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Contemporary Siracusa

The City Halls of Siracusa and Noto
April 23, 2021
Siracusa: a short story
April 23, 2021
Historic Photo of Siracusa

Contemporary Siracusa

Between ancient and modern.

Siracusa was the cradle of Western Greek culture, falling into decline during the Roman era, and bearing important signs of early Christianity. It boasts a rich medieval and early modern period filled with rich commerce and monumental presences of Mediterranean cultures: Arab, Norman and Aragonese. Then between the 1500s and the 1600s it became a military fortified citadel, it turned inward for roughly three centuries, during which it isolated itself, curled up, got lazy, but also preserved itself. At the end of the 1800s, with the tearing down of the walls and the defense mechanisms, it opened up to the Mediterranean once more, and it returned to being a port city, then in 1914 with the first Classical Plays and the reuse of the Greek Theatre, it rediscovered the value of its ancient past as an identity to share and spread. The 1900s for the city opened with the meeting of ancient and modern.

"The impact with modernity here has not altered the signs of history...."

Today tourists come to enjoy the fascinating Graeco-Roman heritage and the vivid beauty of the island of Ortigia, but the heart of the contemporary city is all in the expansion of the end of the 1800s and the start of the 1900s which made it possible to leave Ortigia and to plan the lines of the whole twentieth-century urban development on the mainland: it is in the grid pattern of the Umbertina area and the Borgata Santa Lucia. The years of the economic miracle and the later ones filled up the empty spaces and those of the peripheral expansion with the ugly, dishomogeneous and disorganised cement architecture that is typical of the cities of the Mezzogiorno and more. But even this part of the city cannot overcome, hide or diminish the value of the other, the ancient one, medieval, modern and nineteenth-century one, which remains the main identity of Siracusa, for the locals and the tourists.
The weight of its history makes Siracusa a city of the province of the Mezzogiorno which is different from the others; in its territory it bears visible traces of a multi-millennial tale which today makes it one of the Italian cities with the richest cultural heritage. But its contemporaneity is also different, marked by the presence of one of the largest petrochemical plants in Europe, which during the years of the economic miracle suddenly transformed farmers into factory workers and invented a middle class of professions, of commerce, of enterprise and finance, which owes a lot to the great industrial centre. Siracusa therefore became for more than a decade the southernmost city with the highest income per capita of the Mezzogiorno, leaving a deep mark in the environmental and cultural landscape. It is a city with a large agricultural hinterland, fertile and rich in water, a condition preferred throughout the centuries by human settlers, and today essential for the development of a high-quality agriculture, focused on the export of wine, oranges and lemons.
These strengths are matched by equal weaknesses. If the city excels for the presence of its heritage, it lacks the capacity to enhance it. The industries today are in a difficult phase of incipient deindustrialization and of ecological transition, and have to take care of decarbonisation processes, reclamation, energy reconversion and occupational decline. The agricultural sector suffers from a lack of presence of the agroindustry. In this context, tourism, which has become a strategic sector for the production of wealth in the last decade, has not yet determined its target, wavering between a mass or an elite dimension, without yet finding the right balance.
The city lives off its contradictions. Siracusa has experienced its small provincial Golden age with industrialisation, made of disorganised building growth but also of processes of modernization, even cultural advances; in fact it was the city in the Mezzogiorno with the highest percentage of votes in favour of divorce. In those years it enjoyed the presence of intellectuals like Vincenzo Cabianca, Bernabò Brea, Santi Luigi Agnello who were able to succeed in a difficult process of heritage conservation, which today permits us to have an intact archaeological park, even if locked within a modern urban context, an almost intact island of Ortigia, thanks to a conservation law, the wetland areas of the rivers Ciane and Anapo, on the city edge, protected. These are all strong points on which today one builds an identity of the people of Siracusa that can be offered to the tourists who are attracted by these urban landscapes.
The impact with modernity here has not altered the signs of history.
February 2021

He focuses on urban and environmental history and history of the South of Italy. Teacher of contemporary history, he also teaches History of the environment and Teaching of History at the University of Catania. He was president of the “Società Siracusana di Storia Patria” and member of the Italian Society for the Study of Contemporary History. Currently he is part of the editorial committee of “Italia Contemporanea” and of “Meridiana”. WIth the editor Marsilio, he published La produzione di uno spazio urbano. Siracusa tra Ottocento e Novecento.