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Sikania. Palazzolo Acreide



N°02 February 1998 - Pagg. 7-22


(text by Maria Cristina Castellucci – photos by Pucci Raeli, Francesco Alaimo, Ist. Studi Acrensi)

The theatre of Akrai, compared to those of Syracuse and Greece, is definitely small. However, during the last performances more than a thousand people were inside, and some great actors have tread its stage. Andrea, our leader, remembers for instance Vittorio Gassman and Arnoldo Foà who, a few years ago, was astonished at the exceptional acoustics: during rehearsals he was wearing a small microphone, but he had to take it off as it disturbed the hearing.
In effect, one can talk, in a normal tone of voice, standing on the stage and be heard by somebody at the top of the gradine; this is, indeed, typical of every ancient theatre, but nevertheless it always strikes the visitor.
The archaeological walk begins generally by the perfect hemicycle of the theatre, founded during the 3rd century BC is the most representative monument of the ancient Akrai, which was the first colony of Syracusa and the beginning of its expansion towards the inner areas of Sicily.
The site was chosen for its evident strategic features: from the top of the plateau one can overlook the valleys of the rivers Anapo and Tellaro. Along the calcareous walls of these canyons are several openings of the ancient necropolis which testimony the presence of prehistoric people thet lived there long before the Greeks arrived and which, not without suffering, were "absorbed" by the Hellenic colonisers.
Akrai controlled the transit on the Selinuntina road, the main way that connected the towns on the oriental side of Sicily to those on the western side. Its period of greater splendour was under the reign of Ierone II, during the 3rd century BC, as it is demonstrated by the cospicuous building production of that period, starting from the theatre. The latter, as already mentioned, is rather small, the area of the stage was covered, during the Byzantine age, by a mill, which is still partly visible, with eleven silos to store grain. It's still Andrea that tells us about the patient work of a specialised company that, with foam rubber layers and other precautions arranged over the ancient stones, has realised the scenery for the modern actors. Then he leads us to the discovery of the small "bouleuterion", the place were the old held their assemblies, right next to the theatre. Our visit continues at the two latomies, the Intagliata and Intagliatella, from were the stones used to build the town were quarried. Along the western wall of the Intagliatella are many votive hollows devoted to the cult for heroes; remarkable is the great relief, dating from the II-I century BC, representing scenes of a sacrifice and of a banquet. During the Christian age, the two quarries were used as catacombs which are still well visible.
Finally our leader shows us the layout of the city road, which was paved with great regular basalt blocks that can be seen among the weeds, and which connected the two main gateways, the Siracusana and the Selinuntina. Then he also points out of the hill where the acropolis was supposed to be and where the basement of a temple, probably dedicated to Aphrodite, was found.
"The divinities of this area were all females" says Andrea with a bit of humour, referring to the other temples which were dedicated to Kore and Artemis. But he is referring in particular to the country sanctuary of the "santons", which is just outside the urban area in contrada Santicello. Twelve big, rough sculptures represent, in different positions, the Magna Mater Cybele, surrounded by Characters which are typical of the iconography of the cult; this complex with regards to its expanse and complexity has no equal in the whole of Sicily.
The archaeological area is surrounded by a winding panoramic road that goes down towards the modern town. A short stop on the edge of the precipice that overlooks the Anapo valley, allows us to enjoy the impressive view: scattered farms, olive tree foliage, grey ribbons of the roads and the low stone walls which delimit the various properties and, with very clear sky, also the Great Harbour of Syracuse.
All around, the sides of the canyon descend through terrace-cultivations, down to the river-bed, framed by plane-trees, willows, poplars and by the coloured oleanders with lanceolate leaves dangling from the cracks of the rocks.
The public administration of Palazzolo has ready a project for a better tourist exploitation of the wonderful Anapo valley, whose environmental integrity is guaranteed by strict bonds. At the bottom of the valley ran the old rail-way on the line of Syracuse, nowadays dismantled, though it is used as a reference by the various hikers that venture in the gorge. At the entrance of the valley, in a hut, are the forest warders that sell maps and also offer a useful guide service. Along the route, according to the structure of the land, comfortable picnic tables have been placed underneath the shade of the rich vegetation.
The modern town of Palazzolo, which is known since the 12th century (Idrisi reports about it in his "Book of Roger") stands on a plateau slightly lower than the site of the ancient Akrai. The inhabitants of the latter escaped from the destruction of the Arab conquerors during the 9th century and gathered in this new site thus settling the first nucleus of the future town – the actual medieval borough of Castelvecchio – which developed over the centuries by building the castle, now completely ruined, and the Mother Church. During the 12th century the territory became a fief and since then, over the centuries, various families followed one another in the ownership of the land. The town went through an important flourishing moment since the 14th century when new quarters were created and palaces, churches, and convents were built. In 1693 such developing process was abruptly stopped by a devastating earthquake which had disastrous consequences in the whole Val di Noto area. During the reconstruction of the town in the 18th century, only the ancient street layout was kept, the edifices were made in the Baroque style.
The church of the Immacolata, which is the first one you meet when coming from the already mentioned panoramic road, dates back to this period. It was built soon after the earthquake and stands on a higher level, compared to the road (corso Vittorio Emanuele), on a bastion from the 19th century. The façade is slightly convex with a rich decoration of plant shoots and fruits that frame the portal. Within is preserved a nice statue of Santa Maria delle Grazie, the so-called Madonna with Child, from the 1500s attributed to Francesco Laurana. To the left of the church-square, shaded by the trees of a small garden, is the entrance to the convent of the Grey Friars, the first mendicant order that settled in Palazzolo. The structure of the former convent has been acquired by the municipality, probably destined to be a luxury hotel, in the meantime it houses exhibitions and conferences.
From the church one can seen a long distance of the road which is flanked, as far as Piazza del Popolo, with palaces from the 1700-1800 built after the reconstruction, and some Art Nouveau buildings. Among the most interesting edifices are Palazzo Pizzo, with very nice decorated corbels, and Palazzo Judica, which was built for the Baron Gabriele Judica, an extraordinary man of culture who spent all his riches to carry out the archaeological excavations in Akrai.
The Town-hall and the church of S. Sebastiano look on Piazza del Popolo. The Town-hall was built in 1908 on the site of the former Benedictine nun convent, and is characterised by two elegant side open galleries. The church, from the early 1700s, stands at the top of a fine staircase, in he left aisle is preserved a painting by Vito D'Anna, representing S. Margherita (18th century), one of the most precious works of the town's artistic patrimony.
To the right of the Town-hall we take the via Carlo Alberto and, to the right again, the via Machiavelli, where at n. 19 is the building where Antonino Uccello, an anthropologist of Palazzolo, arranged the numerous finds regarding the life and work of the peasants of the Iblei hills by now one of the most important ethno-anthropological seats of the world. It is a "casket of memories", a place where every object, also the most humble one, has a story to tell. On the ground floor some of the typical places were reconstructed: from the home where the people lived in to the oil-mill, with the whole furniture and furnishings. In the museum are also preserved several collections such as that of presepia, votive offerings and Sicilian puppets.
Via Machiavelli continues crookedly and changing often name until it reaches the medieval quarter of Palazzolo and the Piazza A. Moro, where the imposing Mother church and the Baroque church of S. Paolo stand close together. The 18th century Mother church, originally devoted to S. Nicolò, is shored up because in 1990 it was damaged by an earthquake. Now it looks like a sleeping giant, lying down on one side of the square. The works of art originally housed in the three naves have been put somewhere else awaiting for the restoration works to be done.
The church of S. Paolo was built, during the 17th century, on the site of an older temple dedicated to S. Sofia. Soon after 1693 it was reconstructed in an elegant Baroque style, of which the tower-shaped façade is the best expression; attributed to Vincenzo Sinatra, it is decorated with statues of saints, columns with richly ornated capitals, swirls and openings.
Within the church, which, from a cultual point of view is the most important of Palazzolo, are a painting by Pietro Novelli representing the Martyrdom of S. Ippolito and a remarkable wooden altar, a master piece of cabinet work from the 17-18 century (both the works are preserved in the apse on the right). In the sacristy one can admire the beautiful wooden furniture, made in the 18th century by famous Sicilian artisans such as Giovanni Torrisi from Catania and Gaetano Rametta from Syracuse. There are also the two processional arrays which are used during the celebrations in honour of the patron S. Paolo who, in 1680, deprived the Madonna Odigitria of this role, for the will of the people of Palazzolo. Or at least part of the population, as such change of traditions started an animated rivalry between the two opposing factions of faithful, a rivalry which still today, though in a very symbolic way, is strongly felt during the feasts of St. Sebastiano, whose church housed the image of the Virgin, and S. Paolo. Giuseppe Fava, a famous journalist and writer who was born in Palazzolo and lived there until adolescence, reports in some of his writings, this feeling of "religious" rivalry, which over the years included also many other aspects of social life, almost as if the town had "two souls", joining together in the two churches.
A great number of people partecipate in June in the feast in honour of the patron saint. On the 27th there is a traditional pop music concert in the municipal gardens. On the 28th there is a music band procession and the "svelata", taht is the "apparition" of the 16th century statue of the saint between the columns of the main altar. The image of the saint is welcomed by the enthusiastic population of devotees which scream and shout loudly.
The climax of the celebration is on the 29th when the array with the statue of the saint is carried out of the church (the "sciuta"). As soon as the statue stands at the top of the staircase, thousands of "nzareddi", small pieces of paper, are discharged by special light guns and then fall all over the array and the people in a coloured whirling accompanied by the deafening sound of the crackers.
As a sign of devotion people offer to the saint the typical "cudduri" (round loafs of bread whose meaning goes back to the symbology of the snake to which S. Paolo is linked for his thaumaturgic qualities), and present naked babies. The latter "offering" is performed to draw on the children the saint's blessing or to undo a votive offering. For the same reason women follow the procession by walking on their knees.
Completely different but equally exciting for the people of Palazzolo, is the Carnival feast, the only event of this kind in the province of Syracuse. Its main characteristic probably is due to the presence of the whole population: everyone is in the streets, completely dressed up or with something painted on their face, or only with a mask on, just to give one's own contribution to the general merrymaking.
Part of the feast, which attracts lots of people at Palazzolo, is the allegorical cart parade followed by masked groups and the tasting of bread and hot sausages, as well as sweets.
From the square in front of the church of S. Paolo the road leads down to piazza Umberto I, where the 18th century Palazzo Zocco is. The balconies are supported by charming sculptured brackets, all different one from the other, probably they come from the destroyed castle. Our next stop is at the church of the Annunziata, one of the oldest ones of Palazzolo as it was rebuilt in the 18th century on a previous structure which was about 500 years older. In this church was the very famous painting by Antonello da Messina, "The Annunciation", which now is preserved in the Bellomo Museum of Syracuse. The church is worth the visit for its marvellous spiral columns on the sides of the entrance portal, surrounded by shoots of plants and fruits (made by the local artist Matteo Tranisi), and for the main altar decorated with 17th century mixed marbles.
Once returned on piazza Umberto I we take the via Garibaldi for a last walk and a look to the nice series of 18th century palaces along the road, of which Palazzo Judica-Cafici is worth a mention for its balcony, the longest of its kind, supported by 27 finely sculptured brackets.
During the whole visit don't miss the inviting shop windows which display the typical sweets of Palazzolo. Sweets – and especially biscuits – are one of the specialities that attract many visitors from every part of Sicily. They are mainly stuffed sweets, such as the "ossa re muorti", the "facciuna", and the "ciascuna", respectively filled with hazel-nuts and honey, almonds and dried figs but there also is the "giggiulenna", made of sesame seeds and almonds cooked together with sugar and honey, and the "cotognata", quince apple jam set to dry in special terracotta shapes.
The list could still go on, but the typical gastronomy of Palazzolo is not only made of sweets. Following old traditional techniques and using local genuine products they prepare very good cheese and ricotta, but also meat and sausages, fresh or dried, with a strong flavour of wild fennel and hot pepper. A real delicious delicacy not to be missed, offered by the many restaurants of Palazzolo

to complete the visit...

There are still other interesting spots to see, to complete the visit of Palazzolo. Among these two churches: that of S. Antonio, small 18th century temple, with a single nave because unfinished; inside there are valuable works of art, among which some wooden statues dating back to 1852; and the church of S. Michele, built originally between 1400 and 1500 and rebuilt in 1693, with beautiful baroque decorations both on the facade and in the inside and with a notable polygonal bell tower. Here we find some nice paintings such as the 17th century picture of Saint Michele on the main altar.
The monumental cemetery was built at the end of 1800 and was filled with mausoleums and chapels till 1940. These monuments created by unknown stonecutters from Ibla, but also by famous artists, are often of great artistic value and follow different styles, giving the cemetery a varied aspect non at all macabre. A walk among the shaded paths unveils, also to the inexperienced eye, a rich variety of works of art, in defiance of death and for the glory of eternal life.
Finally we suggest you visit the town gardens, created at the end of 1800, a true botanical gardens, for the number and variety of plants that it comprises.

Useful information

How to get there: From road SS 115, the state road along the coast connecting Catania, Siracusa and the area of Ragusa, take, near Siracusa, provincial road 124 "Maremonti", you will reach Palazzolo after nearly 40 kilometres.

Tourist information: c/o Town Hall, Piazza del Popolo I – tel. 0931/88180 – 882144 – 882000

Casa-museo Antonino Uccello: Via Machiavelli, 19 – tel. 0931/881499: opened every day from 9am to 1pm

Archaeological area of Akrai: opened every day from 9am to 1pm and from 3pm to 5pm.

Visit the website

Inclusion in the prestigious World Heritage List UNESCO "Late Baroque Towns of the Val di Noto": Caltagirone, Militello Val of Catania, Catania, Modica, Famous, Palazzolo Acreide, Ragusa Ibla, Scicli.

An archaeological zone between most ancient in the Italian panorama, with a beautiful greek theatre, roman-hellenistic road.

One of the most famous and appreciated attractions of Palazzolo Acreide is certainly "House-museum of Antonino Uccello). During the years of passionate and hard work, the Sicilian ethnologist, has collected and put in order interesting testimonies and precious materials about the life and folk wisdom.

The site hosts 12 large reliefs called "Santoni". It is the greatest sanctuary to date uncovered, dedicated to the cult of the oriental goddess of fertility Cibeles.

The ruins of the Norman castle and the surrounding medieval urban planning structure.

An historical center of great architectonic value, strongly characterized from a Baroque architecture, fruit of the reconstruction post-earthquake of 1693 and, subsequently,  from the season of the Art Noveau.

The religious manifestations like the festivity of S. Paul and S. Sebastiano, known in all the Sicily.

International Youth Festival of Classical Theatre.
Every year, during May, at greek theatre many groups of highschools students from all over Italy and the rest of Europe perform tragedies and comedy by classical authors.

The several exhibitions proposed by the House-museum "Antonino Uccello", the agricultural and food- Review of the products and typical food... and more...

Carnival is very lively in Palazzolo Acreide and is one of the oldest in Sicily. As well as the parade of the allegorical cars and groups dressed up, you may taste in various food festivals the typical Palazzolo's food products like the sausage, trout pastry, macaroni, cavatieddi (a typical local pasta) and cannoli.

A extremely varied landscape, with the  Natural Reserve of Cava Grande and the Natural Reserve of the Anapo-Pantalica.

The presence, in the beam of little kilometers, archaeological and historical important archaeological zone like Kasmenai, Ancient Avola, Castelluccio, Pantalica, the several bizantine churches, etc.

The St. Lucia watermill, is one of the four water-mills started by the torrent Purbella. It dates back to the XVI century. It is perfectly kept, plunged in an uncontaminated valley, shaded by oak-trees and walnut-trees.Inside the building is the Museum of the Millstone where permanent displays and millstones of different shapes illustrate the development of the cereals grindind technique, from pre-history up to hydraulic energy.









Centro di documentazione multimediale su Antonino Uccello e sull'area Iblea e le province di Siracusa e Ragusa. Visite virtuali dei beni archeologici, artistici, etnoantropologici, storici, naturalistici.


Andrea Latina


Centro Studi Iblei


Istituto Studi Acrensi