Wednesday, June 14, 2017

261. The Persistence of the Monks


Just a short walk from the centre of the city is the Monastery of San Nicolò l’Arena - a monument to the architectural style of late Baroque and the second largest Benedictine monastery in Europe.



A congregation of monks within the Benedictine Confederation founded the complex in 1558 and construction of the building started shortly thereafter – now restored to its former glory and owned by the Catanian University, it is today considered a jewel of the late Sicilian Baroque. 
Today I took a guided tour of the complex led by a very knowable and passionate Sicilian student. 




The original structure was modified however by two major natural calamities - the lava eruption of Mount Etna of 1669 and the devastating earthquake of 1693. 


 

On March 8, 1669 the volcano Etna exploded with great force and lava started to flow from two deep fissures in the side of the mountain. There were high clouds of smoke, and pyroclastic materials were thrown around through explosions. For two months the lava flowed from the fissures destroying everything in its path, and by the end of April it reached the city walls and the walls of the Benedictine Monastery. During those few short weeks the city built dikes from earth and rocks in order to deviate the course of the lava flow away from the Monastery and other important city buildings.


The Entrance to the Monastery is dominated by
one of the grandest staircases I have ever seen ...

  


During the eruption, lava stone - up to 12 meters high in some places - destroyed the cultivated area around the Monastery, leaving behind a desolate lunar landscape - however, thanks to the construction of the dikes, the monastery was saved - but not the Church attached to it, which was completely destroyed by the lava flow.



The central courtyard is a peaceful haven in the hot Sicilian sun




Eighteen years after the eruption, in 1687, the reconstruction of the Church started and progressed well for the next six years - then in the night of 10 January 1693 the city of Catania was shaken by a catastrophic earthquake - according to researchers, the earthquake reached a magnitude of 7.7 on the Richter scale. The day after the earthquake, the city lay destroyed and most of the citizens caught unprepared were buried under the ruins. For a second time, the Monastery lost its church but only suffered partial damage to itself. The basement and part of the first floor of the Monastery of the XVI century survived the catastrophe and were deemed 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. Monks coming from other monasteries moved here, bringing with them wealth and expertise and the Monastery grew considerably compared to the original plan.


the monks cells were quite large - 
some even had mezzanine floors within
and opened out onto the cloisters ...

Many of the Benedictine monks came from wealthy Italian families and accordingly bought with them substantial "dowries" ... ( In those times - so I am told - the family title and much of the wealth went to the eldest son, while the cadet ( younger ) sons had the choice of either joining the army ( pretty unpleasant lifestyle ) or joining the church ( a much more refined lifestyle ) ). The influx of wealth into the order meant that they could undertake these mammoth building projects. It also meant that the monks lead a pretty extravagant lifestyle. Many had their own servant and by all accounts they ate and drank well enough. Not all was pleasure though - they had to pray seven times a day, ate only one meal at midday ( consisting of six courses !!! ) and in between, they did their charitable works out in the community and many of the monks engaged in important botanical and astrological research.


Extended and enriched with decorations, the monastery became one of the biggest in Europe, following the other Benedictine Monastery of Mafra in Portugal.

 
Under the floors of the Monastery is a complex of basement rooms - 
once used as kitchens and to store food - 
now used by the university for office space and library etc ...



In 1866, the newly unified state of Italy confiscated the Benedictine Monastery and from 1868, the monastery was re-used for civil purposes. There were mostly schools,  but also a barrack (in the South wing and in the court) and the Astrophysics laboratory with the laboratory of meteorology and geodynamics (in the kitchen and cellars.

These new uses caused a deep and, sometimes, irreversible change of the monastery structure, despite it having been recognised as a national monument immediately after the Italian Unification. Most of the frescos were plastered over or painted out, the corridors were divided, and other divisions added to create offices, training rooms, and toilets.


Cellars now used by university 
for libraries and computer rooms etc

A new hospital named after the Italian king, Vittorio Emanuele, was built in the botanical garden spaces, once the important herbarium used by the monks to carry out herbal research.

The newly almost-constructed Church of San Nicolò ( ajoining the monastery ) was used by the municipality of Catania as a place of worship and the sacristy, was redesigned as a memorial of the two World Wars Soldiers. Only the library remained in its original state. The monks’ collection, made of herbarium, “cinquecentine” ( books printed in the XVI century ) and miniature bibles, grew thanks to the addition of private collections as well as of collections of other orders, which had been abolished.

What used to be the magnificent Benedectine monastery was almost totally neglected, and substituted by schools - symbolising the new state of Italy.


In 1977, within a project of regeneration of the historical centre of the city of Catania, the Municipality donated the Monastery to the University of Catania with the condition that the university carry out extensive restoration works.

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 houses of the late Hellenistic and imperial time has been found under the monastery. 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.


Adjoining the Monastery is the never-finished-building of the Church of San Nicolo. Grand in its proportions but very stark inside with its white walls stripped of the lavish Baroque adornments that once would have graced its alcoves and walls.






Although still commissioned, the church is seldom used for worship, but rather for concerts and exhibitions etc.  The Grand organ - behind the altar - once had 5 keyboards and over 2,000 pipes and could be played by 3 organists at a time.





At the back of the church is the War Memorial 
honouring those killed in the first and second World Wars.

 

 

Then, for a small donation the curious traveler can climb the 130 spiral stairs up to the rim of the dome for an exceptional view of the city and beyond to the coast and to Etna herself ... 

  
View of the interior of the church 
through a window in the stairwell ...


 ... finally on the roof ...

 ... entrance to the Monastery ...

 ... and beyond ...

 ... ancient bells - no longer ringing ...

 ... and there she is - Etna herself ...
my first full view of the still-active ( but dormant I hope ) volcano ...

 ... more beyonds ...

 

 ... and a final look at Etna before I descend back down to street level ...

 Now it's down those stairs and across the road
to a cafe in the cool shade of the trees 
for a well-earned lunch ...

 
The Monastery and church have been a bit of a Italian paradox, but a fine example of the determination of the Benedictine monks - to build - then have it destroyed by a volcano - to re-build - then have it destroyed by an earthquake - then to rebuild a third time only to have the complex confiscated by the newly formed Italian state ... now the church is used for secular events and the monastery is full of noisy students studying the humanities ... !!! ... Can't find out where the  monks have escaped to ...