Siracusa's cathedral bears signs of every architectural and historical period since ancient Greece

The Cathedral of Siracusa
Thirty Centuries of History

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he gleaming centerpiece in one of Sicily's prettiest town squares, Siracusa's mother church offers a unique opportunity to study virtually every phase of liturgical architecture that has ever swept through Italy. If you have a couple of hours to absorb its details, you'll be prepared to recognize styles and periods in all the other religious buildings you visit from Trento to Taranto.
To begin with, this duomo actually predates Christianity. It probably started out as a place of worship for the ancient Sikel (siculo) tribes: you can see traces of their huts in Via Minerva and in the courtyard of the nearby Arcivescovado. On this spot the Greek settlers of the city erected a Doric temple in 480BC, to thank the goddess Athena for helping them defeat the Carthaginians at sea. Ten of the original 36 columns are clearly visible along the wall of the left nave, and a monolithic block from the temple entablature is part of the altar in the presbytery.

The Doric shrine became one of the richest in all Magna Graecia, and of course that meant it was coveted and plundered time and time again. One particularly brutal looting was carried out in the first century BC by the Roman praetor Gaius Licinius Verres, in retaliation after he was banished for corruption. Some of the wonders destroyed in this pillage were the painted semblances of the early Sicilian kings - among the very first examples of portraiture in European art.

No one knows for certain when the ruined temple became a Christian church. It was named as the cathedral of Siracusa in 640AD, by Bishop Zosimus. He extensively enlarged and rebuilt the edifice, but almost all trace is now missing except for some Byzantine arches and a half-domed apse at the end of the northern aisle, and the lovely marble floors.

The next few centuries again gave this splendid building a chance to amass an enormous treasure trove of art and sundry valuables, so that when the Arab Saracens swept through in the mid 800s, they reputedly were able to cart off 5,000 pounds of gold and 10,000 pounds of silver. It is likely that the despoiled cathedral then suffered the most terrible humiliation of all: she was used as a mosque for over a century. Like countless other Sicilian jewels, she was rescued from the infidels by the Normans, who converted her back to Christianity, raised the fortress-like walls in the center nave (still wonderfully intact), and decorated the apse with mosaics. Fragments of these mosaics can be admired today, on the wall behind the baptismal font, which was built by Greeks and rests on a Norman base of lions carved in the 13th century.

After the ensuing period of relative serenity, eastern Sicily was hit by yet another pillaging enemy: the earthquake. Terrible damage was caused by the tremor of 1542, but the 1693 terremoto virtually demolished the cathedral. So devastating was this natural disaster that half of Sicily had to be rebuilt, and this led to the arrival of perhaps the most powerful invader Sicily has ever known: the Baroque.

Our cathedral underwent a vast facelift at this point. Around the salvaged inner nave and apse were built several exquisitely ornate chapels, with elegant carved columns, delicate wrought-iron gates, colorful frescoes and masterful statues. The crowning glory, the church's new façade, was added a century later. It was designed by Andrea Palma and embellished with statues by the great Sicilian sculptor Ignazio Marabitti.

The final phase in the Cathedral of Siracusa's 3000-year-old history was begun in 1911, when Italian restorations master Paolo Orso began the painstaking job of removing the dreaded 19th-century "embellishments" that every Italian church has had to endure. This kind of mastery is what the 20th century has had to contribute to Italy's artistic history. It's a "period" that is generally overlooked, and yet without it we might never have had the chance to see the many preceding eras that we so admire.

by Kristin Jarratt

Il Duomo di Siracusa is in Piazza del Duomo; open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. with a long (and very Sicilian) break for lunch.

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