On the evening of January 11, 1693, the ground of southeastern Sicily began to shake violently as an earthquake with the maximum rating of XI on the Modified Mercalli Intensity Scale gripped the region for a full four minutes. “It was in this country impossible to keep upon our legs, or in one place on the dancing Earth,” recalls one prominent account.
An eight-metre-high tsunami followed the quake, which had been preceded two days prior by a massive foreshock. The trio of disasters decimated an area the size of Connecticut or half of Qatar. Some 70 cities were destroyed – the regional seat of Catania was levelled, smaller towns like Noto, Avola, Mellili and Ragusa lost their cores and buildings fell as far away as Malta.
Italy’s most powerful-ever earthquake killed as many as 90,000 Sicilians, including two-thirds of Catania's inhabitants. Official documents written in its wake referred to “the city that once was Catania”. Yet the devastation did not last long.
The government, then controlled by the Spanish crown, moved swiftly to begin reconstruction, with the effort placed almost entirely in the hands of Sicilians. Spain’s official representative, the Sicilian Giuseppe Lanza, was given full oversight and worked with a council of nobles and church officials to devise plans for the most devastated cities.
Rather than being sent to Madrid, all taxes collected in the area were given over to rebuilding. To encourage renewal, property prices were cut by a third and building regulations were lifted in Catania and the neighbouring Noto Valley, or Val di Noto. Within weeks, many citizens who had fled returned and built temporary shelters. By late 1694 several homes and shops had been rebuilt and reopened.
The council brought on a few leading lights of the day to advise, such as Flemish architect and engineer Carlos de Grunenberg, but relied primarily on local talent. A great wave of Sicilian engineers, architects, planners and artisans, many trained in Rome, returned to contribute. They embarked on a surge of design and construction that has rarely been matched in post-Renaissance Europe, creating a style all their own, Sicilian Baroque, that added a new flamboyance to the highly decorative form that had emerged a century prior.
Alonzo di Benedetto, thought to have been Catania’s only surviving architect after the quake, oversaw a team that built many of the city’s better-known palaces, or palazzi. Locals such as Rosario Gagliardi, Vincenzo Sinatra, Giovanni Battista Vaccarini, Andrea Palma and Marchese Landolina gained legendary status for their planning, palazzi, facades, and cathedrals in Catania, Ragusa, Noto, Modica, Scicli and beyond. In just over half a century, this tide of Sicilian skill turned tragedy into triumph, transforming their homeland from a place of devastation to one of the continent’s great flowerings of creativity and rebirth.
I had to land somewhere after fleeing the violence in my adopted home of Ukraine, and decided to scratch a long-standing itch and visit the Mediterranean’s largest island. I had not expected to find a lesson here, but taking in the architectural wonders of Catania, Syracuse, and Noto while keeping up with the latest in Ukraine, I couldn’t get it out of my mind.
At first glance, Sicily and Ukraine seem like opposites: Mediterranean openness versus Slavic strength; an arid island and a lush, nearly landlocked nation. Yet both are prisoners of geography, ruled for eons by one more powerful neighbour or another. Both are seen as European satellites, part of the continent’s periphery.
Both were conquered and ruled in the Middle Ages by supposed outsiders: the Aghlabid emirs for Sicily; the Mongols for Ukraine. Both cultures, as a result, today represent something of a melting pot. Ukrainians, for instance, love their rice dish plov, which originated in Central Asia, while Sicilian cuisine is dominated by the pistachios and citrus introduced during the Emirate of Sicily. To top it off, for centuries before Ukraine took the crown, Sicily ranked among the world’s top producers of wheat.
Of course, an earthquake is not a war. One is a natural disaster and the other is man-made, and often comes with much more personalised horror, as appears to be the case in Ukraine, particularly if early reports of war crimes in places like Bucha are accurate. But the devastation Ukraine faces today echoes that of southeastern Sicily way back when.
Hundreds of hospitals and government buildings and more than 1,000 civilian structures have been bombed. Thousands have been killed and vast swathes of major eastern cities, such as Mariupol and Kharkiv, have been razed, as seen in recent satellite images. Mariupol’s mayor said on the weekend that the city will need $10 billion just to rebuild its infrastructure.
As Russian forces withdraw from some areas and negotiations appear to gain momentum, this seems a good time to look ahead. Spring is all about rebirth, particularly when you’re strolling the sun-kissed phoenixes of Noto, Catania, and Syracuse, where architectural glories built three centuries ago are only now getting their due. Unesco handed World Heritage status to Catania’s historic core and the Val di Noto in 2002, and to Syracuse three years later – all largely attributed to the Sicilian Baroque structures built in the wake of the quake.
But long before those honours, the reconstruction drove cultural change and economic growth. The rebuilding in Catania and Val di Noto inspired wealthy Sicilians across the island, notably in Palermo, to have their palaces and districts remade in a similar style. By the late 18th century, Catania had become one of Italy’s most modern cities, a hub for the Sicilian aristocracy and a regular stop for Grand Tour travellers from across the continent.
Tourism is today a crucial source of income for Sicily and the Unesco honours have driven increased tourist arrivals, which hit record numbers in 2007. Following the 2008-9 financial crisis, Sicily’s tourism sector and economy recovered more quickly than the rest of Italy – a testament to the lasting impact of post-quake reconstruction.
Years ago a British journalist described southeastern Sicily’s widely praised post-earthquake reconstruction this way: “The buildings conceived in the wake of this disaster expressed a light-hearted freedom of decoration whose incongruous gaiety was intended, perhaps, to assuage the horror.”
Both of these tragedies left their people wondering if they could ever get their lives back, their pride, not to mention their homes. Yet both can end up as turning points in their history, opportunities to find the strength to build a place worthy of their resilience.
Ukrainians could certainly find much worse ways to assuage their horrors than to rebuild with a commitment and a creativity that sparks a national rebirth.