Contemporary SiracusaApril 23, 2021
Davide D’OrazioMay 2, 2021
Traveller, pause for a moment.
Take a break from all this rushing between outdoor coffee-shop tables and souvenir shops, and listen to what I have to say.
Over 2700 years ago, I saw Greek ships arriving on a deserted Ortigia and colonists build a temple and a city on the highest point of the island. I saw their numbers grow and prosper, and transform Siracusa with art, commerce, and wars until, in a few years, they made it a rich city, powerful and beautiful, independent for over five centuries.
I saw the Athenian fleet defeated in the Great Harbour, those proud ships that had arrived from afar sunk and the survivors captured. I know they imprisoned them and forced them to labour in the quarry in the high part of the city, there where today the people of Siracusa sit in the white seashell of the ancient theatre carved in the rock, and watch the tragedies and comedies whose stories have come down to us across the centuries.
Ortigia and the Great Harbour from the Walls of Dionysius © Regione Siciliana Ph.Giuseppe Mineo
"Because I’m a genius, with a woman’s face and ruffled hair… a genius loci. And my name is Siracusa..."
I saw some of the greatest minds of humanity: the philosopher Plato, the poet Theocritus and the great Archimedes, genius and inventor. I saw him as a young man, drawing geometrical figures on the sand and, many years later, old and grey, defending the city from the Roman siege with his war machines.
I saw the Greek polis become a Roman Province, looted by its governor Verres, but defended passionately by Cicero. Six centuries later, I saw her again as the centre of the Mediterranean, when the city for a brief moment became the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, hosting an ambitious Byzantine monarch, later treacherously murdered.
Tempio Giove © Regione Siciliana Ph.Giuseppe Mineo
People from far-away lands came here: Berbers, Arab travellers and the golden-haired and sky-blue eyed Normans. And among their descendents I saw a great emperor: Frederick II of Swabia, the most extraordinary man of his time. Today the splendid castle built at his command still stands on the southernmost point of Ortigia.
For two centuries I saw the city become a great metropolis once again, populated by artists, artisans and merchants, a splendid jewel that a king of Aragon wished to give to his wife, until the Turkish menace forced Charles V of Hapsburg, between 1520 and 1530, to surround the island of Ortigia with walls and arm it with cannons, looting the centuries-old blocks from the most beautiful monuments of the ancient city in the process.
I saw Caravaggio, the great painter, land as a refugee in 1608, chased by the ghosts of his own restlessness; the trace of his passage is forever remembered in the name he chose for one of the iconic places of the city, the Ear of Dionysus, and in his painting that immortalises the burial of Saint Lucy.
Then, on a cold day in January 1693, a terrible event changed the face of the city; a devastating earthquake shook the city all the way to the foundations. Houses and palaces collapsed. Not even the facade of the imposing Norman Cathedral was spared.
But the city rose once again from its ashes and saw a flowering of decoration in the taste of the period: masks, garlands of flowers and fruits, unusual animals… the triumph of the baroque style.
For two centuries it was the destination of illustrious travellers from all parts of Europe: nobles, artists, architects, poets, everyone was in love with its history and no-one would pass over a chance to come to admire the city, enchanted by its mythological charm.
Chiesa San Giuseppe, Ortigia Ph. © Marcello Bianca
Ortigia Ph. © Marcello Bianca
With the unification of Italy, the fortifications were eventually taken down, freeing the city that slowly began to expand onto the mainland.
During those years I saw a restless boy wandering through the streets of Ortigia chasing his thoughts. His name was Elio Vittorini and he left Sicily when young, having run away from home four times. He later became a great writer in Milan.
Nine times Vittorio Emanuele III of the House of Savoy came to visit, as the heir to the throne first, as King of Italy later. He was a passionate student of numismatics, and they say he came here incognito other times to study the splendid coins of Greek Siracusa that are preserved in the Archaeological Museum.
His last visits were during hard times: the folly of men had caused, for the second time in less than thirty years, a terrifying war that shook the entire world and I saw the bombs dropped from the planes, wounding the heart of Ortigia.
Wooden model of Ortigia, Galleria Palazzo Bellomo ©-Regione-Siciliana
But all follies come to an end, and with the return of peace the city changed: it grew rapidly and began to expand outside the island that for centuries had been its heart. Not everything was positive in those years; slowly the houses and streets of Ortigia began to empty and its inhabitants moved to the newer neighbourhoods which were more comfortable maybe, but often void of the ancient soul that here fills the air.
Today everything is different: everyday in the city, I hear the voices of many people speaking different languages, I see carefree children running and playing on sunny days, while my spirit draws new vigour from every gaze that falls on my ageless buildings and from every person who, like you, listens to my stories.
Because I’m a genius, with a woman’s face and ruffled hair… a genius loci.
And my name is Siracusa.
Foto su concessione dell’Assessorato dei Beni Culturali e dell’Identità Siciliana con divieto di duplicazione, anche parziale, con qualsiasi mezzo.
Archeo-zoologist and paleontologist, laureate in science and specialised in cultural heritage. He studies the relationship between humans and animals in ancient societies, as an economic resource, as food, and as a social and ritualistic symbol. A keen reader of history and of classics of Greek and Latin literature, but also of texts on astrophysics and quantum mechanics, he lives constantly in the balance between the world of numbers and that of letters… and he writes for SiracusaCulture.
Written with the collaboration of Valentina Corsale and Daria Di Giovanni.