The Black Baroque of Catania: Volcanic Architecture

The Black Baroque of Catania: Volcanic Architecture

Everything in Catania is black and white.

Stone, that is.

Catania’s main piazza from above

This part of Sicily has a tumultuous history, and not only in terms of conquest and warfare. The island sits right on top of a fault line, which is the reason for some of its most striking features: volcanoes. Tectonic plate activity is responsible for many of the catastrophes that have occurred in Sicily over the course of time, including high-magnitude earthquakes and violent volcanic eruptions.

The Skinning Place

One city in Sicily in particular has been shaped by the likes of earthquakes and eruptions several times: Catania. The very name of the city comes from the dark, rough, pocked stone that makes up much of the territory around Catania. The Sicilians called it katane, which means ‘skinning place’ or ‘grater.’ When the Greeks arrived, they thought this an apt description of the place, and simply adopted the Sicilian word.

black baroque
The Black Baroque of Catania

Had the Greeks known just how apt of a name ‘skinning place’ was, they might not have settled there. The city and the surrounding area were constantly under threat, whether it be from nearby Mount Etna, devastating earthquakes, or marauders after the prime port location. The events which gave Catania the face it has today, though, occurred in modern times, long after the Greeks.

In 1669, Mount Etna erupted spectacularly, and severely damaged parts of Catania. Had it not been for the impressively engineered city walls, a very large swathe would have been cut through the city. The walls held fast long enough to divert most of the lava flow around the city and into the harbor, instead of into buildings. Just when the city had finished cleaning up the neighborhoods damaged in that eruption (and, presumably, chiseling their through the hardened lava at the city walls), an earthquake leveled Catania in 1693. The city had to be completely rebuilt, from the ground up. Enter Giovanni Battista Vaccarini, architect extraordinaire.

Catania balcony
A balcony on one of the old buildings in the Catania city center

Giovanni Battista Vaccarini

Originally from Palermo, Vaccarini was brought in to plan, design, and execute the new city of Catania. Whether he had a wry sense of humor or he was simply working with a tight budget, I don’t know, but his choice of building material was interesting.

He chose lava rock.

That’s right! The material chosen to rebuild Catania was the very same material that had threatened it for so long (and threatens it still). The historical districts of Catania are built almost completely using a combination of limestone and lava rock. This combination of stones creates the unique black-and-white color palate that the city still sports today.

The building style at the time that Vaccarini was working was the baroque style. The baroqe is known for its dramatic flourishes and over-the-top detail work, which is even more dramatic in black and white. Because of the stone and style choice, Viccarini’s work is called the Black Baroque. The whole of Piazza del Duomo is an exercise in craning your neck to catch all the little details. Not the least of these details being the black elephant, smack in the middle of the square.

Catania elephant
The Catania elephant

La Fontana d’Elefante

La Fontana d’Elefante (lah fohn-tah-nah deh-leh-fahn-teh), or the Fountain of the Elephant, holds a lot of importance for Catania. From the days of old – all the way back to the Arab occupation of the island – the elephant has been a symbol of the city. The people believed that the elephant would protect the city from natural disasters, of which, between Mount Etna and earthquakes, they saw a fair few. When he rebuilt Catania, Vaccarini thought it would be a wonderful idea to include the symbol in the most important square in the city: Piazza del Duomo. (Never mind that he only had the job of designing Catania because the elephant hadn’t done its job properly.)

Catania arch
An archway in Catania showing the Black Baroque style

World Heritage Status

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the Black Baroque, as the building style of Catania has come to be called, is that it’s still in danger. Remember, this part of the world is prone to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Earthquakes happen all the time, and Mount Etna is still an active volcano. Not only did Vaccarini and the people of Catania rebuild their city using the tools of its destruction, but they did so knowing full well that it might be destroyed again. That tenacity, or perhaps audacity, earned the city of Catania UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 2012.

As if that weren’t enough to recommend it, it’s just plain beautiful.

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