Riccardo Bernucci

Scicli, the splendid baroque city in Val di Noto

May 10, 2021 By Bellarome Travel

Scicli is an Italian town of 26 918 inhabitants of the free municipal consortium of Ragusa in Sicily.

Scicli landscape

Monumental baroque city with the shape of a sublime living nativity scene, Scicli is 24 kilometers away from Ragusa. Its municipal territory extends from the sea to the southern reaches of the Hyblean plateau. The landscapes are very varied: you go from the coast (alternating the low and sandy one with modest limestone cliffs) covered by the Mediterranean scrub to the gentle alluvial slopes of the hinterland with olive, almond and carob trees up to the limestone reliefs of the northern part and interior where the capital stands.

Scicli is a maze of ancient alleys, which climb up the rocky hills, overlooks the center of the city, full of majestic Baroque churches and noble palaces. A city with elegant and harmonious architecture that absolutely deserves to be visited, also to try its excellent typical cuisine.

The origins of the city of Scicli probably date back to when the area was occupied by the Sicilians (about 3000 years ago), the ancient people of the sea who first colonized the Sicilian coasts and to whom Scicli owes its name directly. The toponym derives from Šiclis or from the Arabic Šiklah, terms with which the Sicilians were known by other peoples of the Mediterranean. On the fortress of Šiklah, mentioned for the first time in 1154, the Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans (III century BC) and finally Byzantines (VII century AD) arrive, who raise the first churches in Scicli, live in the caves of the Chiafura district and build the first fortifications on the hills of San Matteo and della Croce.

The first golden age of the city dates back to the Arab domination, interrupted in 1091 by the Normans, who introduced the feudal system to Sicily and dominated the island for about a century. The Swabians, in struggle with Pope Alexander IV, lose the fief of Scicli, granted by the pontiff to Ruggiero Fimetta before the arrival of the Aragonese and then of the Bourbons, who reigned on the island until the unification of Italy.

Towards the fourteenth century, Scicli is booming and slowly assumes the current urban layout. In 1626, the plague arrives and in 1693 a disastrous earthquake destroys most of the centers of the Val di Noto, including the city of Scicli. Following the earthquake, the city was reborn completely transformed, taking on the beautiful baroque forms still admirable today.

In 2002, its historic center was awarded the title of World Heritage by UNESCO, together with seven other municipalities in the list of Late Baroque cities of the Val di Noto.

Let’s begin our visit of this unique Sicilian city!


Church of San Bartolomeo

The church of San Bartolomeo is one of the most important monuments of the city of Scicli.

The temple dates back to the early fifteenth century, the structures largely resisted the catastrophic earthquake of the Val di Noto in 1693.

The imposing and scenography façade, designed by the Baroque-Neoclassical architect by the Syracuse architect Salvatore Alì, already betrays a substantial change of taste in the official culture, a clear transition from the pompous and swollen late Baroque plasticity to a clearer and more rational classic.

The volumetric and chiaroscuro setting as well as the theatrical impact of this architectural object in the urban and natural context remain decidedly faithful to the late Baroque poetics. The neoclassical influence is clearly legible due to the profusion of columns by Palladian rigor reiterated from one order to the other, from the bottom to the top until it ends in the mighty ribs of the dome which concludes and crowns the entire body of the facade.

The internal architectural structure is extremely clear: the single nave hall is preceded by an exonarthex and concluded by a deep rectangular apse; two chapels fit symmetrically in the middle of the nave as a sort of transept but with a lower height of the vaults. The complex partially gilded stucco decorative system made from the first half of the eighteenth century until 1864 represents one of the most successful examples of baroque and rocaille spatiality in Sicily.

The frescoes on the vault of the nave represent scenes from the life of San Bartolomeo in moments of prayer, blessing, arrest and martyrdom.

The altarpiece depicting the Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew by Francesco Pascucci is of remarkable workmanship and considerable size, the Immaculate Conception between Saints of the Cassarino and the Deposition of Mattia Preti from the convent church of pp. Cappuccini, formerly church of Sant’Agrippina in Scicli.

The inimitable and high quality work of art is certainly the wooden crib of the Neapolitan school of 1573 attributed to Pietro Padula: at the center of the scene is the Nativity, scenically set among architectural ruins, while the other characters, farmers and shepherds, surround; angels with the appearance of putti float suspended on the scene. Of the statues, originally sixty-five, one meter high, only twenty-nine remain today.

Noteworthy is the nineteenth-century statue of the Immaculate Conception, wooden and silver laminate and the Sacra Cassa, a silver urn-reliquary decorated with various engravings depicting scenes from the life of San Bartolomeo.


Palazzo Comunale

The first building you come across via Francesco Mormina Penna is Palazzo Comunale, built between 1902 and 1906.

It was built in the place where the Benedictine Monastery was once located, attached to the Church of San Giovanni Evangelista, harmonious as a whole, it does not have a unitary style, but with its sober and elegant line, it fits well into the monumental setting.

To bring out the most representative civil building in the city compared to the late Baroque architectural context of the street, the engineer Sergio Sallicano had the façade built in an eclectic style.

The horizontal lines of smooth rustication punctuate its surface, interrupted by pilasters on high plinths, concluded by Corinthian capitals; between them, arranged in axis, there are the openings: simple windows on the ground floor; mullioned windows with a Renaissance flavor on the upper floor.

At the center of the elevation is the entrance portal, preceded by a staircase and flanked by two semi-columns leaning against the columns.

In recent years it has become, like much of the territory of Sciclitano, a privileged set for films, fiction and documentaries shot by directors from all over the world.

The mayor’s room, for example, is used as the “Questore’s Office” in the television series of Commissioner Montalbano, now an honorary citizen of Scicli.

Chiesa del Carmine

With their location in Piazza Busacca, the Church and the adjoining Convent of the Carmine constitute one of the qualified elements of the urban space of Scicli.

The foundation of the convent dates back to 1368, when it was annexed to the church of San Giacomo Interciso (destroyed by the 1693 earthquake), a title later replaced by Santa Maria Annunziata.

The church, its facade and the eastern wing of the convent, dating back to the late eighteenth century, were designed by the architect Fra Alberto Maria di San Giovanni Battista, a Carmelite with close observance and residing in the same convent.

Among all the ecclesiastical architectures of the city, the Carmine complex reveals the highest stylistic homogeneity among the architectural, sculptural and pictorial components: everything contributes to creating a rococo atmosphere (the white stucco, the brightness of the classroom, the numerous paintings).

The three-tiered facade, built in a sober and refined rococo style, is divided into three sections by strips of pilasters. The elegant portal, decorated with leaf motifs, of the first order is dominated by a large window located in the second. The third order, which develops only in the central part, is concluded by one of the seven statues that adorn the facade. The plan of the church shows a single nave preceded by a double-sided narthex with a large choir above and ending in the semicircular apse in the center of which there is a marble altar.

The two sides of the naves are marked by composite order pilasters that create six niches, hosting marble altars. In five of the six altars, by Tommaso Privitera of Catania, there are large canvases, attributed to the Netino painter Costantino Carasi (XVIII century), representing the Adoration of the shepherds, the Annunciation, the Transfiguration and two Carmelite Saints. Other paintings, all from the second half of the 18th century, are found along the walls of the nave, while on the last altar on the left side there is a 15th century cedar wood crucifix.

On the main altar, in a niche, there is the statue of the Madonna del Carmine, which holds the baby Jesus on the left arm, made in 1760 by Francesco Castro: the statue has a wooden head and hands, the rich robe is all in embossed silver with floral decorations. The white stuccos are the work of Gianforma, a plasterer from Palermo who was a pupil of Giacomo Serpotta, while those of the apse were made by Salvatore Ali, who was responsible, at the end of the nineteenth century, for remaking the apse, the sacristy and perhaps even the bell tower drawing of that of the church of San Matteo.

The courtyard has undergone some changes, only the southern and northern sides have retained their original appearance. On both sides there are two loggias surmounted by a niche which houses the statue of the Madonna. For organizational reasons, the church temporarily houses the Christ of Burgos, waiting for it to be brought back to the Church of S. Giovanni Evangelista.


Beneventano Palace

It is the most representative Baroque building in the city and one of the most celebrated Sicilian architecture by scholars and travellers. It rises in the center of the eighteenth-century city, at the mouth of the road that leads to Colle di San Matteo and then to the medieval city.

Given the conformation of the soil in which it stands, it was built at an angle, so the exterior has two facades. A cornice unifies the two elevations, while a diamond cantonal, on which a statue of St. Joseph is placed below and the family crest and two dark brown heads, links the two parts in a balanced way.

The Beneventano Palace in Scicli has been called the most beautiful Baroque building in Sicily.

Moreover, even the beautiful city in which it is located is famous all over the world for the baroque profile that characterizes it. It was rebuilt starting from 1693, the year in which it was completely destroyed by a formidable earthquake.

Since then, as the Sicilian novelist Elio Vittorini wrote, with houses on all sides up the cliffs, a large square at the bottom of the bed of a river, and ancient ecclesiastical buildings that crown in several places, such as baroque acropolis , the semicircle of the altitudes.

It is a few kilometers from Modica, in the south-eastern end of the island; and whoever arrives from the inside finds it suddenly at their feet, joyful with crowded roofs, thieving magpies and bells; while those who arrive there coming from the not far coast see it nestling with ten thousand black windows in the whole height of the mountain, between serpentine threads of smoke and here and there the glow of an open or closed glass, suddenly, against the sun (E. Vittorini, “The cities of the world”, Einaudi, Turin 1969).

In this splendid panorama, if you look carefully towards the slopes of the Colle di San Matteo, you can see the elaborate ashlar pilasters and the masks that mockingly overlook the walls of the beautiful Palazzo Beneventano.


Church of San Matteo

The church of San Matteo is a church in Scicli located on top of the homonymous hill and  is the symbol of the city.

A church already existed in the early Middle Ages in the same point of the current building, which was depicted by paintings and engravings preserved in various churches of Scicli depicting the hill of San Matteo, with the church and the soaring bell tower placed behind the apses.

In 1404, according to tradition, St. William the hermit was buried in the Chapel of the Counts of Modica.

The current church is the result of an eighteenth-century reconstruction following the 1693 Val di Noto earthquake.

The church was the city’s cathedral until 1874, the year of the movement of the matrix church into the Jesuit church of Sant’Ignazio. The building, left abandoned, was subject to rapid degradation, having been totally deprived of the roofs (vaults and roof).

In the nineties it was subjected to restoration, with the construction of a vault-shaped reinforced concrete roof, which caused static problems due to the heavy weight and the different response to the stresses of the materials used.

For the construction of the building, located on the slope of a rocky hill, it was necessary to create a terrace to support the structures: the spaces below the church were used as a crypt used for burials.

The plant is a basilica with three naves of five bays, ending with the transept on the bottom of which three rectangular apses open. The ring of the dome is set on the four arches that frame the presbytery. The bell tower is integrated into the structures of the right transept.

The two-order facade, which has remained unfinished, shows the salient features of the Sicilian Baroque. Especially in the central party it is possible to notice a plastic use of the wall surface and a strong dialogue of tensions between free elements (columns) and volumes (continuous wall surfaces).


Church of San Giovanni Evangelista

The church of San Giovanni Evangelista is located on the right side of the Palazzo Municipale. Previously, it was annexed to the Benedictine monastery, demolished at the beginning of the twentieth century to give way to the Town Hall, built between 1902 and 1906.

The construction of the church began between 1760 and 1765, under the direction of the architect Fra Alberto Maria di San Giovanni Battista, Carmelite of Scicli, although there are elements that lead back to the architectures of the engineer Vincenzo Sinatra of Noto. In 1776, with the completion of the stucco work by Giovanni Gianforma and the fresco of the vault, construction work on the building ended. The last internal decorations, such as stucco and gilding, were made in 1854.

The current church is the result of numerous reconstructions carried out between the first half of the eighteenth century and the first years of the nineteenth century. Thanks to the donations granted in 1651 by the Baroness of Donnabruna, Donna Giovanna Distefano, wife of Don Girolamo Ribera, the construction of the monastery and the old church was started; after the earthquake, the concave-convex facade with three orders was built, which bears Borrominian influences (San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane in Rome). In the presbytery of the convent church there is the sepulcher of Don Guglielmo Distefano and Eleonora Paternò and Tornabene, widow of the Prince of Biscari; the commemorative epigraphic cartouche, even if damaged by wear, is still perfectly visible.

Since 1918, the church has also been serving as a Pantheon, having received numerous remains of Sciclitani soldiers who fell in the First World War.

It presents the typical elements of the Sicilian Baroque, such as the jutting prospect on the street and looming over the viewer and the staircase from which you reach the portal.

The first order of the facade is marked by Ionic columns, between which the entrance portal opens in the center. The second order is instead crossed by a wrought iron jealousy already of a clear nineteenth-century taste.

The interior, with an oval plan, is covered by a dome, on which the windows open. The hall is preceded by an endonarthex and is concluded by an apse connected to the large oval space through a triumphal arch treated like the proscenium of an opera house, not surprising for a baroque architecture of this value. There is a pipe organ dating back to 1841, the work of Salvatore Andronico Battaglia from Palermo. In the sacristy there is instead a painting of the Christ of Burgos of Spanish origin, dating back to the seventeenth century, which people call the Christ in a skirt for the priestly garment up to the ankles.

One of the most evident characteristics of this building, common among other things to numerous eighteenth-century buildings in the Val di Noto, is a sort of stylistic, poetic discordance between the architectural element and the decorative structure. It should not be forgotten that the eighteenth-century building sites continued throughout the eighteenth century as regards the structural elements and abundantly in the nineteenth century for the completion of the decorative apparatus: frescoes, stuccos, gilding.

Certainly, the structure of the church was completed around the early 1800s: on the top of the bell cell, already in the most square and rational forms, the date 1803 stands out. The later decorative cycle of the interior has difficulty interpreting the Baroque architectural structure of the building, centered on the oval hall surmounted by its clear stucco dome. Neoclassical decorators preferred to emphasize the longitudinal dimension of the classroom (like any other rectangular-plan space) through powerful transversal bands that connect with the round top, rather than emphasizing the centripetal force of the dome.


Hundred Scale Cave

The Hundred Scale Cave is a fascinating attraction in Scicli. It was 1977 when the two Marinero brothers decided to build a perennial nativity scene, a miniature city with its characters, the houses, the lights.

To find out, you have to venture into this mysterious cave, an ancient passage created along the hundred steps that led from the top of the San Matteo hill to the valley.

Destination of the route is a source of fresh water (still present today), of primary necessity in case of enemy siege or when the Sciclitani had to hide if the lookout announced the arrival of the Saracen ships. These came quite frequently. We are right in the “belly” of the hill.

Access takes place from the ancient district of Santa Maria La Nova and the path in the bowels of the earth, dug by man, was to lead to the bed of a millenary underground karst river.

The inhabitants of Scicli took the space, who chose to use that passage as the only way to the top of San Matteo, where the fortified center of the town developed in ancient times. The Stairs are really a hundred, and even more and we can say that this cave represents a treasure, to which another is added.

The crib of the Marinero brothers is, without a shadow of a doubt, very precious: it climbs the rocky walls, illuminated and inhabited by statuettes.


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