The Duomo at the very heart of Catania is dedicated to the memory of the martyred St. Agatha. The Duomo was originally ordered to be built by Roger I, the Norman king, but it was destroyed in the earthquake of 1693 and had to be reconstructed. Its facade is its most enduring architectural feature, the work of Giovan Battista Vaccarini (1702-68), who redesigned the city after the earthquake. For the granite columns of the facade, the architect "removed" them from the city's Roman amphitheater. Only the lovingly crafted medieval apses, made from lava, survived the devastation of that earthquake.
Many opera fans come here to pay their respects at Bellini's tomb, guarded by a life-size angel in marble. It's to the right as you enter the Duomo through its right door. The words above the tomb are from Sonnambula, and in translation read, "Ah, I didn't think I'd see you wilt so soon, flower."
In the Norman Cappella della Madonna (Chapel of the Madonna), also on the right, precious metals envelop a magnificent Roman sarcophagus and a statue of the Virgin Mary, carved in the 1400s. To the right of the choir is the Cappella di Sant'Agata. In the sacristy is a fresco, said to have been created in 1774, that depicts the horrendous eruption of Mount Etna in 1669. Admission to the cathedral is free; it's open daily 7am-noon and 4-7pm.
Perhaps the most stunning part of the Duomo lies underground: The Terme Achillane, an Imperial Roman thermal spa discovered after the devastating earthquake in 1693 that miraculously conserved some of its stuccoed decorations, including animals and grape bunches. The part of the complex open to the public is a rectangular hall with four pillars, surmounted by vaulted ceilings. At the center lies the original marble bath. For info: 095-281635; www.museodiocesicatania.it.
The Duomo is not the only attraction on this landmark square. Lying in the very heart of Catania, the Piazza Duomo was also created by the city's planner, Vaccarini. The baroque elegance of Catania's heyday lingers on here.
The symbol of the city, the Fontana dell'Elefante, was created in 1735. It was obviously inspired by Bellini's monument in Rome's Piazza Minerva. The elephant was hewn from black lava spewed forth by Mount Etna and stands on a Byzantine platform. The elephant is a beast of burden here, carrying on its back an Egyptian obelisk lettered with hieroglyphics celebrating the cult of Isis.
The less-imposing Fontana dell'Amenano lies on the south side of the piazza. Water cascades down from its top basin, evoking a sheer veil that caused the Catanians to dub it acqua a lenzuolo, or sheet water. On the north side of the square are the facades of Palazzo degli Elefanti (today the city hall) and Palazzo Senatorio. Palazzo degli Elefanti is usually open Monday through Friday from 8am to 7pm.
Standing beside the Duomo is the Badia di Sant'Agata, again dedicated to the patron saint of Catania. This is another stellar example of Vaccarini's mastery of baroque elegance. This church is one of seven in Catania dedicated to its patroness.
Lying east of Piazza Duomo is Teatro Massimo (or Bellini), one of the grandest and richest in Europe.
Directly uphill from Piazza Duomo lies the entrance to the Teatro Greco Romano, Via Vittorio Emanuele II 266, dating from 415 B.C. The Roman theater, where gladiators battled wild beasts shipped from nearby Africa, was constructed on the site of an even earlier Teatro Greco. At its apex, 7,000 spectators could view the grisly entertainment here. The marble was coated by Mount Etna's eruption in 1669. In the back of the theater is a similar but smaller Odeon, dating from the 2nd and 3rd centuries A.D. Concerts are sometimes staged here. The site is open daily from 9am to 1:30pm and 3 to 7pm.
The Green Lung of Catania
Escape from the city heat and congestion to newly revamped Villa Bellini, the "Central Park" of Catania, reached by heading north along Via Etnea. Planted with such exotics as Brazilian araucarias, the park sprawls over several hills. This is one of the most attractive public parks in Sicily; the Catanians claim that the fig tree planted here is the world's largest. Unique in Italy is the floral clock and calendar on the hillside. Stand on a hill here and be rewarded with a panoramic view of Mount Etna.
Where Gladiators Battled Lions
Lovers of antiquity should head to the Piazza Stesicoro, Via Vittorio Emanuele 260 (tel. 095-7150405), for a very evocative site, the ruins of a Roman amphitheater dating from the 2nd century A.D. Although the ruins lie below street level, the gladiator tunnels are still visible. This is one of the largest of all Roman amphitheaters; it is believed that some 17,000 spectators were once entertained here by blood games. Only a tiny part of the theater survives, so you'll have to use your imagination to conjure up the ancient gore. The reason? The Ostrogoths, not devotees of Roman glory, used the amphitheater as a quarry. In fact, the Goths found the Roman gladiator contests too vicious and outlawed them. They converted the stones into churches and public monuments. The site is open daily 9am to 1pm and 3 to 7pm. Admission is free.
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