Earlier this month, I spent a week working with Clear Sicily – a company focused on supporting small businesses and giving tourists more access to the Italian island’s treasures. As I shared in my last post about Mount Etna, I cannot come to Sicily without reflecting on the power of this fiesty volcano. During my time working with Clear Sicily, I was given a closer look into the impact of Etna’s epic eruption in 1669 through some surprising experiences that I think curious travelers, history buffs, and closet geologists would enjoy, too!
WHEN LAVA MEETS MONKS
On a blue-sky day, I walked up the streets of Catania with Alessandro Costa, the founder of Clear Sicily. We approached an ancient cathedral that looked like it had been chopped in half, and then passed through the gated wall of a large, Baroque building. We had stepped onto the grounds of the impressive Benedictine Monastery of San Nicolò (Monastero dei Benedettini di San Nicolò l’Arena). Upon our arrival, we met Francesco Mannino and Nicola Caruso of Officine Culurali, an organization that gives tours and coordinates social and educational programs at the monastery. After some business talk, Nicola graciously offered to show Alessandro and me around this fascinating Sicilian landmark.
Founded in 1500, the Monastery of San Nicolò is one of the largest Benedictine monasteries in Europe, and it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. After intensive restoration efforts, the Monastery continues to buzz with activity, as it has become home to the Department of Humanities of the University of Catania.
As we passed through stately hallways and delicate courtyards, I was pleasantly surprised by the tour of the Monastery. I enjoyed observing the different architectural styles that marked each era of expansion for the wealthy institution. Yet, what I found even more amazing was the evidence of the 1669 eruptions of Mount Etna.
The monks worked hard to protect their massive monastery from complete destruction by the lava as it slogged its way from Nicolosi to Catania. They participated in Catania’s citywide efforts to reroute the river of molten material – the first successful attempt to do such a thing in recorded history, by the way. Some of their protective walls actually held back the lava from melting their beloved building; although, they did lose part of a chapel. Then, in the centuries following that natural catastrophe, the Benedictine monks continued to build around and on top of the lava, using the invasive material to their advantage after a narrow escape, which visitors can see in the underground kitchen cellar.
The Monastery of San Nicolò is one of Catania’s most interesting attractions – for international travelers and Siclians, too! I was extremely thankful for the invitation from Officine Culturali to visit the Monastery, and I believe it’s one of Catania’s Must See locations. Check it out next time you’re on Sicily’s east coast!
Unlike the monks of the Benedictine Monastery in Catania, not all Sicilians were able to avoid total destruction in 1669. Situated on the mountain’s southern slope, the town of Misterbianco was directly in the path of the river of lava, an unstoppable force that swallowed the city and drove thousands from their homes.
In fact, that monumental tragedy still resonates within the hearts of the residents of Misterbianco. Every second week of September, they commemorate that fated migration of their ancestors with a five-day celebration and a memorial walk along the same route of those who fled from the encroaching lava. It is a part of their history, their heritage, and the smoking volcano in the distance will not allow them to forget it.
One hazy April morning, Alessandro and I met Angela Aiello, a member representative of the Foundation Monasterium Album, to visit Campanarazzu. We drove through the narrow and winding roads before pulling off on a gravel path a few kilometers past new Misterbianco. With a few turns of the tires, we arrived at an excavation site atop a small hill that overlooked the entire region. Domenico Murabito was waiting for us, and amidst a flurry of Italian between my three Sicilian companions, I came to understand that we were standing in – or rather above – the medieval city center of old Misterbianco. Down the hill from our parked cars was a building half buried in lava rock.
Well, I thought to myself, that’s not something you see everyday.
The Antica Chiesa Madre is a church dating back from Renaissance and Gothic times. It is a rarity in Sicily, which has lost many buildings from that era after the massive earthquake of 1693. Strangely and miraculously, much of the chiesa survived the earthquake… but only because it was first enveloped in Etna’s lava.
With the 1669 Etna Eruptions, the church was surrounded by the crushing lava. Some of the walls withstood the high pressure and temperatures, but eventually, the building succumbed to the volcano’s wrath. In a way that I still don’t really understand (probably because it was explained to me in Italian), a portion of the church and many of its finely carved features survived, dare I say, miraculously. Decorative cherubs and colonnades, arches and altars, blue tiles and grave markings – all of these incredible details were persevered under the lava rock for over 300 years.
In 2009, the Foundation began a massive excavation project to unearth and rebuild the church. Although the job is not quite complete, a walk through this restored sanctuary is an awe-inspiring experience. I am so thankful to Angela and Dominico for this special treat, which extremely satisfied the archeologist and historian in me. If you are interested in a private tour of this unique space, contact Angela directly.
When I first teamed up with Clear Sicily, I had no idea that I would become a witness to Mount Etna’s historic impact on Sicilian life and history, and I was extremely impressed by these two landmarks. The Benedictine Monastery of San Nicolò in Catania and the Antica Chiesa Madre of Misterbianco have a shared history: neither could escape the wrath of Mount Etna, but the layers of their stories are being peeled away for visitors to discover Sicily’s own legacy of lava.
Ciao! Did you know that Sicily had such an explosive heritage? Have you ever been completely surprised by a special location on your travels? Does your hometown have a link to past natural disasters that still impacts your community?