There are so many beautiful towns in Italy. The country is justly famous for them. Ragusa, on the island of Sicily is one of the most magical towns I visited on my recent 3 month adventure in Italy. Sicily, that three pointed island being kicked by the toe of the boot shaped country is an entity in itself. The island's history is ancient, going back to before the time of the Phoenicians more than 3,200 years ago when tribes from the north of Italy settled there, after which it became a major center for the Greek empire. Sicily was then conquered by the Romans, the Arabs, and the Normans in later centuries, each leaving an imprint of great majesty.
A map of Sicily showing Greek settlements
Ragusa, a small city in the south of the island, near the Ionian sea, has a history that can be traced back to the 2nd Century BC when it was first inhabited by people called the Sicils from which the island takes its name. The Sicil people came originally from Northern and Central Italy but were driven south by the advance of more dominant tribes. They built a settlement on a defensible hill flanked by two valleys that prospered by trading with the Greeks at a nearby sea port called Camerina.
The Duomo of Cattedrale San Giorgio
The region was conquered briefly by the Phoenicians of Carthage in present day Tunisa, and then the by the Romans around the time of Christ, followed by the Ostrogoths who's capitol was in Ravenna. Under Byzantine rule the city was fortified and a large castle was built on the crest of the hill. The Arabs captured the town in 848 AD and remained for over 3 Centuries until the region was conquered by the French Normans returning from the first Crusade. Under Norman rule Ragusa became a county seat administered by Count Geoffrey (my namesake), the son of Count Roger I of Sicily (my Grandfather's namesake, without the Count and the I), who ruled the island and the church without opposition. Roger I's reign was one of tolerance, and Arabs, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Jews and Sicils lived together in a cosmopolitan society that flourished. Count Geoffrey was born with leprosy and had no chance of inheriting the throne, so his position in Ragusa would have been a means of providing for him a role in the kingdom. Once there he retired to a monastery until the end of his life.
An ivy covered staircase in Ragusa Superior
Rule of the town passed down to the Chiaramonte clan, who in the 12th Century became the most powerful noble family in Sicily. Their reign lasted until the end of the 14th Century. This medieval period was dominated by the Norman Gothic style of architecture. During this time Ragusa's political rule was unified with that of the nearby town of Modica, which has a similar style of architecture. In a popular revolt in the 15th Century, Ragusa lost its seat as the capital of the region to Modica. After that Sicily passed to the Crown of Aragon of Spain in the 17th Century. I visited Modica for a day and found it to be quite magical, except for having the intrusion of modern structures that diluted its historic character. This is a primary reason for my focusing on Ragusa. Of the four southern Sicilan towns I visited on this trip, this was the one that left the most lasting impression.
Chiesa Sant' Agnese
On January 11th in 1693, at about 9:00 PM, a powerful and devastating earthquake struck the island and the southern mainland. The earthquake is estimated to have been 7.4 on the modified Richter scale and killed over 60,000 people, including 2/3rds of the population of the city of Catania. It is believed that half of the 10,000 people living in Ragusa were killed and the city was literally flattened, as was nearby Modica and the city of Noto.
A view of Ragusa Ibla from the road to Modica
Extensive reconstruction efforts were undertaken by the governing Spanish Viceroy making significant concessions to the local Sicilian aristocracy, who controlled the agricultural economy of the island under a feudal system. There was a comparatively small merchant middle class and the majority of indentured serfs made available an enormous labor pool for the rebuilding of cities and towns. Some towns were relocated and others rebuilt on the same medieval plan. Ragusa underwent both plans, with the majority of the population moving to a higher hill called Ragusa Superior. This new town was built on a grid plan, while the original town of Ragusa Ibla was rebuilt using the existing Medieval layout of winding streets and stairways. Building on a grid of wider streets made sense in terms of earthquakes as the toppled buildings filled the narrow Medieval lanes greatly increasing the loss of life.
Straight streets based on a grid system characterize the new plan for Ragusa Superior
The style of architecture favored for the reconstruction is now called Sicilian Baroque, which was an expression of the popular style at the time throughout Italy. The massive rebuilding effort allowed Sicilian architects, many who had trained in Rome, Napoli, and Florence, to create ornate edifices for the Catholic church and Palazzos for the wealthy aristocracy. The Baroque style is characterized by complex facades with numerous cornices, niches, and statuary in great relief. The depth and projection of the details on the facades create a chiaroscuro effect popular in paintings from that time, playing with light and shadow. This effect is particularly evident in the winter light when I was there. While the heavy detail is extravagant and potentially gaudy, there is a playfulness and curiosity that makes the buildings fascinating to contemplate. "The buildings conceived in the wake of the this disaster expressed a light-hearted freedom of decoration whose incongruous gaiety was intended, perhaps, to assuage the horror" of the earthquake.
Ragusa Superior, the new town, is dominated by the Cattedrale San Giovanni Battista, the Cathedral of Saint John the Evangelist, which sits on the crest of the hill between the Valleta San Leonardo and the smaller Vallata Santa Dominica. The Vallata is crossed by three bridges that connect the old town to the mostly modern part of Ragusa.
Vallata Santa Domenica with the mid 19th Century Ponte Il Vecchio and Ponte Il Nuovo completed in 1937
The Cathedral, built in the middle of the 18th Century has an imposing square campanile with four bells housed in small arched openings. The second matching tower was never built. The design is pure Baroque, with Corinthian columns, ornate window frames, and statuary.
Cattedrale San Giovanne Battista
The interior of the church has three aisles and columns made of locally quarried black asphalt, which were later painted white, significantly changing what would be a classic Sicilian detail of black and white contrasting materials. The magnificent Serassi pipe organ was installed in 1858. The elegant floor has white marble inlay with black asphalt tiles displaying their original color.
The Serassi pipe organ inside Cattedrale San Giovanni Battista
Black asphalt tiles inlaid with marble in the Cattedrale San Giovanne Battista
The chapels are decorated in decadently florid gilded stucco work and numerous puti.
The Piazza San Giovanni by the cathedral was once the town market, but today is a quiet square.
Chiesa Badia on Piazza San Giovanni, the former market place
Via Ecco Homo, which parallels the main street of Corso Italia ends at the Chiesa Ecco Homo, which sits dramatically at the top of the hill framed by the buildings along each side of the Via. Siting important buildings in this manner capitalizes on the grid plan making it more aesthetically interesting.
Chiesa Ecco Home crowns the hill approached by the Via of the same name
Chiesa Ecco Homo
Down the Corso Italia is an interesting fascist era post office with with a row of rectangular columns supporting statuary, who look like they are ready for a synchronized diving competition.
Fascist Era Poste
Nearby is the grand Palazzo Zacco, a low two story construction with numerous ornate iron balconies supported by an array of stylized and organic ornamentation. It is this luxurient often humorous detail that makes Sicilian Baroque so much fun.
Further down the hill is the Palazzo Bertini, which has three busts, now unfortunately enclosed in boxes with screening over them to keep pigeons off of them. They are known as the 'Three Powerful Ones'. The central one represents an aristocratic nobleman, basically the feudal ruler. A turbaned merchant has a large mustache and represents the of power of commerce. The third is a pauper with his tongue hanging out and a huge nose, a symbol of the power of having nothing to lose. The work is very cartoonish and expressive and playful. This is where magic part of Ragusa really begins for me.
The Merchant, Palazzo Bertini
But first you have to get there...I arrived in Ragusa at night after a grueling day of public transport from Agrigento, which is poorly connected by irregular bus schedules and a transfer to the train at the rather funky town of Gela, with interminable waits in between. Try to rent a car, but then you'll have to find a place to park it once you get there.
Waiting for the train all afternoon in Gela
When we pulled in to the train station in Ragusa I was the only person on board, and the people who I rented an apartment from online were supposed to pick me up, but there was nobody there. I didn't have a cell phone, which humanity assumes everyone has at this point. I did have my laptop, so I had to wander around in the dark looking for a cafe with wifi, which took about an hour. When I was leaving the station, which was closed, I crossed a newly excavated ditch in the road that had just been filled with fresh concrete, even though it was night time. This was a rather cruel joke straight out of slapstick comedy as I stepped in it and my bag on wheels plunged in to the booby trap as well. The words that came out of my mouth were unsuitable for children or good Catholics and it was not fun to clean up the mess on a dark street in a strange town. By then I was wondering why I had come to this remote hill town in the first place. Italians don't seem to be able to apologize for their errors but I was picked up eventually by a handsome man named Carmelo once I'd made contact via email. In the interem I chugged an Aperole spritz cocktail and devoured some snack mix to validate my use of the wifi in the cafe that I was extremely grateful to find. Ragusa feels largely deserted at night, and for the most part during the day too, at least in the winter. At times I thought I was the only one there.
My apartment in Ragusa
The apartment, in an ancient building on the edge of a hill between the old and new towns was an architect's wet dream of pure white and sleek lines in bizarre contrast to the Medieval setting. I rented apartments on airbnb all winter this trip as they are often the same price or cheaper than a crummy hotel room and are often quite deluxe.
This turned out to be a pretty good base, not terribly far from a produce and mini market that had enough variety to put together good vegetarian meals at home. I generally only eat meat in restaurants and dinner parties but but don't like to buy and cook dead animals.
A major intersection in Ragusa
Once I had gotten the run down on the apartment I was starving, so I went out to find something to eat. After descending what seemed like a thousand steps in to a time warp warren of confusing deserted passageways I managed to find an improbably isolated restaurant that was straight out of a David Lynch movie. The place was quite large and had one party of three men with matching comb over hair having dinner. They were very dour. I ordered fish from the dwarfish waiter who could have modeled for one of the balcony ballustrades, and eventually got a steak that looked like the sole of my shoe. After I couldn't cut it and to prove that I had not been served a fish that looked like a steak I sent it back. The three men had the remote control to a loud television mounted high on the wall between an old scythe some farm tools. After some channel surfing I was forced to endure an Italian made for TV movie about the singer who wrote the iconic song Volare. Whoa-oh-oh-oh. God help me. The fish replaced the steak after I devoured a plate of pasta and a salad. I could only poke at the freezer burned slice of ancient Spumoni ice cream from the previous tourist season. I then begged to be delivered from the purgatory that is waiting for the bill in Europe so I could skip the ending of the Volare story. After that I retraced the thousand steps to my space age apartment and collapsed in to a comfortable bed. Ragusa is not handicap accessible by any means.
The wear of Centuries of footsteps
Across the street from the apartment is the Chiesa di Santa Maria della Scale, Our Lady of the Stairs, appropriately sited at the top of the thousand or more steps I had gone down and back for the first time. It is said to be the oldest church in Ragusa but was covered in scaffolding so you couldn't really see it. The view from the church is marvelous though.
Ragusa Ibla at night
In the morning I found that there really are a few inhabitants living here and bought some provisions to make my own meals in my gleaming white kitchen. Breakfast in Europe seems to be espresso and white flower pastries so I am always glad to have control over that meal. I can inject fiber and green tea in to the equation. Once fortified, I set out to explore the town I had come to visit. Ragusa is a magical place and in the winter there are few if any tourists, let alone citizens. In some areas it had the feeling of a ghost town, where a garden of weeds has replaced the families who once lived here.
Vegetation engulfing an abandoned house
Ragusa Ibla, the oldest part of town looks pretty much intact from what was built in the 18th Century. I fell in love immediately with the mysterious patina of decay engulfing the grandeur of the architecture. Nature is reclaiming the uninhabited buildings while others have been beautifully restored. This jewel of a town, like parts of several others in the region, has been designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO called the Val di Noto, deemed remarkable for the unique heritage of its extensive baroque architecture and fascinating history. Ragusa Ibla is unspoiled by the hand of modernity with the exception of interior remodels like my apartment. I felt like I had stepped back over 300 years in to the past.
Chiesa di Filippo Neri, just down the street from my apartment
The main road that snakes down the steep hillside is called Corso Mazzini which is a classic grand prix raceway for crazed Italian drivers. Otherwise it is a labyrinth of stairs requiring a good set of legs. It was amazing to see mostly elderly people tottering with the help of a cane up and down the endless flights of steps. In Sicily when a person passes on they post funeral notices with a photo around the neighborhood. I would imagine that the primary cause of death here is when you finally topple down a stone staircase.
Navigating a steep flight of steps is a slow careful process for the elderly
The pedestrian ways pass through tunnels underneath the road as it switchbacks down the hillside in an ingenious organic plan that capitalizes on the topography to maximum efficiency. Every turn reveals a fantastic discovery, an empty house with sagging shutters and a collapsed roof opening to an interior filled with lush greenery, grotesque faces crowning the arches of fanciful doorways, walls built to fit exposed bedrock, and balconies of elegant ironwork.
Nature reclaims a collapsed interior of an abandoned house
Container gardens are popular around Sicilian homes
Carved figures that support the stone balconies represent mythological figures, angels, storybookcharacters, or cartoon like representations of people from all levels of society. The ironwork on the balconies frequently has what is called a 'Round Bellied' railing, where the lower part protrudes in an elegant curve. Iron lilies are attached to the corners and centers adding a beautiful flourish.
Grotesque masks and figures support a classic Sicilian Baroque balcony on Palazzo Cosetini
The aristocratic families of Ragusa were powerful land owners controlling the agriculture of the region that was farmed by a class of serfs. Sicily was a primary supplier of wheat to Italy and other parts of Europe until the price was cut in half by the import of grain from the midwest of the United States in the 1800's. In the reconstruction, wealthy families built fine homes. But because of the steep terrain the palazzos tend to appear less ostentatious than those found in bigger cities. Not being accessible by carriage often eliminated the grand arched doorways seen on Italian palazzos. Instead there is an elegant door that would lead in to a courtyard accessed by stone paved walkways. Garages were sometimes cut in to the cliffs flanking the carriage ways.
Green doors on the Palazzo Cosentini
Abandoned garages cut in to the steep slopes
As I made my way down the hill wonderful views of Ragusa Ibla were revealed. The buff color of the tiled roofs and stone and stucco walls create a harmonious tapestry devoid of the intrusion of modern architecture. The jumble of buildings and lanes molds to the contours of the hills in a marvelous conglomeration.
Blue glazed bricks and Caltigirone tile flower filled vases ornament the Campinile of Chiesa della Madonna di Itria
At the base of the incline before rising up the hill to the old town is the Piazza Repubblica and newly restored Palazzo Cosentini. The numerous balconies and their supporting corbels are sculpted from the local limestone in a fantastic and grotesque array of figures.
A statue of San Francesco di Paola stands on a ledge on the corner of the Palazzo looking out over the piazza with his staff in hand. The Neopolitan saint, who founded the Franciscan order of Minam friars was a known vegan and prone to mortification. In a legend, when refused passage on a boat to Messina on Sicily, he laid down his cloak and tied his staff to one end to use as a sail. With his entourage on board they sailed across across the straight following the boat. He is for this reason the patron saint of boatmen, mariners, and naval officers.
A statue of San Francesco di Paola on the corner of Palazzo Cosentini
There are a great variety of architectural details on many of the buildings, at times combining elements of Greek, Norman, and Baroque influences into a unique blend depending on the whim of the architect and the artisans who constructed the edifices. An example of this blend, the Chiesa delle Anime del Purgatorio dominates a small piazza at the base of the hill rising to Ragusa Ibla. Its facade is decorated with broken pediments and interesting sculptures of people roasting in the fires of purgatory hoping that a late acceptance of true faith will deliver them from the flames.
Chiesa delle Anime del Purgatorio
Detail over the main entrance to Chiesa delle Anime del Purgatorio
Santa Maria and angels offer hope to the damned inside Chiesa delle Anime del Purgatorio
In Ragusa, due to its steep topography, churches are often fronted by dramatic flights of steps flanked by pedestals supporting statuary. Ornate iron fences and gates are sometimes added to restrict access to the front entrances of churches.
Three priests fleeing from Purgatory
A cast iron detail on the railing of Chiesa della Anime del Purgatorio
Behind the church is a large terrace called the Piano dei Signori, fronting the yellow washed facade of the grandiose Palazzo Sortino Trono, which looks out over the green Vallata San Leonardo from a fine row of balconies.
Palazzo Sortino Trono
Vallata San Leonardo
Below the Palazzo is the Via del Mercato, where some of the old shops are now occupied by Antique dealers waiting for the tourist season to resume.
Via del Mercato
An antique shop on the Via del Mercato
There is a sweet rose washed house clinging to the slope below the street with a terraced garden. A potted kumquat tree on a balcony sports color coordinated fruit. It is wonderful to explore a place so rich in details, such as the delicate ironwork on this balcony.
A potted Kumquat tree on a balcony looking out over the Vallata San Leonardo
The top of the hill is the large grey box like University building, once a military fort. There is a parking lot on one side making this area a less exciting than expected destination. Behind the University, the ornate Castello Vecchio is a forlorn looking bed and breakfast now with a pleasant walled garden and a birds eye view out over the valley.
The stacked houses of Ragusa Ibla, dominated by the huge but very plain University building.
The Castello Vecchio
Descending back down the hill to the ancient heart of Ragusa, the Piazza Duomo, is a narrow lane with an inset stone circle centered between the Palazzo La Rocca and a side entrance to Cattedrale di San Giorgio. Scenes from the classic Marcello Mastrioanni film Divorcio all'Italiano were filmed here.
Palazzo La Rocca
Via Cap. Bocchieri
The Cattedrale di San Giorgio is a Sicilian Baroque masterpiece designed by the architect Rosario Gagliardi. His highly refined design for this church and another dedicated to the same Saint in Modica show a highly sophisticated interpretation of the Baroque style. You can see the influence of the great Roman sculptor and architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini, though Gagliardi never left the island of Sicily. This church became a prototype for several others in the region. A grand flight of 250 broad steps surrounded by the later addition of an ornate iron fence leads from the Piazza Duomo, the focal point of the town. Completed in 1775, the main facade has three tiers divided by sculpted cornices and is topped by a belfry with a single bell displayed in an arch under a clock and a small crown shaped dome. It is an elegant composition that completely obscures the view of the grand Neoclassical dome over the nave added in the 19th Century.
Cattedrale di San Giorgio
When I entered the Cathedral there was a crew filming a television episode about Ragusa, with the three men with the combover hair I had seen in the restaurant when I first arrived involved in the production. The good fortune of my timing was that the church was fully lit, and there was an organist there to play the magnificent pipe organ. The heavy bank vault doors to the treasury were open as well revealing heavy silver ceremonial objects. The interior is light colored limestone and white painted stucco florid with gold details. The plan is in a typical Greek cross plan with two side aisles, illuminated by 16 tall windows between paired columns supporting the Neoclassical dome that was added in 1820.
Cattedrale di San Giorgio
San Giorgio doing what he does best
At the end of the main aisle is an enormous blue and white tapestry of the Crucifixion. Large paintings from the life and martyrdom of Saint George decorate side chapels. The statuary is beautifully painted and almost mannequin like, giving the church a surreal element.
A robed angel holding a candelabra
A silver chest, busts and a casket in the treasury
The Cathedral is offset at an angle from the Piazza Duomo, which makes for a picturesque view of the facade from below. On the north side of the Piazza are the Neoclassical Circolo di Conservazione, who's red velvet wall papered interior is a ballroom reception area. An elegant elderly woman was seated on a long red sofa in a scene that I couldn't resist photographing. I heard her yelp when she saw me pointing my lens at her through the window. Please forgive me. If the focus were clearer I would print this one.
Circolo di Conservazione
Next to the Circolo is the Palazzo Donnafugata, which was covered in scaffolding while undergoing restoration. Home to the long standing Arezzo family, the palazzo contains a 100 seat private theater. Beyond this is the small Piazza Pola which is bordered by the Town Hall and the beautiful Chiesa di San Giuseppe.
The Delegazione Municipale and Chiesa di San Giuseppe on Piazza Pola
Vespers at Chiesa di San Giuseppe
When I entered the church Nuns in black habits were conducting evening Vespers. I sat awkwardly in the back row of pews while they sang sweetly and slightly off key. They lead such a solemn life that I was wondering if they could sense that such a decadent and worldly visitor was in their midst. But then I am just a quiet tourist stopping to see what is inside. It was lovely.
Via Santa Maria la Nova
Purses on Sale
This area was the only part of Ragusa that seemed to have any life when I was there. A few nice shops, restaurants, patisseries, and small bars line the piazzas and connecting streets. Still it is very quiet in winter. At the end of the hill looking out over the Vallata San Leonardo from a balustraded promenade is the Giardini Iblei, a pleasant park containing three old churches. Everything in Ragusa Ibla is old. The Giardino is relatively new by comparison, having been built in the 19th Century.
Chiesa San Giacomo in the Giardino Iblei
Passing through the gates of the Portale di San Giorgio there is a long alley of Canary Island Date Palms terminating at the Chiesa dei Cappuccini, which is perched on the crest of the ridge over the valley.
The Portale di San Giorgio
A patched pebble mosaic detail in the Portale di San Giorgio
The Date Palm alley in Giardino Iblei
A wonderful stone bench in front of the Chiesa di San Giacomo in Giardino Iblei
You can see the remains of old mills and bakery ovens down below. The park is a pleasant place to wind up at the end of a day spent in the rather surreal time warp of the Medieval Baroque Sicilian town that is Ragusa.
The view over Vallata San Leonardo from Giardino Iblei
Since I've been home, Ragusa continues to haunt my dreams, which motivated me to write this essay. One of the benefits of writing these is that I learn so much from doing the research. I hope you've enjoyed exploring this town.
Thanks for reading along this rambling stroll with me in to another time, Jeffrey
The invitation to explore further
A beautiful old stone street
Stairs, stairs, and more stairs
A florid detail
A container garden up the hill from Cattedrale di San Giorgio
Shutters that have been closed for a long time
New and old stone walls intersect next to Cheisa di San Francesco All'Immacolata
A fountain with a lovely shell basin on a Corinthian capitol provided water to the townspeople