In Sicilia: First Days in Siracusa

Cattedrale di Siracusa

As we’d decided not to rent a car, we traveled cross-island to Siracusa via a big, comfortable bus. In Siracusa, we were once again lucky in our lodgings: a light-filled apartment with views of the Ortigia Harbor. First on our list was on-foot exploration, with the sole required stops to see the Burial of St. Lucy, by Caravaggio (1571-1610), and to visit the local market.

Caravaggio’s Burial of St. Lucy

Caravaggio, Burial of St. Lucy

The Burial of St. Lucy is currently housed in the Santa Lucia alla Badia, though there’s been a tussle over whether that’s its proper home. For now it seems Ortigia has won out.

The Burial of Saint Lucy . . . has been moved several times for restoration, but now finds itself the centre of spat between churches in rival districts in the port of Syracuse. . . . Ortigia, a neighbourhood of honey-coloured palazzi and churches in the Sicilian baroque style, has had something of a makeover in recent years. It now attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists a year, with an estimated three thousand a day visiting the Santa Lucia alla Badia church to see the Caravaggio painting. [citation]

St. Lucy is the patron saint of Siracusa. Her story, as seems to be the lot of saints, is suitably gruesome. You can read about it here.  Of course Caravaggio’s own story is fairly colorful as well.

An expert swordsman with a fiery temper, [Caravaggio] enjoyed wandering . . . with a group of friends looking for a fight. Eventually it got out of hand, a man was killed, and Caravaggio was condemned for murder by the pope. His influential friends obtained refuge for him in Malta, under the protection of the Knights of St John. At first all went well. . . . Then another fight took place in which a leading knight was badly wounded [and] Caravaggio . . . was thrown into an underground prison. Somehow he managed to escape, avoid the tight security in the harbour, and board a boat to take him to Sicily. . . .

[A friend] was able to introduce Caravaggio to the leading men of Syracuse. . . . The city’s senate was in process of restoring a basilica in honour of their patron saint, Santa Lucia, who was martyred for her faith in 304. Caravaggio, whose reputation extended to Sicily, was commissioned to paint a new altarpiece for the basilica, to be ready for the saint’s feast day on December 13th. [citation]

Tempio di Atena columns, Cattedrale di Siracusa

Cattedrale di Siracusa

In his book, Sicily: An Island at the Crossroads of History, John Julius Norwich offers the puzzling observation that the Syracuse Cathedral is “one of the only cathedrals to have been built five centuries before the birth of Christ.” He goes on to explain how this could be so:

The columns that support the building are those of the original Doric temple of Athena, erected by the tyrant Gelon to celebrate his victory over Carthage in 480 B.C. . . . Under the Romans, its greatest treasures were stolen by the unspeakably corrupt Governor Verres, against whom Cicero so famously thundered. The Byzantines converted it for the first time into a Christian church; the Arabs turned it into a mosque. Normans and Spaniards both made their own contributions; a series of earthquakes did their worst; and there was major reconstruction in 1693 after the collapse of the Norman facade. Those ancient columns, however, survived all their tribulations . . . . [Norwich, pp. 5-6]


Il Mercato di Ortigia Siracusa

Il Mercato di Ortigia Siracusa

A big advantage of renting apartments is that, rather than simply look at markets, one can actually buy food to cook. Not everyone sees this as an advantage while on vacation, but one can do a bit of both, after all.

Apparently, the Siracusa market is thriving, but the reason is a bit of a mixed blessing:

This type of animated market was common in Sicily’s big cities until fairly recently. The best-known ones are probably those in Palermo – the Ballarò and the Vucciria, which was immortalised in a painting by Renato Guttuso but unfortunately has been left to die. This hasn’t happened in Syracuse, however – maybe because of large tour groups that navigate the market’s one small windy street. [citation]

I suspect it wouldn’t be wise to visit Siracusa in the height of tourist season; in winter, however, we out-of-towners were in the minority, with not a tour group in sight.


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Listening List

 Carlo Gesualdo (1566-1613), Moro, lasso, al mio duolo, madrigal for 5 voices (Book 6), W. 6/74

Throughout Moro, lasso, there is a constant tension between diatonic repose and chromatic rage. The piece begins with long-held notes moving slowly in descending half steps, metaphorically representing death and agony; this is sharply contrasted by the subsequent break on the words “she who could give me life” into a stream of flowing, imitative counterpoint. This kind of juxtaposition recurs throughout the piece in a thorough playing out of the text’s dichotomous imagery . . . . [citation]

Gesualdo, a near-contemporary of Caravaggio’s, makes a fitting art-and-music companion in other ways, as well. Here’s Alex Ross to tell the tale.


Credits: The sources for quotations may be found at the links in the text. The image of the Burial of St. Lucy may be found here. The photographs, as always on the blog unless indicated otherwise, are mine.


4 thoughts on “In Sicilia: First Days in Siracusa

  1. larrymuffin

    Indeed all these Saints had sticky ends, however after many years of living in Italy I became convinced that those stories were made up simply to make the Saint more acceptable. Rome being such a hodgepodge of religions one wonders why the Romans would have paid so much attention to this Christian sect dominated by Jews living in Italy. Siracusa is a beautiful city and we really enjoyed visiting it.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Laurent: “Sticky end” is a wonderful euphemism. Must remember that. And your observation about the Roman preoccupation with a Christian sect within so many religions is perceptive, to say the least. Siracusa is a lovely city, though the balance tips a bit too far toward the tourist. Going off season definitely had its advantages.

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