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Monday, January 4, 2016

Renaissance Cities--Syracuse

Saint Paul, standing guard outside the Syracuse Cathedral.
For those visiting Italy, one of the greatest mistakes you can make is to ignore Sicily. All too many art appreciators, in being overwhelmed by the art and architecture of the Italy, tend to think of the island of Sicily just off the "toe" of the peninsula as little more than a badly deflated football about to be booted towards the rock of Gibraltar. The greatest thing about Sicily is that it's Italy in a nutshell, with several large and small cities quite comparable to those of Italy. There's Palermo, Taormina, Syracuse, Noto, Messina--just to name a few. Palermo is like the "Rome" of Sicily. Taormina is a quaint, touristy version of Sorrento. Messina is somewhat like Naples. Forget Messina, the Allies bombed the hell out of the place during the Second World War so it's not got much to appeal to the arty crowd. Noto is interesting for the fact that it was a Baroque era experiment in city planning. Unlike most Italian cities, it actually has a grid. Then there's Syracuse. It was originally built largely on an island with a magnificent harbor, though it looks and feels nothing like Venice. It has hills; and its a good deal dryer.
Copyright, Jim Lane
The Venice of Sicily?
Despite the differences in geography, Syracuse does have a lot in common with Venice; though, as I said before, in a more concentrated form. Whereas Venice has Baroque churches seemingly on every street canal corner, Syracuse has only a sampling. But what they have are on a par with any Venice might boast. Moreover, with a good pair of sneakers, you can easily walk from one to another in just a few minutes. Try doing that in Venice. Syracuse was a thriving seaport from its founding by the Greeks in 734 BC (long before Venice, by the way). However, unlike Venice, during the Renaissance and the 16th-century, it was little more than that, although the way its more powerful neighbors fought over it around that time, you'd have thought the city streets were paved with gold. The Renaissance came late to Syracuse and not because any Renaissance masters chose it as a vacation hot spot (which it is today).
Copyright, Jim Lane
Syracuse today--as Italian as Venice without the troublesome canals.
Copyright, Jim Lane
Syracuse missed out on the benefits of modern-
day city planning the 1696 earthquake allowed
its neighbors.
On January 11, 1696, around nine p.m. the eastern third of Sicily was struck by the most powerful earthquake in Italian history, an estimated 7.4 catastrophe which utterly destroyed some seventy Sicilian towns and cities (including Syracuse), killing an estimated sixty-thousand inhabitants in the area. What the quake didn't kill, a tsunami followed mopping up almost as many more. The quake was centered offshore, just up the coast from Syracuse, near Catania, where a tidal wave wiped out nearly two-thirds of the city's population. During the next century or more, the entire area was rebuilt. Some cities moved as much as ten or fifteen miles, which offered Italian architects the opportunity for some of the first attempts as modern-day city planning. Syracuse, of course, couldn't be moved. Moreover the contrast between it and the city of Nota (which was moved) is quite Nota-ble. Today, Syracuse (below) still struggles with the congestion inherent in their narrow streets (above, left) and "helter skelter" layout leftover from medieval times.

The present-day residents of Syracuse don't refer to the island portion of their city as the "old town" for nothing. It's pretty hard to move a seaport and start over from scratch. Mount Etna can be seen in the background.
More important than streets of radials and grids is the fact that the prevailing Baroque extravagances of the 17th and 18th-centuries served to unite each city's architecture into a single style which has come to be know as Sicilian Baroque. A prime example, the centerpiece of this style, located in Syracuse, is its cathedral (the Duomo, below). The cathedral façade, designed by Andrea Palma and begun in 1728, is based on the formula of a Roman triumphal arch, allowing the broken masses within a columned façade to create a theatrical effect. They had just finished cleaning the facade when I was there two years ago. Set in a broad, elongated piazza, whatever you may think of Baroque architecture, the warm, pinkish glow of the native limestone was quite striking.

Copyright, Jim Lane
The Syracuse Cathedral--Sicilian Baroque at its best.
First it was a Greek temple, then an
Arab mosque, and finally, about a thousand
years ago, it became a cathedral.
Inside is another matter. There has been a place of worship situated on this site since the Greeks celebrated their victory over the Carthaginians in the Battle of Himera during the fifth century BC. In fact, archaeologist around 1900 discovered remains of an altar and other temple artifacts on the site which dated back some three-hundred years before that. The temple built by the Greeks was to Athena (of course) and Doric in style, a sort of mini-Parthenon in appearance. The conversion from Greek temple to Christian cathedral occurring some-time around the 11th-century, was hardly what you'd call flawless. Though Palma later did his best to disguise the church's pagan past, columns from the original Temple of Athena still dominate the interior, giving it a dark, gloomy look crying out for a bit of stained glass here and there along the aisles.


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