Mazara del Vallo

Mazara del Vallo, where Roman, Arab cultures interwine

Mazara del Vallo is an Italian municipality of 51.388 inhabitants of the free municipal consortium of Trapani, Sicily. Overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, at the mouth of the Màzaro River, it is less than 200 km from the Tunisian coasts of North Africa. It is the seat of the diocese of the same name.

Mazara del Vallo

Mazara del Vallo boasts an ancient history. It came into contact with the most diverse cultures: from the Hellenic to the Roman, from the barbaric to the Muslim. A history of cultural exchanges that can still be felt today and that gives the city a unique charm.

Mazara was conquered by the Arabs in the year 827, the Muslims remained there for a long time, even after the Normans conquered the city in 1072.

Only when the emperor Frederick II- in 1216 – decided to transfer all the Mohammedans of the city to Puglia, the community became extinct.

Today 15% of its inhabitants are Muslim, its main economy is fishing and is famous for being the city of the Dancing Satyr.

The historic center of Mazara still retains many characteristics of the Arab-Berber culture. The distinctive feature is represented by the KASBAH: an interweaving of alleys that lead to the courtyards of many homes.

The old historic center, once enclosed within the Norman walls, includes numerous monumental churches, some dating back to the 11th century. It has the typical features of the neighbourhoods with an Islamic urban layout typical of the medina, called Casbah (also Kasbah), of which the narrow streets are a kind of trademark.

Due to its strategic geographical position, Mazara del Vallo, like other border towns, has known numerous dominations over the centuries: Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Vandals, Goths, Saracens, Normans, Swabians, Angevins, Aragonese and Bourbons.

Mazara today is the most important fishing port in Italy, second in Europe, making use of much of the Maghreb labor force.

Mazara rose to the headlines in March 1998, when a local fishing boat, commanded by Captain Francesco Adragna, recovered, at about 480 meters deep in the waters of the Sicilian Channel, a bronze sculpture of over 2 meters, dating back to the Hellenistic period , known as the Dancing Satyr.

The statue, after being restored and having been on display for a short time in Rome, at Montecitorio, after returning to Mazara del Vallo, has left to be exhibited at Expo 2005 in Aichi, Japan, at the Italian Pavilion, from March 25, 2005 to September 25, 2005.

Since mid-October 2005, the Dancing Satyr has been exhibited again in Mazara in the museum of the same name in Piazza Plebiscito.

In June 2010, the city was recognized by the Regional Department of Productive Activities as a municipality with a mainly tourist economy and city of art, and in August 2010 by the Regional Department of Tourism, Sport and Entertainment as a municipality with a tourist vocation.

Let’s start our tour in this wonderful town between history and legends!


The Dancing Satyr

The Dancing Satyr of Mazara del Vallo is the emblem of Mediterranean beauty, an example of the submerged heritage recovered in the Sicilian channel.

The precious bronze statue, datable towards the end of the 4th century BC. and attributable to the school of the great artist, Prassitele, is exhibited in the Museum of Sant’Egidio in Mazara del Vallo, a building of significant architectural interest: a deconsecrated church which was built between the early 1500s and the end of the same century. It has housed the precious statue since 2005, when at the end of the restoration, carried out by the Central Institute for Restoration in Rome, the Satyr returned to Mazara del Vallo.

The bronze statue was found in two phases: in the spring of 1997 the left leg came to light and on 4 March 1998 the body devoid of the other leg and arms, both recovered by the Mazara fishing boat Captain Ciccio, under the command of Francesco Adragna. It is assumed that the statue was part of a load of a shipwrecked ship between Sicily and Capo Bon in a period of great diffusion of the antiques trade in antiquity.

The Satyr is caught in the moment of the orgiastic dance ecstasy, rotated on the right leg holding the symbols of worship, in the left the kantharos (wine chalice) and in the right the thyrsus barrel decorated with a ribbon and crowned by a pine cone, he carried a panther skin on his shoulder. The abandonment of the head, the flowing hair, the parted lips, the twist of the bust make one think of the delirium of the swirling dance, added to the excitement of drinking, in which the dancer went into a trance, fixing the pinecone on the thyrsus and rotating around himself up to loss of consciousness.

The museum is located in the church of S. Egidio, a building of significant architectural interest, belonging to the homonymous Confraternity founded in 1384 and made up mostly of professionals and intellectuals. The church was built between the early 1500s and the end of the same century, since when the dome was built in 1578, the nave still lacked coverage.

In addition to the masterpiece by Praxitel, the Museo del Satiro exhibits finds from the waters of the Sicilian canal, including the bronze fragment of an elephant paw from the Punic-Hellenistic period, a bronze cauldron from the medieval period, a selection of transport amphorae from archaic, classical, Hellenistic, Punic, Roman and medieval times. Two iron cannons from Torretta Granitola are also on display, from which some Corinthian and Ionic capitals also come on display.


The Casbah

The Casbah, an Arab word which means “fortified city”, is a historic district of the old city of Mazzara del Vallo, now inhabited by Tunisian and Maghreb families, who have lived there for generations.

An open-air museum of painted majolica affixed to the walls and the ground, shutters painted with murals that represent the local cultural variety and the beauty of this mix, colorful sheets suspended on the street and the smell of ethnic cuisine everywhere.

The historic center of Mazara del Vallo, once enclosed within the Norman walls, includes numerous monumental churches (some dating back to the 11th century) and has the singular features of the neighborhoods with an Arab urban layout, typical of the medinas: called precisely Kasbah , the old town of Mazara is a small maze of narrow streets, a real trademark!

Tunisian immigration to Sicily began around the end of the 70s, just under a millennium after the decisive victory over the Muslims of Count Roger the Norman in the year 1073, who reconquered the island. Today, around 3,000 immigrants from the Maghreb reside in Mazara del Vallo, all employed in fishing, agricultural and handicraft activities. The historic city center is their home and reflects the Arab architectural footprint in all respects.

Despite the transformation work carried out by the Normans, the city retains many distinctive features of the Arab-Berber culture: the most evident sign is the winding road layout, which starts from a central axis and leads to numerous courtyards, on which open access to housing and the lively daily life of the community.

One of the most characteristic places in the Casbah is undoubtedly the Mosque. The Mazara del Vallo Mosque is one of the other more exemplary integration examples for a very particular feature.

In fact, it is the only one in Italy and one of the very few in Europe to have four speakers on the roof from which the voice of Muezzin comes out, which calls the faithful to prayer and is heard throughout the historic center.


The Cathedral of the Holy Savior

The Cathedral of the Holy Savior is the main Catholic place of worship in Mazara del Vallo, in the province of Trapani, the mother church of the homonymous diocese. The cathedral has a history of about a thousand years. In fact, it was built in Norman times, instead of a previous mosque.

The Cathedral of the Most Holy Savior was built at the behest of Roger I, following a vow made during the battle of 1072 against the Saracens. Etienne de Rouen directed the works between 1086 and 1093, building it on the ruins of an ancient basilica destroyed by the Saracens in 828.

In 1477, with the flourishing of the Renaissance period in Sicily, Bishop Giovanni Monteaperto Chiaramonte remodeled the entire building, endowed it with a superb facade, built the Chapel of Santa Maria del Soccorso, enriched it with a library of Greek and Latin codes, a room for the conservation of the Cathedral Treasury and for the collection of tapestries, finally arranges its burial in a monumental sarcophagus.

In 1689 the bishop Francesco Maria Graffeo faced the problem of the reconstruction of the now dilapidated cathedral. On June 18, 1690 the laying of the stone took place.

The structure was radically transformed, by work and on a project by the Trapani architect Pietro Castro and the master builder Pietro Schifano, into a Baroque cathedral with a basilica plan, a Latin cross, so much so that only the walls of the transept and the apse. The works were completed in 1694.

With the Belice earthquake of 1968 the temple suffered damage. In 1973, it was closed for the consolidation and restoration works of the structures.

In 1980, Pope John Paul II elevates the cathedral to the dignity of a minor papal basilica.

The Sicilian Episcopate, gathered in Mazara del Vallo for the work of the Sicilian Episcopal Conference, participates in the celebrations for the reopening of the restored Cathedral for worship.


The Church of San Francesco

The church of San Francesco di Mazara del Vallo  is an example of Sicilian Baroque, rich in polychrome and decorations was built on top of a pre-existing church dedicated to San Biagio, built by the great count Roger I of Altavilla in the second half of the 11th century.

The original construction was in Arab-Norman style with three naves and twelve altars, in addition to the main one. In 1680, Msgr. Francesco Maria Grifeo (who would later become bishop of the diocese), decided to transform it into a Baroque style: the two lateral naves were demolished, and the central nave was raised and covered with a barrel vault.

It was then reopened for worship in 1703, to be closed again following the Belice earthquake in 1968, during which the church and the adjacent convent suffered considerable damage. In 1977 restoration work began.

In 1216, the blessed Angelo Tancredi da Rieti, called in Sicily by the great count Ruggero, founded a Franciscan convent adjacent to the then church of San Biagio.

Following the closure, the convent became the property of the Province of Trapani, and was used as a police station.

The Church of San Francesco is believed to be the most beautiful in Mazara del Vallo, precisely because of the spectacular frescoes and bas-relief elements on the aisles, as well as stucco statues of the Serpottian school, canvas paintings from the 17th and 18th centuries and wooden sculptures from the 18th century.


Episcopal Palace

Since the Normans established the Diocese of Mazara in 1093, this became one of the largest and most important in Sicily: it covered the entire current province of Trapani and part of that of Palermo.

The Episcopal Palace of Mazara del Vallo, seat of the Bishopric, is a 16th century building built on a part of the pre-existing Palazzo Chiaramonte and overlooking today’s Piazza della Repubblica.

The internal courtyard is enriched by a fountain that was once a sarcophagus.

It has a large architraved portal, with four Doric columns resting on a high pedestal.

On the portal, beyond the iron balcony, in the center of the two balconies is the coat of arms of the Diocese of Mazara. A facade with an attic frames the facade.

Inside the palace, there is a courtyard, built by Biagio Amico, from which it is possible to admire a logy with round arches, supported by Doric columns resting on pedestals inserted in the parapet.

Some of the numerous rooms on the first floor overlook this elegant loggia, one of which has a wonderful 16th century wooden coffered ceiling.

In the courtyard it is also possible to observe the coat of arms of the Bishopric walled on a wall.

Next to the Episcopal Palace there is the Episcopio building, the ancient seat of the seminary.

The right side of this building is characterized by an eighteenth-century loggia which continues with three other arches on a covered bridge called the Tocchetto which connects the Bishop’s Palace with the Cathedral.


Garibaldi Theater

Garibaldi Theater is a theater in Mazara del Vallo.

Following the revolutionary uprisings of 1848, and the consequent transfer of power from the Bourbons to a city committee, it was decided to acquire a room in emphyteusis, for 36 ducats per year and to appoint a commission that would equip the city of a new theatrical structure.

Canon Gaspare Viviani was commissioned to design a structure similar to the Garibaldi Theater of Trapani, and in three months the theater was built at an expense of 2,355 ducats, taken from a fund left by Bishop Scalabrini for the reconstruction of the port, and kept in the monastery of San Michele.

The theater was inaugurated on January 12, 1849, with the name of Teatro del Popolo. The structure was later dedicated to Giuseppe Garibaldi with a resolution of March 5, 1862.

The facade shows a small door surmounted by a lintel in local stone, decorated with two Corinthian scrolls and a festoon of garlands in relief just below the cornice on the top floor.

As soon as you enter the theatre, the atmosphere welcomes you into the lobby, and it catapults you back in time. On the right, you can see the original wooden ticket office, on the left, always in wood, the wardrobe.

Above the door that gives access to the stalls, in a marble ellipse, there is the inscription “MUNICIPAL THEATER MDCCCXLVIII”.

The theatre consists of a horseshoe-shaped stalls, with a small access to two staircases that lead to a double order of partitioned boxes and with separate entrances, and to the gallery.

Although devoid of decorations on the outside, the theatre internally shows itself full of pictorial elements typical of Sicilian folklore, rightfully comparable to the painting that adorns traditional and colourful carts. The instinct is to look up, scrutinize every decoration, every design.

The proscenium is built partly in masonry, partly in wood, and above it stands a Trinacria.

From the stage, you cannot fail to admire the beautiful chairs in wood and red velvet, which recall the cinemas and theatres of the mid-twentieth century.

Some great artists of the 19th century prose theatre played in the theatre, like Giacinta Pezzana, who gave Teresa Raquin and the Marshal, and Tommaso Salvini, interpreter of Vittorio Alfieri and William Shakespeare, who in 1874 gave fifteen performances.

The theatres hosted operas, operettas and ludic performances, until 1930, the year from which the activity of the theatre diminished until it ceased completely.

Various attempts to restore the theatres began in 1981, which failed for various reasons. The last restoration, which started in 2003 and ended in 2006, allowed the structure to reopen to the public in 2010.

Since 2011, the theatre has started hosting shows again.


Jesuit College

The beautiful Jesuit College is located in the ancient heart of the Sicilian city, near the remains of the Church of Sant’Ignazio and the Museum of the Dancing Satyr

Built in 1672 by the Jesuit Giacomo Napoli, it has an imposing and monumental baroque façade, especially in the portal.

Particularly noteworthy are the four telamons that support the capitals, and the entablature on which the artistic corbels of the balcony above rest on connecting volutes.

The fascinating set of scenography and plastic character was created thanks to the use of the carving element.

The windows on the two-elevation façade have ornaments that differ from each other and a crowning cornice.

However, there are many manifestations of artistic relevance that convey the idea of ​​grandeur, even in the secondary elevations. A portico with round arches on Doric limestone columns creates the admirable scenario of the square courtyard inside with 24 columns and centric arches.

The large marble staircase that leads to the upper floor is remarkable, where some rooms have frescoes by Domenico La Bruna in the vaults. The terracotta floors have marble patterns.

The premises host the Civic Museum which is made up of the archaeological, medieval and contemporary sections which houses a collection of works by Pietro Consagra.

Annexed to the College, there was the former church of Sant’Agnazio, built in 1701 with an elliptical plan, designed by Giacomo Italia, in ruins after the collapse of the dome, which occurred in 1936.

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