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The Quarry of Sant’Antonio at Melilli

The Hyblean agricultural landscape
February 8, 2021
Ermanno Olmi and Siracusa
February 9, 2021
Ph. © Mirco Mannino

The Quarry of Sant'Antonio at Melilli

Dazzling intensity” marks the history of this place… a flourishing quarry for stone extraction, a British military base, a monument to the history of the town of Melilli, and so much more. Stepping into the Pirrera (stone quarry) is a bit like entering the Syblls’s cave: flights of fantasy and beauty accompany what is a real Journey to the Centre of the Earth in the Climiti Hills.
The Pirrera or Quarry of Sant’Antonio opens up at the foot of the cliff of the same name, a rock face of the Milazzian age that marks the north and east edge of the Hyblean limestone plateau, on which the town of Melilli is built. It is an artificial cave created by the quarrying of limestone blocks, using the same system of galleries found in some of the Syracusan quarries of the Greek period. Enormous square pilasters with a base of 5 metres, and some as high as 26 metres, create wide corridors which run for some 2,5 kilometres. The fascination of the place is enhanced by the characteristic white stone walls which have marked its beauty and its fate.
The most beautiful quality of stone - wrote Sebastiano Crescimanno of Melilli in 1907 - comes from the quarries of Melilli and it is exported from the island.” Of the many quarries once active around the town, the best quality of stone came from the Pirrera of Sant’Antonio, where the activity flourished in the early 20th century. The stone was scientifically classified as “white stone, limestone of the Middle Miocene epoch of the Hyblean Hills, compact, homogenous, uniform and relatively strong”, characteristics which made it very attractive to builders and stone-carvers over the centuries. Given the dimensions of the quarry, it has been calculated that the volume of stone extracted must be approximately 200.00 cubic metres. It is probable that the quarrying began in the second half of the 15th century; however it is certain that in the years after the earthquake of 1693, the Pirrera was one of the quarries exploited fully to provide the famous limestone for the many building sites that sprung up in town to restore and reconstruct the buildings destroyed by the sisma.
According to the historian from Melilli, Michele Rizzo, the fame of this stone was also due to the visit of some illustrious architects from Catania in the 18th century, who declared it to be superior in quality even to volcanic stone. Some churches of Catania, unsurprisingly, were built with, or at least decorated with stone from this quarry: not least the Church of San Francesco d'Assisi all'Immacolata. Also in the first half of the 20th century, artists like Concetto Marchese, Salvatore Zagarella and sculptors like Emilio Greco created funerary monuments, statues, busts and floral decorations in the monumental cemetery of Catania, using the white stone of Melilli. Around 1940, as documents in the archives show, approximately 1152 cubic metres of stone were quarried and exported to Siracusa, Catania, Messina, Palermo and Malta. Obviously at Melilli the use of this stone was widespread, and was employed for religious, public and private buildings.
Pirrera di Sant’Antonio 5, INGRESSO PH DAVIDE D’ORAZIO (Small)
Ph. credits: Davide D'Orazio
Pirrera di Sant’Antonio PH Davide D’Orazio (Small)
Ph. credits: Davide D'Orazio
Stories of skilful masons and carvers are intertwined with the stone, yet even more so with the pirriaturi (quarrymen) who actually extracted the stone, detaching the blocks from the high walls using picks and wooden wedges, illuminated by torchlight. Their experience is carved onto the stone walls, marked with the signs of their toil and bearing witness to it, just like a historic monument might. The quarry testifies, along with the nearby Path of the Hundred Steps that links the quarry to the town above, to this simple yet fascinating world.
Even the children shared these places, helping the work of their grandfathers, fathers and uncles by substituting the wooden handles of the picks when they broke, or carrying the resulting material out of the quarry, as was then allowed. The expertise of carvers and masons did the rest, celebrating the stone as if it were carved embroidery.
Ph. credits: Vittoria Gallo
The beauty and the history of this site have consecrated this site as a monument of Melilli, and this spark of realisation has encouraged the Cooperative Timpa Viva, a group of young professionals driven by love of their hometown and the desire to promote the idea of an education in beauty and cultural sensibility. to include the site in a circuit of active conservation and promotion.
The Pirrera of Sant'Antonio takes you on a journey into the nooks and crannies of time, revealing a story to enjoy and to read from different perspectives, because it’s the magic of its unfamiliar tale that makes this place so fascinating.
Gennaio 2021

Ho studiato e lavoro in Sicilia, la terra che amo. Insegnare è il mio lavoro ma anche una delle mie passioni. Collaboro da molti anni con enti pubblici e privati per iniziative di promozione culturale e turistica, di marketing territoriale. Le mie giornate sono interamente dedicate ai miei studenti e al mio paese d'origine, oggetto di studio e fonte di ispirazione! Ma trovo anche il tempo di scrivere per SiracusaCulture.