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Ortigia, ancient heart

Saint Sebastian at Siracusa
March 20, 2021
The Greek Theatre
March 21, 2021
Saint Sebastian at Siracusa
March 20, 2021
The Greek Theatre
March 21, 2021
Ph. © S.K.

Ortigia, the ancient heart of Siracusa

Less than a kilometre square of surface area and a maximum altitude of a little over ten metres above sea level.
This is Ortigia, a small island that concentrates in this limited space a quantity of architectural, archeological and artistic treasures, like very few places in the world - because Ortigia doesn’t just extend into three spatial dimensions, but above all into the fourth dimension, the dimension of time, creating intersections and superimpositions of culture, styles and ideas.
There isn’t one, single itinerary for travellers to follow when they cross the bridge from the mainland onto the island for the first time. Greek Siracusa, signs of Norman buildings, the Swabian city over which the spirit of Frederick II watches, Catalan architecture and Baroque rebirth after the earthquake of 1693, represent the many red threads of history, each of which can be traced through the streets of Ortigia.
These threads chase each other, they interweave and are synthesised in Piazza Duomo, the cathedral square, the late-baroque theatrical stage-set where the Cathedral shows off its cultural and architectural layers. This role as focal point of the square shouldn't come as a surprise: it’s the highest part of the island, the acro-polis, the high-city, where the first colonists built the earliest sacred building of the new polis, marking the site as the heart of religious functions and the nerve-centre of the settlement, then and ever since.
Fountain of Diana in Piazza Archimede
Those who want to explore Ortigia with an open mind and open heart - perhaps inspired by serendipity? - should start at the ruins of the Temple of Apollo, one of the oldest Greek temples to be built principally in stone, the first site you meet as you cross the old stone bridge that is the extension of the straight Corso Umberto and the tree-lined Piazza Pancali. From those ancient columns, you can see the local market with its sounds, smells and flavours, you can see the narrow lanes that lead to the Graziella area, and the ‘open wound’ of Corso Matteotti, formerly Via del Littorio, that slashed incongruously through the original medieval street-plan, but which with its buildings in Italian Rationalist style, added yet another stylistic layer to the island, testifying to a particular historical period.
Chiesa dello Spirito Santo, Ortigia, Ph. Credits - SK
Whatever thread you choose to follow, at any crossroads it will intersect with the others; from the market and the Graziella to via Vittorio Veneto, the Mastrarua - the grand street - where once the carriages of the nobility drove, turning onto via Maestranza or down some lane that runs along to Palazzo Montalto where it then crosses Corso Matteotti at the crossroads of Piazza Archimede, before finally reaching Piazza Duomo. And we mustn't forget the streets of the Giudecca and via Roma, the countless churches, the palazzi of the nobility with their richly decorated balconies, the Regional Gallery of Palazzo Bellomo, treasure chest in a treasure chest, where Antonello da Messina is waiting to amaze you with his Annunciation.
Ortigia e Siracusa con l'Etna sulla sfondo. Ph. Credits - Eliseo Lupo
Cortile in via Mirabella, Ph. Credits - SK
Fonte Aretusa, Ph. Credits - SK

And if the square with its vaguely elliptical shape recalls the silhouette of a ship, a few minutes walk will take you to the prow of this natural ‘ship’; the southernmost tip of the island of Ortigia, there where Castello Maniace stands, symbol of the power and the spirit of Frederick II of Swabia, the Stupor Mundi.
If this isn’t enough, what lies under the surface of Ortigia is just as fascinating and surprising: an ionic temple that in Antiquity used to stand beside the doric Temple of Athena, the hypogeums that crisscross underneath, the underground streams that run below the streets, with their laundries, ritual baths used by the Jewish community; and then, the wonder of the Fountain of Aretusa which for more than two thousand seven hundred years has been symbol and testimony of the historical events that made Siracusa.
Less than a kilometre square of surface area and a maximum altitude of a little over ten metres above sea level and almost three thousand years of history:
This is Ortigia.
novembre 2020


Archeozoologo e paleontologo, laureato in scienze e specializzato in beni culturali. Studia il rapporto tra uomini e animali nelle società del passato come risorsa economica, alimentare, simbolo sociale e rituale. Avido lettore di storia e dei classici della letteratura greca e latina, ma anche di saggi di astrofisica e meccanica quantistica, vive perennemente in equilibrio tra il mondo dei numeri e quello delle lettere…e scrive per SiracusaCulture.