Scicli: a baroque jewel nestled in a southern Sicilian valley

Scicli is one of the prettiest towns I discovered in southeastern Sicily. Situated low down in a valley, I first caught sight of it when I was on a hillside road, from where I could see its full stretch across the landscape.

Settlements have existed in this area from as far back as the early Bronze age. The name “Scicli” likely derives from the Siculi people who inhabited the valley in the early centuries BC. Later it was colonised by Greeks and Romans and in the ninth century AD it was conquered by Arabs. After flourishing as a trade hub for a while under Arab rule, it was taken over by Normans in the 11th century, then went through a period of Aragonese-Spanish rule before finally joining the Italian Republic in the 19th century.

Like other nearby towns, Scicli was badly damaged in an earthquake in 1693, and later rebuilt in a charming baroque style. Along with other nearby cities, it forms part of the Unesco World Heritage site “Late Baroque Towns of the Val di Noto”.

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On the day I came to see Scicli, I took a walk up to the church of San Matteo on a hillside overlooking the town. This church, a reconstruction following the 17th century earthquake, was the cathedral of Scicli until 1874. It fell into disrepair when the town made St. Ignazio in the centre its main church. The degradation was accelerated by the fact that it had no roof, but in the 1990s a restoration project began which included a new cement covering.

The church still appears in a sense of abandon– it is closed and the interior is empty and in disuse. However, its facade is majestic, and there is a sacred atmosphere on the hill where it stands.

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Wandering further up the hill, I arrived at the archaeological site of the “Caves of Chiafura”. In ancient times this was a burial ground, but then developed into a troglodyte, or cave-dwelling settlement in the Middle Ages, around the time of Arab rule. Interestingly, it continued to be settled by marginalised people right up to the 1950s, when inhabitants were forcefully rehoused.

I had noted that the vegetation and rock of the hills were similar to those found in Matera, Basilicata, which also has a troglodyte background. I later read that cave dwellings had expanded here in the Norman era after the arrival of immigrants from southern Italian regions such as Puglia and the area around Matera.

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I was not able to peer inside the cave area, as it was closed off. But it was fascinating to just be in this site and see it from the outside. If some of the caves could be reopened for visitors, I think this would be an interesting tourist draw for the city. It could work especially well now that Matera is becoming more well-known as it prepares to be European Capital of Culture in 2019.

After seeing the cave area I strolled back into Scicli. On my way through the town centre, I stumbled upon the wonderful Palazzo Beneventano, which had some amazingly funny faces sculpted on its facade. Built straight after the 1693 earthquake in a baroque style, it is a beautiful and amusing building!

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Having seen the old cathedral of San Matteo, I also stopped in to see the new mother church of the town, Sant’ Ignazio. Here I uncovered two interesting stories. The first is the legend of the Madonna of the Militias, a very unusual interpretation of Mary, showing her riding into war on horseback, and trampling on some Saracens. This is linked to a traditional story in the town that a military Mary on a white horse helped the Normans fight off a Saracen invasion in the 11th century.

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The other story I uncovered here was the tale of Blessed William, a nobleman-turned-hermit who lived in a forest near Scicli and served as a sacristan in a local church. He would console the suffering, and many miracles became associated with him, which led to him being venerated in the local area. He lived until 95, and his remains were originally buried in the Church of San Matteo. Nowadays some of his remains are held in reliquaries kept inside this casket:

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As I visited during the Festival of St. Joseph, a big event in the town, the reliquaries were actually on show outside the casket:

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After this I walked up to the Church of San Bartolomeo, which had a particularly stunning facade. Due to its position in beautiful natural surroundings, it has been described as a “pearl in the valves of a shell” by the architect Paolo Portoghesi. Its partly baroque, partly neoclassical facade was concluded in 1815. A statue of Mary stands in the middle while around her are statues of St. Peter, St. Paul, San Bartolomeo and Guglielmo (William).

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There were many other wonderful places to discover in Scicli, I would have to write a book to cover them all! These are the gems that stood out for me. You will surely find some more of your own when your visit!

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