Syracuse: Santa Lucia e Caravaggio

Syracuse, crossroads of peoples, travellers and artists, has been giving, for over a year, the opportunity to admire one of the most beautiful masterpieces by Michelangelo Merisi, called  Caravaggio: the ‘Seppellimento di Santa Lucia’.

Exactly 400 years have passed since Caravaggio was in Syracuse, escaping from Malta and guest of his friend, Mario Minniti, and right here, in Syracuse, the Milan artist painted this wonderful altar piece, probably handed over on 13th December 1608, on the anniversary of the festival of Santa Lucia, patron  of the city. The Seppellimento di Santa Lucia is a pala of large dimensions (408 x 300 centimetres), where the space not occupied by figures is almost two-thirds of the canvas and amplifies the drama which is being carried out.

A dark monochrome, with minimal tonal variations brought about by rare details, its incumbent mass on the small body of the Martyr, touched by a last ray of radiating light. The only colour that stands out is the red of the cape of the figure in the centre of the composition, painful fulcrum of the ancient religious community. Following the precepts expressed by the Concilio (Council) of Trento who, with the subject of sacred images in mind, advised solutions relating to sacred texts and documented historical reality, Caravaggio set the scene in a plausible catacomb space,  inspired by real places visited by him during his stay at Syracuse.

The wonderful painting of Caravaggio is today held, and can be visited, in the Basilica of Santa Lucia al Sepolcro, the same place where, on 13th December of the year 304 A.C., Saint Lucia became a martyr.  After the Constantine peace (Documented in Milan, 313 A.C.), the people of Syracuse built a church dedicated to the martyr and to which, following the destruction caused by Arab domination and various earthquakes, nothing has been added.

The present-day church can be dated back to the Normans who, in the 11th century, liberated Syracuse from Saracen nomination which had lasted for two centuries, re-established the Dioceses and reconstructed the building which housed the memoirs of the martyrdom of the Saint.  The present Basilica is attributed to the reconstruction supported by Gerardo da Lentini in 1100.  Of this period, remains the rose window on the façade, some re-cast arches, the portal with Cordovan-style arch whose structure recalls the Mozarabic style, the three apses and the four large supporting pillars of the dome, which are believed to have already been erected in the 12th century.  According to the people of Syracuse, a column positioned on the right of the presbytery indicates the exact place where the decapitation of S. Lucia happened.

Furthermore, for about a year now it has been possible to visit the catacombs, said to be precisely those of Santa Lucia, under the Basilica.  It must be remembered that, after Rome, Syracuse possesses the largest Early Christian catacomb system.  The catacomb underneath the present S. Lucia piazza (square) comprises a community cemetery and some private hypogeum tombs and crypts,  chronologically ascribable to the 3rd, 4th and 5th centuries.  Inside the cemetery, the spaces reserved for privileged sepulture, or in connection with the burial niche of S. Lucia, have been transformed into loci sancti, sacred devotional places for an extraordinary lengthy period,  with a cycle of frescoes which range from the Byzantine period to the Norman period.

Adjacent to the Basilica, and connected to it by means of a subterranean passage created in the 12th century, is the little Baroque temple which houses the sepulchre or burial ground of the Martyr.  The relics were housed here until 1039 A.C., when, with a quick act of war, the Byzantine general Giorgio Maniace penetrated Syracuse and, after finding the body of S. Lucia, took it to Constantinople as homage to the Empress Theodora.  On finding the body during the 4th Crusade, the Venetians transported it to Venice where it is still to be found today, in the Church of SS. Geremia e Lucia.

To admire the work of Caravaggio and visit the Basilica and the Catacombs of Santa Lucia, on the promontory of Ortigia, an enchanting place included in the UNESCO list of sites declared “World Heritage Sites”, you will find the Alla Giudecca residence, whose origins date back to the 15th century.  Genuine jewel of Baroque architecture, in ancient times the Giudecca was the district where the Jews lived and carried out their commercial activities.  Alla Giudecca is a unique structure of its kind.  The private courtyard with double stone arch which leads to the hotel, houses inside the Miqwè, or the structure, perhaps the most ancient in Europe, where “ablutions”  – the Jewish purification bath ritual – took place.

The hospitality offered in apartments blends the functionality of the residence and the hotel, and allows you to enjoy a holiday in which relaxation and culture blend in perfect harmony.

Another charming place in Ortigia is the Hotel des Etrangers et Miramare.  These two splendid buildings, magnificent and imposing, situated looking out onto Porto Grande and are  connected by a low building, and directly overlook the Passeggio Adorno, while having a lateral view of the great belvedere and the Arethuse Fountain.  The structure has five floors/storeys and has an irregular shape going towards the Piazza Duomo, which respects the ancient design of this medieval city.

The style and design recall a city splendour of the early 20th century, with that typical Neo-Classical Sicilian taste, balconies sweetened by railings of mullions (small stone columns) and wrought-iron, a large imposing main entrance and, inside the hotel, precious marble flooring, walls and ceilings enriched with stuccos and gold frieze decoration.  Illuminated by an antique bronze chandelier, the faces of Jupiter, Medusa, Gelo and Arethusa welcome guests on their arrival.

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