Sicily – Catania – a tour of Sicilian Baroque architecture

As far as most tourists are concerned, Catania is a Baroque town. The old centre is dominated by buildings that were constructed following the catastrophic earthquake of 11 January 1693 which happened to coincide with the late Baroque period of architecture, also known as Rococo. From the 1780s onwards fashions began to change and the style was gradually replaced by Neoclassicism and so this brief flowering of Sicilian Baroque can be seen as the final culmination of Baroque art in Europe.

You’ll find all the buildings I mention on my Google map. I’ve organised them thematically below rather than in geographical order.

After Palazzo Biscari (see next post), this is my next favourite Baroque building…

Monastero dei Benedettini di San Nicolò L’Arena, 32 Piazza Dante Alighieri,

This Benedictine monastery is one of the largest in Europe. Founded in 1558, the original building was destroyed in the 1693 earthquake.

The monastery was declared a national monument in 1869 and put on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2002 as part of the Val di Noto heritage site. Today it houses the Department of Humanities of the University of Catania.

I read that the elaborate sculptural architectural ornamentation on the facades can be described as ultra-Baroque or Churrigueresque.

To unpack the latter term, if Rococo was a style of late baroque decorative art that included architecture (French in origin), then Churrigueresque can be seen as a Spanish Rococo architectural style. Both are characterized by flamboyant ornamentation but Churrigueresque sculpture is usually found on facades, particularly around doorways, although not the case here, see for example the National Ceramics Museum in Valencia (post here) or the Palacio de San Telmo in Seville (post here). That Sicily should be influenced by this style is understandable given that it was a province of the Spanish Empire at the time.

The window frames and balconies are smothered with flowers, fruits, scrolls, nymphs, grinning masks and winged cherubs. The cherubs, known as Putti, and the masks are features that are particular to Sicilian Baroque.

I would have loved to do one of the tours but unfortunately I only had time for a last-minute fleeting visit to take a few snaps of the exterior.

Next to the entrance to the monastery is its church, Chiesa di San Nicolò l’Arena, which I’m told is a hybrid between late Sicilian Baroque and more linear Neoclassicism.

Due to technical and financial problems the facade was only partially completed, leaving the columns in the middle without a crowning tympanu. Works halted in 1796 when the money ran out.

Back in town…

Palazzo Manganelli, 16 Piazza Manganelli,

Palazzo Manganelli was another rebuild after the 1693 earthquake but also has later eighteenth century modifications. The sign outside says that the façade is designed in a late Baroque, Rococo style but to me it looks Churrigueresque.

Apparently it has a remarkable hanging garden, which rests on the ancient city walls, containing two fountains and a nymphaeum, but I’m not sure how you’d get inside to see it. From looking at the photos on the website it looks like the palace can be hired for private events, so maybe you could email them and ask if it’s possible to get in for a private view. Or pretend you want to hire it if you’re really sneaky! Well, maybe you run a wedding planning business and you’re scouting for sites…

Palazzo Mazza, 140 Via Vittorio Emanuele II

This is the house of Domenico Tempio, a Catanian erotic poet who was a contemporary of Bellini. Although he wrote many serious poignant works, his erotic poetry was censored for being pornographic.

It seems this reputation didn’t concern him too much because, if you look at the underside of the balcony of his house, known as the Balcone di Micio Tempio, the male carved figures are holding up the balcony with one arm while using their free hand to play with themselves! This palazzo doesn’t have any signs for tourists outside it for some reason.

Somewhere you’ll read a lot about in the guide books is Via dei Crociferi and its side street Via San Benedetto. These streets, lined with churches and monasteries and some private homes, are considered to be a classic ensemble of Catanian Baroque architecture. Streetview here.

One of the principle churches is Chiesa San Benedetto, on the corner with Via Teatro Greco.

The church is connected to a convent of the same name on the other side of the street by the Arco di San Benedetto.

If I’m honest, I have to say I’ve seen enough Italian Baroque churches to last me a lifetime so I didn’t make much effort to get inside these religious buildings. That said, writing this has tweaked my curiosity so I’ll make more of an effort next time.

However, there is a building I like at the northern end of Via Crociferi…

Villa Cerami, 91 Via Crociferi

This beautiful portal is the entrance to Villa Cerami, now the Department of Law of the University of Catania.

This baroque palace was designed by Giovanni Battista Vaccarini, an influential early Sicilian Baroque architect who was also responsible for the facade of Catania cathedral amongst many other works. He designed the highly adorned gate and the original version of the beautiful sweeping monumental staircase (one of Vaccarini’s signature contributions to Sicilian Baroque) although it has since been modified.

The garden here, which has a nice view of the city, is a good spot for a short break before taking on the rest of Via Crociferi. My second AirBnB was just a stones throw away in Via Penninello (see my Staying in Catania post).

Palazzo San Giuliano, 13 Piazza Università

The beautiful courtyard of this palazzo (the old building of Catania University) has another beautiful Vaccarini staircase, this time a double-flight.

Palazzo Valle, 122 Via Vittorio Emanuele II

Another Vaccarini conception from the first half of the 18th century, although this Baroque palazzo was constructed in three phases ending in the second half of the 19th. The attractive facade features soft lines and a striking contrast between the mounted limestone and the dark rendering around it.

I particularly like the curve of the wrought iron balustrade on the graceful central balcony which compliments the broken circular pediment above it. Such balconies and balustrades are another distinctive feature of Sicilian Baroque.

Convitto Cutelli, 56 Via Vittorio Emanuele II

This former college is another Vaccarini design albeit with the help of Francesco Battaglia who is responsible for the neoclassical façade on via Vittorio Emanuele (lost the exterior pic, sorry, the clock tower is nice).

However Vaccarini is responsible for the stunning black and white courtyard.

The building is still a functioning school and so is not open to the public, although one of the friendly caretakers did let me quickly take these snaps. He said I could get access after 17.30 (I think, ask again) but I ran out of time and didn’t go back. Apparently the frescos and the marble staircase to the Aula Magna are worth a look.

Palazzo dell’Università, 2 Piazza Università

This palazzo is another Vaccarini and Battagli construction, built as a result of 1693 earthquake, as are all the Baroque palaces in central Catania.

The Aula Magna and its frescos are the thing to see apparently, but I’m not sure if you can get in to view them.

And finally…

Teatro Massimo Bellini, 12 Via Giuseppe Perrotta,

The Teatro Massimo Bellini was built to honour Catania’s most famous son, the great composer Vincenzo Bellini.

It was opened as a theatre in 1890 and is an example of what is called Neo-Baroque or Baroque Revival, coming as it does some 150 years after the buildings above. It was an official style that sought to express pride in the newly unified Italian state.

Piazza Bellini, the square in front of the theatre, is one of the epicentres of Catanian nightlife but it’s a bit too raucous for me.

And a little later still…

Palazzo delle Poste designed 1919, completed 1929), 215 Via Etnea

The central post office was designed by Francesco Fichera, a prominent local Stile Liberty architect (see next post), who clearly pays homage to Vaccarini but has added his own modern motifs.

Sorry that this post became a bit of a monster! I tried to make it shorter by giving my favourite Baroque building in Catania its own dedicated post, coming next…

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