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Noto Antica

March 12, 2021
Museum of Travellers in Sicily
March 17, 2021
Ph. © Vincenzo Belfiore

Noto Antica, the invisible city

Strolling around the streets of baroque Noto, you might come across single works of art like the “romanesque lions” of the Church of the Crocifisso which bring to mind historic-artistic ages which seem distant in time and space. These are fragments which, together with those on display in the medieval gallery of the Civic Museum, bear witness to the lost glories of Noto Antica - the old city of Noto - ancestor of the “garden of stone”.
Noto Antica is an invisible city today, whose remains are smothered by the thick Mediterranean vegetation that covers Monte Alveria, some 10 kilometres from the famous capital of Sicilian baroque, Noto. Its disappearance was caused by the famous earthquake of January 1693 which transformed the landscape of much of south-eastern Sicily. The decision to rebuild a new city downhill on the Meti plain, determined the abandoning of the old site and its subsequent transformation into an enormous stone quarry.
The archaeological traces and the ruins which surface between the plants, although damaged by time, show how the city spread over a heart-shaped plain on the summit which had been untakeable in earlier historic periods. In fact, the fortification walls of the 16th and 17th centuries still dominate the surrounding countryside, along the trail which leads to the Alveria park.
Noto Antica
Palazzo Landolina Belludia, Ph. Credits - Vincenzo Belfiore

"Noto Antica is an invisible city today, whose remains are smothered by the thick Mediterranean vegetation that covers Monte Alveria"

It’s not easy to imagine the appearance of the old city of Noto Antica that scholars get so enthusiastic about; however, the finds, ruins and archival documents do tell us about a great past and can take us back in time. There is a drawing of Noto Antica in the Town Library of Noto, perhaps drawn by Rosario Gagliardi the architect, which reproduces the western facade before the disastrous sisma; it’s almost like a photograph that captures the memory of the main characteristics of the old towered city, with its castle, city-quarters and contrade, palazzi of the nobility and its architecture.
Chiesa dei Gesuiti, Noto Antica, Ph. Credits - Vincenzo Belfiore

Historic sources and sporadic discoveries confirm that the invisible city was characterised by great artistic activity in the middle ages under the Normans, in the extraordinary years of the late-Gothic and Renaissance, and again in the 17th century when it was affected by the new ideas that were circulating.
The ruined city has a history of millennia behind it and there are archaeological traces which show how the summit of the Monte has been settled without interruption from prehistoric times to the 17th century. Various signs tell us about the presence of the Sikels, about a Greek city and then about the urbs foederata, but it is certainly the middle ages which see Noto Antica blossom into a powerful city, rich in works of art. We just need to remember that the site is often described as a “medieval Pompeii”. There aren’t many surviving signs of the presence of the Byzantines or the Arabs, except in the lingering presence of ‘eastern’ saints, the toponymy and in geographical and literary texts. Although the arab Nut araba was the capital of the ‘vallo’ or district to which it gave its name, and it was known as the ‘windy home’ in the poems of Ibn Hamdis, there are no traces of that period; scholars believe that at Noto Antica, like in many Sicilian towns, saracen architecture was partly hidden in the large Norman buildings.
It was the Normans in fact who defined the main lines of the city, with its majestic castle which still rises to defend the isthmus and entrance to the city, built in the 11th century on the orders of Count Roger I. They also created the two main squares of the town plan during the 11th and 12th centuries, in front of the Crocefisso Church and the Mother Church dedicated to St Nicholas.
Bandiera del Regno sulla Torre Maestra, Ph. Credits - Vincenzo Belfiore
Castello e Torre Maestra di Notte, Ph. Credits - Vincenzo Belfiore

As we look at the city with its defensive walls today, it’s like looking at a huge history book lying open under the sky; more new discoveries continue to be added to the list of monuments that have already been identified on the site.
The last excavation campaign of 2007 brought to light interesting buildings in the area of the castle, such as the Norman palace chapel of San Michele and the prisons, confirming the complexity of the understanding of the architectural layers of the city.
As testified to by other Sicilian sites, when Noto Antica crumbled in 1693, it must have been a city marked by “great late-Gothic architecture”, a city which welcomed the protagonists of new artistic languages; in 1474 Antonello da Messina came here to paint a banner, now lost, and worked side by side with the Gagini workshop and Francesco Laurana. While these artists brought the Renaissance in their painting and sculpture, the forgotten architect Matteo Carnilivari embellished the city, just as he had done in Palermo at Palazzo Aiutamicristo and Palazzo Abatellis.

Ten years after the fall of Noto Antica, the new city was born, the expression of a magnificent baroque style that perhaps had not forgotten that around 1650, the Landolina family, marquises of Trezzano and Barons of Belludia, had ordered the building of a splendid palazzo whose gateway was “crowned by a large balcony in the guise of a triumphal chariot, supported by four winged horses” to celebrate the motto Magni spes altera Olympi.
Febbraio 2021


Insegna Storia dell’Arte, è Presidente dell’Associazione SiciliAntica per la provincia di Siracusa. Si è occupata di formazione e di didattica applicata ai beni culturali, ha lavorato in un Museo Etnografico a Noto, è stata cultore della materia nella Facoltà di Architettura, ha curato diverse pubblicazioni sul tema dell’innovazione tecnologica applicata ai beni culturali. Non poteva che scrivere per SiracusaCulture.