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From Hills to Cities

December 1, 2020
Egle Palazzolo
January 17, 2021
© Ph. Eliseo Lupo

From the Hyblean Hills to the Cities

The province of Siracusa largely consists of the Hyblean Plateau, which is a fragment of the African tectonic plate that detached itself and developed over 22 million years ago through a volcanic system, the highest point of which today is Monte Lauro, near Buccheri.
It meets the younger volcanic system of Mount Etna at the plain of Catania to the north, and the mountainous Appeninic system that runs along the coast of the Tyrrhenian Sea, at the river Dittaino. Between these two systems lies a plateau of gypsum and sulphur, the now raised bed of the ancient Mediterranean.
From the volcanic heights of Monte Lauro flow river-systems that reach the Ionian Sea to the east and the Channel or Straits of Sicily to the south, crossing a series of quite wide, flat geological steps. The lowest step is the coastal plain area, largely flood plains, that runs from Augusta down to Portopalo; the next step, around 300 metres a.s.l. is where Noto Antica and Avola Antica stood and where we find the towns of Canicattini Bagni, Floridia, Francofonte and Solarino today. The third step includes Melilli, Ferla, Buscemi, Sortino, and in the upper area in the province of Siracusa, Palazzolo Acreide and Buccheri, while in the area of Ragusa, Chiaramonte Gulfi, Monterosso Alma and Giarratana look out over the brim of the hollow where the rivers Anapo and San Leonardo spring further north.
From the southern slopes of the volcanic heights, two rivers flow; the Dirillo which borders the western area, and the Ippari. Humans have always followed the courses of these rivers, first from the north, settling in sites that were easy to defend, then penetrating further inland following the rivers, turning those ancient communities into Greek colonies. Pantalica and Kasmenai are the most important centres of this phase, along with the settlement of Castelluccio and others with less archaeological evidence.
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"These wide geological steps are carved by a series of deep canyons, known as “cave” in Sicilian, deeper and more narrow to the east, and wider and less steep towards the south. "

The formation of the modern, man-made landscape can be said to begin with the Muslim occupation of Sicily that in the years around 870 CE marked the definitive shift from the period of barbaric invasions to the modern world. It was characterised by movement between hilltop and mountain sites and coastal sites. After the terrible earthquake of 1693, the shift towards the coast became a constant feature, and more recent migration towards the industrial areas along the coast confirms this process. Towns of the hinterland like Ferla, Buccheri and Buscemi have lost population to towns like Palazzolo Acreide or the coastal ones like Melilli, Noto, Avola, Augusta, Siracusa and Rosolini.
One aspect characterised all the locations of the settlements used since antiquity, starting with Pantalica, a Sikel city high on a hill between two canyons carved out by the rivers Anapo and Calcinara, or the coastal sites like Thapsos and the first settlement on Ortigia dating to the IX-VIII centuries BCE: they were all easy to defend, either thanks to their dominating position or because they were well-protected behind wide bays with limited direct access from the sea, or even with access by means of long channels transformed or created by human hand, as at Brucoli, Frandanisi near Augusta, the Fanusa channel south of Siracusa or the channel near Eloro at the entrance to the marshes of Vendicari.
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The agricultural landscape of Siracusa, characterised by open fields of crops, has only recently seen a move towards the poly-tunnels which have been so common in the Ragusan countryside for at least 50 years. Rock formations, weathered and softened by time, contrast with the dramatic incisions of the canyons, and the vivid colours of crops and flowers contrast with the shiny grey of the plastic tunnels. The predominant colour of the earth is intense brown, while the dark green of the woods takes on a deep blue hue in the brilliant sunlight, speckled by the lighter greens of mastic trees, tamarisks and almond trees. The vineyards and citrus groves are found principally along the coast, while the arable land extends up to the first step of the Hyblean plateau.
The neighbouring Ragusan landscape is divided up by dry-stone walls, a technique that has been included in the Unesco World Heritage List as immaterial heritage, and is the result of gathering and reusing stones removed from the farmland, but also of the division into fields that reflected the presence of the small and medium landowners found here from the end of the 15th century. Within the fields created by the walls, we find the grey-green of the olive trees and the dark green of carob trees.
The farms which bred Modicano cows, once widespread all over the province of Siracusa, today prefer hybrid breeds of animals which give a good yield while needing less fodder.
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The hilltop towns still look out over the landscape from houses with few openings and from narrow lanes. The earthquake of 1693 taught them not to build houses and bell-towers too high. Only in Noto do we find domes and bell-towers in a theatrical cityscape where the architecture almost seems to become the backdrop for a play.
Humans introduced crops into a fertile and welcoming landscape but didn’t alter the places in any substantial way. They mixed and bred species and only recently tried to deny the nature of these places with the illusion of modernity, overturning the appearance of the towns and the traditional use of the land with the arrival of huge industrial plants and the occupation of the coast with the thousands of second homes that restricted the access of the wider community to the greatest natural and physical wealth of the island of Sicily; the coastline.
The landscapes of Sicily have inspired photographers and painters such as Giuseppe Leone and Piero Guccione, to mention only two. Inspired by the light and the colours, their images are filled with fields of colour, soft waves of hills and slopes, evanescent shades that enchant the eye.
Vittorio De Sica in “Il Viaggio”, Franco Zeffirelli in “Storia di una capinera”, Gabriele Salvatores in “Sud”, Ficarra and Picone are only a few who have told of Sicily on the silver screen. Directors of yesterday and today capture the contradictions of this landscape in the violence of their stories, perhaps because of its great geological age and ancient history: this is the almost mythical place of the former physical link with Africa testified to by the discovery of dwarf elephants in the cave of Spinagallo, and the Elephas maios in the excavations of Fusco at the southern entrance of Siracusa.
Novembre 2020

Architetto con la passione per la valorizzazione e promozione del patrimonio culturale e umano, a Siracusa ho vissuto un bel pezzo della mia vita professionale occupandomi del restauro di monumenti come Castello Maniace, di interventi come quello sulla piazza del Duomo, di vincoli per la tutela paesaggistica. Poi ho diretto la Villa del Casale a Piazza Armerina. Adesso scrivo e faccio parte della direzione editoriale di SiracusaCulture.