A massive earthquake struck the eastern side of Sicily on 9 January 1693, only to be followed by an even more powerful shock just two days later. With an estimated magnitude of 7.4, it was the most powerful upheaval in Italian history, and destroyed at least 70 Sicilian towns and cities over 5,600 square kilometres. The ensuing tsunamis wreaked havoc all along the eastern seaboard: nearly two-thirds of the population of Catania and half the population of Ragusa were killed, and the Viceroy of Sicily – the Duke of Uzeda – put the Sicilian nobleman, Giuseppe Lanza (the Duke of Camastra) in charge of relief efforts. Food and forces were dispatched, the first priority to stop looting and restore public safety and order. Temporary shelters were built outside the city walls away from the rotting bodies; taxation was suspended.
The marshalling of resources
In an extraordinary civil effort, each city marshalled its resources, with the remaining aristocracy and the church forming commissions to oversee reconstruction. Camastra tried to encourage cities to rebuild in a more open, grid-like pattern, which by keeping corridors open and reducing population density might mitigate against the effects of any further earthquakes. In the end, some cities such as Catania adopted the new ideas, while others such as Siracusa rebuilt on the old medieval street plan. Some towns, like Noto, took the opportunity to rebuild on a completely new site. In the new towns, the aristocracy were allocated the higher areas where the air was cooler and fresher, and the views finest. The church was relocated to the town centre, both for convenience and to reflect the its central position in civil life. The merchants and storekeepers chose their lots on the planned wider streets that lead out from the main piazzas. Finally, the poor were allowed to erect their simple brick huts and houses in the areas nobody else wanted.
The sheer scale of the rebuilding project generated a wave of harmonious construction in which the grander buildings, public offices, churches and palazzi were created in the Baroque style and embellished with intricate stone carvings that cast sharp patterns of light and shade on the building façades. With time, after the first imperative to build had subsided, Sicilian architects began to stamp their own flourishes on the Baroque, incorporating local volcanic stone and accents of grey and black into the rose-white of the local limestone.
Canted corners and convex or concave façades were created, sometimes sheltering a staircase; exteriors were decorated with sinuous, wrought-iron balconies, supported on richly carved, often grotesque pedestals. In the churches, and breaking with the Tuscan tradition of housing the bell tower in an independent campanile, the belfry was incorporated into the façade, often in an arcaded housing that displayed a run of bells. Some references to the restrained tradition of the island’s Norman heritage were also preserved, especially in the use of single columns that supported plain arches in the interiors – a lovely contrast to the rich inlay of coloured marbles that decorated walls and floors. This style was adopted right across the island, not just in the eastern corner but also in cities like Palermo. All of this gradually came together to bring about the flowering of the magnificent Sicilian Baroque that we can witness and admire today.