466-1535); furthermore there are works of Bernazzo, Bernardino Niger, Travi, Minniti, Stomer, Novelli and Rapisardi.
The Monastery of the Benedictine monks
“Monastero dei Benedettini” was founded in 1558. The former structure has undergone different changes and reconstructions because of catastrophic natural events which in 1669 and in 1693 devastated Catania destroying a large part of the building. The reconstruction – begun in 1702- and the most important Sicilian architects were at work -Ittar, Battaglia, Sant’Angelo, Palazzotto- and that Giovan Battista Vaccarini who signed the most important works of the eighteenth-century Sicilian Baroque. They added to the Monastery a new Cloister, the garden, the coffee-house and the areas where the monks lived their day life and as a community: the library, the kitchens, the wing of the novitiate, the dining halls and the choir called “coro di notte”. The Church of “St. Nicolò l ‘Arena” next to the new monastic building, was left unfinished in the main façade .The monastery became so one of the biggest convent of Europe . In 1886, the building was confiscated as part of the royal state property and later it was run by the municipality of Catania. The Town Hall has donated it to the University in Catania to house the Faculty of Literature and Philosophy since 1977. Soon after the restoration carried out by the architect G. De Carlo, the Monastery was recognised by the Sicilian Regional Administration as a Contemporary Architecture Work of Art. During some excavations , they discovered both the ruins of the ancient city of Roman age, and you can see one of the “Cardines” and the “Decumanus Maximus”; or the ruins of a house ‘domus’ of the late and imperial Hellenistic age.
Church of St. Nicolò l’Arena
The large church of St. Nicolò l’Arena, inspired to the Roman architectural models, was started in 1687 based on a project drawn by G.B. Contini. After the earthquake of 1693 the work was carried on by different architects, among them Francesco Battaglia and Stefano Ittar, the latter accomplished the 62 metres high dome: the façade was left incomplete (1796); among the major causes of the interruption of the work were the technical difficulties and the serious economic problems. Inside the three-naved church is 105 metres long; what strikes is the grandiosity of the architectural partitions and the clearness of the light coming through the high windows. At the centre of the presbytery stands the great main altar made with precious materials, all around it the stalls of the wooden choir are displayed, engraved by the Palermitan Nicolò Bagnasco. Yet the artistic work that in the past provided utmost prestige to the church was the famous organ by the abbot Donato del Piano, that could accurately reproduce both all the string and wind instruments: it has 72 organ-stops, 5 orders of keyboards and 2,916 pipes. “ Worth of particular attention is also the great sun-dial 39 metres long. It was carried out, in 1841 by the astronomers Sartorius Wolfrang Baron of Waltershausen in Gottingen and by the prof. Christian Peters in Flensburg.
Biscari Palace was built by order of Ignazio Paternò Castello prince of Biscari ,as his residence in an imperious baroque style, built on the sixteenth-century walls of Catania, and it covers a whole block. It is the most important baroque palace in Catania, the first works of construction began in 1702, after the destruction caused by earthquake. First the palace had only one floor, but the museum had already located there with the archaeological finds collected by the prince in his large landed estates in the plain of Catania and Biscari. In the Palace there are seven hundred rooms , but the heart of the residence is in its halls. It is opposite the Port and on the famous “Marina Arches”, where until the 20s they were by the sea the and washed the steep ramparts . During the Second World War, the English soldiers who occupied the city wanted to set a defence position, but when they went inside the halls, the officers realized the historical and architectural importance of the palace so they used it as a residence.
The theatre, was built with later extensions in a period covering from I to IV century A.D. , it is on the southern site and sits on the hill where the ancient Acropolis of Catania was. In the past the theatre could house an audience of 7,000. The “cavea”, latin name for the semicircle holding the terraces on which the audience sat, lays on high, vaulted corridors. It is made up of twenty one series of seats, divided horizontally by two aisles (called technically “praecinctiones”) and vertically by nine wedges and eight stairways. The chromatic alternation of black and white, a feature of almost all Catanese buildings , conveyed to the solemn monument a preciousness. The lower structures of the theatre of Catania are currently washed by the waters of the “Amenano” river . The water of this river, according to some scholars, was used for water game shows during Roman period.
At the center of Piazza Stesicoro (Stesicoro square) there is a large trench that encloses some remains the Roman amphitheatre of Catania. From the end of the last century the square was completely covered. The work carried out in uncovering the amphitheatre began in 1904 and it was completed in the Spring of 1906. The grandiose Roman monument, one of the largest in Italy, is almost entirely hidden under modern constructions but it is visible below the road level. From the building point of view the amphitheatre consists of a “cavea”, an auditorium of 14 terraces divided into three orders with a podium and “ambulatories” (covered corridors) that allow the access to the terraces arranged on three levels that corresponded to the two orders of external arches and to the attic. The external circumference is of 309 meters, and the arena circumference is of 192 meters and it has been calculated estimated it could contain 15,000 seated spectators and almost the double of them with the addition of structures for standing spectators. Dating of the building is still uncertain and is based on dates to the mid second century B.C. In Theodoric times the monument was already in an advanced state of abandonment; Roger the Norman used its imposing structure by stripping it of masonry he needed to building the Cathedral. Today these blocks can be seen in the external construction of the cathedral apses accessible from V.Emanuele Street n°159.
Massimo Bellini Theatre
The Bellini Theatre facing onto the square of the same name, was inaugurated on May 31st in 1890 with the performance of “Norma” by Vincenzo Bellini. The realisation of this ambitious monument to music has a long and troubled history of plans and changed projects behind itself. The present building is the work of Carlo Sada. The style of the Catanese is inspired by the French eclecticism of the “Second Empire” imposed in Paris by Charles Garnier with the Paris “Opéra”. The façade is loaded of ornaments and allegories; the entrance porch for carriages surrounded by iron gates is very elegant. The concert hall inside has an excellent acoustics, it has four orders of boxes and a gallery. Around them run elegant corridors, halls and the foyer, where you can see a magnificent statue of Vincenzo Bellini. Ernesto Bellandi painted the frescoes; in 1883 the painter Giuseppe Sciuti painted a pre-curtain that displaying the legendary victory of the Catanese people over the Lybians.