You may wish to read an introduction to this section first.
Views of Mount Etna from the plain south of Catania (above) and from the town itself (below). You may wish to see the northern side of the mountain from Taormina
Catania, Friday, May 4, 1787.
As we inquired of the Chevalier Gioeni which was the best course
to take in order to ascend Etna, he would not hear of so
dangerous an attempt as trying to reach the summit, especially in the present season of the year. "Generally," he
observed, begging my pardon, however, "the strangers who
come here think too lightly of the matter; we, however who are neighbours of the mountain, are quite contented if,
twice in our life, we hit on a very good opportunity to reach
the summit. Brydone, who was the first by his description to
kindle a desire to see this fiery peak, did not himself ascend
it. (..) At present the snow comes down
far too low, and presents insuperable obstacles. If you would
take my advice, you will ride very early some morning for
Monte Rosso, and be contented with ascending this height.
From it you will enjoy a splendid view of Etna, and at the
same time have an opportunity of observing the old lava,
which, bursting out from that point in 1669, unhappily poured
down upon the city. The view is glorious and distinct; it
is best to listen to a description for all the rest.''
J. W. Goethe - Italian Journey - Translation by Charles Nisbet
Museo Civico di Castello Ursino: (left/centre) red-figure vases (Vth century BC); (right-above) head of an ephebus from Leontini, an inland Greek settlement south of Catania (VIth century BC); (right-below) head of a woman, Roman statue based on Greek patterns
The foundation of
Catania is mentioned by Thucydides. By a passage of Strabo, we
learn that Catania lost its first inhabitants, and
that a new colony was transported hither by
Hiero, tyrant of Syracuse, who changed its name
to Aitna. Some time after, however, the original
inhabitants, who had been removed into the territory of the Leontines, were restored to their native
country. Subsequently they were again reduced
to captivity by the tyrant Dionysius, and their city
given to the Campanians. The place was much
damaged by (the son of) Pompey; but it was repaired by
Augustus Caesar, who sent thither a Roman colony.
Sir Richard Colt Hoare - A Classical Tour through Italy and Sicily - published in 1819.
Katane, similar to nearby Naxos, was founded in the late VIIIth century BC by Greek settlers from Chalkis. The town retains works of art related to its Greek past, but not monuments of that period, perhaps because of a major eruption of Etna in 122 BC. The Roman Senate exempted the town from taxation for ten years and Cicero most likely referred to this eruption in De Natura Deorum (II, 96): Let us imagine a darkness as dense as that which is said to have once covered the neighbouring districts on the occasion of an eruption of the volcano Etna, so that for two days no man could recognize his fellow, and when on the third day the sun shone upon them, they felt as if they had come to life again. (Loeb Classical Library)
Roman street (left) and floor of a Roman house (right) inside Monastero Benedettino di S. Nicol˛ l'Arena
Our clerical companion has not failed us to-day. He conducted us to some remains of ancient architecture; in examining which, however, the visitor needs to bring with him no ordinary talent of restoration. We saw the remains of the great cisterns of a naumachy, and other similar ruins, which, however, have been filled up and depressed by the many successive destructions of the city by lava, earthquakes, and wars. It is only those who are most accurately acquainted with the architecture of the ancients that can now derive either pleasure or instruction from seeing them. Goethe
Stage of the Roman Theatre
Destroyed three times by the lava of Etna, Catania appears like the phoenix to have risen more splendidly from its ashes and is now considered as one of the best built cities in Europe. The numerous remains of antiquity and uncommon scale upon which they seem to have been constructed convey a very high idea of what this place was in former times.
Edward Blaquiere - Letters from the Mediterranean - 1813
The ruins of the old theatre, but partly built up and inhabited like that of Marcellus at Rome was the next object of our curiosity. Here indeed is an interesting antiquity though it is only in part cleared from rubbish, but the outside walls are nearly perfect; and the entire easily traced particularly from the top and is a proof of the former population and magnificence of Catania; it was as large as our Opera House Drury Lane and Covent Garden Theatres together.
Sir George Cockburn - A Voyage to Cadiz and Gibraltar: up the Mediterranean to Sicily and Malta in 1810/11
Cavea (seating section) of the Roman Theatre
The prince has been at infinite pains, and spent a large sum of money, in working down to the ancient town.
Henry Swinburne - Travels in the Two Sicilies. 1777-1780
Grand Tour travellers had to look for the remains of the theatre by peering into a series of palaces which were built in the late XVIIth/early XVIIIth centuries. Accesses to the theatre were initially opened at the initiative of Ignazio Patern˛ Castello, Prince of Biscari (1719-1786) who undertook the first excavations. Today most of the seating section has been freed from the buildings which stood upon it. It is estimated it could house some 7,000 spectators.
Passages and walls of the Roman Theatre
The plan of the Theatre is very perfect. I traced its vomitoria leading to three stories, its
porticoes, part of the seats, and scene. (..) In a street opposite, on the left hand, and
in the same direction, is a continuation of ancient fabrics, consisting of several arches, and probably
part of this building. Colt Hoare
The lava found in such quantities about Catania possesses a number of admirable qualities that render it highly useful for a variety of purposes, but more particularly those of building and paving. The solidity of this production is truly surprizing and has been found to exceed any other fossil. Blaquiere
The theatre was faced with cut stones and marbles, but its walls were made up of opus caementicium, a mixture of mortar and small stones. At Catania the Romans used lavic stones which were lighter than other rocks and less prone to cracking. As a matter of fact they were not significantly affected by the many earthquakes which struck the town and in particular those of 365, 1169 and 1693.
Adjoining the theatre is another well-preserved structure, called the Odeon, or small theatre, which communicated with it. This is the only building of the kind known to exist, unless that not yet excavated at Pompeii should prove to be similar. A very considerable part of the outer circle is still visible above ground. Colt Hoare
Eventually odeons, small covered theatres for music and poetry, were identified in other Roman towns. They were mainly built in the Ist and IInd centuries AD. A similar complex of theatre plus odeon was built by Emperor Antoninus Pius at Philadelphia, today's Amman in Jordan.
Museo Civico di Castello Ursino: ancient statues: (left) torso of a Roman Emperor aka Torso of Jupiter (it was often compared to Torso del Belvedere - it opens in another window); (centre) Hercules; (right) Venus (similar to Venere Landolina at Syracuse). The Museum houses a very interesting relief portraying The Blinding of Polyphemus by Ulysses
The AbbÚ, who yesterday evening came and paid his respects to us, appeared this morning in good time, and conducted us to the palace (of Prince Biscari), which is of one story, and built on a tolerably high socle. First of all we visited the museum, where there is a lavish collection of marble and bronze figures, vases, and all sorts of such like antiques. Here we had once more an opportunity of enlarging our knowledge; and the trunk of a Jupiter, which I was already acquainted with through a cast in Tischbein's studio, particularly ravished me. It possesses merits far higher than I am able to estimate. Goethe.
Exhibits at the small museum of the theatre. The image used as background for this page shows a detail of a terracotta decoration of the building
Prince Biscari conducted excavations at many sites in Catania and elsewhere in Sicily. His collections included coins and armours. Most of the statues were acquired by the City of Catania in 1929. Architectural details of the theatre/odeon complex are on display at a small museum adjoining the stage of the theatre.
(left) Modern entrance to the Amphitheatre; (right) a section of the seats
There are many remains of antiquity in this city, but indeed most of them are in a very ruinous state.
Patrick Brydone - A Tour through Sicily and Malta in 1770.
The amphitheatre principally lies under the ancient Piazza Stesicorea, now called Porta di Aci. It suffered much in the time of the Goths, whose king, Theodoric, permitted the two upper orders to be destroyed, and the materials to be employed in erecting the walls of the city. Sufficient, however, is still left to prove its pristine magnificence. It is constructed with large pieces of lava, united with cement, strengthened with pilasters, and adorned with a bold but simple cornice. Colt Hoare
The amphitheatre is dated IInd century AD, but no inscriptions have been found to attribute its construction to an emperor or local magistrate. It was first identified by Prince Biscari. At the beginning of the XXth century a section of the lower part of the building was made visible from the current street level.
Terme (Baths) della Rotonda
The most entire of all (Catania monuments) is a small rotunda which as well as the Pantheon at Rome and some others to be met with in Italy, in my opinion demonstrates that form to be the most durable of any. It has now been purged and purified from all the infections contracted from the heathen rites and is become a Christian church dedicated to the blessed Virgin. Brydone
The church of Sta. Maria Rotunda is surmounted with a circular cupola, like that of the Pantheon; and, though on a very small scale, bears evident marks of antiquity.Colt Hoare
Terme della Rotonda: (left) interior of the circular hall; (right) medieval fresco portraying St. Nicholas or a Bishop of Catania
The bath establishment was turned into a church towards the end of the VIth century. The building was redesigned after the 1169 earthquake. In the late XVIth century a new entrance on the southern side of the circular hall was opened and in the XVIIIth century the latter was decorated with new frescoes. In 1943 the church and the nearby buildings were damaged by bombings. Eventually it was deconsecrated and excavations brought to light some elements of the ancient baths.
Terme della Rotonda: (left-above) cistern; (left-below) nymphaeum; (right) evidence of an hypocaust (heating system under the floor of the halls)
Terme della Rotonda were not the only bath establishment of Catania: The antiquities still existing are numerous;
but I could examine them only imperfectly and
partially, because they are almost all buried several
feet under ground. (..) I descended to the baths (Terme Achilliane) through
an aperture, immediately before the door of the
cathedral. They consist of several arcades ornamented with basso relievos, in stucco; and, from
their extent, are supposed to have been destined
for the accommodation of the public. They may
be traced in various places, particularly near the
church of the Carmelites, called L' Indirizzo, (Terme dell'Indirizzo) where
there are considerable remains of the old building.
The plan of the baths and stufe is very visible. The pavement was supported by small round
columns of brick; and earthen pipes ran round
the stufe, to admit the vapour rising from beneath.
I observed, also, a vaulted room, surmounted with
a cupola. The whole is erected on a layer of lava,
which is perceptible in different places; and, indeed, constructed with lava, intermixed with bricks
and long thick tiles. Colt Hoare
Museo Civico di Castello Ursino: (above) details of the Mosaic of the Months (May and July); (below) "Use (these facilities) Happily" mosaic
In the square before the convent of the Benedictines was found a
mosaic, representing the twelve months of the
year, preserved partly in the Biscaris, and partly
in the Benedictine Museum. Colt Hoare.
The mosaics are dated early IVth century AD and were found near Terme della Rotonda; that with the inscription was most likely placed in the entrance hall.
Other pages on Catania to be developed: Around Piazza del Duomo, Via dei Crociferi and Other Monuments.
Plan of this section:
Agrigento - The Main Temples
Agrigento - Other Monuments
Palermo - Gates and City Layout
Palermo - Norman-Arab Monuments
Palermo - Martorana and Cappella Palatina
Palermo - Medieval Palaces
Palermo - Cathedral
Palermo - Churches of the Main Religious Orders
Palermo - Other Churches
Palermo - Oratories
Palermo - Palaces of the Noble Families
Palermo - Public Buildings and Fountains
Palermo - Museums
Piazza Armerina and Castelvetrano
Reggio Calabria - Archaeological Museum
Selinunte - The Acropolis
Selinunte - The Eastern Hill
Syracuse - Main Archaeological Area
Syracuse - Other Archaeological Sites
Syracuse - Castello Eurialo
Syracuse - Ancient Ortigia
Syracuse - Medieval Monuments
Syracuse - Renaissance Monuments
Syracuse - Baroque and Modern Monuments
Taormina - Ancient Monuments
Taormina - Medieval Monuments
Villa del Casale