Syracuse: Rival to Athens

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Piazza Duomo; images by Suzanne and Andrew Edwards

The name Syracuse is synonymous with antiquity, its syllables encapsulating the heart of ancient Greece, yet it nestles in the southeast corner of Sicily, on the Ionian coastline.

Straddling an islet known as Ortygia and the mainland beyond, Syracuse is a golden destination. Its honeycomb stone reflects the brilliance of Sicilian light, but the city’s true eternal glow comes from its living relationship with the past. Few places have so beautifully enfolded their ancient heritage, both artistically and literally. The Siracusa of modern-day Sicily truly owes its roots to Magna Grecia, that expansion of Greek city-states beyond the confines of the Greek archipelago.

At its height, Syracuse rivaled Athens in terms of power and cultural dominance. It attracted the greats of Greek letters and thought, from Pindar the poet, and Aeschylus the playwright, to the pioneering proto-scientist of Eureka fame, Archimedes. Such intellectual rigor wasn’t always reflected in the quality of its rulers, but the combination of tyrannical power and educational achievement gave rise to some superlative manifestations of civic construction.

Architectural Harmony

The best place to start any walking tour is the grand drawing room, otherwise known as Piazza Duomo. The cathedral, or duomo, that gives the square its name, is the town’s supreme example of harmonious architectural fusion. History is littered with the clash of religions and the hydra-like hybrids that result from subsequent building reuse – the Cordoban Mezquita and Charles V’s palace in the Alhambra are two notable examples. Few redesigns have had such uplifting results as the Syracusan duomo. The pillars of a Grecian temple have been beautifully and unobtrusively housed within Christianity’s outer shell.

Ear of Dionysius

Ear of Dionysius

At the far end of the square is the Church of Santa Lucia, an attractive edifice, but truly remarkable for the painting over its altar, The Burial of St. Lucy, by none other than Michelangelo Merisi, more commonly known as Caravaggio. The massive canvas has Caravaggio’s characteristic chiaroscuro, the play of light and shadow that so strikingly fits this Sicilian setting. Nevertheless, the work seems to betray something of his brief stop while on the run following a duel gone murderously wrong in Rome –– the background is sketchy and lacks the definite touch seen in some of his other work.

Inspired by Myth

The alleyway leading down from the church finishes above the circular pond known as the Fonte di Aretusa, Arethusa’s Fountain. Like so much of Syracuse, its origins belong to myth, the clue being found in the name Arethusa. Legend recites the eponymous nymph escaping from the river god Alpheus via an underground water source that surfaced on the island of Ortygia, at this very spot. From Virgil to Ovid and Shelley to Coleridge, poets have not been able to free themselves from Arethusa’s advances.

Beyond the spring is the Castel Maniace, a fortress built by Frederick II (Wonder of the World) and enhanced by the Aragonese and Bourbon Spanish. The castle represents the furthest point on the island of Ortygia. The Ancients stopped at Neapolis, their New Town. The remains are more prosaically enfolded by ring roads than the intricate precincts of Ortygia but, once again, the Syracusans have managed to allow their ruins space to bask under the millennial sun, surrounded yet unbowed by modernity.

Theatrical Gem

Syracuse’s magnificent Greek theater saw Aeschylan premieres and, true to its roots, is still home to seasonal performances of the Classics. It also provides a remarkable backdrop for the arias of some of Italy’s finest opera composers, performed by the likes of Andrea Bocelli.

A literal stone’s throw from the rocky upper circle is the quarry complex that contributed its mineral wealth to all these feats of antiquity. Known as the Latomie, the quarries were used as a prison, where thousands died agonizing deaths. The Latomie also bear the marks of the workmen and slaves who hacked the rock from the cliff faces. The so-called Ear of Dionysius is one such location. Originally carved out as a water storage area, it was then used to corral political prisoners. The painter, Caravaggio, coined the term, Ear of Dionysius, as his artistic eye was convinced of the lobe-like shape of the entrance. The acoustic funneling effects of the cave were, supposedly, used by the tyrant Dionysius as a way of eavesdropping on potential conspiracy.

From this brutal zenith, Syracuse declined over the centuries, to such an extent that Patrick Brydone on his 18th century travels struggled to find accommodation. Washington Irving, the writer of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, was similarly disillusioned. Modern Syracuse has finally awoken to its potential, embracing the past with a respectful eye on antiquity’s relationship to the future.