Noto, Italy

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Noto, Italy

Noto
Palazzo Ducezio and the Basilica Minore di San Nicolò, Noto.

Long off the tourist trail, the city of Noto – capital of Sicilian baroque – is one of the most beautiful cities in Sicily. A golden gem surrounded by stunning coastal and scenery, Noto offers all the charm of Italy’s major tourist destinations – without any of the crowds. 

In ancient times, Noto was known as Netum, and was a city of some significance. It was established by the Sicel, before (likely) becoming subject to the Greek city of Syracuse and then the Roman Empire. Following the Arab conquest of Sicily in 866, Noto became capital of one of the three districts of the island. Noto was the last Arabic city in Sicily to fall to the Normans in 1091, but maintained its prosperity through the Norman and Early Modern eras.

Despite its illustrious history, nothing of the ancient or medieval city of Noto remains. The ancient city was destroyed entirely in the 1693 Sicilian earthquake. With a magnitude of 7.4, the 1693 earthquake was the most powerful in Italian history, affecting an area of over 5, 600 square kilometres. As one eyewitness to the quake, Vincentius Bonajutus, recalled:

‘It was in this country impossible to keep upon our legs, or in one place on the dancing Earth; nay, those that lay along on the ground, were tossed from side to side, as if on a rolling billow’

Tragically, over 60, 000 people would die as the result of the quake, including 2/3rds of the population of Catania. Noto was entirely destroyed, while over 70 other cities and towns saw severe damage.

Baroque interior, Noto.
The Baroque interior of the Chiesa di Santa Chiara, Noto.

Though Sicily was ruled by the Spanish Bourbon family at the time, real power lay in the hands of the Viceroy of Sicily. At that time the Viceroy was Giuseppe Lanza, Duke of Camastra. An experienced administrator, the Duke was aware of recent trends in town planning, and decreed that rather than rebuilding along the cramped medieval model, the new cities should offer piazze and wide streets, built to a rational grid system.

The idea of a planned city was then at the forefront of architectural and Enlightenment thought – before the earthquake, only St. Petersburg and a couple of minor cities had been planned. To indicate how forward-thinking Sicily’s plans were, recall that following the (then only-recent) disaster of the 1666 Great Fire of London, the City of London was rebuilt along medieval lines. When Sir Christopher Wren, architect of St. Paul’s, proposed to rebuild the city to a rational grid system, his ideas were rejected due to land ownership issues.

The city of Noto, rebuilt around 10 kilometres from its original site, is considered the jewel of the post-quake rebuilding attempts. It was designed by a local aristocrat, Giovanni Battista Landolina, who worked with three architects to build the new city in the intricate and flamboyant style that would come to be known as ‘Sicilian baroque’. The creator of many of the finest buildings was the local architect Rosario Gagliardi, whose work can also be found in Modica and Ragusa.

The focal point of the reconstruction is the grand Corso Vittorio Emanuele, a boulevard flanked on either side by baroque palazzi and intricate church facades. Midway down the boulevard is the Piazza Municipio, surrounded on all sides by Noto’s grandest buildings – the golden San Nicolò Cathedral; Palazzo Landolino, once home to one of Noto’s most powerful families; and the French-inspired Palazzo Duchesio.

Another highlight is the Palazzo Castelluccio, a once-abandoned palace saved by the French filmmaker Jean-Louis Remilleux. Inspired by Giuseppi Tomasi di Lampedusa’s 1958 classic novel about a Sicilian nobleman dealing with the changes of the late 19th, The Leopard, Remilleux restored the palace with period fittings – original frescoes and tiles, faithfully reproduced wallpaper, and authentic Sicilian baroque furniture. The palace is now open to the public via guided tour.

While Noto might be the jewel in the crown of the ‘Sicilian baroque’, a number of surrounding towns in the Val de Noto were also rebuilt in a similar style after the earthquake. Highlights include Caltagirone, long the capital of Sicily’s pottery industry, and the striking hilltop city of Ragusa. In 2002 Noto, Caltagirone, and Ragusa – along with five other cities, Militello Val di Catania, Catania, Modica, Palazzolo, and Scicli – were recognised as the ‘Late Baroque Towns of the Val di Noto’ UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Near Sicily’s south-eastern coast, Noto is easily accessible from Catania by train or rental car.

Ragusa
The nearby hilltop town of Ragusa was also rebuilt in the Baroque style after the 1693 quake.

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