The Benedictine Monastery of Catania is a jewel of the late Sicilian Baroque. A Cassinese congregation founded the complex in 1558. The original structure was modified by two natural calamities the lava eruption of 1669 and the earthquake of 1693. It was destroyed and re-built and it is now an example of the integration of different historical periods. Visiting it, you can see the changes due to the lava eruption and the earthquake, but also to the civil uses to which it was destined after the Italian Unification.
The first Monastery had a square floor plan with a cloister in the middle, called the “marble cloister” (renamed Western cloister) because of the presence of a refined colonnade from the XVIII century and a four-leaved clover shaped fountain in the middle with elegant decorations typical of the Renaissance period both made with precious marble from Carrara.
The lava eruption of 1669 and the catastrophic earthquake of 1693 marked the destiny of Catania during the XVII century.
On March 8, 1669 the Volcano Etna exploded, at the end of April, the lava flow reached the city walls, the monastery was saved, but not the Church attached to it, which was completely destroyed by the lava, leaving behind a lunar landscape.
Eighteen years after the eruption, in 1687, the reconstruction of the Church started, probably based on a project of the roman architect Contini.
In the night between the 10th and 11th of January of 1693 the city of Catania was shacked. The earthquake of 1693 was one of the most devastating catastrophes in Eastern Sicily. According to researchers, the earthquake reached a magnitude of 7,7 degrees on the Richter scale. The day after the earthquake, the city was destroyed and most of the citizens were buried under the ruins.
The basement and part of the first floor of the Monastery , were still safe. Only 14 columns of the cloister were still standing, the others were destroyed.
In 1702, nine years after the earthquake, the reconstruction of the monastery started. On top of the lava ‘wall’, were built two gardens: the botanical garden – the wonders garden – and the novices’ garden. The church of San Nicolò l’Arena was conceived as a small Sicilian Saint Peter, but its facade remained unfinished. Extended and enriched with decorations, the monastery became one of the biggest in Europe, following the other Benedictine Monastery of Mafra in Portugal.
Various famous Sicilian architects took part in the reconstruction: Ittar, Battaglia, Battaglia Santangelo, and Palazzotto. Craftsmen came from various Sicilian towns: Palermo, Messina, Siracusa. Giovan Battista Vaccarini
In 1866, the state confiscated the Benedictine Monastery, which passed under the state’s property . From 1868, the monastery was re-used for civil scopes. There were mostly schools, but also a barrack and the Astrophysics laboratory with the laboratory of meteorology and geodynamics. These new uses caused a deep and, sometimes, irreversible change of the monastery structure. Most of the frescos were cancelled, the corridors were divided, and other divisions added to create offices, training rooms, and toilets
In 1977, within a project of regeneration of the historical centre of the town, the Municipality donated the Monastery to the University of Catania that used it for the Faculty of Humanities. The architect Giancarlo De Carlo supervised the restoration works that brought to the recognition of the value of the monastery as an example of Contemporary Architecture from the Sicilian Regional Government.
In 2002, UNESCO included the monastery, together with other sites representative of the late Baroque of South-Eastern Sicily, in the World Heritage List.
The restoration of the Monastery lasted thirty years and has led to the discovery of the history of the town from the Roman period to the present day. An entire Roman neighbourhood with the two main axes the Cardum and the Decumanus Maximus, houses of the late Hellenistic and imperial time has been found under the monastery. It is possible to see the remains in the main court and under what used to be the stables of the monastery (where now are the classrooms of the faculty). In particular, a domus (Roman house) with its peristilio (court) is still visible within the university library, perfectly integrated in the structure of the 16th century monastery and in the contemporary ‘hanging’ structures that allow students to access and use this space.
Using architect De Carlo words, today the monastery, “with its real structure, of a three-dimensional space, has character of a place where young people move from one point to the other: a place full of air, light, communication, expectations and promises. Through different readings of the place and tentative projects the old meanings have been substituted by a new one that allows the old architecture to get a new structure, and an important role for the contemporary world”.