Archivi categoria: Italy


Photos and text by Fabrizio Fiorenzano

We walk through on one of Sicily’s most beautiful Baroque cities.

When I heard that the city of Noto was nicknamed “the stone garden” by Cesare Brandi, one of Italy greatest art experts and historians, I asked myself how the words “stone” and “garden” could be uttered in the same breath. To find out, I decided to go there in person and have a look.

Noto overview
View of Noto from San Carlo Borromeo Church

Let us start by saying that in Sicily the effects of colonisation have always been an integral part of the identity of that marvellous region and far and wide you notice that many places still preserve elegant traces of their Roman, Greek and Arab heritage.

Noto Basilica San Domenico
Basilica San Domenico con Fontana d’Ercole

During its history, Sicily was colonised by the Romans, the Greeks and the Byzantines, then conquered by the barbarians. The it became an Arab emirate, a Norman dukedom, ruled by the Angevins, ceded to Spain, then to the Bourbons from Naples and finally, in 1860, became part of the Kingdom of Italy.
As a result of the this, the Sicilians have absorbed many cultures, which can be clearly seen in the great variety of architectural styles.

These can be seen to good effect in the Val di Noto, an extensive area in the south-east of the island which contains eight important towns in the provinces of Catania and Syracuse: Catltagirone, Catania, Militello in Val di Catania, Modica, Palazzolo Acreide, Ragusa Ibla, Scicli and our centre of interest, Noto.

Detail Palazzo Nicolaci Noto
Detail Palazzo Nicolaci


Noto is one of Sicily’s most beautiful cities, 32 kilometres from Syracuse and was reborn – yes, it is fair to say reborn – after the earthquake of 1693 which razed Noto to its foundations. It is also fair to say that this great tragedy resulted in the present jewel of the city, perched on a rocky plateau dominating the valley of the Asinaro. The new Noto developed a wholly European style of architecture, characterised by its curved lines and buildings which are quite showy but at the same time finely decorated. It is a sunny and florid style, making good use of the pink and golden stone used in the reconstruction.

Sicilian baroque.Palazzo Nicolaci balcony Noto
Sicilian baroque.
Palazzo Nicolaci balcony

This style, breaking with the past. Has become known as Sicilian Baroque, elegantly ostentatious but pleasing and unique of its type. Noto is without doubt the capital of Sicilian Baroque, seen in its churches, theatres, historic palazzi and many ordinary homes.
Many Sicilian artists, many of whom had studied in Rome, contributed to the reconstruction of the city, including Paolo Labilli. But at the time the most eclectic and creative architects of Sicilian Baroque were undoubtedly Rosario Gagliardi and Vincenzo Sinatra, who designed Noto’s finest buildings.

Porta Reale – Gate of Noto


We enter the city through the Porta Reale and reach the centre. The gate, built in the 19th century, forms an imposing entrance in the form of a triumphal arch. It is surmounted by a pelican, the symbol of the city’s rejection of King Ferdinand.
The new layout of the city is focused on a single main street, Corso Vittorio Emanuele III, which divides Noto in two. It is lined with fights of steps, alleys and squares, each with at least one Baroque church. The first square we encounter is Piazza Immacolata with its Church of St. Francis by Vincenzo Sinatra. The church contains very ancient relics from the former Franciscan church, such as the wooden Virgin and Child (1564) and the stone tomb of a Franciscan friar, Giuseppe Bonasia (1575). Close by stands the Monastery of the Holy Saviour with its elegant tower.
A little further on is Piazza Municipio with its Cathedral of St. Nicholas. Unfortunately, in 1996 the dome of the building partially collapsed and reconstruction work has taken years. Then cathedral is flanked by the Bishop’s Palace and the palazzo Landolina of Sant’Alfano wich, unlike the sumptuous and solemn Baroque of the cathedral, is built in an altogether more sober and less exuberant style.

Colonne San Carlo Borromeo. Ordine inferiore

Also in Piazza Municipio is the magnificent Palazzo Ducezio (Sinatra-1748), now the Town Hall. It is notable for the harmony of its two colonnades and 18th –century portico. The interior is rich with gold and stucco, while the ceiling celebrates Ducezio, the King of the Siculi was who founded Neas, the ancient Noto. The square also contains one of the city’s most prestigious religious buildings, the Church of the Holy Saviour. Built in the 18th century, it stands out for its elaborate Baroque work-manship which culminates in the Belvedere Tower.
Continuing along the main street, we arrive at via Nicolaci, one of Noto’s most famous streets. Facing it is another fine example of architectural beauty, the Church of St. Carlo Borromeo (1730).


Palazzo Nicolaci “Il salone delle feste”

Via Nicolaci contains one of the most important, if not the most important, of Noto’s noble palazzi: Palazzo Nicolaci del Principe di Villadorata. The building was commissioned by the noble Don Giacomo Nicolaci entrusted its construction to Sinatra.

Palazzo Nicolaci “Il salone delle feste”

Its main interest lies in the wealth of pure Baroque sculptures which grace the six main balconies, often cited as the most beautiful balconies in the world.
Angels, winged knights, sirens, grotesques, centaurs, griffins, sphinxes and other symbols amaze us for the painstaking skill with which they were carved. The palazzo contains 90 rooms, the most interesting being the three main saloons – yellow, red and green, all beautifully frescoed. Of particular note is the great reception hall, its ceiling decorated with mythological scenes and symbolic subjects depicting some of

Giacomo Nicolaci’s pastimes. One wing of the building now houses the Municipal Library. One of the many necessary works to be carried out during the reconstruction of the city was for a new theatre, which at first occupied a wing of the Palazzo Ducezio. But in 1851, the lack of a proper theatre persuaded the major of the time, Cavalier di Lorenzo, to order the construction of the present municipal theatre, named after Vittorio Emanuele III. The work took many years and the citizens of Noto also contributed to its construction. He façade is decorated with symbolic statues and bas-reliefs on a musical theme. The theatre was finally inaugurated on the 4th December 1870 with appropriately solemn ceremony.


Basilica San Domenico

Next we come to piazza XVI Maggio, containing Noto’s piece de resistance, the spectacular, possibly unique. Basilica of St. Dominic (Rosario Gagliardi, 1737). This architectural masterpiece has a sober, convex façade and is without doubt the highest expression of Sicilian Baroque. If you are lucky enough to see it in the early evening, when the sun has lost some of its power, the wonderful plays of light generated by the golden reflections and chiaroscuri effects will take your breath away. Inside, the high altar is embellished with red and white marble and an 18th-century ciborium in gilled wood, enclosing a Virgin and Child.
Also in piazza XVI Maggio, in a small park facing the church, is the Fountain of Hercules, an imposing 18th-century marble structure portraying the mythical hero. I have to say that the Basilica of St. Dominic is one of the most beautiful buildings I have ever seen in my life.
The Baroque mood of Noto has given rise to many popular events, such as the infiorata, celebrated on the third Sunday in May each year in via Nicolaci to celebrate the Baroque Spring.
Artists lay out a spectacular carpet of flower petals, covering the whole street. Each year there are different themes: religious, mythological, culture and popular tradition, accompanied by musical and folklore events which take place in the city’s churches and streets.

Internal courtyard Palazzo Nicolaci

Another popular event is the Baroque Parade, a fascinating representation of Noto society in the 18th century. A costume parade through the whole city evokes the atmosphere of the time, with wonderfully-choreographed flag throwers, drummers, the banners of the nobility and Noto’s coat of arms.
The “netini” (citizen of Noto) are deeply attached to their city, to its beauty and traditions and it is no coincidence that in 2002 Noto became a UNESCO World Heritage site, recognising its cultural and artistic heritage.
At the end of my visit, I realised that Cesare Brandi’s definition of “the stone garden” was absolutely correct. Such a blend of elegance, skill and architectural masterpieces is difficult to imagine.
But there it is, for you to find in the heart of Sicily.


Photos by Fabrizio Fiorenzano


Photos by Fabrizio Fiorenzano


Photos and text by Fabrizio Fiorenzano

Visiting Venice doesn’t just mean discovering one of the most beautiful cities in the world, unique in its morphology and famous for its lagoon. In Venice you come into direct contact with history in the form of the oldest Jewish ghetto in Europe.

Veneice Jewish ghetto –

Archaeological finds assure that the earliest Jewish settlements in Venice trace back to the fourth century of the Vulgar Era. Jewish people from the east and from transalpine countries gathered in Veneto and, after the discovery of America in 1492, more Jewish people, expelled from Spain and Portugal, started to flock to towns in Veneto such as Treviso, Bassano and Conegliano. From there they gradually moved to Venice where their lives suddenly got more complicated due to the constant alternating between being granted resident permits and being prohibited as dictated by the Serenissima. The influx of people became considerable as the years went by to such an extent that the Republic’s government felt bound to reserve them a specific area; at the same time, they were denied free passage and compelled to stay inside the assigned area.

Venice Jewish ghetto
– A woman observes the headstones in memory of the victims of the nazism
– Una donna osserva le lapidi in memoria dei deportati del nazismo

Thus the first European ghetto was officially created in 1516. It was at first called “Ghetto Nuovo” (New Ghetto) for it was erected close to a new foundry. Then it developed into the “Ghetto Vecchio” (Old Ghetto), this time erected nearby an old foundry. Eventually, in 1633, the “Ghetto Nuovissimo” (Newest Ghetto) appeared.
Maybe not everybody knows that the term Ghetto comes from the Venetian word geto, which indicated a place where metals were smelted.

Veneice Jewish ghetto –
– Ponte del ghetto nuovo
– New gheto bridge

The frustrating segregation status imposed on Jewish people consisted of being compelled to stay inside the ghetto from sunset until dawn. For security reasons the area was locked up using chains at the two gates. Even today traces of the chains’ hinges are visible in the ghetto’s sottoportici (covered walkways). At night the area was patrolled by Christian guards who sailed the channels to prevent any escape while other guards were policing the bridges from the watch-boxes, which today still exist.

Only in 1797 did the segregation end when Napoleon Bonaparte commanded the gates and the chains be knocked down which up until then had symbolized the discrimination. Moreover, Napoleon decreed that Jewish people had the same rights of any other citizen, though this disposition became final only after the Venice annexation to the Italian Kingdom, a fact that is remembered by a structure in the Ghetto Nuovo.

Venice Jewish ghetto –
– Gheto had to remain into the borders, so the people was forced to build the houses, one on the other.
– il ghetto non poteva estendersi in larghezza. Venivano costruiti palazzi alti

The Ghetto is quite a small district where proof of the various ethnic groups that have lived there over the last centuries, including Germans, Spanish and Italians, is still evident.
The first thing that strikes the visitor’s attention is the presence of the “tower blocks.” They are broken-down buildings so-called because they are the highest buildings in Venice, reaching up to seven floors. Since Jewish people weren’t allowed to dwell outside the ghetto, they had to increase the height, building floor upon floor to deal with their overpopulation.

Jewish people were allowed to do few jobs; they could be doctors, since they were skilled and versed in that field, traders, rag sellers or, more importantly, money lenders. Venetian citizens were indeed forbidden to exercise that activity for religious reasons. According to the Catholic Church, to gain a profit from lending money was immoral.

Venice Jewish ghetto
– main square
– piazza centrale

In that regard, signs of some Pawn Shops owned by Jewish people still exist. These were agencies where people in need of money would go to get a loan, leaving as a deposit some items or, even better, warranties. These loans were to be returned with interest, not always at a reasonable rate. A great number of Venetians recurred to these agencies, and in the Ghetto Nuovo you can still see the closed door of one of these old banks, “Il Banco rosso” (Red Bank). Still existing today are the “midrashim,” workshops or schools where people used to gather to study the Sacred Scriptures.

Veneice Jewish ghetto –
– Ghetto nuovo
– New gheto

In the center of the district, at the “Campo de Gheto Novo” there is a wall on which you can admire some extremely evocative stone plaques in memory of the Nazi genocide’s victims during the Second World War, a must see for anybody who is lucky enough to visit this incredible place.

Still active, there is the Jewish Retirement Home (1890), from where the last Venetian Jews were taken away by the Nazis and sent to death camps. In their memory, on the wall looking onto the square a work by Arbit Blatas is installed, a symbolic piece of barbed wire with the names and ages of the Jews killed by the Germans.

Venice Jewish ghetto
– the old israelitic hospice
– casa israelitica di riposo

Finally, there is a plaque in memory of Giuseppe Jona’s martyrdom, the president of the Jewish community who is remembered for his wonderful heroic act; when asked by the Nazis for the community’s list, he burnt it and killed himself in order not to betray his fellow people.

To have an idea of their great organization, just consider that the five major nationalities in the ghetto self-regulated themselves independently, gathering in self-managed communities, each one with its own administration, jurisdiction and synagogue (Schola). Over the years five main synagogues were erected: the German Great Synagogue (1529), the Canton Synagogue (1531), the Levantine Synagogue (1538), the Spanish Synagogue (1550) and the Italian Synagogue (1575).

Venice Jewish ghetto – Sinagogue

More and more people come here from all over the world to visit these places of worship , two of which are still open to devotees, and the Jewish Museum, a landmark for any visitor or guided tour.
Italian and foreign schools are also getting more and more interested in this place where students can learn about the monuments and expand their educational programs on what Judaism and its religious traditions are about.

Even after all this time the Ghetto of Venice maintains strongly its unquestioning uniqueness. Even if now the Jews living between Venice and Mestre are very few (less than 500), the Jewish community of Venice has preserved in these places its active and fervent cultural activities and, in a way, everything has stayed the same.
You realize straight away that you’re entering a place without an equal anywhere in the world. Nowadays it has become quite a busy part of Venice noticeable for its liveliness.
In recent years the ghetto has flourished in the field of cultural and social activities. In its community center social programs of great interest take place. There’s a school of Jewish culture for children of nursery school age and up to 13 years of age.

Venice Jewish ghetto
– Monument to the victims of the nazism
– Monumento ai perseguitati dai nazisti

The popular “Study Day”, a top-level cultural event, has now been held for over twenty years.
Jewish people from the ghetto feel the strong desire to protect and to bequeath their artistic and cultural traditions with a strong commitment to combating every form of anti-semitic prejudice.

Those who wish to find some refreshment can visit one of the shops selling kosher products. The enjoyable Jewish restaurant Gam Gam under the sottoportico in the Old Ghetto, a pizzeria, a baker’s, a cafeteria and an ice-cream shop all contribute in making this solemn but historical place more welcoming. Historically the concept of persecution and segregation began here and sadly has been handed down over the centuries ending only in more recent years.




Photos by Fabrizio Fiorenzano


Photos by Fabrizio Fiorenzano


Photos by Fabrizio Fiorenzano