History of Catania Sicily

from Province of Catania Tourism Board information


   "According to the Greek historian Thucydides, Catania was founded in 729 BA by a colony of settlers from Chalcis, and the original inhabited nucleus was around the city's acropolis, now dominated by the San Nicolo Church and the grandiose Benedictine Monastery.

   Catania stands on a mass of lava, and no sooner had the damage caused by the 1669 eruption of Etna been repaired than the city was razed to the ground by the earthquake of 1693, making total reconstruction necessary.  The city's arms depict an elephant of lava, like the elephant that adorns the monumental fountain in the Cathedral square, erected after the 1693 earthquake.  The elephant was worshipped in a temple of oriental rites in a city consecrated to the goddess Isis, and was brought across the sea from Egypt by the armies of Syracuse, who conquered Catania in 476 BC and changed its name from Katane to Aitna.

   Above the elephant on Catania's shield is the letter "A; authoritatively believed to refer to the House of Aragon and to the city's patron, St. Agatha, whose feast day is celebrated in a sparkling explosion of fireworks and wild gaiety for the first five days of February each year.

   Catania fell to the Romans in 263 BC, and it was granted the status of a Roman colony in 21 BC by the Emperor Augustus.  After the Barbarian invasions it was conquered by the Goths, but was recaptured in 535 AD by Belisarius, allowing it to be incorporated into the Byzantine Empire for three centures, until the Saracen invasion, which left ample traces of itself in local dialects, in techniques of irrigation and water distribution, and in the introduction of several crops.  Catania was occupied by the Normans in 1071, and after rebelling was conquered once more in 1081, while work was progressing on the building of the Cathedral, a fortified church on the coast with towers and thick walls to defend the harbour and subjugate the populace, which revolted in 1232 against Frederick II of Swabia.  Surprisingly, Frederick abandoned Catania to its own devices. leaving it open to sack and pillage, and then in 1239 deprived its bishop of his jurisdictional powers, turning the city into a royal stronghold dominated by the menacing hulk of the Ursino Castle, the original location of which, directly overlooking the sea, was modified by the volcanic eruptions of 1669.

  Under the House of Aragon the fortunes of Catania took a turn for the better, and it became the seat of Sicily's first university, the Siciliae Stadium Generale, founded in 1434 by Alfonso the Magnanimous.

  The prestige acquired under Aragonese rule started to wane when the crowns of Aragon and Castile were unified under Ferdinand the Catholic, a trend that was reinforced under his successor Charles V.

  In January 1693, a violent earthquake destroyed Catania, and the city was thereafter totally rebuilt around new streets, broad and set at right angles to the main artery, Via Etnea.  Like the rest of Sicily, in 1713 Catania passed from Spanish rule to the House of Savoy, and then between 1720 and 1734 to the Austrians, after which it was assigned to the Bourbon dynasty...

  The most interesting buildings and monuments of Catania date back to the years of reconstruction in the 18th century.

  The Elephant Fountain stands in the square before the Cathedral.  It was built in 1736 by architect Giovan Battista Vaccarini, while he was engaged on the facade of the Cathedral (1733-61).  This contains the sepulchres of the Aragonese kings and the tomb of Vincenzo Bellini.  The Cathedral is dedicated to St. Agatha, and was erected on the ruins of the Roman Achillian Baths between 1078 and 1093.  The three apses and the transept are of Norman origin.  The bell tower was built in 1868 by architect Carmelo Sciuto Patti, and the balustrade that runs along two sides of the Cathedral is from the same century.

  Next to the cathedral is the Uzenda Gate, erected in 1696 to honour the viceroy who commanded the Duke of Camastra to rebuild Catania.  The gate once gave access to the harbour, but now leads to the Pacini Gardens.  Beyond the Chierici Seminary lies the Amenano Fountain, dedicated to the ancient river-god of the Amenanos (and in Catania nicknamed acqua 'o linzolo, namely 'water flowing like a sheet'), and behind this is a short gallery that leads to the Pescheria, the former site of the old fish market.

  Via Garibaldi starts in the Cathedral square and terminates at the Porta Garibaldi Gate, a triumphal arch erected in 1768 to celebrate the marriage of Ferdinand IV and Marie Caroline of Austria and composed of rusticated ashlars of while limestone and bands of lava, in harmony with the dominant black-and-white colour scheme employed in the city, the white of Comiso limestone contrasting with the black of the lava.  Many of the streets and the loadbearing structures of the 18th-century buildings are in this material, as are many other edifices of the towns around Mount Etna.

  This lava that has wrought so much disaster in its eruptions from the volcano has also been put to use as a building material, not only in blocks but in the plasterwork renderings used on facades, the two colours available being grey (ground from deeper layers of lava) and pink (ground from surface lava).

  On the parallel Via Vittorio Emanuele is the Roman Theatre, with next to it the Odeon, a hall used for concerts in ancient times.  Nearby is the Bellini Museum, where instruments played by the great locally-born opera composer are displayed, together with letters, original scores and other curios.

  Along Via Garibaldi is Piazza Mazzini, the former site of the weekly market.  The arched porticoes rest on 32 marble columns taken from a Roman basilica.  A short street leads to Piazza Susmet and the Bellini Museum.  Continuing upwards Via Crociferi is reached, and after the San Benedetto Arch there is a magnificent series of churches that offer the very best of Catania's religious Baroque architecture.  Vialla Cerami, the seat of the university's Law Facility, provides a magnificent terminatin to the Baroque splendours of Via Crociferi.  This intersects with Via Sangiuliano, leading up towards Piazza Dante and the Benedictine Monastery, sumptuously rebuilt in 1703 and of remarkable architectural interest.  Descending, Via Sangiuliano meets Via Etnea, along which churches alternate with artistocratic mansioons, until the Roman Amphitheatre is reached.  Beyond this is the architecture of Catania in the 19th and 20th centuries.  Of appreciable interest here are Villa Bellini and the building in Via Umberto, at right angles to Via Etnea, where fine examples of the Art Nouveau style also abundantly present elsewhere in the city can be admired.  In the first two decades of the 20th century, under the influence of Art Nouveau and then Futurism, Catania was a hothouse of extraordinary intellects, who gathered in the 'Bar Brasile' in Via Etnea, opposite the Minoriti Church.  Another popular rendezvous was the 'Grande Birreria Svizzera' designed by Paolo Lanzerotti, but later destroyed together with other buildings such as Villa d'Ajala.  For Catania this was a most fruitful period, from the architectural viewpoint as well.

  Street furniture featured by graceful traceries of curves and frills, an attractive grove of floral forms and Art Noueau figures, and architectural geniuses of the calibre of Francesco Fichera, Paolo Lanzerotti and Ernesto Basile compted to produce masterpices in an internationally eloquent style.

  Catania was frequently referred to as the 'Athens of the South', and traces of this particulary interesting period can be seen in various places, including the San Giogi Theatre in Via angiuliano, Villa Manganelli in Corso Italia, Villa Miranda in Viale XX Settembre, the Vagliasindi Clinic in Piazza Cavour, the Electricity Board Offices in Piazza Trento, part of Villa Bonaiuto in Corso Italia, Palazzo Beenati in Via Oberdan, Villa del Grado in Corso Italia, Villa Citelli in Via Tomaselli, Villa Tringali in Via Duca degli Abruzzi and Villa Fichera in Via Ardizzone.

  Continuing along Via Sanguiliano towards the sea, we come first to the railway and then to what was for the whole of the 19th century Catania's industrial quarter, dominated by the activity of sulphur refining and processing.  Tribute has been paid to this past from the viewpoint of industrial archaeology by the recent opening of the Cultural and Exhibition Centre in Via Africa near the station.  Catania is blessed with a long sandy beach by the sea, called  the Playa, a favourite destination for bathers in the summer, against the refreshing presence of a broad grove of Mediterranean pines set slightly inland.  Towards Syracuse lies the Simento Nature Park, a place of rare beauty for its unspoilt scenery and exceptional variety of flora and fauna. 

  The life and survival of Catania and its province are closely bound to nearby Mount Etna, which with a height of 3300 metres is Europe's tallest active volcano.  In 2987 a regional law created the Mount Etna Park, extending across the territory  of 20 of the province's 58 local authorities.  Despite the constant changes wrought by the periodic eruptions and tremors of the volcano, the park is thick with pines, holm oaks, beeches, birches, oaks, poplars, aspen, chestnuts and other trees, and there are many species of wildlife."