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The Historic Gardens of Siracusa

The statue of the dying Saint Lucy
February 14, 2022
The Food Culture of Siracusa
February 18, 2022
The statue of the dying Saint Lucy
February 14, 2022
The Food Culture of Siracusa
February 18, 2022
Foro Siracusano

The Historic Gardens of Siracusa

 
Despite the current interest in Italian gardens and villas and the profusion of compendious writings on them, the gardens of the Italian South and of the islands, with the exception of those in Palermo, remain still in the shadows. In particular, without considering the invaluable contributions of Annalena Lippi Guidi, there is only a very slender literature about the gardens of Siracusa. This is due, in the first place, to their tiny number, a fact which arises from the lack of a mediterranean-wide culture, but also from phenomena more specific to Siracusa: the military vocation of the city with its powerful fortifications; its limited population; the decentralisation of the nobility to Noto; the lack of support from agricultural and botanical study and research; these existed in Palermo already in the Bourbon era, and later also in Catania, but not in Siracusa.
Latomie dei Cappuccini, Siracusa
Villetta Aretusa, Siracusa
 
If this is true for recent times, the same cannot be said of Siracusa’s ancient history. A study by Massimo Venturi Ferriolo has exploded the theory that the average Greek knew nothing of gardens; on the contrary the garden was a presence in Greek lives more than we had been led to believe. According to Pierre Grimai (1984) it was in Magna Grecia, and in Sicily in particular, that the first great ornamental gardens of the Greek world were established. Gallia, a favourite author of Agathocles (317-289 B.C.), described the outstanding examples, confirming the existence of a great cultural tradition in the gardens of Siracusa: Gelone’s “Horn of Amalthea” and Hieron’s garden called “Mito”. Gelone’s Horn of Amalthea was in the Targia district, “...a place of delight, a most pleasant and smiling grove generous with flowing waters...”. “...Along the city-walls was a most beautiful garden called Mitone, constructed by the tyrant Hieron, which (Ateneo tells us in his 12th book) was marvellous in its fertility and design”. But the fame of Hieron II (269-215 B.C) is linked to the remarkable garden-ship “Syracosia”, which was constructed thanks to the refined ship-building art of Archias and to the genius of Archimedes. “...On the upper deck they placed a gymnasium, footpaths and flower-beds of every kind, luxuriating with plants of great beauty and strength, irrigated by hidden channels, and with pergolas of ivy and climbing vines, planted out in tubs full of soil, which shaded the footpaths” (Biagio Pace 1921).
Reconstruction of the Garden-Ship Syracosia Ph. © Siracusa Reborn
Zona Umbertina, Ph. © Eliseo Lupo
 
About the beginning of the first century B.C., in the middle of the period of Roman domination, despite the destruction and sacking of the city by Marcellus, there are still accounts of the luxurious gardens of Siracusa. But for many centuries after, the fortunes of history confined the city’s residential area strictly within the walls of Ortigia, permitting therefore only the most limited green spaces. The first real gardens arose in the many monasteries founded in the sixteenth century. After the 1693 earthquake, which destroyed the architectural patrimony of the city almost entirely, sacred and secular alike, new gardens were laid out within the walls of convents and private houses. The range of plants was limited, preference being given to vines and fruit trees. After the Unification of Italy what had historically been the green places in Ortigia were further reduced and destroyed, as convents and monasteries were converted into government offices and homes for Piedmontese functionaries.
The earliest examples of public green spaces were the Villetta Aretusa, the Passeggio Adorno, and later the gardens of the Foro Romano. Quite different in character were the gardens outside the walls of Ortigia, where the open country was dotted with small private plots of land and orchards. Further away from the city the masserie - fortified farmhouses - began to appear, most of them from the eighteenth century; these were organic complexes of buildings, set in the midst of estates or feudal domains. Generally the masserie did not possess gardens in the true sense of the word. Such as there were were confined to spaces at the back of the building, closed in by high walls and a gate, taking inspiration from the concept of the hortus conclusus, the medieval secret garden.
Later, at the end of the nineteenth century, in the Teracati district north of the city, groups of villas began to develop. Their gardens were more spacious, since it was an artificial landscape integral to the villa building that was sought. Over the course of time, and worthy of a mention for their uniqueness and because their functions were different from those of the usual private gardens, came the parks and gardens constructed early in the twentieth century around hospital buildings: the Neuropsychiatric hospital, the Ospedale Rizza (formerly the tuberculosis clinic) and the former Foundling Hospital. These green spaces, designed primarily in the interests of health and hygiene, were placed well away from the built-up environment to ensure above all the psychological well-being of the patients.
K.F. Schinkel, design for Villa Bonanno, Tremilia, Siracusa
 
We conclude with a brief note on the Latomie dei Cappuccini, which are described in the 1919 edition of Bertarelli’s Touring Club Italiano Guide as “strange gardens, neither on the ground, nor hanging like those of Babylon, but in deep quarries; gardens which were a people’s prison and tomb.” Maximilian II of Habsburg, arriving in Siracusa in 1852 after a long journey through Sicily, when faced with the quarries recorded: “...Among the fantastical walls of rock, blackened by the ages, among arches and vaults and grottos, from which abundant festoons of climbing plants waved cheerfully at us, in the wildest and most bizarre corniche of rock under the vault of the smiling blue of the Siracusan sky, we discover a small, wild paradise of oranges and lemons, myrtle and pomegranates...”.
As well as the orchards, still today traces of a small centuries-old ornamental garden of some botanical interest are to be found in the Latomia del Paradiso, where, in the ancient style, bushes of laurel, palms and a majestic Magnolia grandiflora adorn the entrance to the Ear of Dionysus.
March 2021
Latomie dei Cappuccini
 
ANTONINO ATTARDO

Agronomist and landscape architect, specialist in agricultural popularisation, planner and director of works for various public parks and private gardens, and for the restoration of various nature trails and the reforestation of the Hyblean area. Founder member and first President of the Sicilian section of the Italian Association of Landscape Architecture, he is now a member of the special commission “Regional Observatory for the quality of Landscape in Sicily”. During the National awards “Città per il verde” in 2000 and 2013, he received a special mention from the Ministry of Cultural Heritage during the candidature for the V Prize for Landscape of the European Council, for his project on the recovery of old pathways and the promotion of the landscape in the canyons of the Val di Noto.
Translation D.R.B.Kimbell