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Noto “All Ruined”

Siracusa 2024
December 30, 2021
Palazzo Cappellani
January 28, 2022
Siracusa 2024
December 30, 2021
Palazzo Cappellani
January 28, 2022
P. de Wint, view of Noto, 1823

9th and 11th of January 1693

Noto "all ruined"

Like a “Seventeenth-century Atlantis or Fata Morgana … it rises slowly amidst the dense olive and almond trees… ready to close itself again on the golden apparition, but of a gold which is soft and pink as honey”. These are the words of Cesare Brandi, who described Noto as a garden of stone, words which capture the magic of the town environment, linked to the architectural forms no less than to its unique golden colour, capable of changing into different shades during the various times of day. The use of warm honey-coloured limestone both for construction and for sculpting, especially in Noto and other cities of the Hyblean area, is a constant in the Baroque architecture built during the period of reconstruction after the 1693 earthquake. Father Alessandro Burgos who was one of the witnesses of the event describes Noto as “completely ruined, with no stone remaining upon another one”. From that terrible earthquake of the 9th and 11th of January, exactly 329 years ago, Noto blossomed like a “winter rose”, a masterpiece of architecture.
There is a authentically Sicilian baroque, just as there is a typically Southern Baroque style, a definition which today doesn’t discriminate against the culture which even in the 20th century was often associated with provinciality. Within the southern cultural koinè, which must include the Greek heritage and the interweavings of new languages which entwine with the older ethymologies, the Val di Noto represents an area strongly characterised by Baroque architecture, of which Noto is an exemplary model. A lot of time seems to have passed since Giulio Carlo Argan wrote in his History of Italian art “during the late 1600s and 1700s, Sicily is dominated by a lavish architectural style as spectacular as it is provincial and lacking in profound cultural roots”; in short it is exuberant and festive, with a vernacular, popular accent, and is often associated with the Baroque of Lecce. But Argan also wrote in 1958 one of the most beautiful writings on Sicilian baroque and its effort to be modern in his introduction to the volume on religious architecture by Francesco Minissi,“we know the external factors which gave rise to this Sicilian Architecture and the urbanistic vision associated with it, starting with the earthquake which created the opportunity to start rapid and almost total reconstructions. But beyond that there is also the will to renovate the structures and layouts of the urban centres. Sicilian Baroque is undoubtedly testimony to a modern endeavour: perhaps the most grandiose and audacious that Sicily has ever made”.
Noto Antica before the earthquake
G. Formenti, map of Noto, 1699
Today everyone knows Noto as one of the most important centres of 18th-century Europe, the ideal Baroque city, founded ex novo with a single unifying town conception, over a short period and using homogenous models, like a few other European cities, such as St. Petersburg. Thanks to the works of architects like Rosario Gagliardi, Vincenzo Sinatra and Labisi, Noto becomes part of the international Baroque movement with its great creative force and strongly-developed sense of space.
Today’s city is the result of the total reconstruction on a different site from the original city which was destroyed by the 1693 earthquake and abandoned after a debate which divided its inhabitants for over ten years. The choice to rebuild the city on its new site of Meti is said to have been made by Giuseppe Lanza Duca di Camastra, general vicegerent of the reconstruction in the Val di Noto and in actual fact, mediator between the divided population who supported his decisions with the technical collaboration of various experts. His choice of the Meti was influenced by a series of reasons, not least economic ones, but also by improved safety concerns as the new location had been deemed less impervious and more accessible to communication routes. The memory of the earthquake marked the choice and modern studies have confirmed this, revealing a series of anti-seismic measures which were used. The reconstruction was funded by the investments of the progressivist aristocracy and the clergy, whose technical team was made of architects who worked in collaboration with master-builders and craftsmen capable of great architectural and decorative expressivity. These masters, gifted with great technical skill and expertise in the cutting of stone, often show an autonomous creativity, favoured by commissioners willing to promote them to the role of designers.
Ph. credits Luigi Nifosì
The town plan is divided in two levels of great scenographic value: the slope and the high part on the hill (Pianazzo). On the slope and lower level stands the superb monumental Noto, whose urban plan was drawn up by the Jesuit architect Angelo Italia, author of the designs of Avola and Lentini, which had also been destroyed by the earthquake. The numerous aristocratic and religious buildings began to appear in this area almost immediately after the earthquake in a series of shacks which at the start of the 18th century gave rise to the beautiful baroque scenery which makes Noto a theatre-city, an urban monument.
The conjunction of powers, typical of the society of the time, is found in the Majoris Ecclesiae area (now Piazza del Municipio) where the Cathedral and the ancient Casa di Città (Palazzo Ducezio) are found opposite each other, perfectly aligned. Their distant dialogue gave birth to one of the most celebrated squares of the Sicilian Baroque, whose “scene” is dominated by the Cathedral’s grandiose facade, at the top of the mighty three-ramped staircase. The unusual width of the facade, not without echoes of Roman baroque, joins the sudden dilation that the square produces along the alignment of the street, which is also related to the streets which rise up towards the upper part, such as via Nicolaci. In the sudden perspective “acceleration” of these scenic areas, one can read the signs of the cultures, not only Roman but also European, which are found in Noto.
The Cattedrale di San Nicolò, Noto
Celebrations of San Corrado
The Cathedral steps - almost a climbing road like at Trinità dei Monti - come to life for the festivity of the local patron saint, Corrado. The evocative descent of the silver Ark containing the relics of the Saint, followed by the “luminous court” of the “Cili”, large wax torches ending with a cup engraved with the saint’s iconography, starts from the parvis in front of the church. The tradition of the Cili began in 1635 in the ancient city of Noto on Mount Alveria and to date their usage is one of the symbols of the great festivity which recalls and unites the new site and the old. The great multicoloured cordon which flanks the 16th-century Ark, contrasts with the plan of the Cathedral square which, located on the main urban axis, seems to be the expression of the will to bring order, which all the other buildings obey: from Palazzo Landolina with its elegant mannerist facade, to the Bishop’s Palazzo Vescovile in neoclassical style, to the late 18th-century Church of the SS. Salvatore which culminates in a spectacular pointed tower with four orders of loggias with curved lines.
S.Nicolò’s Cathedral is the product of two quite distinct construction phases starting in 1693, and the result of the various architects who succeeded each other in running the building site, including Rosario Gagliardi in 1727. The traditional basilica interior is juxtaposed to the wide scenographic facade characterised by two orders of free-standing Corinthian columns, flanked by two tall bell towers. The dome on its high drum collapsed three times: the first in 1760 (reconstructed by Stefano Ittar in 1789), the second in 1848 (reconstructed in a neoclassical style by Francesco Cassone in 1872). The third collapse of 1996 also included parts of the central and right naves of the church, recently reconstructed with the dome. The facade of Palazzo Ducezio (1742 and 1761) is characterised by an elegant portico which continues on three sides, possibly built following some contemporary French drawings.
Chiesa di San Domenico, Noto
Along the city’s main axis, marked by squares, laid out on various levels, stand some of the most important religious complexes of Noto, among which are SS. Salvatore, San Carlo and San Domenico, which are striking for their creative force and dynamic conception of space. The vast complex of San Carlo al Corso includes the ex-Jesuit College. Unlike other religious orders, after 1693 the Jesuits skipped the provisional shack stage to build their home in stone straight away, starting construction already in 1699. Their Church constitutes one of the most scenic architectural facades of the city with three orders of free-standing superimposed columns.
The Church of San Domenico saw construction begin in 1737, designed by Rosario Gagliardi, great architect of the reconstruction of the Hyblean area. The interior with the elongated Greek Cross plan opens up to the luminous area of the dome in the centre, but the facade is what catches the eye, revealing a dynamic strength given by the convex structure, reinvented recollections of Roman Churches such as San Carlo al Corso, which it seems to exceed, overflowing into the urban space. The mass and the mighty free-standing columns are the protagonists of Gagliardi’s architectural dynamism, as revealed by the Mazza collection drawings published entirely by the Centro Internazionale di Studi sul Barocco.
Studies by Rosario Gagliardi from the Collezione Mazza
In conclusion: the post-earthquake reconstruction offers solutions of the highest quality which make the Val di Noto a high point for European baroque and is the occasion to transform with wisdom a tragedy into an opportunity for development. A lesson from history.
January 2022

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”.