Sicily Resurgent

Across the island, activists, archaeologists and historians are joining forces to preserve a cultural legacy that has endured for 3,000 years

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Outside, Lo Spasimo’s streets teem with young people spilling from restaurants and bars. In the paved square in front of the Church of San Francesco d’Assisi, waiters at a sidewalk café bear late-night orders of pasta con le sarde—the signature Palermo dish of macaroni, fresh sardines, fennel, raisins and pine nuts. From a bar set back on a cobbled street, a jazz-rock trio belts out a tune by Catanian balladeer Franco Battiato.

One day I drive to Syracuse, once the center of Sicily’s ancient Greek culture and for 500 years Athens’ archrival. The route extends 130 miles southeast, through orange and lemon groves, wheat fields, vineyards and sheep pastures, past hill towns and a barren, semiarid region where the only signs of life are occasional hawks wheeling in the updrafts.

Arriving in late afternoon, I make my way to the amphitheater where, in the fifth century B.C., Aeschylus presided as playwright-in-residence. It was in Syracuse too, a century later, that Plato tutored the future king Dionysius II. In the fading light, the semicircular rows of white limestone glow a dusky pink, while in the distance, beyond blocks of modern apartment buildings, I can make out the ramparts where Archimedes mounted mirrors to set an invading Roman fleet on fire. Despite the great mathematician’s secret weapon, Syracuse ultimately fell to the Romans in 211 B.C.; thereafter, the city gradually slid into decline.

The following morning, Baron Pietro Beneventano, 62, a local preservationist and amateur historian, leads the way into Castello Maniace, a stone fortress built in the mid-13th century by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II.

Beneventano, whose ancestors settled in Syracuse in 1360, enters a vast reception hall. Aforest of massive, intricately carved columns punctuates the space. “No one had any idea this hall existed until the floor above it was removed during renovations,” the baron says. “Because of the incredible artistry and beauty of these columns, some are convinced Castello Maniace is the most important building Frederick II ever built.”

Back outside, Beneventano points out a construction crew digging at the castle’s seafront entrance, which was buried for centuries beneath mud and sand. The Italian Environment Foundation is restoring the fortress and more than a dozen city monuments threatened by modern development or neglect. “There are just too many monuments for the government alone to renovate,” Beneventano says. “Without private funding, some of Syracuse’s priceless legacy could vanish without a trace.”

A few hundred yards up a wind-swept promenade, past cafés and restaurants, lies the Fonte Aretusa, a sunken, springfed pool where Admiral Nelson replenished his water supplies in 1798 before setting off to defeat Napoleon at the Battle of the Nile, a victory that secured British control of the Mediterranean. While Nelson attended a ball held in his honor at the family palazzo, Beneventano tells me, the admiral learned that Napoleon’s fleet lay anchored near AboukirBay. “Just imagine,” Beneventano muses. “If Nelson had not stopped in Syracuse for water and news, it’s entirely likely he would never have known Napoleon was off the coast of Egypt. History might have turned out very differently.”

A half-hour drive southwest leads to Noto, a Baroque town (pop. 21,700) that exemplifies pioneering urban planner Giuseppe Lanza’s vision of harmonious equilibrium. After an earthquake destroyed Noto in 1693, it was rebuilt in a luminous honey-colored stone, tufa. In 1996, its cathedral’s dome collapsed, and local officials launched a campaign to restore the fragile tufa structures. There, in 2002, UNESCO listed the town and seven others nearby as World Heritage Sites, citing their unparalleled concentration of Baroque landmarks.

Noto’s triumphal stone arch, at one end of the piazza, opens onto ornate churches flanked by statues and bell towers and palazzos with wrought iron balconies supported by carved stone lions and centaurs and other strange beasts. At the town hall, students lounge on the broad steps, while nearby, cafés, ice-cream parlors, boutiques selling hand-painted ceramic plates, and vest-pocket parks planted with palm trees and bougainvillea anchor a lively street scene.

Inside the Church of Monte Vergine, atop steep stairs 100 feet above the piazza, a restorer painstakingly applies epoxy resin to a once-proud facade pockmarked by three centuries of exposure to the elements. “How is it going?” I ask.

About Richard Covington

Richard Covington is a Paris-based author who covers a wide range of cultural and historical subjects and has contributed to Smithsonian, The New York Times and the International Herald Tribune, among other publications.

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