Historical Cities

The area where the modern city of Catania rises today was firstly populated by the Sicels, an ancient population of Italic settlers that inhabited an archaic village, which they called Katane.  The name Katane, which meansgrater”, or "scratching implement” was probably given to the place because of the harsh, rough and jagged terrain, created by the flows of solidified lava that had poured out of Etna mount

Subsequently, around the VIIIth century B.C., Greek settlers (originally from Chalcis, an ancient town on the Euboea isle,who had already funded the Sicilian colony of Naxos), set out to occupy the territory around the archaic village of Katane, and after displacing the Sicels funded a new larger settlement.  Having to decide on what to call their new colony, the Chalcidians, who were obviously not lacking spirit of observation, easily adopted the name given to the place by the Sicels, which in ancient Greek language became Κατάνη or Katáne.

In line with strategic planning, the Greeks located their first settlements on the top of some of the present hills.  In fact, the most important settlement was located on a hill which these days is occupied by the actual Piazza Dante, where it is also possible to find the ex Benedictine Monastery originally built during the XVIth century A.D.  The other most important Greek settlement was situated on the hill Santa Sofia, where in modern days rises the Cittadella Universitaria (University town), on the border with the municipality of Gravina di Catania.

Around the 476 B.C. Hieron the Ist, brother of the tyrant of Syracuse Gelon decided to conquer Katane and the Greek acropolises that rose on those hills and, having defeated the Greeks, imposed the name of Aitna to the place.  The inhabitants, who were forced to leave, relocated in the actual town of Leontini and later funded the town of Licodia Eubea, so called in honour of their motherland, the Euboea isle.  The reaction of the Chalcidians though, was swift.  In 461 B.C., Katáne was re-conquered by the Greeks and given back its original name.  The Greek presence in Catania persisted until, some two hundred years later, when the ambitious colonising campaigns of the Carthaginians and the events of the Punic Wars, led by 242 B.C., to the defeat of the Carthaginians and to the beginning of the Roman rule in Sicily.  At the end of the Punic Wars, the city of Catania that, throughout the war had been supporting the Roman emperor Augusto, acquired importance and prestige.  In fact, as a sign of gratitude towards the people of Catania, the emperor erected various edifices in the city and introduced all the features of a typical Roman city including a Forum, the Baths, an Aqueduct, a Theatre, and an Amphitheatre, which because of its dimensions was second only to the Coliseum in Rome.

During the Roman period, Christianity also started to diffuse rapidly in Sicily where some of the very first Christian communities started to appear.  However the early history of Christianity was also marked by a campaign of persecutions unleashed by the Roman authorities against Christians and some of the very early Christian martyrs were in fact Sicilian.  Two prominent examples are Saint Lucy of Syracuse, and Saint Agatha who eventually became the highly venerated patroness of Catania.  During the period of the Roman occupation, Catania was also struck by the first documented natural disaster.  In 121 B.C., a powerful eruption resulted in several streams of lava that overwhelmed a large part of Catania and hot ashes and sand were spewed in such quantities by Etna that the roofs of many houses collapsed under the weight.  The extent of the damage was so grave that, for over a decade, the Roman Emperor exempted the citizens of Catania from paying their taxes to Rome.

Following the collapse of the Roman Empire, Catania seemed to go through a period of relative degrade, during which the city was sacked by the Vandals and occupied and plundered by the Ostrogoths during the VIth century A.D.  Eventually, after the end of the Gothic War, Catania went through a period of stability when in 535, the Emperor Justinian the Ist made Sicily part of the Byzantine Empire. Later, with the invasion of the Arabs and the defeat of the Byzantines, the Arabs occupied Catania in 875 A.D. and the city became part of the Emirate of Sicily until the early XIth century A.D., when the Normans guided by Roger the Ist of Hauteville invaded and conquered Sicily.  During the Norman Rule, Catania finally experienced a reviving period. Christianity was also re-introduced and the first Benedictine Cathedral was erected in Catania in 1094.  However, this period of stability was dramatically ended by a sudden, terrible natural disaster.  In 1169, a terrifying earthquake accompanied by a prodigious eruption, generated such a profuse flow of lava that it reached the shores of the city of Aci-Castello and finally poured into the sea.  Catania was devastated and the number of casualties was very high.

The efforts to reconstruct Catania started immediately but, the re-emerging city was not left to prosper for long.  After the last Norman king William the IInd died without an heir to the throne, the crown was claimed by the house of Hohenstaufen.   Between 1194 and 1197, during the initial strive of the Swabian king Henry the VIth that led to the Hohenstaufen rule in Sicily, Catania was sacked by German soldiers as a punishment for siding with Tancred an illegitimate son of Roger the IIIrd, Duke of Apulia.  Throughout its duration, however, the Hohenstaufen rule in Sicily was characterised by turbulent events created by local barons and bishops attempting to assert their will during the strife between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines.  Wanting to quench the revolts once and for all, in 1232, the Ghibelline Emperor Frederick the IInd ordered the destruction of all baronial castles in Sicily and then, as a sign of assertion of his royal might he also ordered the construction in Catania of the imposing Ursino Castle, which can still be admired and visited in modern times.

During the second half of the XIIIth century A.D., following the fall of the Swabian Crown, the Angevins took control of Sicily and established their presence in Catania.  The Angevins, however, were never welcomed in Sicily and were seen by Sicilian people as rather arrogant and ruthless, often abusing their power and imposing heavy taxations.  The resulting ferment of discontent eventually led in 1282 to an acrimonious insurrection of the Sicilian population known as the Sicilian Vespers, with Catania playing a pivotal role in the events that led to the demise of the House of Anjou.

In fact, during the early XIVth century it was in Catania that the crowning of Peter the Ist of Aragon took place.  The Ursino Castle was chosen to become the seat of the royal court, and Catania soon re-gained importance as it became the capital of Sicily as well as the seat of the Sicilian parliament.  Catania, however lost its nomination of capital city of Sicily during the beginning of the XVth century A.D., when King Alfonso the Vth of Aragon (also known as King Alfonso Ist of Sicily), took the decision of moving the Capital from Catania to Palermo.  Nonetheless, the city of Catania did retain most of its autonomy and prestige.  Furthermore, in recognition of the fact that the city had hosted the royal court, Alfonso the Vth decided, on the 19th of October 1434, to fund the first university of Sicily in Catania, which was from the XVIth century onward to be known as the "Siculorum Gymnasium".

After the end of the kingdom of Aragon and the annexation of Sicily to the reign of Spain in 1479, Charles the Ist (also known as the Holy Roman Emperor Charles the Vth), eager to protect the coastal areas of his Mediterranean lands from the frequent attacks of the Ottoman pirates, sought to enhance the fortification of the coastal cities of Sicily.  This fact, led in Catania to the construction of boundary walls around the city that are still partially visible along the actual Via Del Plebiscito.

Towards the end of the XVIIth century A.D., eastern Sicily was struck by two more dreadful natural disasters.  On the 11th of March 1669, a strong earthquake just north of the town of Nicolosi was followed by the rising of two volcanic cones from which, over a period of 122 days, about a billion cubic metres of incandescent lava poured out and reached Catania, damaging the western part of the city and eventually pouring into the sea, advancing onto the seabed for over one kilometre.  A lava stream also branched off and poured into the north western part of Catania setting on fire civil dwellings and damaging several buildings.  Even more deleterious were the effects of the natural disaster to follow that struck the east of Sicily 24 years later.  On the 11th of January 1693, at around 9 pm local time, a massive earthquake with an estimated magnitude of 7.4 (on the moment magnitude scale) and a maximum intensity of 11 (on the Mercalli intensity scale), destroyed at least 70 towns and caused the death of more than 60,000 people.  The earthquake was followed by a tsunami that devastated the Ionian coastline.  As a result of these events about two thirds of the people living in Catania died.  Few buildings including the Ursino Castle were left standing.

The re-construction of the city of Catania was based on the town planning scheme of Giuseppe Lanza Duke of Camastra, and a number of collaborating architects including, but not only, Carlos de Grunenbergh, Giovanni Battista Vaccarini, and Francesco Battaglia to cite but a few.  The town planning scheme aimed at providing a modern urban feel and at preserving the historical heritage of the city.  The reconstructive efforts heralded the dawn of the remarkable Sicilian Baroque period, which reached its peak during the XVIIIth century A.D.  Architectural masterpieces of outstanding beauty that have now been declared a human patrimony by the UNESCO were created not only in Catania but all over the towns of the Val di Noto.  Clearly through these prodigious reconstructive efforts Catania reacquired considerable artistic and economic status although from a geopolitical point of view, its governance shifted and changed considerably.  Sicily was in fact assigned to the Duke of Savoy between 1714 and 1719, to the crown of the Habsburg between 1719 and 1734 and finally to the Bourbons of Naples between 1734 and 1860.  During this latter governance, a significant earthquake shook the city of Catania again in 1818 but fortunately without claiming human lives.

Catania sustained considerable damage during the Second World War as result of the heavy bombardments carried out by the Allies.  About 100,000 inhabitants abandoned the city relocating in nearby countryside villages and then, Catania was completely evacuated by the Germans on the 5th of August 1943.  The people of Catania were finally able to return to a badly damaged Catania soon after the end of the hostilities and slowly started to re-construct the city once again. 

From the Roman period onward, the city of Catania has been destroyed several times, by natural calamities such as eruptions and earthquakes and has been plundered and damaged during various wars and invasions.  Regardless, just like the phoenix, the city of Catania has always managed to rise up from its ashes better and stronger each single time thanks to the unflinching will of the inhabitants of this remarkable city.  The history of Catania in this respect is also the history of the people who have inhabited it and who, in the face of a seemingly ruthless natural environment, can be considered to be bound to their motherland by nothing less than unconditional love.


Written by Tony Sinatra

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