Ortygia - heart of Syracuse - Sicilyincoming

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Sicily Guide > Siracusa province


Ortygia, a small island laden with history, lies south, just off the mainland, and represents the pulsating heart of the city. Everywhere in it, in every way as in the many monuments, you can seize evidence of its past. Ortygia, as very few other historical centres in the world, shows, seamless, all ages, which has passed through, from the foundation to the present day. The Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Swabians, Aragonese, the Catalans, the Viceroy, the Savoy has imprinted on island unmistakable footprints, wrote the indelible pages of this vast art history books waiting to be read carefully as the stories...

The Cathedral (Duomo)

“Take a Greek temple, incorporate it totally into a Christian building to which you will later add a Norman façade that is knocked down by the great earthquake of 1693. Without losing heart, you start work again, and changing direction completely, you substitute the old façade with a delicious Baroque composition of the 17th century. And the whole thing, dilapidated as it is, continues to live and to smile, spreading its image around the world as if it had been planned by a Leonardo or a Michelangelo.”

                   -Lawrence Durrell

It is in Piazza Duomo, surrounded by elegant Baroque palaces (the latter are a particular feature of Ortygia, and are disseminated all over the island), and occupies an ancient sacred area. Diggings here and in the immediate vicinity have made it possible to reconstruct the development of the building right from the Siculo settlement. There was a Ionic temple, the only one of its kind known in the Greek west; its sparse ruins can be seen in the basement of the Town Hall.
The cathedral is the outcome of successive transformations made to the grandiose temple of Athena, probably built by the Diomenides, the family founded by Gelon, the first tyrant of Syracuse. It was a six column per row peripteral building, with 36 columns almost 9 metres high with a diameter of 2 m. Its magnificence was celebrated by Cicero. To get an idea, one need only think its doors were made of gold and ivory. On its top shone the golden shield of Athena, guiding navigators. In about the seventh century the inter-columns were closed and the temple transformed into a Christian church, later proclaimed a cathedral.
The façade, which dates from the eighteenth century, is imposing and lively, decorated with statues and Corinthian columns.
The interior, of the basilica type, has three naves: the middle one occupies what was the cell of the ancient temple, whose columns protrude from the walls. There are numerous works of art, among which we will mention the painting on wood with a golden background showing St. Cosimo, attributed to Antonello da Messina, in the Crocifisso chapel; the Gagini statue of the Madonna della Neve, on the altar in the left apse, the only one from the Byzantine church; the gaudy Baroque high altar, the flat part of which is a monolithic block from the beams in the Temple of Athena.

The Temple of Apollo and Artemis

The Temple of Apollo (Tempio di Apollo) in Ortygia is a Greek temple dating from the 6th century BC. This is the oldest known Doric temple in Western Europe. An inscription says that the temple honours Apollo, but after Cicero came to Syracuse, he wrote that the temple was dedicated to Artemis. Over the centuries it was converted into a Byzantine church, a mosque and then a Christian basilica, and of all these successive constructions traces were found in the course of digging campaigns in 1938-1943. Today the building is in ruins, but its imposing size is still evident - 58 x 24 m or 190 x 70 ft. It occupies a large part of Piazza Pancali. The dedication inscription is on the top step of the base.

The Fountain of Arethusa

In a square looking out over the sea, this little fountain, inhabited by white ducks and surrounded by slender papyri, is the symbol of the relations between Syracuse and the mother-city Corinth, never interrupted despite the distance. The legend has it that Arethusa, to get away from the impetuous love of Alpheus, threw herself into the sea. The goddess Artemis, taking pity, transformed her into a spring which, disappearing under the ground in Greece, reappeared this side of the sea at Ortygia. Alpheus was changed into a river, but this was not enough to keep him away from his beloved nymph: his waters too crossed the sea, to burst out in a spring not far from the Fountain of Arethusa.

Piazza Archimede & Museo Arkimedeion

Piazza Archimede is surrounded by palaces that tell the city’s history, from the middles ages up to the present day. The fountain of Diana by Giulio Moschetti can be admired in the centre of the square, a fountain that tells the legend of the nymph Aretusa. The nymph is depicted in the act of escaping from Alpheus which, with his arms outstretched, trying to grab her. Diana, solemnly to the centre of the group, stands behind the girl, , while all around Tritons and Nereids prance about on seahorses.
Arkimedeion, is a scientific and technological museum dedicated to the great Syracuse mathematician and physicist Archimedes (287-212 BC). He was really a genius and, certainly the greatest scientist of classical antiquity. Inside the museum, through 24 interactive exhibit, are illustrated the great inventions that the scientific issues addressed by Archimedes. Each exhibit is accompanied by a media that allow the visitor a better understanding of the great mathematical discoveries (measurements of surfaces and volumes, squaring the circle, calculating the centre of gravity of the body) and physical (lever principle, floating bodies) carried by the genius of Syracuse. The various topics discussed are grouped under three main lines: machines for war and peace, mathematics and geometry, physics, statics and hydrostatics.

Location: Palazzo Pupillo - Piazza Archimede 11
Info: 0931 61121; 392 9928351
Opening hours: Daily from 9:30 to 19:30 (ticket office closes 30min before)
Ticket: Full price - € 6,00; Reduced price (child 6-14 y.) - € 4,00; Family ticket (4+ visitors) - € 4,00; Groups (10+ visitors) - € 4,00

Maniace Castle

Now incorporated in a barracks, it rises imposingly on the waterfront at Ortygia. It was built at the behest of Frederick II in about 1239. The castle, which blends military architecture with the elegance of a court, still preserves the external 13th century structure with a square layout, with massive corner towers. The entrance is decorated with a magnificent marble portal in the Gothic style. The great fortress, whose name derives from “Eurvelos”, i.e. “nail with a broad base”, was protected to the west by three big moats, the third of which was connected to the whole defensive system, made up of an intricate maze of tunnels and passages with an overall length of 480 metres, and of five towers a full 15 metres high. Today, thanks to restoration and consolidation work on the entire belt of fortifications, it is possible to visit exhibitions and enjoy cultural events in the evocative scenario of the Piazzale d'Armi.

Location: Via Castello Maniace 51
Info: 0931 464420
Opening hours: Monday closed; Tuesday - Sunday from 9:00 to 13:00 (ticket office closes 30min before)
Ticket: Full price - € 4,00; Reduced price ((for youth 18-25 y) - € 2,00; Free entrance - EU citizens over 65 y. and under 18y.

Palazzo Bellomo Museum

The museum is in a building dating from the Swabian period which was transformed and enlarged in the 15th century by the Bellomo family - one of the most powerful in Syracuse - which lived there at the time. In 1725 Palazzo Bellomo was sold to the St. Benedict Monastery and joined to the nearby Palazzo Parisio, becoming a single complex of buildings. It was completely restored and inaugurated as a gallery in 1948. During the 1970s it was again refurbished and acquired its present-day appearance. The Gallery illustrates the development of painting and decorative art in Syracuse and South-Eastern Sicily. An absolute highlight of the gallery is “The Burial of St. Lucia” (“Il Seppellimento di Santa Lucia”) by Caravaggio. Equally famous is “The Annunciation” by Antonello da Messina, painted in 1471, lately meticulously restored.

Location: Via Capodieci 16
Info: 0931 69511
Opening hours: Monday closed; Tuesday – Saturday from 9:00 to 19:00; Sunday from 9:00 to 13:00 (ticket office closes 30min before)
Tickets: Full price - € 8,00; Reduced price - € 4,00

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