THE CITY OF RAGUSA, RAGUSA IBLA AND THE UNESCO MONUMENTS.
The City of Ragusa is divided in two as a result of orographic characteristics of the territory in which it is found and important historical events. The old city, founded by the Sikels and Known as Hybla Heraea by the Romans, conquered by the Byzantine, Arabs and Normans, became an important economic and trading center in the Middle Ages.
The new city, built on a long narrow plateau in the early 18th century, developed extensively in the last century, after crossing its surrounding valleys with large bridges. However, the key date for understanding and discovering Ragusa is 11th January 1693, when a violent earthquake destroyed a considerable part of Eastern Sicily and Ragusa itself.
Those who survived the tragedy decided to build two different cities: the first, in the remains of the medieval settlement, the other, on the upland a short distance away, with an innovative grid plan. The two cities of Ragusa experienced separate histories for over 2 centuries, competing to excel ono over the other. They became embellished by large churches and elegant buildings up to 1926, when reunified by royal decree, they became the chief town of the 9th Sicilian province.
In 2002, thanks to its baroque charm, in Ragusa, 18 of its monuments and the entire historical centre of Ibla were listed among the Unesco World Heritage Sites.
The Itinerary, for visiting Ragusa on foot, can start from its upper more modern side, containing a number of particularly interesting monuments, exactly in the center of Ragusa city.
The starting point is Piazza Libertà, built in Empire style on the design of the famous architect of the Fascist period, Ernesto Lapadula , and we continue towards Via Roma, heart of the city, walking past the new bridge or Pennavaria bridge. Enthusiasts of more remote history must take the flight of steps on the left, at the end of the bridge, to reach the archeological Museum in via Natalelli, which preserves magnificent artifacts of various ages originating from the territory of Ibla including the famous stele of the Warrior of Castiglione. Continuing, once more, along via Roma, almost the crossroads with C.so Italia, on the right, is a beautiful three-light window which stands out on the rear of the San Giovanni Cathedral. Before inspecting this masterpiece, it is worth taking a few more steps along the main street to admire the baroque harmony of the 18th century Palazzo Schininà now bishop’s residence. We make our way back towards the Cathedral, of the mid 18th century.
Three large portals and a number of massive columns highlight its façade which includes a mighty bell tower to the left. Inside, a nave and two large aisles are divided by black asphalt pillars which were later painted white. The ceiling is decorated in gold and stuccoes and the floor, in marble, with designs made from asphalt tiles is particular exquisite. The organ is a magnificent Serassi dating from 1858. In the nearby Piazza, once home to the town market, on one side is the oval plan artistic Church of the Badia and, opposite it, the tourist office of the Municipality.
Continuing downwards, on the left we pass the Post Office building on one side and the 19th century Town Hall on the other. Enlarged after 1926, with and entrance on Via Rapisardi, it is also house of the offices of the Prefecture which boast a number of reception room s frescoed by the Roma painter Duilio Cambellotti. Continuing on, have a look to Via San Vito on the right. It is important to walk along it to admire Palazzo Zacco , on the corner of C.so Vittorio Veneto, home to the museum of Ragusa. Its balconies with mythological figures are extraordinary. A few more steps and we reach the S. Vito bridge, the most recent one, as it was inaugurated in 1964. Facing away from it, 2 other bridge can be seen, “Il Vecchio” the old, built with many arches in 1854 and “Il Nuovo” builted in 1937.
We make our way back to C.so Italia and continue towards the lower part in direction of Ibla. Immediately, on the left, are a few elegant homes of the late 18th century, including Palazzo Bertini Its windows are surmounted by a number of grotesque figures known by the people as the Three powerful ones. At the center is the noble man, who represents the power of aristocracy, on one side the rich and powerful merchant, with turban an whiskers. Finally, the pauper, with an enormous deformed nose and tongue beetween his teeth, expresses the power of those people who have nothing to lose.
He road continues to descend to the space which dominates Santa Maria delle Scale and the exceptional panorama of Ragusa Ibla. Instead of continuing on C. so Mazzini, on foot, it is preferable to continue along the wide flight steps that creeps between the homes and the church which is perhaps the oldest in Ragusa. Its origin is uncertain but it was rebuilt a number of times. On the right aisle are a number chapel with Gothic Catalan arches and a splendid 16th century terracotta depiction of the Assumption. Not extensively damaged by the earthquake in 1693, Santa Maria delle Scale church still preserves a Gothic style stone pulpit on the outside where the religious functions were held in the open air.
From the churchyard, it is possible to admire a breathtaking view of Ibla, with its perched houses, under the considerable size of the University building, built in the nearly 20th century, on the remains of the Caste of Chiaramonte. The flight of steps continues, crossing the arch which supports the road. Following the signs, we find ourselves in front of a true masterpiece of the late Hyblean baroque period: Palazzo Nicastro or the Old Chancellery, whose portal, with a rich floral decoration , is surmounted by large corbel and round-bellied balconies. At this point, it is necessary to turn left, and head in the direction of the Church della Madonna dell’Itria which includes a magnificent octagonal shaper bell tower clad, in its upper part, by azure bricks and ceramic decorations of Caltagirone with vases and flowers. The Church which boats spiral columns, history chapels and a painting attributed to Mattia Preti, was builted before 17th century and was property of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta whose insigne, with the eight-pointed star, is at the centre of the entrance door. In addition to the church , the S.M.O.M. also managed a small and well-equipped hospital dedicated to San Giuliano. The residence of the Master of the Order of St. John gace its name to the flight of steps , “Salita Commendatore”, which before arriving at Piazza Repubblica, takes us in frontof the mainentrance of Palazzo Cosentini. Perfectly restored, the large construction typical of the 18th century stands out for the beauty of its numerous balconies. The corbels, supporting them, are sculpted in local limestone and incorporate grotesque figures, which, between fantasy and reality, depict the custom of the time. Opposite, stands another historical building of Ragusa Ibla, from Castillett Family, in pure Liberty style. The church of the anime del purgatorio, whose stenographic facade, built on a large flight of steps enclosed by an artistic railing, occupy the entire view of the square, also known as the Arches, due an aqueduct which passed nearby. Its harmonious and particulary bright interior contains a number of paintings by local artist and another magnificent organ. Its bell tower, completely detached from the body of the façade rises on the buttress of one of the oldest doorways of the city. Near the Church of the Purgatorio, on a large terrace called “Piano dei Signori” (Level of the Lords), rise the mightly Palazzo Sortino-Trono. It is perspective, lightened by pilasters with Corinthian capitals, includes numerous rounded balconies supported by corbels decorated with acanthus leaves. The entrance howerver is from the rear and it can be accessed only by using the narrow flight steps, called the clock, which leads directly into the maze of the medieval part of the district made up of narrow lanes, steps and arches. Inside there is nothing of interest; we recommend continuing along Via del Mercato which owes its name to the old shops, eleven in all, connected and shaded by a charming portico. The road travels alongside the S. Leonardo torrent and looking downwards it is possible to see many construction which were once used as mills and bakers homes.
Crossing largo Camarina and via Conte Cabrera, we reach the pedestrian zone of piazza Duomo,ancient heart of Ragusa Ibla. Of an elongated shape the piazza is dominated by the Cathedral os San Giorgio, masterpiece by Gagliardi. The project, of which the original tables remain, is characterized by three orders of the monument façade there the central one, in the form of a tower, encloses the campanile (bell tower) and terminates with an onion spire which brings to mind the 17th century wooden tabernacles of Capuchin churches. The two couples of volutes link the different levels façade and respectively, house the statues of San Giorgio (St. George) and San Giacomo (St. James) on the bottom and those of San Pietro (St. Peter) and San Paolo (St. Paul) on the top. On the spire, under the cross, it is possible to read the date 1775 which indicates the conclusion of the works on the façade. The central door is magnificent with mixtilinear cornice, rich in friezes and reliefs with vegetal motifs, which also hides a precious sculpted decoration, in six panels, with the depiction of episodes of the martyrdom of Saint George, work of Palermo carver Vincenzo Fiorello who carved them in 1793. Alas, this small masterpiece can be admired only on a special occasion like the Saint’s feast day which, according to Hyblean tradition, falls on the last Sunday in May. The interior, spacious and armonious, is embellished by prized paintings and beautiful stained-glass windows dating from the beginning of the last century. In the sacristy, in addition to a Byzantine Madonna, it is possible to admire the so-called “Cona”, which depicts the Saints of George, Mercury and Gaudenia. The work of the Gagini school was part of aensemble of over 15statues which, at one time, had surrounded the high altar of the Church of San Giorgio Vecchio. Making our way back to the piazza we notice that the perspective of the axis of the Cathedral is shifted in relation to the piazza acquiring a particular scenographic effect which makes it possible to view the cupola, behind the façade. The cupola, standing 43 metershigh and supported by 16 paired columns, was constructed in neoclassical style by Carmelo Cutraro of Ragusa, in 1820. The visual effect of the ensemble is truly exceptional and it is completed by a long flight of steps surrounded by the ornate railing erected by Paradiso company of Acireale in the late 19th century. Recent restoration works has highlighted that some elements of the façade, like the Corinthian capitals and a few of the sculptures, were built in pitch stone to create a strong contrast with the light color of the limestone. However these decorative elements, realized in asphalt which oxides quikly, became the same colour of the stone thereby losing the chromatic effect. (this kind of stone in Italian is called “Pietra Pece”.)
The itinerary continues leading to the back of the church where, in wonderful restored rooms, the Cathedral Museum preserves interesting vestments and sacred texts in addition to the treasure of the temple consisting of precious religious object in gold and silver. Exiting from the Museum, we find ourself in via Capitano Bcchieri, where opposite the apse of the church, we can admire the balconies of Palazzo Larocca, representative office of the Regional Province of Ragusa. Each of its six famous balconies in Ragusa Ibla has a name, whiche relates it to the scene it represents. From the one of the “Atlas” which supports the bracket, to the one of the “Lute Player”, from the balcony of the “Cupids” to the “Mendola Player”. And then, like in a photo sculpted in stone, there is the “Wet-nurse” embracing her child and the “handsome prince” wearing a hat with feathers and behind him brave men and wine carriers.
Having returned to the piazza, the lowest part contains a shell-shaped fountain, built when public water was brought into the city. Opposite the fountain you can admire the famous “Circolo di Conversazione” situated exactly in the center of Ragusa Ibla, famous for its celebration hall with painted ceiling, large pier mirrors and red silk wallpaper. The terrace wich completes its neo-classical façade often used in the television program “Il Commissario Montalbano”, it is an excellent observation spot for evening strolls.
Immediately after, it is possible to admire Palazzo Donnafugata, the current residence of the ancient Arezzo Family. The progenitor of this family, Baron Arezzo, a distinguished character in Ragusa during the 19th century, was also the owner, among others, of the wonderful and magnificent Donnafugata Castle, a few kilometers from the city, well-known for its rooms and park. The great noble house of Ibla also has splendid historical rooms and preserves a rich picture gallery, a collection of Chinese items and drawing room with wallpaper that depicts an ocelot. On the ground floor is the monumental entrance with a double flight of stepsin white marble and striking private theatre, able to hold 100 people, but with stages and foyer which are still used for cultural and artistic events. In front of the building stands a long single-storey construction, with a large number of doors. Before the renovation they were the warehouse and the stalls of the rich baron who was the senator of the Kingdom immediately after the Unity of Italy. Continuing on, we reach Piazza Pola onto which face the old town hall and the baroque Church of San Giuseppe, whose convex facede, attributed to Gagliardi, as in the case of San Giorgio, culminates with bell tower cell. The plan is round , the pavement is in maiolica tiles alternated with limestone and pitch stone and the altars are made with painted glass.
To continue the main itinerary, always remaining in the pedestrian zone, covered with hard stone paving slabs, we walk along C.so XXV Aprile. After the 18th century Church of La Maddalena, the mighty Marini Asylium of the 19th century, the oval Church of San Tommaso and the sail bell tower, we reach piazza Giambattista Hodierna. Subject of difficult and faithful restoration work, the entire area, occupied until few years ago by an ugly school building dating from the Fifties, is now a large open space which surrounds the Church of S. Vincenzo Ferreri, whose façade is characterized by a sundial and its bell tower clad with polychrome tiles at the top. On one side, through the railing of the nearby villa, it is possible to see the remains of the cloister of the old monastery, which dates from the mid 17th century. From the Piazza is is also possible to gain access to the Ibla Gardens which offer long paths with numerous palm trees, fountains, statues and two churches. In addition to the church of San Giacomo, with its beautiful wood Historiated roof, the small church of the Capuchins is also wort to visit. It conceals the famous Triptych of the sicilian artist Pietro Novelli.
After returning to piazza G.B. Hodierna, to conclude our itinerary we continue to the left stopping for a few minutes to observe the Portal of San Giorgio Vecchio. It was the largest church of Ragusa and, according to its restoration work, its facadehad three splendid decorated portals and a high bell tower which crumbled following numerous lightening strikes. What we can see is the only portal which has remained standing after the earthquake. Surmonted by two lozenges with Aragonese eagles, on the large Gothic – Catala style splays are depicted the trades of the Ragusa craftsmen of the 15th century, and San Giorgio who Kills the dragon is depicted in the lunette. A short distance away, stands the Church of “Signore Ritrovato”, built outside the Byzantine Wall, part of Which can be seen behind the construction.