Siracusa The Greatest and most BeautifulOctober 5, 2021
The Day of the Dead – All Souls DayNovember 2, 2021
Christiane Reimann, the villa and the city
I will tell you about the lady, her home and the city at the time when she chose to live there.
Christiane Elisabeth Reimann is definitely an important figure in the history of twentieth-century Siracusa. Despite her cultural merits she is not very well known and her figure has remained for a long time in the shadows. A shy character, she did not flaunt culture and riches. Born in Denmark (Copenhagen, 6th May 1888) and a great traveller, she decided to settle in Siracusa after a first visit and complicated private matters.
Her love for the city’s beauty inspired Christiane Reimann to turn the original Villa Fegotto, acquired in 1934, into a place where one could recover memories of the past. She herself promoted the excavations in the area around her garden in Necropoli Grotticelle in the larger area of the Neapolis, one of the most sought-after destinations in Sicily since the Grand Tour. Her abode stood on an area rich in quarries, caves and hypogea of Greek times, used as burials in the Christian era, which the noblewoman brought to light “with her own workers”. The notable archeological value of the villa’s garden makes it an important piece of the puzzle that is being recovered, and it offers a more complete and wider vision of the burial areas which in Siracusa extend across a vast area, from contrada Teracati, also known as contrada Paradiso, to the area of the Cappuccini. In the garden of villa Reimann we can identify one of the ending points of the oldest Greek water supplies, the Galermi acqueduct, which reaches this location partially interred from the source of the Anapo river, after crossing the Greek Theatre, visible for a small portion at the evocative Grotta del Ninfeo opened up in the high part of the Theatre cavea. The cave was skillfully painted by Jean Houel in a famous gouache that is now part of the Louvre collection.
Hypogeum in the orchard of Villa Reimann
The villa, together with Villa Landolina (1890-94) and Villa Politi (1861), is one of the remaining extra-urban residences of the city, which after the Unification of Italy marked the first expansion of Siracusa towards the mainland areas; villas that are now surrounded by an urban growth with no identity or respect for one of the most representative areas of the ancient city’s history, which Vincenzo Consolo defined “Greeker than Greece itself”.
Christiane Reimann denounced this in a letter to the then Minister of Fine Arts describing her house in such a way: “one of Siracusa’s most evocative, which looks out over the gentle slopes at the bottom of the hill, interrupted by the green gardens and orchards.” The villa’s architecture shows building techniques used in the 1930s with the use of stylistic features of classicism. The finishing touches seem to show a stylistic mix of architecture in Siracusa of the 1800s and the mitteleuropean jugendstil which remind us of the origins of the Danish noblewoman. The villa’s expansion and redesign with the addition of the first floor in 1934, commissioned by the owner, involved well-known engineers and architects of the time such as Giuseppe Bonajuto and Francesco Valvo, and local craftsmen.
The years in which Christiane Reimann was modernizing the villa - built in 1881 by Federico Cocuzza and inherited by his brother Salvatore in 1927 - and the layouts of the exotic garden and the garden of the Hesperides, the corners of her “paradise”, were for Siracusa years of intense transformation. Through digs and demolitions the city followed a policy of modern expansion and promotion of the memories of its ancient past, dear to the city itself but even more to the Fascist regime.
I put the archeological “discoveries” of Christiane Reimann in relationship with the important activities of excavation in the area of Necropoli Grotticelle, documented in the notebooks of the archeologist Paolo Orsi between the end of the 800s and the start of the 900s, an important precedent for the future choice of revealing the caves and hypogea made by the Danish noblewoman. This unique woman, I believe, can be hailed amongst the scholars, the architects and travellers who privileged the classicism of “Ancient Siracusa”, even after the end of the Grand Tour in the wider context of travels to Sicily and to Magna Grecia. The spirit of the rediscovery of the Antique always guided Christiane Reimann, who decided to spend her existence in solitude, lovingly “conversing with antiquities”, an apt expression by Francesco di Paola Avolio, a well-known scholar from Siracusa, which captured the cultural and existential motivations of the travellers who reached Siracusa most effectively.
Gouache by Jean Houel, XVIII century.
Watercolor painting of the Tomb of Archimedes, XVIII century.
The life of Christiane Reimann and her works give us a unique view of the city in which she decided to live, but also to die (1979). It’s an intellectual and introspective view but also a real one, if we think of the Belvedere, the tall tower which she had built on the white rocks of the Necropoli, from which she loved to look out onto the harbour and the so-called Tomb of Archimedes, another destination for ancient travellers.
The love for Siracusa and the greco-roman world which nourished her spirit almost like a lay ascetic does not stop here. In 1976 she decided, completely in private, to donate her possessions to the City she had adopted, ensuring the Comune would use it for an everlasting activity of enhancement and to promote cultural and civil development.
It is really curious, almost incomprehensible, how up to a few years ago, at least until 2015-16 when the School of Architecture of Siracusa promoted a vast program of research on the area of Villa Reimann, the heritage of caves and hypogea in the villa and the villa itself, were almost unknown to the public.
The garden was only partially listed as protected, with some remains listed as areas of notable interest, under the law of 1939 n.1497 and the D.M. 21 April 1956, relating to the larger area of the “zona panoramica della Neapolis”. In the archives of the Soprintendenza there were also no files regarding these remains. The culmination of the interest aroused by the School of Architecture in Villa Reimann, which included the exhibition of 2016-17 Christiane Reimann la villa e la città… curated by the author together with Vittorio Fiore, and its publication promoted by the Consorzio Universitario “Archimede”, induced the Soprintendenza di Siracusa to work to put a specific listing on the whole area of the garden and the villa, to include all the preexisting remains.
Between caves and quarries
The remains related to the villa and their types, as they were identified by the students of the School of Architecture , can be related to the findings of the nearby area of the Necropoli, subject of excavations and studies since the end of the 1800s. Having been unable to find information and results of the excavations in the once private area of Villa Reimann, I believe it is paramount to relate the type of burials and the caves which are present there, with the larger and better known archeological area nearby, of which they are a continuation.
A first reference should be made to the information, surveys and illustrations contained in the work of scholars and travellers on the Grand Tour who were the first to pass on their interest..
Domenico Lo Faso Pietrasanta, Duke of Serradifalco, is one of the first to describe that area of tombs cut into the rock in his book on antiquities of Sicily. The Tomb of Archimedes is present in the engravings of many visitors on the Grand Tour, such as Jean Houel and Saint-Non, attracted by the fascination of Siracusa and the place that was able to stir up such strong emotions related to the classics. Our aristocratic Danish lady also felt the presence of that genius loci, which still seems to reign here.
The first archeologist to describe the forty or so hypogea discovered in the Grotticelle area was Paolo Orsi, who explored them systematically in the excavations he undertook in June 1894 and in July 1895. Orsi described the specificity of the site which he saw as one of the most unusual and complex burial systems of the city.
Christiane Reimann was very familiar with the studies which documented the extension and importance of the Grotticelle area. All this must have led her to start the excavation campaign in her own garden as she was laying it out, bringing to light the numerous hypogea which today represent the authentic added value of the villa, and which have an immense archeological value: a museum en plein air of pagan and Christian burial caves, in a context of rich Mediterranean and exotic vegetation, characterised by rare species which she had purposely planted, and studied by Antonino Attardo (n.d.r. see article on website). One can see two groups of homogeneous hypogea, whose value adds to the unexpected rediscovery of the small Latomia del Carratore, also known as “little quarry of Santa Venera” over which the villa looks, located right next to it.
Hypogeum in the gardens of Villa Reimann
Detail of a cave in the gardens of Villa Reimann
The latomia del Carratore
Christiane Reimann slowly bought the nearby pieces of land to save the view from her garden over the Latomia del Carratore from unregulated and disorderly building, so it isn’t easily noticed from the city, surrounded as it is by the construction of via Teracati. It is still private property, so the small fascinating quarry, the eighth in Siracusa, is listed yet largely unknown and inaccessible. In 1904 Paolo Orsi excavated in the charming Latomia di Santa Venera, opened between Necropoli Grotticelle and the Roman Amphitheatre and could establish the importance and the purpose of the hundreds of niches found all over the rock-faces of the neighbouring quarters. Between the Latomia di Santa Venera and the Latomia Broggi-Casale lies the small quarry of the Carratore family, which is the smallest of the quarries in Siracusa. Mostly unknown, it is inaccessible. It has a rectangular shape and is quite deep, used for a time as a stone quarry just like the other latomie. Its walls are between 10 and 15 meters high and have been surveyed, thanks to the interest of the School of Architecture. A characteristic of this quarry is its use as a burial ground; many hypogea open up around its walls, starting from the steep stair at its entrance.
Christiane Reimann moved with determination in the footsteps of the travellers on the Grand Tour. Her desire to progressively bring to light important relics of ancient times, in the town in which she chose to live, is similar to the curiosity of the erudite travellers, and it was an interest which remained with her for her entire life, dedicated to discovering hidden treasures in the corner of paradise she had lovingly recreated and dedicated herself to in solitude. Not only does a glance give us an idea of her life but also the value of a gesture.
Lo Faso Pietrasanta, duca di Serradifalco, Tomb of Archimedes 1834-42
Associate professor of History of Modern Architecture at the “Scuola di Architettura dell’Università di Catania” and scientific Director for the “Centro Internazionale di Studi sul Barocco”, of which she is the founder. She coordinated the scientific dossier for the inclusion of the cities of the Val di Noto in the Unesco World Heritage List, and numerous editorial initiatives aimed at improving the knowledge and understanding the value of the heritage of the 1600s and 1700s. Author of many essays and volumes, she directs “Annali del Barocco in Sicilia”.