Guide to Ispica, the Baroque medieval village in Val di Noto in Sicily

Ispica an Italian town of 16.323 inhabitants of the free municipal consortium of Ragusa in Sicily.

It is the seventh most populous municipality of the free municipal consortium and is located on the south-eastern coast of the island and borders to the north-west with the territory of the municipality of Modica, to the west with Pozzallo, to the south-east with the territory of Pachino and to the east with the territory of Rosolini and Noto (the latter three in the free municipal consortium of Syracuse).

An early Christian catacomb in the locality of San Marco and a necropolis in the vignale district of San Giovanni testify that the area was inhabited in the late Roman period. According to tradition, Saint Ilarion of Gaza, a hermit, would have stayed in the region, in a cave of Cava Ispica between the third and fourth centuries, attending the church of Santa Maria della Cava. The antiquity of the church is underlined in the inscription present in a shield painted on the portico: “Antiquam terra fieret ego sum ..” (“Before the earth (the country) was I am …”). The city had the name of Hyspicaefundus in medieval times, later changed to Spaccaforno until 1935.

After passing into the Swabian and Angevin domination, at the beginning of the fourteenth century it was in the possession of the vice-count Berengario of Monterosso, treasurer of the kingdom, who donated it to Queen Eleonora d’Angiò, wife of King Frederick III.

Pietro II granted it as a fief to his brother Guglielmo Duke of Athens, from whom it passed as an inheritance to his butler Manfredi Lancia. It was then confiscated from the heirs of these, who had rebelled against King Frederick III. Occupied by Francesco Perfoglio in 1367, it was granted to him as a fief in 1375.

The territory then followed the events of the county of Modica and was in the possession of Andrea Chiaramonte and after his rebellion it was assigned by King Martin I to Bernardo Cabrera. In 1453 it passed to Antonio Caruso di Noto, “rational master” of the kingdom  and in 1493 it was brought as a dowry by his daughter, Isabella Caruso, to her husband Francesco II Statella and the heirs remained in possession until the abolition of the feudality in the 19th century.

On 11 January 1693 at 1.30 pm, Ispica was hit by a violent earthquake which, together with the 1908 earthquake, represents the largest catastrophic event that has hit Sicily. With an intensity equal to 7.4 °on the Richter scale, it was by far the most intense earthquake ever recorded in the entire Italian territory.

From 1812, the city was incorporated into the district of Modica and the province of Syracuse, from which it passed in 1927 to the new province of Ragusa.

In 1934, the Podestà Dr. Dionisio Moltisanti, in the wake of the fascist policy of changing the names of cities and with the endorsement of prof. Gaetano Curcio, Dean of the University of Catania, asked the government, in the name of citizenship, to change the name of Spaccaforno to Ispica. The authorization was granted by Royal Decree of 6 May 1935 and published on the following 21 June.

On 12 October 1987, Ispica, on the initiative of the then mayor Dr. Quinto Bellisario, obtained the title of city by decree of the President of the Republic.

The city of Ispica has entered the Unesco site of the eight municipalities of the Val di Noto in the Heritage List of Humanity. It took 18 years before this recognition. Ispica thus becomes part of the Unesco site called “The late Baroque cities of the Val di Noto in south-eastern Sicily” which includes eight cities, Noto, Palazzolo Acreide, Scicli, Modica, Ragusa, Militello Val Di Catania, Caltagirone, Catania spread in the provinces of Ragusa, Syracuse and Catania.

Let’s begin our journey in this enchanting Sicilian medieval village!

 

Cava Ispica

Cava Ispica is a river valley that cuts through the Hyblaean plateau for 13 km, between the cities of Modica and Ispica. The valley, immersed in the typical vegetation of the Mediterranean scrub, preserves prehistoric necropolises, Christian catacombs, rock oratories, monastic hermitages and residential areas of various types that have continued uninterruptedly from Prehistory (Ancient Bronze Age) until at least the fourteenth century. In the terminal area of the valley in the territory of Ispica, close to the city, the site takes the name of “Parco Forza”.

According to the archaeologist Biagio Pace Cava Ispica is one of the greatest archaeological curiosities of Sicily due to its picturesque appearance and the large number of excavations in the rocky walls of its long course up to the Modica plateau. The particular morphology of the quarry, in the shape of a gorge, the type of rock, the position naturally suitable for defence, the proximity of the sea, have contributed to making this place one of the largest rock settlements in Sicily. Even today, despite various researches by scholars, especially Italians, not much is known about Cava Ispica. More recently, Giovanni Modica affirms that “the expense to carry out an enterprise of this kind [and that is a scientific exploration of the archaeological site] is such that it is not even taken into consideration”.

The quarry, which in some points is about one hundred meters deep and more than half a kilometer wide, is crossed by a stream named Pernamazzone in the upper course and by the Busaitone in the lower course. The presence of the waterways has meant that a luxuriant vegetation developed in the place, a reason of attraction for various species of birds and other animal species, such as to make this place a site of singular scenic beauty. The flora existing in the quarry is made up of species typical of the Mediterranean scrub such as holm oak, tree spurge, carob, dwarf palm, wild olive, olive, plane tree and others; the undergrowth also has different varieties: male fern, earth cyclamen, sorrel, borage, catmint, ampelodesma, asparagus, ivy, sage.

In the northern part of the Cava (in the territory of Modica), with rocky walls more suitable for human settlement, there are more traces of houses, the caves (inhabited from the eighth century BC to the beginning of the twentieth), the necropolis. In the southern part, defensive positions prevail such as the “Fortilitium” (territory of Ispica), a natural stronghold consisting of a rocky mass of hard limestone (which has resisted, precisely because it is hard, the erosion of the torrent waters), in strong relief in in the middle of the bed of the Cava, called “Forza”, which exercised a real function of blocking and defending the southern entrance of the Cava.

Palazzo Bruno di Belmonte

Palazzo Bruno di Belmonte, the municipal seat in Ispica, is considered the most important Art Nouveau building in the whole Hyblean province. It was built starting from 1906 on a project by Ernesto Basile, one of the major European Liberty architects. Paolo Portoghesi writes that the palace “with its archaic identity of a real castle, stands out in the urban landscape and seems to represent the contradiction of his land, divided between the torpor of a persistent Middle Ages and the desire to overcome in culture, in the intelligence and in the links with the continent the insular condition and its timeless archaicity”. The building, a two-storey block, is dynamically articulated through corner towers, loggias, vibrant mouldings and decorations in polychrome terracotta.

Inside, on the access staircase to the first floor, a wrought iron railing has been created which incorporates decorative floral motifs. The work was carried out by the blacksmiths Giuseppe and Lino Donzella.

It is its grandeur that attracts attention, its towers are reminiscent of a fifteenth-century castle. When you get to his feet, however, it is the grace and delicacy of the decoration that captures the view. A decoration that ‘unloads’ the masonry, as the Art Nouveau style provides. The decorative details tell the restlessness, the anxieties, the micro-history of an artistic current and of an artist who tries to reconcile the new with tradition, as well as the anxieties and anxieties of a family, indeed of the family that built it to stop the time the exodus of their children to new horizons.

On an artistic level, in fact, the building is characterized as one of the attempts by the architect Basile to approach liberty, that is, that figurative taste that spread throughout Europe at the beginning of the twentieth century as art nouveau. But the Palazzo Bruno di Belmonte is not only art nouveau: the elements of liberty are put in symbiosis with ‘elements of the Gothic lesson’, as Matteo Carnalivari defines them, elements that are even marked in a medieval sense and to which an aristocratic depth is given.

The palace represents, then, the tangible sign of an attempt by the honorable Pietro Bruno di Belmonte (1854-1921) to stop, inside a dwelling able to saturate every ambition of prestige, the new generation elusive towards other references, to restore the compactness of a family group intersecting the foundations of the new structure with the roots of the earth that had ensured their solidity. An attempt, in fact, because in reality the building has never really been inhabited, in the true sense of the term, except by the mayor, officials and employees of the Municipality.

 

Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore

The Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore is a church in Ispica (RG), Sicily, built after the 1693 earthquake that devastated eastern Sicily.

Built immediately after the terrible earthquake of 1693 that shocked eastern Sicily as there was a need for a place to host the simulacrum of the Holy Christ at the Column, miraculously escaped the destruction of the old church in the Cava Ispica. In fact, it was decided to build first the chapel of the Most Holy Christ with the stones of the old church. Over the years the building began to expand. In 1696, in addition to the altar of Santissimo Cristo alla Colonna, the high altar, dedicated to Santa Maria Maggiore and those of Sant’Anna and San Corrado were already completed. In the first half of the eighteenth century, the works continued under the guidance of the Netino architect Rosario Gagliardi, completing them around 1725.

In 1727, another earthquake caused the right aisle to fall,  the whole roof and part of the dome and the work resumed continuing for another thirty years, where in the meantime the decoration of the church and the exterior were taken care of. In fact, in 1749 Vincenzo Sinatra completed the semi-elliptical loggia on the model of Bernini’s colonnade in San Pietro, and between 1750 and 1761 the Palermo Giuseppe Gianforma completed the stuccos.

Finally, the Marquis of Ispica Francesco Saverio Statella decided to give the task of painting the entire church with images of the New and Old Testament to one of the leading painters of the eighteenth century in Sicily, the painter Olivio Sozzi. He did not finish the work as he died in 1765 falling from a scaffold set up in the Chapel of the Assumption. On 19 June 1763, the church was consecrated by Giuseppe Antonio de Requisenz, archbishop of Syracuse, as the only basilica in the municipality. In 1768 Vito D’Anna painted the picture now present in the main altar.

Thanks to the set of paintings and frescoes, considered important for the history of painting in Sicily, on 24 February 1908 the Basilica was erected as a national monument.

Today, the entire group of frescoes is considered one of the great pictorial masterpieces of the eighteenth century in Sicily, so much so that a draft of the central painting depicting the new and old testament is present in the Louvre in Paris.

 

Hermitage of Croce Santa

The Hermitage of Croce Santa is located about 3 kilometers from Rosolini, in the Cava d’Ispica.

The hermitage consists of 4 churches carved into the rock: the first and second churches were partially destroyed in the earthquakes of 786 AD. and in 1167 AD; the third church, whose interior consists of a nave, has a series of frescoes of historical significance. Finally, the fourth church is called Grotta del Bove because a legend is linked to it: it is said that an ox not returning to the farm was found by the cowherd in a cave kneeling in front of a wooden cross which was found in 1553 and which today it is kept in the church of the Santissimo Crocifisso.

The Hermitage of Croce Santa in Rosolini is a special and spectacular place, a place where history, nature and religion come together to create beauty and emotion. To get there, you can take a small road that crosses carob woods (Rosolini’s symbolic plant) and acanthus plants, a path characterized by rock walls more than fifty meters high which descend to the peak and which also leads under the arches of an ancient aqueduct.

Until 1974, the place was inhabited by hermits and anchorites and, in 1553, a wooden cross was found dating back to 12 AD. (which gives the hermitage its name) and which is considered perhaps the oldest in the world.

The place is also frequented by sportsmen, enthusiasts and non-enthusiasts who practice mountain bike excursions, free rock climbing, acrobatic routes, walking and archeo trekking, so much so that an Adventure Park has been set up, the Cava Park which organizes many initiatives in this place. To finish off this extraordinary trip, it is also possible to taste a pizza nearby which is considered one of the best in the whole area.

The Hermitage of Croce Santa shows us once again how Sicily is a place that teems with precious wonders of which little is spoken, a place that we are exploring and that never ceases to surprise.

 

Loggiato del Sinatra

The Loggiato del Sinatra, impressive and unexpected, is located in Ispica (Ragusa). It is the square in front of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore and was designed by Vincenzo Sinatra. It is a semi-elliptical structure, based on the model of Bernini’s colonnade in San Pietro, with twenty-six openings. Between 1750 and 1761, Giuseppe Gianforma from Palermo completed the stuccos.

The architect Vincenzo Sinatra, son-in-law of the architect Rosario Gagliardi, signed the drawings for the loggia in front of the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in 1749.

He developed concave-convex architectural themes in an urbanistic perspective. The 23 openings of the loggia, interspersed with pilasters, form an elegant and delicate diaphragm between the façade and the unlimited horizon in front.

The style approaches Rococo forms, especially in the three central openings. The loggia of Santa Maria Maggiore is one of the rare remaining examples of a structure much in use between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, often made of wood for fairs held on the occasion of the most important religious holidays

The Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore is part of the late Baroque style, together with the churches of Noto, Ragusa and Modica. The latter have become part of the Unesco heritage and, for this reason, a request for extension has been made for Ispica: the entire architectural structure, including the loggia, is unique in the whole Val di Noto.

Just in Ispica, in the seventies, Vittorio De Sica shot some scenes of his latest film, “The journey” a few months before his death. Sophia Loren played the part of Adriana between the Loggiato del Sinatra and the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore.

The film was shot in Noto, Rome, Naples, Venice, Milan, Palermo and Ispica and was released in theaters in 1974.

 

Basilica of Santissima Annunziata

The Basilica of  Santissima Annunziata is a church in Ispica built after the terrible earthquake of 1693 that shook eastern Sicily.

After the earthquake that destroyed the ancient temple inside the castle of the force (Fortilitium), which was also destroyed, a wooden hut was provisionally set up. This happened after the construction of the current church, was dedicated to San Francesco di Paola and was destroyed after 1791. The first stone of the new church was laid on 21 October 1703 and the works lasted uninterrupted for over 15 years, thanks to the contributions of the princes and lords of the Fortilitium and in particular thanks to Prince Francesco V Statella, then feudal lord in charge of the State of Spaccaforno, to whom we owe also the reconstruction of a large part of the city and of the other churches.

The consecration took place on 23 March 1720. In January 1727, another earthquake opened the main arch which was rebuilt to avoid its collapse. In 1779 the stucco work began, of which it is still possible to admire its beauty. On March 23, 1869, Holy Tuesday, the façade of the church fell due to imprudent restoration work and therefore it was necessary to immediately present the project for the new facade. One project was conceived by a local blacksmith and another was later done in 1874 by the Avolese engineer Salvatore Rizza, but the construction was entrusted to the stonemason Carlo di Gregorio. The works lasted about eight years, including the construction of the bell tower.

It is thought that the original design belongs to the Netino architect Rosario Gagliardi.  The first facade was completely different from the present one, very similar to the cathedral of Noto with a two-storey scheme, where on the sides stood two bell towers connected by vaults. After the collapse of 1869, the new facade was designed based on Palladio and Vignola. For economic reasons, it went from five to four arches and the length of the nave was reduced.

It is divided into three orders. The first consists of eight coupled Ionic-style columns placed on high limestone plinths to delimit each passage. Two oval oculi complete with frames and gratings at the minor entrances, the main portal is framed by a broken arched tympanum with an intermediate coat of arms. The first two levels are separated by a thick cornice – string course with projecting nuts in correspondence with the pair of coupled columns of the higher order.

The second order, in Corinthian style, is characterized by a glass window in turn delimited by pairs of coupled columns. Two large sails with curled volutes connect the two orders, at the ends there are bowl-shaped vases. The third order is the intermediate part of the broken tympanum of the paired columns of the second. The window is decorated with large carved roses. At first this central window was left open, to obtain the transparent effect of the blue sky, but in 1960 a statue of the Annunciation, the work of a local stonemason Giuseppe Nobile, was preferred. A small pediment, balls, pinnacles and apex cross complete the perspective.

The first bell tower was built in the rear part of the church, but as it was unsuitable for the propagation of sound, it was demolished and rebuilt in the front part on the left side on a project by engineer Vincenzo Tomasi. The works were started and interrupted many times due to construction costs and ended definitively in 1954 with the construction of the current vault and the arrangement of the oldest bell dating back to 1811.

There are two sections of the loggia dating from the early nineteenth century to the end of the century used for the Easter fair, then abandoned.

 

Living Nativity of Ispica

Every story has a beginning but the one in Ispica tells the most beautiful story in the world. In Ispica the Nativity is recalled, a timeless itinerary immersed in the enchanting path that goes from the historic center to the archaeological area of Cava d’Ispica. That stone and those caves remind us of biblical Bethlehem.

The Living Nativity of Ispica welcomes thousands of visitors each year who immerse themselves in an atmosphere of magical and evocative tones. What is renewed every year in the Ragusa area is a very particular representation of Christmas.

The crib, in fact, is made in the archaeological area of ​​Cava d’Ispica, in the ancient rock caves of the Forza Park. It will be open on seven dates, from 22 December 2019 to 6 January 2020.

For 22 years, a hundred locals have been reviving the ancient atmosphere of the past inside the caves. Here the ancient Sicilian crafts are reproduced, from the stonemason to the shoemaker. There are the sievers of the precious sesame of Ispica, the washerwomen in the ancient wash houses, the shepherds, the popular market, the soap makers and the cheese makers.

At the center, there is the representation of the Nativity, with Sicilian singing entrusted to professional singers. The Ispica crib is the most visited in Sicily, with peaks of 25 thousand visitors per edition. It is also one of the most impressive, with its figures located on a kilometer-long itinerary.

The Living Nativity of Ispica is the most loved and visited in Sicily with peaks of 25,000 visitors per edition. The atmosphere of the re-enactment is breath-taking between ancient caves and the view that from Parco Forza announces Cava d’Ispica.

Here, the ancient Sicilian crafts revive every year: a journey back in time marked by over 100 figures and set in Sicily in the late nineteenth century until the peak of the Nativity.

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