Monumental historical guide of the Ionian area of Etna



In the Etna hinterland there are some monuments of the Byzantine era. They are known by a small circle of scholars of homeland history and people sensitive to artistic and historical values. Writings have been dedicated to each of the monuments, on the occasion of their discovery or as heritage of a territory, sometimes they are named in the widest contexts. Presented separately as part of the historical cultural heritage of the various countries without reference to other similar monuments of the other places and wider historical contexts, they fail to provide us with important information from past eras. The precarious conditions, often of total abandonment, in which they have come down to the present day often contribute to diminishing their evocative power.

The purpose of this monumental historical guide BYZANTINE ITINERARY lies precisely in the presentation of a set of monuments of the Etna area of ​​the Province of Catania that refer to the Byzantine civilization, seen in the context of the history of the island and the Byzantine world.

Presenting the few surviving monuments together is an attempt to put some pieces of a large and articulated panoramic painting in their place.

The awareness of the value of these monuments can allow their inclusion in the circuit of cultural use (including school training) and tourism also due to the involvement of certain expenses for recovery.

One of the aims is to create conditions and pretexts for studies aimed at enriching the tools of knowledge of heritage, individual research by scholars, degree theses, cultural encounters and cultural exchanges with other realities.


Therefore, the purpose of this guide is above all to promote knowledge of what has been and still exists, to underline the importance and value of the surviving monuments. The way of their recovery, the inclusion, where possible, in the tourist circuit, passes through the awareness of the historical and cultural value by the communities where these monuments are located. Thus they can become targets of interest for the local communities and for tourists.

      The object of this guide are the ruins of the Byzantine churches of Dagala di Santa Venerina, of the Alcantara valley, the Bonaiuto Chapel of Catania, restored and included in the cultural and tourist circuit, the frescoes of Nunziatella di Nunziata di Mascali and the image of the Virgin of the Sanctuary of Vena, as well as the lost frescoes of the Church of the Agatòi in Randazzo.

The historical face of Sicily has many expressions. One of them is Byzantine. For many centuries of the Christian era the island was closer to Constantinople than to Rome. Here Greek was spoken, the churches practiced the Greek rite and the monasteries were Basilians. A long line of saints gave this Byzantine land, the bishops attended the Eastern councils and some arrived patriarchs. So much was the Byzantine Sicily that the Emperor Constant II made Syracuse the seat of the court of the Eastern Roman Empire. The following centuries have largely canceled the legacy of the Byzantine civilization of Sicily. The Greek language has disappeared along with the Basilian monasteries. The churches have been in ruins, the remaining ones have undergone transformations and modifications until all traces of their original appearance are lost. Memory has been lost in the archives, many of them lost. This oblivion with which history repays past times is not absolute. Universally known monuments are found in Sicily in Cefalù, Palermo and Monreale. A multitude of remnants of architectural structures is scattered throughout the island. Numerous studies have been carried out with the aim of shedding light on past history and on the historical and artistic heritage it has left us.

                                      Sicily and Byzantium

With the term "Byzantine" we define everything connected with Eastern Greek Christianity. The Byzantines in their long history of more than a thousand years have always believed and called themselves Romans. In the West, to underline the Eastern Greek nature of that civilization, they called them "Byzantines" long after the disappearance of the Eastern Roman Empire, with the name of the ancient Greek city Byzantium on which place Constantine the Great built the new capital of the Roman Empire. The Orthodox countries have welcomed the spirit and the legacy of Constantinople, perpetuating the Byzantine civilization, even in local expressions, after the fall of the Eastern Roman Empire, they have in common the central element, attributable to the Byzantine universe, the Greek rite and the art of icons. 

            With the concept of Byzantine Sicily we connect a period that goes from the sixth century to the twelfth, a period in which the Byzantine element is consolidated, has its troubled path during the wars for the icons, the invasion and the Arab occupation and finally affirms in its most complete form under the Normans.

On the artistic level there are no characteristic differences between the West and the East in the first centuries of the Christian era. The Roman basilica was adopted as an architectural solution for places of worship. Figurative art takes its starting point in Roman imperial art. Using the ancient pagan iconographic schemes, Christian art encodes new meanings and makes changes to the plastic language, such as the renunciation of perspective. Important stylistic and iconographic influences come from Syria, Palestine, Capadocia; they joined the Hellenistic element of Greece and formed the Byzantine form of expression. Starting from the 5th century in the East the church building tends to take the shape of a Greek cross, with four equal embers, surmounted by a dome. The pictorial decoration is seen more on the level of liturgy and Christian symbolism, closer to theological thought than the fruit of the artist's imagination. In liturgical practice, a rite different from the Latin one is affirmed, the Greek rite.

    The church building, the liturgical decoration and the Greek rite are the main elements of the nascent Byzantine civilization. We must add Eastern monasticism observing the rule of St. Basil. Monasticism is the vehicle and environment in which Byzantine influence is realized. The first monasteries in Sicily that history knows with certainty date back to the 6th century. We do not know which rule they observed, even if the monasteries founded by Gregory the Great (six) we assume that they were Benedictine since Gregory the Great himself came from a Benedictine monastery. Although conquered by the Byzantines in the early sixth century, the Sicilian Church depended on Rome.

The Byzantineization of Sicily took place not as a result of the conquest by the Eastern Empire, but as a consequence of the influx of religious from North Africa and the Middle East during the Persian conquests and the Arab advance. A gradual passage from the Latin rite to the Gecko rite has begun. At the end of the 7th century Sicily was fully Byzantine, despite being under the Roman ecclesiastical jurisdiction (the passage under the jurisdiction of the patriarchate of Constantinople took place in 732 under Leo III Isauric). In this period Sicily experienced a great cultural and religious explosion whose effects determined the identity of the island in the following centuries. Between 678 and 701 Sicily gave four popes, all of oriental origin. Another Sicilian pope, Stephen III, he was elected pope in the second half of the eighth century. Sicily also gave two patriarchs of Antioch and one of Constantinople. A long line of theologians, poets, hymnographers and saints marked the era.

A series of Byzantine monuments can be ascribed to the first Byzantine period, that is, from the affirmation of the Orientals in Sicily from the second quarter of the 7th century to the Arab conquest, some present in the Etna hinterland. During the Arab occupation it is difficult to think of the construction of religious buildings, but it is certain that despite all the vicissitudes of the time the Christian element in its Eastern Greek expression survived until the arrival of the Normans.

The Norman era represents the second phase of Byzantine Sicily, precisely because in this period Byzantine art assumed the highest expressions. 

The scholars of Byzantine architecture in Sicily note the diversity of construction forms, characteristic for all eras. Next to the trefoil shape is the basilica. The basilica is the first Christian church form; many churches of the beginning of the Byzantine period in Sicily have exactly this shape, for example the churches in the Imbischi and Jannuzzo di Randazzo districts, which date back to the early Byzantine period. The Norman princes, with all the respect they have shown for the Basilian monasteries and for Byzantine art, bring the basilica form back to Sicily.

From the end of the 11th century and throughout the following century, the Basilian monasteries of Sicily experienced their maximum splendor. Backed by Norman princes, the old monasteries were rebuilt and others new founded. It was the century of Byzantine classicism and Sicilian churches benefited fully. The most significant results, the mosaics of Cefalù, Palermo and Monreale are universally known. But the small parish churches and monasteries also benefited. In the latter, instead of the mosaic, the fresco was used for reasons of relatively low cost, but no less valid artistically. On the contrary, Byzantine art reached the pinnacle of its perfection precisely in painting. Information has come down to the present day on many Basilian monasteries involved in this process of renewal. But we do not find anything concerning the sites presented in our guide. This fact leads us to think that the extent of the phenomenon was much more extensive than we can deduce from the surviving documents. 

       The period of strong advent of the Basilians in Sicily followed a rapid decline, both because the support from the Norman princes to the Basilian monasteries was disproportionate to the real needs, and because Sicily began to acquire its Latin face, the Basilian monasteries declined for lack of monks. With the disappearance of the Basilian monks and the transition to the Latin rite, the Greek form of the paintings became foreign and little felt by the Latin monks who took their inspiration not from Constantinople, but from the nascent Italian tradition, which, although linked to the Byzantine forms, carried another spirit, more human, closer to palpable reality. Despite the decisive change, local creativity suffered from the Byzantine heritage for centuries later.