RAGUSA AND MODICA, BAROQUE HILLTOWNS ABOVE A SPARKLING COASTLINE

by Jeremy Dummett

(Extract from Sicily, Island of Beauty and Conflict)

The province of Ragusa, in the south-eastern corner of Sicily, contains some of the most spectacular scenery on the island. The province extends from the Monti Iblei (the Hyblaean Mountains), with its peak of Monte Laura at 986 metres, through an ancient landscape containing rivers and deep gorges, to a sparkling coastline facing Africa. Along the coast lie fishing villages and holiday resorts made up of rows of low-lying white buildings with small harbours and sandy beaches.

The population of the province, which is around 320,000, is spread among 12 towns, all of which are decorated in the local baroque style. The urban scenery of the province is among the finest in all Italy. This is where, according to the art historian Anthony Blunt, some of the best examples of Sicilian baroque are to be found. These towns, with their cupolas and campaniles, sit astride peaks in the rocky landscape divided from one another by steep valleys. Flights of stairs weave their way through the towns leading up to flamboyant church facades, the most remarkable being those designed by Rosario Gagliardi. In 2002 UNESCO recognised the quality of the baroque architecture in the Val di Noto, which extends from Catania to the province of Ragusa, naming eight cities as World Heritage Sites, among them Ragusa and Modica.

Ragusa Ibla

This scenery, both urban and maritime, is used as the setting for the Italian TV series featuring Inspector Montalbano, based on the novels by Andrea Camilleri.  Hugely popular in Italy, the series spread to reach international audiences. The province of Ragusa, made famous by the TV series, has become known as Montalbano territory, as it is here that most of the episodes were filmed.

The history

Human habitation of the province can be traced back to pre-historic times, with ancient tombs visible in the rocks. In the nearby province of Syracuse lies the site of Pantàlica, dating back to the thirteenth century BC. The earliest recorded people in the Ragusa province were the Sicels, who came from mainland Italy, and who established themselves in eastern Sicily in the eleventh century BC. It was from the Sicels that Sicily took its name, while the Hyblaean Mountains were named after a Sicel goddess, Hybla. After the Greeks arrived on the island, establishing settlements around the coast, the Sicels moved further inland, with their King Hyblon granting territory near Syracuse to the Greeks on which to build another city, Megara Hyblaea.

Many of the different people who ruled Sicily left their mark on the province. Kamarina was founded by Greeks from Syracuse in 599 BC as an outpost of their city at a time when the whole of south-eastern Sicily was Syracusan territory. The town of Chiaramonte Gulfi, to the north of the province, stands on the site of a staging post used by the Greeks of Syracuse on their way to the coast. Kaukana shows signs of both Roman and Byzantine civilisations. It was from the port of Kaukana that the Byzantine general, Belisaruis, sailed in AD 533 to defeat the Vandals in North Africa.

In the Middle Ages the Normans built estates here, as did the Chiaramonte, a powerful family based in Palermo who became the Counts of Modica. It was the Normans who introduced one of their favourite saints to Sicily, St George, who became a patron saint in both Ragusa and Modica. The county became famous for its agriculture, which because of its geography, developed differently than in most of Sicily. The combination of hilly country with a central plateau and a narrow coastal plain was more suited for mixed farming than for growing grain. As a result, local farms produced cattle and other livestock as well as olives and wine. This kind of farming led to greater independence for agricultural workers than elsewhere on the island and the county gained a reputation for liberal attitudes and a crime free environment.

Ragusa was badly hit by the earthquake of 1693 and lost half its population. For the work of reconstruction, the Spanish rulers of Sicily, together with the church and the aristocracy, chose the local baroque style giving Sicily’s skilled architects and craftsmen the opportunity to design major new projects. By this time Sicilian baroque had matured into a style of architecture and sculpture with original features of its own which were rich in exotic decoration.

Mussolini, who visited Sicily in 1924, made a personal intervention in Ragusa, making it capital of the province in 1926, while at the same time redefining its borders. Up to this point Modica had been the capital. According to local legend, the reason for this was the lack of an adequate turnout to welcome Mussolini at Modica’s railway station, during the Duce’s tour of eastern Sicily. Representing a liberal minded city, residents showed their disapproval of the Fascist government by refusing to give Mussolini his usual rapturous welcome. This was taken as an insult and the status of Capo Provincia was taken from Modica and granted to Ragusa.

Today Ragusa, the smallest province on the island, is also one of the wealthiest. Oil was discovered here in 1953 and is now drilled offshore and piped to refineries at Augusta on the east coast. The supply of stone as building material continues, as it has for centuries. The tradition of mixed farming goes on, with dairy farming and the production of livestock taking place on the plateau below the hills. Typical products include milk, pork and cheese known as caciocavallo. Wine is widely produced with the town of Vittoria renowned for the quality of its red wine, called Cerasuolo. Intensive market gardening is carried out on the coastal plain, producing fruit and vegetables, including cherry tomatoes in large quantities.

Tourism, which is thriving and includes an increasing number of foreigners with holiday homes, has recently been helped by the opening of the airport at Comiso to international traffic. The airport, which is less than 20 kilometres from Ragusa, has direct flights to London, Frankfurt, Brussels and Dublin, as well as to cities on the Italian mainland. Another boost to tourism is the so-called Treno Barocco, a train which runs from Syracuse on Sundays in the summer months, calling at Noto, Modica and Ragusa, enabling visitors to see the most famous baroque towns in a day’s outing. Other attractions are the frequent feasts and saints’ day celebrations when elaborate processions can be seen parading through the streets.

Visiting Ragusa

Ragusa has two separate centres, the upper town, Ragusa Superiore, and the lower, Ragusa Ibla, linked by a flight of over 240 steps and by a steep road full of hairpin bends. Ragusa Superiore is laid out with wide streets according to the reconstruction plan which followed the earthquake. The imposing cathedral of San Giovanni Battista (St John the Baptist), with its wide facade and fine campanile, dominates the middle of the town. Close by is the archaeological museum, containing a statue of a Sicel warrior from the seventh century BC as well as Greek and Roman artefacts. Above the cathedral is a vantage point, known as the Rotonda, which provides panoramic views over the lower town.

Ragusa Ibla, with ravines on either side, occupies the site of the medieval town and that of the ancient Sicel settlement, Hybla Heraea, destroyed by the earthquake. It is the more spectacular of the two centres and contains 13 baroque monuments listed by UNESCO. Built in golden stone, it consists of small squares, churches, narrow streets, crumbling palaces, ornate balconies and sudden, breath-taking views over the countryside. This is a place to be explored on foot, with cars left at the lower street level. Starting at Piazza della Repubblica, where the two centres meet, a winding street leads through the middle of Ibla to the Giardini Iblei, the public gardens. Close to the piazza is the church of Santa Maria dell’Idria, which was originally built for the knights of Malta. The church has a richly decorated interior while its blue tiled dome has become one of the symbols of the town.

Ragusa, Piazza Duomo

At the heart of Ibla stands the cathedral of San Giorgio (St George) designed by Rosario Gagliardi, the leading architect of the late baroque era, whose work can be seen across the Val di Noto. The three-tiered facade of the cathedral fills one end of Corso XXV Aprile, a wide street containing palm trees, cafés and two decorative buildings, the Circolo di Conversazione and the Palazzo Donnfugata. The cathedral’s interior contains statues of St George, one by the Gagini school, as well Gagliardi’s original plans for the building. Among the palaces of note are the Cosentini, known for the grotesque figures supporting the balconies; Battaglia, with its classical facade and La Rocca, famous for its six balconies.

Modica

Like Ragusa, Modica consists of an upper and a lower town, Modica Alta and Bassa. There is also a third, modern centre for commercial activity. The town lies on the road some 15 kilometres before arriving at Ragusa, when approaching from Ispica and Noto. The town’s social centre in Modica Bassa is Corso Umberto, a wide street containing several fine palaces, laid out in the reconstruction period. On either side lie the alleyways and courtyards recalling the town’s medieval past. On the right can be seen the remains of the castle of the Counts of Modica. From the Corso, a series of steps decorated with statues of the apostles, leads up to the church of San Pietro, whose broad facade topped by more statues, looks out over the town. Two more churches are of interest, the church of the Carmine, containing sculpture by the Gagini school, and the church of Santa Maria di Bethlemme, which has a Palatine Chapel in the Arabo-Norman style.

Steps climb steeply towards Modica Alta, along a road lined with palaces and the church of San Giovanni Battista at the highest point. The cathedral of San Giorgio, possibly designed by Rosario Gagliardi, was built on the site of a Norman church. It is one of the outstanding examples of Sicilian baroque, with an unusual curved facade, and stands at the top of a flight of 250 steps. The view of the old town from outside the cathedral is exceptional.

Cathedral of San Giorgio, Modica

Modica was the birthplace of Salvatore Quasimodo, who won the Nobel Prize for poetry in 1959. He takes his place among Sicily’s writers who achieved international fame including Pirandello, Lampedusa and Sciascia. Quasimodo wrote lyrical poetry about Sicily while working far from home in northern Italy.

The town has a vibrant economy based on agricultural produce which provides a robust local cuisine. The best-known local product is Modica chocolate, now produced on a large scale. It is unusual in that it is based upon an ancient Aztec recipe, brought to Sicily by the Spanish. It contains no fat, unlike most chocolate bars, and comes in a variety of natural flavours such as orange, lemon and almond. A good place to try it is the Antica Dolceria Bonajuto, founded in 1880, to be found at No 1, Corso Umberto.

The Montalbano trail

The success of the Montalbano TV series has led to an increased interest in the province. Italian fans, landing at the airport, ask taxi drivers to take them to Vigàta, the fictional town where much of the action takes place. In reality the sets used in the TV drama are often composite, drawing upon images from several different places. Certain locations can be identified, as Maurizio Clausi makes clear in his book, I luoghi di Montalbano (Montalbano’s places). Montalbano tours have become a popular feature of the local tourist trade.

Punta Secca, a cluster of houses behind a small harbour near Santa Croce Camarina, is the main location for the filming of Marinella, where Montalbano lives. The white tower of the lighthouse is instantly recognisable from the opening sequence of the TV drama. Montalbano’s apartment, with its terrace overlooking the beach, is a busy B&B when they are not filming. The small restaurant favoured by the inspector, known as Enzo a Mare on TV, can be found along the seafront. Some of the scenes in the fictional Marinella are also shot in Donnalucata.

Scicli is the principal location for Vigàta, where Montalbano has his office. Several central streets are used for the set, together with the town hall which acts as the inspector’s headquarters.

Ragusa Ibla features prominently in the TV drama. The opening sequence includes aerial shots of the town and surrounding hills. The square in front of the cathedral of San Giorgio is where Montalbano can be seen heading for his usual café. In the nearby Piazza Pola is a palace, next to the church of San Giuseppe, which is sometimes used as the inspector’s office. The restaurant named La Rusticana (Calogero in the TV series), in Corso XXV Aprile, is where Salvo and Mimì like to have lunch and enjoy a glass of Grillo, their favourite white wine.

Andrea Camilleri, author of the novels on which the TV series is based, came from Porto Empedocle, which lies further along the coast near Agrigento, and lived in Rome. In the Sicilian literary tradition, his work is steeped in the character and social mores of the island. The context of the stories, in which Montalbano and his small team of policemen fight crime and corruption, is contemporary Sicilian life with its political problems, mafia background and huge differences between rich and poor. The stories explore how the traditional Sicilian way of life is changing to meet the pressures of modern life including increased tourism and the influx of refugees from Africa and the Middle East. The books thus provide not only entertainment but also a way to increase our understanding of this complex island.

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