A sumptuous and opulent town in the Val di Noto, Scicli (in the province of Ragusa) is a must-see item on a trip to discover Baroque Sicily.
Set at the junction of three valleys just a few kilometres from the sea, the medieval layout of its neighbourhoods is dense with pink houses kissed by the warm sun.
The nativity scene city, with its historic centre, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site along with seven other municipalities in the Val di Noto: its historic centre is an expression of the creative genius of the late Baroque age, the result of 18th-century reconstruction following the disastrous earthquake of 1693 that razed the entire city to the ground. In his book "Le città del mondo" – Cities of the world, the famous writer Elio Vittorini described Scicli as perhaps the most beautiful city in the world.
Via Francesco Mormino Penna, considered one of the most beautiful streets in Sicily, is a unique scenographic ensemble of 18th-century aristocratic buildings (Palazzo Spadaro, Palazzo Bonelli, Palazzo Conti, Palazzo Porcelli-Battaglia-Sgarlata-Veneziano, Palazzo Papaleo, Palazzo Carpentieri, Palazzo di Città, Palazzo Donzelli-Iacono) and late Baroque ecclesiastical architecture in local gilded stone (Church of San Giovanni Evangelista, Church of San Michele, Church of Santa Teresa).
Palazzo Beneventano was described by the English art historian Anthony Blunt as the most beautiful Baroque palazzo in Sicily, famous for its masks with Moorish heads.
From here you reach Piazza Italia, surrounded by palaces such as Palazzo Massari, Palazzo Mormina-Penna, Palazzo Iacono, Palazzo Scrofani, Palazzo Fava (see its beautiful Grifi balcony) and the Chiesa Madre di Sant’Ignazio. From Piazza Italia it is easy to get to the San Giuseppe/Altobello district, with the Church of San Giuseppe, and the cava (a natural canyon caused by the action of the San Bartolomeo stream on the limestone) of San Bartolomeo, which encloses like a shell the beautiful church of the same name, and from where it is possible to reach the Byzantine village of Chiafura, which was inhabited up to the 1950s.
The 19th-century Piazza Busacca is dominated by the statue of Pietro di Lorenzo known as Busacca and surrounded by the monumental complex of the Church and Convent of the Carmine, Palazzo Busacca and Palazzo Scimone. From the south side of the square we enter the cava of Santa Maria la Nova. Here, in sequence, we find the Church and Convent of San Domenico, the Church of Santa Maria della Consolazione and the neoclassical Church of Santa Maria la Nova, since 1994 known as the Santuario di Maria SS. della Pietà.
Together with its historical centre, Scicli has another soul, the one that rests on its hills where the ancient inhabited area rose, before the earthquake of 1693. The town is dominated by the imposing bulk of the ancient matrix (until 1874) of San Matteo, the identity of the people of Scicli. Also on the hill of the same name are located the churches of Santa Lucia, Santo Spirito and San Vito, as well as the military structure of the Castiddazzu (the tower of a lost keep probably dating from the 15th century) and the Castello dei Tre Cantoni or triquetro, due to the remains of a triangular tower that was part of the ancient defensive complex. Another hill rich in religious architecture is that of the Croce, also called Franciscan because of the convents of the order built one at the base, the Convent of the Capuchin Fathers inside Villa Penna and that of Santa Maria della Croce.
On the hill is the small rock church of Calvario. Other small rock churches around the city include the 17th-century Church of Santa Maria di Piedigrotta, the Church of San Pietro, the Church of the Madonna della Catena and the small hermitage of San Guglielmo eremita, the city’s patron saint.
In addition to religious architecture, there are also paintings and frescoes of rare beauty inside the churches and palaces. One of the most outstanding is the 17th-century painting of the Christ of Burgos, also known as “Christ in a skirt” because it depicts a crucified Christ wearing a white priest’s robe trimmed with a lace sash. There are no known examples in Europe other than a 14th-century wooden sculpture in the Mother Church of Santa Maria in Burgos, Spain. Also worth mentioning is the Deposition of St. Bartholomew by the painter of the Caravaggio school, Mattia Preti.
In Scicli, the year is characterised by numerous festivals that combine religion and folklore. The spring triptych is of primary importance and starts with the Cavalcata di San Giuseppe in March, a unique horse-drawn flower parade evoking the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt. It then continues with the rites of Holy Week which, starting on Palm Sunday, culminate in the feast of the Living Man or ‘U Gioia at Easter. This celebration has always enchanted many painters, photographers, journalists and musicians. Among the latter, singer-songwriter Vinicio Capossela recorded the song Uomo vivo (Inno alla gioia) inspired by this festival after having taken part in it himself.
The spring festivals conclude on the last Saturday in May with the feast of the Madonna delle Milizie (Our Lady of the Militia), in which the protagonist is the only Christian warrior Virgin, who came to the aid of the Sciclitani and Normans against the Saracens in the battle of Micenci in 1091. The heart of the festival is the re-enactment of the moments preceding the battle and culminating in the battle itself with the miraculous apparition of the Virgin on horseback.
All three spring festivals were proclaimed Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2011, along with the Canzoncine dell’Immacolata Concezione (songs of the Immaculate Conception) and the landscape of the Hyblean countryside, characterised by dry stone walls and carob trees.
Scicli is also one of the hubs of contemporary art in Europe. The town has a school of painting and sculpture, called the Scicli Group, whose members include Piero Guccione and Franco Sarnari, Franco Polizzi, Carmelo Candiano, Sonia Alvarez, Giuseppe Puglisi, Salvatore Paolino, Giuseppe Colombo and Piero Zuccaro. Some of the Scicli masters’ works are on permanent display at Palazzo Spadaro in Via Francesco Mormino Penna.
Scicli is also the sea! Twenty kilometres of coastline, eighteen kilometres of fine beaches, crystal clear sea and four seaside villages. From west to east: Playa Grande, Donnalucata, Cava d’Aliga and Sampieri.
Playa Grande borders on the west with the WWF Reserve of the Macchia Foresta del Fiume Irminio.
Donnalucata is the oldest and largest; its name derives from the Arabic “Ayn-Al-Awqat“, meaning spring of the hours as a spring of fresh water gushed onto the beach for the tides, five times, just like the Muslim prayers. See the Santuario della Madonna delle Milizie and Palazzo Mormino.
In the small 19th-century seaside village of Sampieri, a splendid crescent-shaped beach culminates at Punta Pisciotto where the silhouette of the Fornace Penna, a brickworks built in 1912 and disused since 1924, stands out. An admirable example of industrial archaeology, it is a veritable “cathedral of the sea”. Sampieri is the destination of illustrious visitors such as, in the past, Guttuso, Pasolini and Carlo Levi and, today, Guccione, Sgarbi and, above all, Giorgio Armani and Roberto Benigni who has described Sampieri as “a corner of paradise”.
Since 1999 Scicli has been the main location of the RAI 1 TV fiction “Il Commissario Montalbano” and, since 2012, of “Il Giovane Montalbano”. The Vigata of the TV series features the Via Francesco Mormino Penna, where the Commissioner’s Fiat Tipo whizzes past and parks in front of the Palazzo del Municipio, which has become the Vigata police station, including its interior. Also in the Town Hall, the mayor’s room has become the office of Questore Bonetti-Alderighi. Other locations in Sciclitane are the terrace of Piazza Carmine, the Church and the Quarry of San Bartolomeo, Palazzo Iacono which has become, externally, the Palazzo della Pretura, Piazza Armando Diaz and the Madonna del Rosario Via Duca degli Abruzzi complex.
In the villages, the scenic sets include the port of Donnalucata and its seafront promenade, which has become the Marinella seafront promenade. In Sampieri, near the Fornace Penna, we find the Mannara, an infamous area of crime and prostitution, the absolute protagonist of the splendid episode “The Smell of the Night”. And the voyage continues …