Twenty years ago, Ortigia island was the red light district of Siracusa. Look past the cute, chi-chi boutiques and cafes that are there now and you can see why: it’s all narrow, winding streets and dark corners just made for illicit encounters. Plus, it’s only reachable by bridge from the mainland, so all the shadiness was easily contained. Perfect really.
One teensy problem: Siracusa’s cathedral is also housed on Ortigia.
Imagine: you’re wandering through dim, narrow alleys looking for a good time when suddenly – BAM! – you are ejected without warning into a glowing white ball of light. All the surfaces in Piazza Duomo are made from smooth, creamy-white stone and the sun reflects off Every. Single. One. of them. And right at the centre of this exposed, shining spot is a huge baroque cathedral. This is no place for ladies of the night.
Sunglasses firmly on, I head for the cathedral, which stands on the east side of the square and bundles the whole of the island’s archeological history into one building. Built originally by the Greeks as a temple to Athena, the columns were later incorporated into a Byzantine church. Later still, the Normans came along and decided to add internal walls and decorative mosaics. Finally, after the disastrous earthquake of 1693 which destroyed large portions of Sicily, the baroque frontage was added and the cathedral as it appears today was finished.
What results is a triumph of old, older and ancient working together. Walking inside, out of the beating sunlight that reflects off the huge, curlicued baroque frontage, I find the natural, rough-hewn beauty of the Norman interior both unexpected and calming. The edges of the Greek columns are soft and blurry, contrasting with the solid, angular walls that have been built between them. There is only a little evidence left of the Norman mosaics, so all grandeur is left to the baroque elements of the church. True to form, these are an extravaganza of gold leaf, wrought iron and candles. It should be a hot mess of bodged styles, but the contrasts only add to its beauty. Maybe it’s to do with the fact that the new has expanded on, rather than cover over, the old. The baroque altar, for example, was made from a stone which originated in the architrave of the Greek temple, and statues stand in the natural alcoves formed by the blocking in of the spaces in between the Greek columns. Whatever it is, it works. This is a peaceful, beautiful place to be.
After the cool of the cathedral, going back out into the focused heat of Piazza Minerva is a rude shock. I have the uncomfortable awareness of how slugs might have felt when I used to put them on the garden path at my granny’s house and train a magnifying glass on them. Y’know – melty. And blinded. Which is appropriate given that – apart from the cathedral – one of the attractions of this square is the Chiesa di Santa Lucia alla Badia.
Why appropriate? Well, the name Lucia comes from the latin for light. And Santa Lucia met a gruesome end, with some stories saying that her eyes were forcibly removed from her head. With forks. Yes, really. This after being sentenced to be defiled in a brothel for being a Christian, and stabbed through the throat. All things considered, feeling like a dissolving slug seems like the easy option. I brave the beating heat and cross the square towards the church.
Like the cathedral, the frontage is baroque and glowing white in the sun. Also like the cathedral, the most interesting part is inside. Quite unexpectedly, there’s a Caravaggio in there. I know! Not only is there dodgy human and varied archeological history, but there’s fine art, too. Ortigia’s got it all.
Caravaggio was something of a naughty boy. He even managed to garner a death sentence from the Pope. As you would if that happened to you, he went on the run from Rome and ended up in Malta. He clearly didn’t find it exciting enough there, and ended up getting into a brawl which resulted in him having to leave Malta as well. Where to go now? Well, turns out he had a mate in Siracusa, so off he galloped, and proceeded to spend some time in exile on Ortigia, and gallivanting around Sicily generally. He may have been a bad boy, but he was an extremely talented one, so the Siracusani decided to make use of the fact that he was there and commissioned him to do an altar painting to honour their patron Saint, Lucia.
The focus in the church is the painting, which hangs centre back, above the altar, taking up most of the width of the building. This is less a church than an art gallery, and it’s a crumbling one at that. Paint peels from the walls and there are holes in the plaster. At some point in recent history plug sockets and light switches have been chased haphazardly into the walls. They stick out as oddities in what is still – just about – a sacred place. Cameras? Heaven forfend! Even the merest hint of some sneaky photography and the wardens swoop on the offender, scolding and reprimanding. Shorts and strappy vests are fine, though, despite being officially forbidden according to the signs outside.
From the viewer’s perspective, not being allowed to take photos is a good thing. Why? Because it forces you to take notice of the picture. To really look at it and notice the details. Rather than choose to paint her death, as many other painters had done already, Caravaggio decided to depict Santa Lucia’s burial. Who is most interesting at a burial? It’s not the dead body – which, after all, isn’t going anywhere – it’s the living people charged with caring for that body. The focus of the painting is therefore Lucia’s two gravediggers, who stand out at the front of the picture. Caravaggio has painted them larger and in paler colours than the crowd behind them, who disappear back into darkness in his signature chiaroscuro style. Lucia, meanwhile, slumps at the bottom of the picture, as the church dedicated to her memory crumbles around her. Moral of the story? Saintliness is laudable, but being bad’s where the money’s at.