In a region populated by olive and almond trees, Noto sits on a plateau dominating the valley of the Asinaro and its citrus plantations. This tiny Baroque jewel endowed with an opulent beauty is the result of a single tragic event: the earthquake of 1693, that, despite bringing death and destruction to this part of Sicily, also sparked a huge effort to rebuild. Previously, the town that stood some 9-10km away (see below Noto Antica) had its origins way back in Antiquity. lt witnessed the birth of Ducetius who, in the 5C, made the Greeks quake in their shoes for having incited the Siculi against his Sicilian nationalist movement. The 1693 earthquake completely destroyed the old town. A broader and less vulnerable site was chosen for the new town, one that might accommodate a straightforward, linear town plan, with intersections at right angles and wide, parallel streets in accordance with the new Baroque taste. Three of the main streets run on an east to west axis, so that they might always be bathed in sunshine.
Three different social categories were catered for: the highest part was reserved for the nobility, the centre for the clergy (all except the hundred-year-old Palazzo Landolina), while the ordinary people were left to fill the rest of the town. Uniformly, the buildings are majestic: all are built of the soft, compacted limestone found locally that loses its glaring whiteness with time as a glorious patina develops imparting a magnificent golden or rosy hue to each facet especially when
these are caught in the last rays of the setting sun. Many Sicilian artists co-operated in the reconstruction of Noto conducted under the supervision of the Duke of Camastra, the acting representative of the Spanish viceroy; these included Paolo Labisi, Vincenzo Sinatra and Rosario
Gagliardi who, being a close follower of Borromini, was perhaps one of the most inventive. The town was built like a stage set might be: its perspectives were configured and implemented in an entirely original way, flattered and enhanced with curvaceous forms and curvilinear accents in façades, decorated brackets and keystones, curlicues and volutes, masks, cherubs and balconies with gracefully bulging wrought-iron railings. Although Noto was rebuilt entirely by local craftsmen, it
fits into a much larger picture as Italian hands modelled, fashioned and realised expressions of the Baroque movement all over Europe and beyond to the new Russian capital, St Petersburg.
The main axis is provided by Corso Vittorio Emanuele which runs through three piazzas, each with its own church. The street extends from Porta Reale, a monumental gateway modelled on a triumphal arch, erected in the 19C. Above the entrance is a pelican, the symbol of self-denial – a reference to King Ferdinand Il, who visited the town in 1838; flanked on either side with a tower –
shorthand for a fortress and thereby a symbol for strength, and on the other a cirneco – an old Sicilian breed of dog symbol of loyalty. Beyond stretches an avenue of trees and to one side the public gardens (Giardino Pubblico) dotted with patches of purple-flowering bougainvillaea and palm trees, and the occasional marble bust of a famous local figure. This is a common meeting-point for the townspeople to congregate around and a good spot from where to watch the daily passegiata.
Piazza Immacolata – The square is overlooked by the fairly austere Baroque façade of San Francesco all'immacolata (designed by Sinatra). An important stairway leads up to a terrace with a statue of the Virgin in the centre, stretched out before its dependent monastery. The church contains several notable works of art removed from the Franciscan church abandoned in the old town of
Noto: these include on the main altar a painted wooden Virgin and Child attributed to Antonio
Monachello (1564), and, set into the floor of the nave on the right, the tombstone of a Franciscan priest (1575).
To the left of the church, by the entrance to Via San Francesco d'Assisi, sits the lovely Monastero del Santissimo Salvatore marked by an elegant tower rising tall above the curved frontage, once a watchtower. The windows are graced with the most wonderful pot-bellied wrought-iron balconies, echoed across the street at the Convento di Santa Chiara, by Gagliardi.
Piazza Municipio – This is the most majestic and the busiest of the three squares, overlooked on the left by the eye-catching elevation of the Palazzo Ducezio, and on the right by the broad flight of steps to the cathedral entrance, flanked by two beautiful horse-shoe-shaped hedges.
Cathedral – The broad façade with its two tall bell-towers does not completely obscure the remains of the dome which tragically collapsed destroying a large section of the nave in 1996. The wide stairway appears to sweep up from the piazza with a great movement, accentuated no doubt by the two tall exedra side hedges, each with paved area above echoing and thereby emphasising their serpentine line. Alongside the cathedral, on the same level, stand the 1800’s Palazzo Vescovile
(Bishops Palace) and Palazzo Landolina di Sant’Alfano, both sober in their countenance in
contrast with the exuberant style of the other buildings in the square.
Opposite, sits the Palazzo Ducezio, a well-proportioned buildings with curvilinear elements, enclosed by a Classical type of portico designed by Sinatra. The upper section was added in the 1950s. The main feature on the east side of the square is the façade of the Basilica del Santissimo Salvatore.
Via Nicolaci – Right off Corso Vittorio Emanuele. The eye is naturally drawn along the street as it gently rises up to the Chiesa dl Montevergine with its fine concave frontage framed between bell-towers, designed by Sinatra. Both sides of the street are lined with fine Baroque buildings: on the left, note Palazzo Nicolaci di Villadorata with its fabulous balconies. See how the richly carved brackets are ornamented with arrays of fantastical cherubs, horses, mermaids and lions, grotesque figures among which in the centre, a figure with distinctively Middle-Eastern features (snub nose and thick lips). It is intended that the interior will be opened to the public once restoration is completed.
Towards the middle of May, the citizens recreate brilliantly-coloured tableaux of flowers inside the doorways of the palazzi: these panels composed entirely of petals are in celebration of the infiorata festival. The cobbles of Via Nicolaci are trasformed into some gigantic canvas onto which the artists apply their multicoloured brushstrokes picked from palettes of petals: each year the designs are different.
Returning to Corso Vittorio Emanuele, on the left stands the imposing complex of the Jesuit Church and College attributed to Gagliardi. The fine central doorway is enclosed between four columns and, at the top, grotesque masks.
Piazza XVI Maggio – The most striking feature on the square is Gagliardi’s elegant convex façade for the Chiesa di San Domenico designed with an emphatic use of line and boldly contained by two tiers of colunms separated by a high cornice. The interior, predominantly white and encrusted with stucco, is graced with polychrome marble altars.
In front of the church lies the delightful Villetta d'Ercole, a public garden with a 1700’s fountain in the centre named after Heracles. Opposite, stands the 1800’s Teatro Vittorio Emanuele III.
The second street on the left off Corso Vittorio Emanuele, Via Ruggero VII, leads to the Chiesa del Carmine; a church with an elegant concave frontage and a Baroque doorway.
Return to Piazza XVI Maggio so as to turn up Via Bovio, which passes, on the right, the former Carmine convent known as Casa dei Padri Crociferi.
Via Cavour – This noble street runs parallel to, but on a level above, Corso Vittorio Emanuele, between a series of interesting buildings: Palazzo Astuto (no. 54) has wonderful balconies with bulging wrought-iron railings; Palazzo Trigona Cannicarao (no. 93). Beyond the palazzo turn left into Via Coffa, then left again at the end so as to pass before the late-Baroque Palazzo Impellizzeri, and turn right into Via Sallicano. This in turn leads right up to the Chiesa del Santissimo Crocefisso designed by Gagliardi and containing Francesco Laurana's sensitive painting entitled the Madonna della Neve.
A glimpse with a difference
Through the streets – Throughout the 18C rectilinear town centre layout, popular districts have sprung up (Agliastrello, Mannarazze, Macchina Ghiaccio, Carmine) among the tightly-knit, tortuous and often maze-like streets more usually associated with medieval towns. The Allakatalla
association not only provides guided tours of the historic quarters, but also organises "alternative" routes coloured with local stories and popular legend. These veritable leaps into the past are even more captivating in the evening, when the subdued light casts an almost magical atmosphere. Allakatalla, 10/3 Largo Porta Reale tel. 0931-8350050.
And where to eat
The Trattoria del Carmine at 1/A Via Ducezio, near the Carmine church, serves real home cooking at very reasonable prices.
Noto Antica – 9-10km northwest. Along the road to the site of the original Noto there is a sign for Eremo di San Corrado fuori le Mura: this 1700’s sanctuary set in among the green countryside is built beside the cave where St. Corrado lived in the 14th century. The main road then continues past the Santuario di Santa Maria della Scala which preserves a lovely Arabo-Norman arch behind the font. The road leads on to the site where the town of old Noto stood before the terrible earthquake of 1693; stretched along the ridge of Monte Alveria, squeezed in between two deep gorges making it easily defensible. Beyond Porta Aurea, the gateway to the now deserted, picturesquely overgrown city, the street system remains intact: how strange, therefore, to think of it as bustling with people in the 17th century. A few eerie ruins protrude from the rubble and weeds.
Cava Grande – 19km north. An excursion to Cava Grande provides the opportunity of exploring a small and forgotten corner of the lblei Mountain landscape, that karst range dominating the southeast part of Sicily. This itinerary off the beaten tratl will be of particular interest to nature-lovers.
Turn off the road from Palazzolo Acreide to Noto for Avola; then take the secondary road signposted for Cava Grande. Leave the car at the viewpoint from where there is a magnificent view over the Cava Grande Gorge plunging down between impressively tall and sheer limestone cliffs. Along the valley bottom winds the river which opens out intermittently to make a succession of tiny lakes, accessible by a path leading down into the gorge. Slightly to the left, a cave may be seen excavated from the rock: this is the so-called Grotta dei Briganti (Bandits Cave), just one of the many rock-hewn dwellings in this settlement, and another example of the type so commonly found throughout the rocky landscape of south-east Sicily. lt is thought that this particular cave was used as a tannery.
Descent – It takes half an hour to walk down to the river, or cava as it is known locally – allow twice that time to climb back to the top. The track, which at times becomes quite difficult to follow, cuts its way along the river through luxuriant vegetation. After a few hundred metres, the bush gives way to an open clearing around a series of natural rock pools created by the river, complete with flat rounded slabs of rock ideal for whiling away a moment or two in the sunshine. In summer, the cool water is very tempting. Furthermore the rock pools are surrounded on all sides by the most idyllic scenery far removed from anything else found elsewhere in Sicily, and so providing an unusual and highly recommended alternative to a swim in the sea off the Syracuse coast.