Piazza del Duomo is the main square of the city and certainly the most spectacular. In it converge three main streets: Via Etnea, Via Giuseppe Garibaldi and Via Vittorio Emanuele II. On the eastern side of the square stands the Duomo di Catania (Cattedrale di Sant'Agata), dedicated to Sant'Agata the patron saint of the city celebrated every February on the 5th, the biggest celebration in the city.
The Cathedral of Sant'Agata has been destroyed and rebuilt several times because of earthquakes and eruptions of the nearby Mount Etna. It was originally constructed in 1078-1093, on the ruins of the ancient Roman Achillean Baths, by order of Roger I of Sicily, who had conquered the city from the Islamic emirate of Sicily. At the time it had the appearance of a fortified church (ecclesia munita).
In 1169 the church was almost entirely destroyed by an earthquake, leaving only the apse area intact. Further damage was caused later by a fire, but the most catastrophic event was the 1693 earthquake, which again left it mostly in ruins. Today, traces of the original Norman edifice include part of the transept, the two towers and the three semicircular apses, composed of large lava stones, most of them recovered from imperial Roman buildings.
The current appearance of the cathedral dates from 1711 and it is work of Gian Battista Vaccarini, who designed a new Baroque façade after the 1693 earthquake. It has three levels with Corinthian columns made of granite, perhaps taken from the Roman Theatre of the city. It is decorated with marble statues: the most prominant is the one of Saint Agatha over the entrance, and the ones of Saint Euplius and Saint Birillus on either side of the entrance.
The main door, in wood, has 32 sculpted plaques with episodes of the life and martyrdom of Saint Agatha, papal coats of arms and symbols of Christianity. The dome dates from 1802. The cathedral has a Latin cross groundplan, with a nave and two aisles. In the southern aisle are the baptistery and, at the first altar, a canvas of Saint Febronia of Nisibis by Borremans facing, on a pilaster, the tomb of the composer Vincenzo Bellini. Also notable is the Chapel of St. Agatha.
Agatha of Sicily.
One of the most highly venerated virgin martyrs of Christian antiquity, Agatha was put to death during the persecution of Decius (250–253) in Catania, for her determined profession of faith. Agatha was born in Catania and died there. She is buried at the church of the Badia di Sant'Agata (on Via Vittorio Emanuele II, 182).
According to the 13th-century Golden Legend by Jacobus de Voragine, fifteen-year-old Agatha, from a rich and noble family, made a vow of virginity and rejected the amorous advances of the low-born Roman prefect Quintianus, who thought he could force her to turn away from her vow and force her to marry.
His persistent proposals were consistently spurned by Agatha, so Quintianus, knowing she was a Christian during the persecution of Decius, had her arrested and brought before the judge. He was the judge. He expected her to give in to his demands when she was faced with torture and possible death, but she simply reaffirmed her belief in God by praying: "Jesus Christ, Lord of all, you see my heart, you know my desires. Possess all that I am. I am your sheep: make me worthy to overcome the devil."
With tears falling from her eyes, she prayed for courage. To force her to change her mind, Quintianus sent Agatha to Aphrodisia, the keeper of a brothel, and had her imprisoned there. Agatha never lost her confidence in God, even though she suffered a month of rape, assault, and efforts to get her to abandon her vow to God and go against her virtue. Quintianus sent for her again, argued, threatened, and finally had her put in prison and had her tortured. She was stretched on a rack to be torn with iron hooks, burned with torches, and whipped.
Amongst the tortures she underwent was the cutting off of her breasts with pincers (Minne di Sant'Agata, is a typical Sicilian sweet shaped as a breast, representing the cut breasts of Saint Agatha).
After further dramatic confrontations with Quintianus, Saint Agatha was then sentenced to be burnt at the stake, but an earthquake saved her from that fate; instead, she was sent to prison where St. Peter the Apostle appeared to her and healed her wounds. Saint Agatha died in prison, probably in the year 251 according to the Legenda Aurea.
Although the martyrdom of Saint Agatha is authenticated, and her veneration as a saint had spread beyond her native place even in antiquity, there is no reliable information concerning the details of her death. Saint Agatha is the patron saint of rape victims, breast cancer patients, wet nurses, and bellfounders (due to the shape of her severed breasts). She is also considered to be a powerful intercessor when people suffer from fires. Her feast day is celebrated on February 5.
On the north side of Piazza del Duomo is the Palazzo degli Elefanti, that is, the Town Hall. On the other side of the square are the Fontana dell'Amenano, very popular with locals and tourists who throw coins in it and make a wish and, next to it, the Palazzo dei Chierici which is connected to the Cathedral by a passage over Porta Uzeda.
The passage over Porta Uzeda connects the Museo Diocesano di Catania, which is adjacent to the Cathedral and the Palazzo del Seminario dei Chierici, which forms the southern border of the square. On the other side of Porta Uzeda is located Giardino Pacini and Piazza Paolo Borselino and the impressive arches of the Marina which support the train tracks.
The porta di Carlo V, just on the right of Porta Uzeda is part of the only remaining part of the city walls.
Taking centre stage on Catania's showpiece Piazza del Duomo is the Catania's most memorable monument and the symbol of the city, the marble Fontana dell'Elefante, a monumental work created between 1735 and 1737 by the architect Giovanni Battista Vaccarini.
The base of the fountain is made of a white marble pedestal located in the center of a basin, also in marble, in which jets of water fall out of the basement. On the base two sculptures reproduce the two rivers of Catania, the Simeto and the Amenano.
The basic element of the fontana is an adorable, smiling elephant, known locally as "u Liotru", a lava stone statue dating from the Roman period. The elephant, has its proboscis turned towards the cathedral of Sant'Agata.
This elephant of uncertain age was originally carved from a single block of lava stone, but following the earthquake of 1693 the hind legs were shattered, restored by Vaccarini himself. During the restoration the architect added the white eyes and limestone tusks.
On the sides of the elephant falls a marble gualdrappa on which are engraved the coats of arms of St. Agatha, patroness of Catania. Liotru, who according to local folklore, possesses magical powers, is surmounted by an improbable Egyptian obelisk.
The 3.66 meters high obelisk, in granite, has no hieroglyphs, but is decorated with figures of Egyptian style that do not constitute a hieroglyphic writing of complete meaning. Of uncertain chronology, perhaps it was one of the two obelisks of the ancient Roman circus of Catania, the other one, more fragmentary, is in the courtyard of the Castello Ursino. On the top of the obelisk a globe was mounted, surrounded by a crown of a palm leaf (representing martyrdom) and a branch of lilies (representing purity), above a small metal tablet on which there is an inscription dedicated to St. Agatha with the acronym "MSSHDPL" ("Mente sana e sincera, per l'onore di Dio e per la liberazione della sua patria" -"Healthy and sincere mind, for the honor of God and for the liberation of homeland"), and finally a cross.
Most probably, the statue of the elephant symbol of the City of Catania was the gnomon of a sundial at the center of Piazza Duomo.
Thus, the monument used to measure time with the help of the sun light and is therefore an "eliotrico” ("heliotropic"), which became "liotru" in the local dialect. The quadrant on which the shadow projected on the ground has not survived, if ever existed.
The link between Catania and liotru is very old. An ancient legend tells of an elephant who was hunting ferocious animals around the time of the foundation of Kατάvη.
Under Muslim domination, the city was known as Balad-el-fil or Medinat-el-fil, meaning "elephant city". The Liotru became an official symbol of the city only in 1239; before then, the city emblem was the effigy of St. George. The pachyderm inserted in the municipal coat of arms and in that of the province and the university. Today it is the mascot of the main local sports clubs, including Calcio Catania and Amatori Catania.
The Liotru (also called, more rarely, Diotru) owes its name to the crippling of the name Eliodoro (Heliodorus). According to the popular legend, he was a Catanese nobleman who had tried unsuccessfully to become bishop of the diocese. Having fallen into disgrace, he became an apostate and considered "a disciple of the Jews, a necromancer and a blacksmith of idols".
He embraces the black magic and the demons he unleashes torment the city of Catania: turning men into wild beasts, making raw metals appear like gold coins, stones become precious diamonds that, after the purchase, show themselves as useless junk.
Heliodorus, the evil Heliodorus, makes himself a fearsome enemy of a holy and devout town. Bishop Leo II the Thaumaturge condemns him to be burned alive in the Forum Achelles.
He tries to flee away. But moving on foot, even if you are a big magician, is a real struggle! He decided, therefore, to shape a faithful and powerful animal of lava rock.
Liotru was carved and forged by the red-hot lava of Etna and, once completed, ridden like a steed while the hands of Heliodorus hurl terrible spells.
Nobody manages to defeat the terrible magician: the emperor of Constantinople himself, exasperated by the fatal news coming from the city of Catania, sends expeditions of philosophers, armies, intellectuals and saints of all kinds, but no one manages to stop the terrible Heliodorus, who is unbeatable thanks also to the mighty stone elephant. But the bad guys are always destined to lose: bishop Leo II, who become later a saint, with his faith manages to destroy, little by little, every emblem, every stronghold of the power of Heliodorus and, during a mass that the magician wants to disturb, the bishop throws to his neck a holy stole and there, in the sacred words of the Church, it expels the soul reducing it to ashes.
The Terme Achilliane baths are located about 4/5 meters below Piazza del Duomo. Access to the baths is possible by a staircase on the left of the façade of the cathedral (by the Diocesan Museum of Catania). Under the square flows the underground Amenano river, whose waters rise to the surface in the nearby Amenano fountain, the only point the river surfaces.
The fountain, which built in 1867 by the Neapolitan master Tito Angelini with Carrara marble, depicts the river Amenano as a young man holding a cornucopia from which water is poured into a convex tank. The water, overflowing from this tank, produces a cascading effect that gives the sensation of a sheet. Behind the fountain, a lava stone staircase leads to the Pescheria, an old city market that, together with the Vucciria of Palermo, is one of the major folk attractions of the two Sicilian cities.
On Via Vittorio Emanuele II stands the 18th century Chiesa della Badia di Sant'Agata. The church is located opposite the north elevation of the cathedral, and occupies, along with the annexed former Monastery (now owned by the city and houses also the Tourist Information Center on Via Vittorio Emanuele II, 172), the entire block bounded by Via Raddusa, via Santa Maria del Rosario and Via Sant'Agata.
With an elegant concave-convex facade, the church was designed by architect Giovanni Battista Vaccarini. The architect's death in 1768 saw Nicolò Daniele take over completion of the interior, his own contributions including the dramatic Carrara marble floor and amber-coloured altars in Castronovo marble. The pièce de résistance, however, is the spectacular, 360-degree panorama from the dome, which takes in the city's rooftops and domes, and a brooding Mt Etna to the north.
The church that we see today rests on the ruins of the older (1620) church and convent dedicated to Sant'Agata, designed by Erasmo Cicala and which collapsed because of the earthquake of 1693.
Via Vittorio Emanuele II is one of the most important streets of Catania. It develops through the historic center, from the sea and Piazza dei Martiri, to the western part of the city, in Piazza Risorgimento.
note: for practical reasons I split this walk into two parts: Via Vittorio Emanuele II-east and Via Vittorio Emanuele II-west.
Along the path of Via Vittorio Emanuele II (previously Strada Reale) there are numerous palaces and monuments, evidence of cultures and dominations that, over the centuries, have affected Catania. At the exact half of its extension crosses with Via Etnea and, therefore, with Piazza Duomo, forming the road septum which overlooks the Palazzo degli Elefanti.
Continuing towards the sea, you will come to Piazza San Placido, where the homonymous late Baroque church of San Placido stands. Nearby, on Via Museo Biscari, stands the prestigious Palazzo Biscari.
The construction of the church of Chiesa di San Placido took place on the ruins of an ancient pagan temple dedicated to the god Bacchus, a place of worship for the religious tradition of Catania, since it was said that once here stood the birthplace of St. Agatha, patroness of the city. This 15th century church was razed to the ground by the catastrophic earthquake of the Val di Noto in 1693, which destroyed Catania. On the initiative of the only three nuns who survived from the rubble of the earthquake, the reconstruction was started, entrusted to the architect Stefano Ittar, and the new church was consecrated in 1723.
The 15th century church was razed to the ground by the catastrophic earthquake of the Val di Noto in 1693, which destroyed Catania. On the initiative of the only three nuns who survived from the rubble of the earthquake, the reconstruction was started, entrusted to the architect Stefano Ittar, and the new church was consecrated in 1723.
The facade of the church, in Sicilian baroque style, is made of white stone of Taormina. The facade is concave in the middle and ends at the sides with two sharp points. On either side of the single entrance door are the statues of saints Placido and Benedetto and above them, in smaller dimensions, those of the saints Scolastica and Geltrude. The entrance is enclosed by an artistic wrought iron grating, convex in shape, with the coat of arms of St. Benedict in the center. On the top of the façade there is a bell tower with three bells.
Palazzo Platamone (Palazzo della Cultura) is located further to the east, testimony of late medieval and Renaissance architecture, owes its name to the Platamone family among the most illustrious families of Catania in the fifteenth century.
After the terrible earthquake of 1693, the remains of the former Monastery of San Placido and of the Palazzo Platamone (already donated by the Platamone family to the Benedictines in the 15th ce) were integrated for the construction of the current Palace of Culture. After numerous renovations, the only late-medieval testimony of the building is represented by the loggia, which overlooks a small balcony that seems almost set against the backdrop of the monastery courtyard.
The rows of arches that line the rectangular plan seem to embrace the whole building. In the middle you can still see the emblem of the Platamone family, which represents a mountain with three shells and a lily on top. Today the Palace of Culture is used as a venue for important cultural events, exhibitions and concerts.
Behind Palazzo Platamone stands Palazzo Biscari, built by will of the Paternò Castello family, the princes of Biscari. The construction started in the late 17th century, but the 1693 earthquake destroyed the first building and the new palace was built directly against the city walls (Charles V's walls), which had partially withstood the earthquake.
The palace went through alternations and add-ons, finished in 1763 and inaugurated with big celebrations. The palace is accessed through a large portal facing via Museo Biscari, leading to the inner courtyard, which features a large double staircase. In the interior is the "Feasts Hall", in Roccoco style, with a complex decoration of mirrors, stuccoes and frescos painted by Matteo Desiderato and Sebastiano Lo Monaco. The small dome, destined to the orchestra, has a fresco depicting the glories of the Paternò Castello di Biscari family. It is accessed through a staircase decorated in stucco within the gallery facing the sea.
Two blocks north from Palazzo Platamone, stands the Teatro Massimo Bellini, the opera house of Catania, named after the local-born composer Vincenzo Bellini. The theater was inaugurated on 31 May 1890 with a performance of the composer's masterwork, Norma. The exterior of the house matches the distinctive Sicilian Baroque style of the neighboring buildings of the late 17th Century.
Its marble foyer, the “Ridotto”, is ornate and a statue of Bellini is located between the central arches. The beautiful red-plush interior includes the main floor seating and four tiers of boxes. Surrounding them, on the upper level, are unusual arched arcades. The painted ceiling by Ernesto Bellandi depicts scenes from four of Bellini’s most well-known operas.
Throughout its history, the opera house has performed almost all of Bellini’s work. From its beginnings, a wide variety of operas have been performed by some highly renowned singers. In 1951, to mark the 150th anniversary of the birth of Bellini, Maria Callas sang Norma, repeating her success in 1952 and 1953. The theater faces the circular Piazza Vincenzo Bellini, surrounded by typical Catanese buildings.
From Piazza Bellini take Via Landolina back to Via Vittorio Emanuele II. Continue eastwards. On Via Bonajuto, on the lower floors of a building stands the Bonajuto chapel, a byzantine church dated from the 6th-9th century.
Further east, opposite Piazza Cutelli, stands the Cutelli boarding school (Convitto Nazionale Mario Cutelli), designed by Francesco Battaglia and Gian Battista Vaccarini commissioned by Mario Cutelli, is another example of great eighteenth-century architecture (1761). These two architects, in 1776, also designed the monumental Palazzo Reburdone, now home (together with Palazzo Pedagaggi) of the Faculty of Political Sciences of the University of Catania, located to the end of Via Vittorio Emanuele II, just before Piazza Martiri della Libertà by the train tracks and the sea.
South of the eastern part of Via Vittorio Emanuele II and all the way to the arches of the elevated train tracks, there is one of city's oldest neighborhoods: a labyrinth of roads with beautiful houses and palazzi, alas in a very deteriorating condition. It is really worth walking around these narrow streets with the charm of the old. At the center of the neighborhood stands Largo XVII Agosto, a square that was born from a bomb and was given the name of that date: August the 17th 1943.
As this has been for decades the most neglected and infamous part of Catania, the city decided to put the neighborhood back into the map. In 2008 the renovations were completed in this pulsating heart of the city: mainly of the XVII Agosto square and of the neighboring streets like via Vadalà and via Billotta. The works consisted of the total repaving, the installation of new lighting, the fitting of benches and trees.
To the west of Piazza Duomo (on Via Vittorio Emanuele II), stands the spectacular Piazza San Francesco d'Assisi with the church of St. Francis of Assisi to the Immaculate (Chiesa di San Francesco d’Assisi all’Immacolata) and the statue of Cardinal Dusmet. Opposite the church is the elegant Palazzo Gravina Cruyllas, where Vincenzo Bellini lived. The Belliniano Civic Museum and the Emilio Greco Museum are located here. In the rooms dedicated to Emilio Greco there are 159 works, including lithographs and etchings, made between 1955 and 1992. The other noble residence on Piazza San Francesco is the imposing Palazzo Platania (19th century), which occluded to the east the view of the external façade of the Teatro Antico.
The square marks the beginning of the historic Via dei Crociferi, the street that is considered the finest example of the Sicilian Baroque. The street, surrounded by churches, monasteries and a few civilian houses, is an example of the unity of Baroque architecture. In the short space of about 200 meters there are four churches. The first is the church of San Benedetto connected to the convent of the Benedictine nuns (Monastero delle Benedettine) which is consisted of two parts: badia grande and the badia piccola (since 2013 it houses the MacS – Museo Arte Contemporanea Sicilia) connected over the road by the 1704 San Benedetto arch. It is accessed by a small staircase and is surrounded by a wrought iron gate. Continuing we find the church of San Francesco Borgia, which is accessed via two staircases.
The two churches are separated by the small Via San Benedetto that leads to the Asmundo Francica-Nava Palace, jutting out onto Piazza Asmundo di Gisira. At this point the street forms an open space, something like a piazza, and you can enjoy your cafe or drink in this unique "baroque theatrical stage". When I visited it was a bright winter day and I sat outside Drogheria Artistica Vladivostock enjoying my drink and absorbing as much as possible of this magical atmosphere.
Following is the Jesuit college, the old seat of the Art Institute, with a beautiful cloister. Opposite the college is the church of San Giuliano considered one of the most beautiful examples of the Baroque of Catania. The building, attributed to the architect Giovan Battista Vaccarini, has a convex prospect and clean and elegant lines. Continuing and crossing the Via Antonino di San Giuliano, you can admire the uphill perspective of this street and then the church of San Camillo.
At the end of the street there is Villa Cerami, which is the seat of the Faculty of Law of the University of Catania.
Back to Via Vittorio Emanuele II. Continue further west (up the hill) and you come across two witnesses of Roman Catania: the Roman Theater (Teatro Romano di Catania) and the smaller Odeon. This is the area of the ancient Greek Catania (Katane). The road rising up to the hill is already an indication that you are on the way to the former Acropolis. The Greek theatre was once located on the southern slope of the former Acropolis, the same theatre in which Alcibiades spoke to the inhabitants of Catania during the Peloponnese war.
The theater was rebuilt by the Romans into a Roman theatre system with a connected Odeon, which are the buildings we see today. The auditorium of the Roman theatre with its two walkways has a diameter of 100 metres and was probably designed for approximately 7,000 spectators. The rows of seats, steps and the orchestra are made of black lava rock. The Odeon, which is directly connected west of the Teatro Romano, was also built of lava rock and is slightly higher than the big theatre.
Since the Roman theater was later partially obscured by baroque buildings, it is difficult to discern from the outside. The entrance is at Via Emanuele 266. Admission fee: 6.00 €.
Exit the theater complex on Via Vittorio Emanuele II and turn righ at the second street (Via Sant'Agostino) till you see on your right hand the excavations of Terme della Rotonda.
This is a vast monumental complex of Roman thermal baths, dated to the 1st-2nd century AD, transformed into a church in the Byzantine era dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
The entrance is from Via della Mecca. Admission hours: The 1st and the 3rd Monday of the month from 9.00 to 13.00. The remaining days by reservation. Free entrance, if you ever manage to enter!
At Via Gesuiti (behind the Terme) turn left and continue to Piazza Dante. Here, on the top of the hill, stands the great monastic complex of the Benedictines (Monastero di San Nicolò l'Arena), an impressive complex with a monumental eighteenth-century church, one of the biggest churches in Sicily (even larger than the Cathedral of Sant'Agata).
The impressive exterior of the church of the monastery (San Nicolò l'Arena) is unfinished with 4 pairs of severed columns and the incomplete facade.
Today, the monastery, this "jewel of the late Sicilian baroque", is the headquarters of the DISUM - Department of Humanistic Sciences of the University of Catania.
From Piazza Dante continue downhill, pass by the Balneum Romano excavations and at the corner of Via Vittorio Emmanuelle II stands Chiesa SS. Trinità, the church of the Holy Trinity Monastery. Today the monastery is the seat of the Scientific High School E. Boggio Lera (Liceo Scientifico Statale "E. Boggio Lera").
Take Via Vittorio Emmanuelle II back towards the Teatro Romano complex, and just before its entrance turn right to Via Sant'Anna. Walk along the street and then continue on Via Castello Ursino uphill towards Castello Ursino. The street accommodates several funeral houses, but at the top "Trattoria da Antonio" will certainly satisfy your culinary needs. The trattoria has a both outside and inside seating areas and the food is delicious.
Castello Ursino, also known as Castello Svevo di Catania, was built in the 13th century as a royal castle of the Kingdom of Sicily, and is mostly known for its role in the Sicilian Vespers, when it became the seat of the Sicilian Parliament. The castle is in good condition today, and it is open to the public as a museum. It is located on Piazza Federico di Svevia, on the top of a hill overlooking the city.
It is one of the few buildings in Catania to have survived the earthquake of 1693. When the castle was first built, it was on a cliff looking out to sea, however as the result of volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, it is now a kilometer inland. The former moat was filled with lava from the 1669 eruption of Mount Etna. Actually, it was the walls and moat that protected the city from the lava flow and directed it towards the sea. Its present location, surrounded by streets and shops in a typical Sicilian piazza, may strike some visitors as unusual.
Catania is not a very big city, but there are so many to see in and around the city. A week is the optimum period to visit most of the attractions of the city, but if one has only a couple of days available (usually, Catania is part of a bigger Sicilian tour) then the best thing to do is walk up and down the city, admire the baroque architecture and watch people passing by sitting at an open air café drinking your coffee or eating your granita.