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Museum Paolo Orsi – what a history!

Feste Archimedee
April 15, 2021
Marcello Bianca
April 17, 2021
Feste Archimedee
April 15, 2021
Marcello Bianca
April 17, 2021
© Ph. Eliseo Lupo

The Paolo Orsi Archeological Museum. What a history!

The history of the current Paolo Orsi Regional Archaeological Museum dates back to the XIX century, when, in 1809, Cavaliere Saverio Landolina, a notable from Siracusa who owned a collection of artifacts retrieved from excavations he had conducted, managed to make his dream of providing Siracusa with a Civic Museum worthy of the city’s illustrious history, come true.
The final push for the founding came from Bishop Filippo Maria Trigona, who not only donated the extensive collection belonging to Canon Giuseppe Logoteta to the future museum, he also put some of the spaces of the seminary at its disposal, spaces that became the first home of the institution.
This is how the Civic Museum was born; it was inaugurated in April 1811 and given the official approval of the Secretary of State of the Kingdom of Sicily, and subsequently it received other important donations, including the collections of local priest and archeologist Giuseppe Capodieci.
Il primo museo archeologico di Siracusa, Galleria Palazzo Bellomo ©Regione Siciliana
The significance of the event was immediately clear to contemporaries: an image of the museum was recorded in a small oil on canvas painting, which is now displayed at the Palazzo Bellomo Gallery in Siracusa, and titled The First Archaeological Museum of Siracusa. It depicts the protagonists of its foundation in a large room, with at its center the statue of Venus Anadyomene - which bears Landolina’s name - at the time already the icon and symbol of the museum.
From the beginning it was a “live” museum, designed to open up to the public, as Landolina asked for an antiquarian expert who would work not only as curator of the exhibits, but would also be expected to hold classes and workshops on history and Antiquaria, for visitors and young citizens.
C2_347 Fondo G.Cultrera © Regione Siciliana Soprintendenza
C2 344 Fondo G. Cultrera © Regione Siciliana Soprintendenza SR
During the years following the proclamation of the Kingdom of Italy, new donations and further archaeological excavations would expand the collection enough to require a new location, one that would be bigger and more suited to showcasing the ever-growing heritage.
In June 1876, the King of Italy decreed the construction of a museum building in Piazza Duomo, that king Umberto I would recognise as a National Museum in 1878; the new space was inaugurated in 1886, with Francesco Saverio Cavallari as its director. The turning point for the museum occured in 1888, when Paolo Orsi, an archaeologist from Rovereto, and whose name it still bears, arrived in Siracusa, becoming its director in 1891.
From his arrival onwards, given his continuous research all over the province, his excavations, his tireless explorations conducted on mule-back, and his ongoing studies on the items he found, the number of treasures housed in the museum grew exponentially, including a rapidly-growing collection of elements that shed new light on prehistoric Sicily.

Orsi worked tirelessly for over 40 years, increasing the number of rooms open to the public, despite the space being limited, and feeling trapped in an exhibiting system based on the nature of the materials which did not suit the scientific and chronological method he applied for his studies.
In July of 1933, Orsi was told it was time for his “ retirement”: he was replaced by Giuseppe Cultrera, who followed in his footsteps for the expansion of the museum, and insisted on storing the museum’s collection in the tunnels of the Euryalus fortress, to protect them from the risk of bombings during the Second World War. The transfer to the new museum was completed by his young successor, Luigi Bernabò Brea, who took his place in 1941.
This was the beginning of a difficult time, a period of thirty years where the archaeologist from Liguria had to face the challenging reopening of the museum in the immediate post-war period, the transformation of the Syracusan territory due to a rapid process of industrialisation, the reorganization and opening to the public of the numismatic cabinet and, lastly, the project for a new museum, now made necessary thanks to the new materials he collected in the 1950s and 1960s.
The project for ​​a new museum building was drawn up, one that was to be built in the area of ​​the park of Villa Landolina and which was to meet the criteria of modern science and museography in its articulation. The plan, designed by the architects Cabianca and Minissi saw the light; work was subsequently carried on by Minissi alone, with scientific contributions from Paola Pelagatti and Giuseppe Voza.

Museo Archeo © Regione Siciliana Soprintendenza SR
Trasporto della Venere © Regione Siciliana Soprintendenza SR
The latter inaugurated the new museum in 1988, which by then had become a Regional Archaeological Museum after a bill assigned the exclusive jurisdiction of its cultural heritage to the Region of Sicily, and it was named, with good reason, after Paolo Orsi.
The final result is a building of 9000 square metres, with two floors above ground and a basement, free of internal partitions and developed using a modular structure, around a vast circular room, inscribed within a hexagon. The museum tells, through topographical and chronological criteria, the history of the territory from the geological formations that characterize it, to the dawn of Christianity, passing through the Paleolithic, the Neolithic, the Copper and Bronze Ages, and the wonders of Greek and Roman Sicily.
The Paolo Orsi Regional Archeological Museum is, to quote Giuseppe Voza, “an effective example of a territorial archaeological museum (...), developed in architectural structures specifically built for this premise”, whose goal is to “reveal the richness of links between the works on display and the constructive and socio-cultural history of the geographic area to which they belong”.
To put it simply, it is one of the most important archaeological museums of the Mediterranean.
Marzo 2021
Museo P.Orsi © Regione Siciliana Ph. Giuseppe Mineo
Museo P.Orsi Settore A Castelluccio © Regione Siciliana Ph. Giuseppe Mineo
© Regione Siciliana, Assessorato dei Beni Culturali e dell’Identità Siciliana – Dipartimento dei Beni Culturali e dell’Identità Siciliana – Soprintendenza per i Beni Culturali, Ambientali e dell’Identità Siciliana – pubblicazione concessa.
Il Museo archeologico regionale Paolo Orsi è un sito del Parco archeologico e paesaggistico di Siracusa, Eloro, Villa del Tellaro e Akrai. Foto su concessione dell’Assessorato dei Beni Culturali e dell’Identità Siciliana con divieto di duplicazione, anche parziale, con qualsiasi mezzo.
© Regione Siciliana – Galleria Palazzo Bellomo
Museo P.Orsi Sala Kamarina © Regione Siciliana Ph. Giuseppe Mineo
Museo P.Orsi Settore B corredi da necropoli siracusane © Regione Siciliana Ph.Giuseppe Mineo

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.