The city of Catania, is the capital of a big shopping district. The chaotic everyday life contrasts with the beauty of the main sights of the historic center, that can be visited with a pleasant walk along the main streets closed to traffic, and the characteristic markets, "fera or luni" near Piazza Stesicoro and the fish market, near Piazza Duomo. Catania can be reached from Syracuse with a short drive (35 minutes by motorway) or train (1 hour) or bus (1 hour), with the companies Interbus and AST Over twenty trains and buses run per day, starting at 5 and ending at 20.40. To make a tour of the historic center is much better to take the bus from Syracuse and get off at the first stop in Piazza Borsellino, close to Piazza Duomo, where you can start the tour.
The city centre was the nucleus of the ancient city and it is where the Cathedral stands. We are in Piazza Duomo, created after 1693 on the site of the pre-existing "platea magna" (main square).
At the centre is the Elephant Fountain, the symbol of Catania, designed by Gian Battista Vaccarini, restored in 1998: on the pedestal, with its putti and bas-reliefs, the sculptor placed an elephant of the Roman Age, locally known as "liotru" from the name of a Byzantine necromancer from Catania, whose name was either Heliodorus or Diodorus. Above the elephant there is an Egyptian obelisk which may have come from the Roman circus in Catania.
The Cathedral, dedicated to St. Agata, was built by Count Roger between 1078 and 1093. Of the originai building we can still see the apse and the transept, flanked by two imposing towers (the first orders still remain) which bestowed upon the church the appearance of an ecclesia munita, i.e. a fortified church. The façade, extremely agile and scenographic, was built in the 18th century to the design by Vaccarini. The cupola was also built in the 18th c., and the campanile in the following century. In the North prospect is a 16th c. portal by G. B. Mazzolo da Carrara. The Cathedral is of considerable length and is divided into a nave and two aisles, with an ample transept with three apses. In the area of the sanctuary it is possible to see the remaining parts of the original Norman church. The restoration work carried out in the 1950s removed the 19th c. stucco additions. There are some interesting paintings in the left-hand aisle: St Antonio Abate by Guglielmo Borremans (fourth chapel) and The Martyrdom of St Agata by Filippo Paladino (fifth chapel). The Chapel of the Crucifix, on the left of the transept, still preserves some Norman structures. The presbytery contains some 17th century frescoes, among which one in the apse, representing the Martyrdom of St Agata, is by Gian Battista Corradini.
The precious wooden choir with stories of St Agata was carved at the end of the 16th century, to the design of Sapione di Guido. On the right of the presbytery is the Chapel of St Agata which, beyond a splendidly decorated little portal, contains a silver urn by Vincenzo Archifel, with the remains of the saint. In the Chapel of the Madonna, on the right of the transept, is the tomb of Constance, wife of Frederick III of Aragon, and in a Roman sarcophagus are the remains of the royal family of Aragon. Thesacristy (1675) contains a fresco representing the eruption of Etna in 1669.
The Treasury displays numerous items of great value, especially silver- work, including the arm of St George (1576), the elegant enamel bust of Cataldo, and thecrown and gilded enamel bust of St Agata. Through a door in the comer to the right of the façade we can reach the Roman Terme Achilliane, over which the church was built. The Town Hall stands on the N side of Piazza Duomo. Building on it started in 1695 and continued until the following century .The main façade is by Vaccarini. The 18th century Seminario dei Chierici is on the South side of Piazza del Duomo. This clerical seminary has a massive façade, framed by pilaster-strips, as well as omately rusticated walls, decorated windows and portal, and balconies with figured corbels. The Seminario houses the Diocesan Museum from April 2001.
On the right of the seminary is the Fontana dell'Amenano, a 19th century work by Tito Angelini. Immediately beyond the fountain is the open space of Piazza Alonzo di Benedetto, where the picturesque and characteristic Fish Market is held. From here, following Via Dusmet, we reach the port, the second busiest in Sicily after that of Palermo. Nearby is Palazzo Biscari, a splendid 18th century mansion built by Vincenzo Paternò, Prince of Biscari, and modified later in the same century. The South West façade, looking towards the sea, is abundantly decorated with sculpted festoons and grotesques. The ball room is also finely decorated, with rocailles, frescoes and mirrors, testifying to the high degree of refinement of the aristocratic society of 18th century.
Retracing our steps, we see at the corner of Via Garibaldi and Via Cristoforo Colombo, Palazzo Pardo, an elegant 18th century building. Now, along Via Plebiscito we come to Piazza Federico di Svevia and the Castle Ursino, a powerful building erected between 1239 and 1250 by Federick II. The castle has the typical structure of the fortified buildings of the Swabian period, with a square ground-plan distributed around a central court and circular turrets. The Castle houses the Museo Civico, which was created in 1934 by combining the collection of the Benedectine monks with that of the Prince of Biscari.
The Museum contains works of extraordinary value: an outstanding archaeological collection together with works of art from the Middle Ages and the 16th c., as well as works by De Saliba, Novelli, Stomer and Paladino. Opposite the Castello Ursino is the Chiesa di San Sebastiano, which has a fine 18th century portal originally in the church of San Nicola dei Trixini, now demolished. From here we can walk along Via Castello Ursino. On the comer with Via Garibaldi we see the Chiesa di Santa Chiara(18th cemtury) by the architect Giuseppe Palazzotto, characterized by an huge octagonal open gallery that almost completely encircles it.
It contains a painting by Paola Vasta, St Laurence, another by Olivio Sozzi, The Blessed Mary, and a splendid crucifix. Between Via Garibaldi and Via Sant'Anna, in an 18th century palace, is the house of Giovanni Verga, furnished almost entirely as it used to be during his lifetime. The house is open to the public every morning. Further along Via Garibaldi we come to Palazzo Trewhella (19th century). Nearby is the Chiesa of Santa Maria dell'Aiuto, which has a single nave and a richly scenographic façade (18th c.). Retracing our steps, along Via Garibaldi, we come to the Bourbon barracks (19th century), now used as a tobacco factory.
Via Garibaldi ends at Porta Garibaldi, formerly Ferdinanda, which was erected in 1768 in honour of the wedding of Ferdinand IV and Maria Carolina of Austria. This city-gate was designed by the architects Francesco Battaglia (inner part) and Stefano Ittar (the elegantly decorated outer part). Leaving Via Garibaldi we can take Via Plebiscito, following its circular route which was traced out in 1674 along the lava flows of 1669, and in this way reach the long thoroughfare of Corso Vittorio Emanuele which bisects the city from West to East and terrninates in Piazza Duomo. Several Palaces (Gravina, Valdisavoia and others), evidence of the elevated quality of the baroque in Catania, look out over the “Corso”, as this street used to be called.
But we move now to the part of the city, piazza Dante, dominated by the hill on which stands the old Benedictine Convent, one of the largest in Europe: it covers an area of 100,000 sq. meters and is now the seat of the Faculty of Arts of the University of Catania. The initial project (1703) was assigned to Antonio Amato, who was later followed by the leading local architects: Di Benedetto, Palazzotto, Battaglia, Vaccarini and Ittar.
The convent is distributed around two cloisters. The East and South façade are two spendid examples of baroque, with decorations, stone carvings, ashlars and fine capitals. The first cloister is classical in structure with Roman arches; the second, elegant and lively, captures the typical features of the Catania baroque style. In the North wing of the convent is the Library, the work of G. B. Vaccarini, with elegant shelves. The ceiling frescoes by G. B. Piparo represent the Triumph of faith and the cardinal and theological virtues. The library contains numerous very valuable volumes.
The Church is dedicated to St. Nicholas. The façade is extremely agile. The extensive internal space is dominated by powerful columns and exalted by the magnificence of the vaults. Returning to Corso Vittorio Emanuele, we see the Convento and Chiesa della Santissima Trinità and the Convento and Chiesa di Sant'Agostino. From here, turning into Via Trinità, we can see the remains of the Roman Forum, often referred to as the "Greek theatre". Nearby is the Odeum, a semicircular building also used for public spectacles. Following Via Rotonda we come to the Chiesa di Santa Maria della Rotonda, built on the site of a Roman thermal building. We return to Corso Vittorio Emanuele and proceed to Palazzo Gravina-Cruyllas, with its magnificent rusticated portal, which now houses the Bellini Museum.
Here we can admire various relics, documents and objects related to Vincenzo Bellini, including the cembalo on which the composer performed his Norma in Catania (1832). The most representative religious buildings are also to be found in this area of the city: the Chiesa di San Francesco, in Piazza San Francesco, a monumental scenographic church built to the design of Francesco Battaglia and completed by Stefano Ittar which contains a copy of Raphael's Spasimo by Jacopo Vignerio (1541) and some valuable l8th century paintings. In Piazza San Francesco we see the Monument to Cardinal Dusmet (1935).
From here we enter Via Crociferi, created in the l8th c. and best visited at times when there is less traffic about, as it contains some of the most fascinating examples of baroque architecture, and not just in Sicily. In the lower part the San Benedetto complex, consisting of the church and the buildings of the Badia Grande (by Francesco Battaglia) and the Badia Piccola (possibly by Vaccarini), is distributed on both sides of the street, joined by an arch known as the arco di San Benedetto. The Church (early l8th century) has a single nave and magnificent stucco and fresco decorations by Giovanni Tuccari (1726), with the Life of St Benedict and the Glory of the Saint. The high altar and the inlaid marble floor are also outstanding. Near San Benedetto is the severe Chiesa di San Francesco Borgia and the Collegio dei Gesuiti.
The Church, built towards the end of the l8th century, was designed by Fra' Angelo Italia. There are a nave and two aisles. The frescoes in the cupola, with the History of the Company of Jesus, are by Olivio Sozzi. Opposite is the Chiesa di San Giuliano, one of the tallest baroque buildings in Catania, built in the l8th century and designed by Gian Battista Vaccarini. The façade is convex and measured in form. The inlaid marble floor of the church is very elegant. The high altar is an admirable piece of sculpture with precious marbles and gilded bronzes.
Along Via Crociferi, we see on the corner with Via Cappuccini the ruins of the fortress built by Charles V (1556) which incorporate the baroque Santuario di Sant'Agata al Carcere (Church of St Agata in Prison), so called because according to tradition St Agata was imprisoned here. The actual structure of the church is older (15th c.). Above the high altar there is a fine 16th c. panel painting, the Martyrdom of St Agata, signed "Bernardino Niger grecus". Some relics of St Agata are kept here: two slabs of lava stone (her footprints are said to be visible on one of them) and the lid of the coffin which once contained her body.
A small room of Roman age, which is entered by a little door , is traditionally said to have been the saint's prison, before her martyrdom. The Chiesa di Sant'Agata la Vetere is a 19th century building, standing on the site of an ancient early Christian basilica. Via Etnea, which was created in the 18th century bisects the city from North to South, reaching Piazza Duomo. In Piazza Stesicoro we can see the Monument to Vincenzo Bellini, by Giulio Monteverde (1880-82) and, opposite, the ruins of the 2nd c. BC Roman Amphitheatre, built in lava stone faced with marble (now open). At the other end of the square is the Chiesa di San Biagio, also known as the Chiesa di Sant'Agata alla Fornace(Church of St Agata at the Furnace): common belief is that this is the place of St Agata's martyrdom. This hall church, built in the early 19th c. by Antonino Battaglia, is typically neoclassical in appearance. The square is completed by the old Ospedale di San Marco(1724) and the Pa1azzo Paternò del Toscano (1870).From here we can return up Via Etnea to the crossroads with Via San Giuliano, where we have the Quattro Canti (Four Comers), built in accordance with the town plan designed by Camastra after the 1693 earthquake. Before the Cathedral, we come to La Collegiata, built by Angelo Amato to the design of Angelo Italia. The highly imaginative and richly decorated façade is by Stefano Ittar. Inside, the church has a nave and two aisles and is decorated with frescoes by Giuseppe Sciuti and a number of paintings, including Sant'Apollonia by Olivio Sozzi (18th c.).
Nearby is the Palazzo dell'Università (18th-19th century), the central university building, which stands on the site of the "Almo Studio", founded by Alfonso the Magnanimous in 1444. In the Corso stands the Chiesa di Sant'Agata, designed by G.B. Vaccarini (18th century). The Chiesa di San Placido (18th century) stands in Piazzetta San Placido. The façade of this church, by Stefano Ittar, has the typical exquisite elegance of baroque architecture in Catania. Crossing Corso Vittorio Emanuele again, we proceed to Piazza Bellini and the Teatro Massimo Bellini, designed by Carlo Scala, for which the project was a combination of previous projects by other architects. The theatre was inaugurated in 1880 with a performance of Vincenzo Bellini's Norma.