The historical events that have affected the area of Catania now allows for us to admire the architectural beauties of different periods and different civilizations, projecting the tourist in a fascinating history of its over 700 years at the foot of Mount Etna.
The Roman Amphitheater of Catania occupies part of the central Piazza Stesicoro. Built in Roman times around the second century AD, with its 15,000 seats it was one of the largest buildings of the time. Today however, only a part of it is visible. During the Gothic period, its massive blocks of stone were used to erect several buildings, including the Cathedral of the city during the eleventh century
The Ancient Theatre of Catania was built around the second century AD. To the eyes of 7,000 spectators, it presented itself with luxurious marble blocks that alternated with dark lava stone. Located in Via Vittorio Emanele, today part of the site remains visible; the margin of the orchestra and a large part of the auditorium. To its side is the small Odeon, built a century later than the theater. Although the site is mostly covered with houses today, the cavea is still visible.
The Achilliane Baths of Catania consist of an intricate spa located under the Cathedral. The main hall, rectangular in shape, has four pillars at its center that hold up the arches. Other rooms complete the complex, which is of a significant size. Its construction is dated to around the third century AD.
Castle Ursino is the most impressive building of Catania. Built by Frederick II and damaged and restored several times, it was the main bastion of the defensive system created by the king to defend the eastern part of the island. The castle, at the time of its construction, was built directly on the sea: the 1669 eruption reached the building, filling the ditches with its lava flow, and actually lengthened its distance from the coast.
With its quadrangular base, the imposing towers that rise from the top of the massive walls make it one of the largest buildings of the Norman period in Italy. During the course of the centuries, it was used as both a garrison, and for political and administrative purposes. Maintained in excellent condition, it houses the civic museum of the city, where there are archaeological remains of the classical period, as well as medieval paintings and collections of arms and armor from different historical periods.
The Door of Charles V, together with the sixth-century walls are the most obvious testimonies of this period. Of the seven gates that allowed entry into the city, the port of Charles V is the only one that still exists today. In fact, The Uzeda door, which connects via Dusmet to Piazza Duomo was opened in 1695. Today this area is the heart of Catania: every day in fact, it is filled with Catanese fishermen who give life to the full and noisy fish market.
The sculptures of the Renaissance Cathedral also deserve a mention: of particular beauty is the funerary monument of the Viceroy Ferdinand de Acuna, made of marble and decorated with gold trim. From the same period is the entrance that acts as a gateway to the Chapel of Our Lady. Lastly, of particular elegance, is the monument of Cardinal Astalli.
Most of today’s appreciable works of Catania were made at the beginning of the eighteenth century, thanks to the reconstruction that took place after the dramatic natural events of the late seventh century. And the flourishment of the Baroque style.
The Massimo Bellini Theater imposes its mighty force upon the square bearing its same name, behind Via Vittorio Emanuele. It was inaugurated in 1890 with the Norma by Vincenzo Bellini. Equipped with excellent acoustics and twelve hundred seats with four tiers of boxes and a gallery, it has seen, over the years, performances from the best artists of opera, national and international. The Christmas Concert is one of its most noted presentations.
The Fountain of Amenano, located in Piazza Duomo, was built in 1867 to celebrate the harnessing of the river that flows beneath the city. The stream is represented by a young man who claims a cornucopia from which it transships its waters, symbolically conveyed in a glass tank at the base of which there are two tritons. Behind the fountain, is the famous fish market, characterized by the most assorted and colorful seafood in Sicily.
The villas of Catania are the symbol of the development of the years between the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Located along Viale Regina Margherita to Corso Italia, passing through Viale XX Settembre (at that time, outskirts of the city), are characterized by the elegant style of the Second Empire and of Liberty: among other Villas of the dukes of Misterbianco, Villa Majorana Villa Miranda, Villa Letizia and Villa Manganelli.
The Museums in Catania
The historical museum of the allied forces landing in Sicily in 1943 is located at the center of The Chimneys, an old sulfur refinery plant now converted into a conference and exhibition center. Through multimedia reconstructions, the conditions of the Sicilian population during the years of World War II are relived, with screenings, exhibitions, and simulations of real war relics.
Only in… Catania
Historical Background of Catania
The Ancient Age
The founding of Catania dates back to 729 BC by Greek colonists. The Calcidesi, built it with the ancient name of Katane. Thanks to the fertility of the soil, the city quickly grew in size and importance, becoming a rival of Syracuse, at the time one of the most powerful cities of the Mediterranean Sea. Repeatedly defeated by the armies of Syracuse, with the arrival of the Roman army in 263 BC the city began a long period of prosperity that lasted for nearly six centuries.
The dismemberment of the Roman Empire led to a significant decline for Catania. It was subject to violent barbarian invasions by the Goths and Vandals that greatly damaged the many works of architecture built by the Romans in the preceding centuries (some are still present in the city).
The Middle Age
In 535 A.D. Catania was conquered by the Byzantines, remaining under their authority for about three centuries, until the Arab domination.
The Norman-Swabian period began in 1071, when the imposing building of Castle Ursino was completed, and the Benedictine monks took an important role in the evangelization and civil reorganization of the city.
In 1169 a devastating earthquake shook much of the eastern side of the island destroying most of the houses and causing a high number of casualties. The damage was extensive in Catania and the slow reconstruction weighed considerably on the prestige that the city had gained.
The Norman-Swabian period ended because of the victory of Charles of Anjou against the Hohenstaufen dynasty. In 1266, Sicily was offered by the Pope as a gift of gratitude to the French king.
The French, however, were short-lived: the dissatisfaction with their oppressive government pushed the population to rise up and to favor the settlement of the Spanish dynasty of Aragon.
The Modern Age
In 1434, the Siciliae Studium Generale was founded, it was the first university in Sicily where humanities, law, and medicine was taught.
In 1669, a massive lava flow travelled around the eastern side of the volcano, ending its path in the waters of the Ionian Sea: the city walls were destroyed, except for the north-west portion and those surrounding Castle Ursino, which at the time were right on the sea, and then advanced the coast further out.
But even more dramatic was the outcome of the 1693 earthquake, which destroyed the towns of neighboring inhabitants but spared Catania: in this case the damage and casualties were numerous.
However, thanks to the vitality and determination, that has always characterized its people, Catania was able to rise: the most important buildings were built in a thrilling baroque style, which now has become protected as a World Heritage Site.
Under the Bourbon dynasty in the early part of the nineteenth century, the city had a growing bureaucratic importance, the population increased in a few years, many work activities concentrated around the Etna area, and Catania turned into the true hub of eastern Sicily.
The Contemporary Age
From the post-unification period up to World War II, the city became famous for being the birthplace of prominent intellectuals in the fields of music and literature, such as Bellini and Verga.
During World War II, the city was sorely tested due to the difficulty of finding food and especially the major Allied bombing in an attempt to weaken the German rear. However, it should be noted, that once again, in difficult times, Catania was able to take a prodigious leap forward: the post-war period saw an exceptional demographic and economic rebirth, so much as to earn the name of “The Milan of the South”.
Today, Catania is as a jewel nestled between the slopes of Mount Etna and the Ionian Sea. It is for the visitor to get to know.