Marsala with its roots and glory going back to Phoenicians offers architectural and cultural attractions spanning millennia of its history, place where the Florio Winery is just one more place to visit…
Although the name “Marsala” is quite well recognized across the world, it is not for the reason it should be.
For most of us “Marsala” is associated with popular “Chicken or Veal Marsala”. Those more involved in “Gourmandize” life style may know that the key ingredient of mentioned meals is a fortified wine from Sicilian city of Marsala.
What majority of us is missing is the fact that Marsala is one of the oldest cities on Sicilian land. It was founded by Phoenicians at around 397BC. Originally known as Lilybaion, it was an important commercial center and heavily walled military base defining Phoenician’s sphere of influence on the western side of the island.
Thanks to its location at the westernmost tip of the island, the city with its busy harbor was connecting the rich African continent with the Europe. Conquered by Romans in 241BC the city under its Latin name Lilybaeum reached the peak of its ancient glory.
Sketch of the Libyaeum (artistic vision based on archaeological discoveries)
After the fall of the Roman Empire, Lilybaeum lost its significance and then devastated by Vandals for the next few centuries “disappeared from the maps”. City’s revival started in the 9th century with the conquest of Sicily by Arabs. As the matter of fact, most likely its name comes from Arabic “Mars el’Allah” (meaning God’s Harbor) although some try to see its roots in Latin ”Mare Salis” (meaning Salty Sea or Salina) what could refer to the nearby salinas in Mozia. The rest is the history “written” by succeeding rulers of Sicilian Island – Normans then French and Spanish crowns and finally Kingdom of Italy. They left behind an Old Town with countless architectural monuments, rich history, charming narrow streets, famous wineries and vibrating atmosphere - colorful mixture of medieval vibes filled with pleasant aromas of wine and coffee….
Marsala’s defensive walls originally included three entrance gates called: Porta Mazara (Mazara Gate, south-east, facing the city of Mazara), Porta Nuova (New Gate facing north-west) and Porta di Mare (Sea Gate) later re-named to Porta Garibaldi (south-west). Most likely these three gates existed in some more modest forms since the Norman times. During 17th and 18th centuries they were re-built in more monumental forms reflecting not only importance of the city of Marsala, but also “grandioseness” of times.
The forth gate - Porta Trapani (opening the north-eastern part of the city facing Trapani) was built in the early 17th century. Due to its modest shape and small dimensions it was nicknamed Porticella (meaning something like “Little Gate”).
At the end of the 19th century the city council made decision to demolish defensive walls opening space for rapidly growing Marsala. That decision sealed the destiny of the Porta Mazara and Porticella which went down together with walls. The limestone blocks from Porticella were sold to partially cover the demolition costs. Interestingly, some of them recently “resurfaced” in the nearby city Mazara del Vallo inspiring the city council to carry out reconstruction works. The Porticella was located at the corner of today’s Via Pellegrino and Via Sardegna behind the underground Sanctuary of Madonna della Cava where the fragments of old defensive walls are still present.
The only historical evidence is a sketch from 1829 made by the German traveler Friedrich Maximilian Hessemer.
Porta Nuova seen from the old town
New Gate at the end of the Via Xi Maggio
Porta Nuova - Upper level
Porta Nuova (New Gate) is located at the end of the prestigious Via XI Maggio, opening the Old Town to the vast square and the area of the Archeological Park (in front ) and Cavallotti Gardens (on the right). It is the late 18th century “re-incarnation” of the collapsing original gate probably dating from the 16th century. Together with the Garibaldi Gate it is one of two remaining entrance gates controlling the access to the town. It is a simple design taking inspiration from Roman traditions of triumphal arches, though without typical sophistication and ornamentation. Two empty niches on both sides of the gate prove greater past.
Inside the arch there are two commemorative plaques – one quoting the message sent by the king Vittorio Emanuele III from the beginning of the WW1 and the second one, stating the proclamation of the victory by the General Armando Diaz at the end of the war.
Garibaldi Gate - fragment of the upper part
Garibaldi Gate faces the namesake street leading to the Piazza Republica and on the “outer” side - Via Scipione l’Affricano and ultimately the sea on the north-western part of the town. Renovated (or actually re-built) in 1685, it represents architectural design certainly deserved by both great Generals. Scipio Africanus – was one of the most talented and successful Roman generals bringing to the end the 2nd Punic War after the victory over Hannibal. Some two thousand years later, another general - Giuseppe Garibaldi entered Marsala from the harbor with the group of soldiers to start his campaign of unification of Italy. May be that is why the Garibaldi Gate is one of the most elegant town gates in Sicily?
Four ionic columns flanking the gate, two niches (today empty, but in the past dedicated to statues), beautiful baroque balustrade toping the structure and a marble Imperial Eagle (symbol of Spanish line of Habsburgs) make the Garibaldi Gate looking noble. The large inscription in Latin in the name of Carolo II (Charles II) – King of Spain and Sicily appeals to God for the protection of Marsala’s inhabitants (king’s “subjects”).
Madonna della Cava
Cave where the statue of the Madonna was found back in 16th century
Underground chapel in the Church Madonna della Cave
Entrance to the church Madonna della Cave
The history of Madonna della Cava (Madonna of Cave) adds to the long list of secrets buried by the dust of Medieval “darkness”. When on January 19, 1518 the small (18cm / 7 inches) statue of Madonna with the Child in Her arms was found in the cave at the local quarry, it was considered as the sign of God. Most likely the statue was hidden there by early Christians to protect it from destruction during the period of Byzantine Iconoclasm or from Saracens.
It is believed that the Maddona della Cava (as the statue was “christened”) contributed to many miracles. No wonder that at the place of the discovery an underground Sanctuary was built to allow faithful to venerate the miraculous statue. Two and half century later Madonna della Cave was elected as the Patron of the city of Marsala. Each year, on the anniversary of the discovery (January 19) the ceremonial procession honoring the Patroness takes on the streets of Marsala.
Heavy bombing by allied air forces at the end of WW2 destroyed the sanctuary but the statue of Madonna was found unscratched under the rubbles. The reconstructed Sanctuary is located in the block surrounded by Via XIX Luglio, Via Pellegrino and Via Sardegna.
Cathedral (Chiesa Madre)
Cathedral: Upper level of the facade
Marsala Cathedral also known as Chiese Madre (Mother Church) or traditionally as Duomo is located on the Piazza della Republica in the heart of the old town. Cathedral’s origins go back to Norman times when at the end of the 12th century started construction of the first church. It was dedicated to St. Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, murdered at the order of English King Henry II in 1170 and canonized just few years later.
Its current, imposing structure was built in early 17th century on the foundations of the Norman church. Collapsed in the 19th century, rebuilt and then later severely damaged by allied bombing during WW2, each time the Duomo was coming back in its full architectural and spiritual splendor. Predominantly in Baroque style, due to numerous reconstructions it underwent over the centuries, Chiesa Madre displays several architectural styles and artistic tastes. The magnificent façade dominating the Piazza (finished only in 1956) promises lavishness. But surprisingly, cathedral’s interior is finished very modestly (at least compared to many other Sicilian churches).
The large nave divided by rows of columns to three aisles includes two side apses and fourteen chapels. Most paintings and sculptures are work of Antonello and Domenico Gaginis as well as Berettaro and Di Battista. Some of the most precious treasuries once adorning church’s presbytery were 16th century Flemish tapestries (gift of Antonio Lombardo – Archbishop of Messina). Today, these beautiful arrases illustrating scenes from the Roman-Jewish war are displayed in the Museum of Tapestry adjacent to the Cathedral (place itself to visit).
Convent and Church del Carmine (Carmelites)
Former Carmelite Monastery
Carmelite's church Bell tower
The church of Carmelites originally dedicated to St. Marry of Holly Annunciation was built together with the adjacent convent in 13th century by Carmelite Fathers. Both Medieval structures underwent major modifications at the end of the 15th century, thanks to the efforts of Fr. Nicholas Petrulla. The new Renaissance-style buildings still keep several late-Gothic elements from the original structures.
The church, now called Carmelite kept its simple single-aisle form. At its time it was richly decorated, however with the act of Italian Government from 1866 suppressing religious orders, the whole complex was confiscated by the municipality. Today the church is used as Municipal Archives; religious artworks were handed over to other churches, some found the permanent place in Chiesa Madre.
By all accounts the destiny of the Carmelite Convent was more cruel - it was transferred to Carabinieri (sort of National Guard). Abandoned in late 60’s it fell into the state of sorry.
Thanks to the renovation works carried out in 1996, today in its Renaissance-style glory, the convent is home to the Municipal Art Gallery with the large collection of prestigious paintings. It’s magnificent arched cloister brings the peace of past times as it seems to be filled with the silence of meditating monks….
On the left to the church since early 15th century stands not anymore lonely bell-tower. Blended with the neighboring buildings at first it may be unnoticed and ignored by tourists, yet this octagonal tower is considered as one of the jewels of Sicilian architecture……
Church of Purgatory
Facade of the Church of Purgatory
Fragment of the dome
Originally the site where today stands the impressive structure of the Chiesa delle Anime del Purgatorio was occupied by the Church of SS. Fabian and Sebastian erected probably back in 14th century. As many Medieval structures, it did not withstand time and forces of nature. Construction works of new, enlarged church named the Church of Souls in Purgatory started on the same site in 1669. The church has the typical layout of Latin cross with main nave and two aisles. Reddishness of magnificent Baroque façade made from blocks of tuff is beautifully enhanced by the portals made from the white marble. Four Corinthian columns “twisted” at the bases support façade’s upper level topped on both sides by belfries. The lonely statue of St. Sebastian overlooks the small plaza in front of the church with the beautiful baroque fountain in the center.
Equally spectacular is church’s interior richly decorated with frescos depicting the biblical scenes from Old and New Testaments. Unfortunately for visitors, this beautiful church was recently deconsecrated and now being home to the Auditorium of St. Cecily it only serves for concerts and conferences. In other words it is practically inaccessible for tourists and unless you have some luck, you may have to end your tour of the church on this page! (Watch small side-doors facing Via Garaffa, sometimes for unknown reasons they are open so you can get-in as it happened to the author of this blog).
Next to the ex-church, small archeological area displays unearthed remains of ancient Phoenician, Greek and Roman structures as well as fragments of the monastery of San Gerolamo from Byzantine times.
Marsala’s theater was established in 1807 by the king Ferdinand IV Bourbon. It operated more or less continuously until 1824 when it was closed. Renewed interest in the presence of such cultural institution brought fruits in 1840 when the Municipality of Marsala gave green light to enlarge the building enabling the theatre to show larger productions of popular operas.
The theater operated successfully till 1974. Being home to the prestigious School of Music Hall conducted by Giovanni Galvano, for long it was a well-recognized Sicilian institution for training future musicians. The school was actually so big driving force for the theater, that its closure in 1974 due to the lack of funds brought the end to the operation of the theater itself.
Twenty years later, after major renovation works bringing back the beauty and warmth so needed by any cultural institution, the theater re-opened its doors to public. With its almost 300 seats in stalls and galleries and large stage, the building can show any theatrical performance.
The theater is named after Marsala’s composer Eliodoro Sollima.
Good news for tourists – the theater is open for visits from Tuesday to Sunday (pay attention to “siesta”). If you decide to take the tour, do not forget to raise your head up (eyes will follow) – you will be amazed by the beauty of neoclassical decoration of the ceiling!
Archeological Museum “Baglio Anselmi”
Bath mosaics in ancient Roman villa (or rather in what remains from it)
Large collection of amphorae (Museum Baglio Anselmi)
Funerary chamber "Crispia Salvia" (place where Julius Demetrius dedicated his thoughts to his wife Crispia Salvia)
Surviving elements of the Punic ship
Marsala’s Archeological Museum is the large complex including permanent exposition of precious ancient objects reflecting the presence of Carthaginian, Greek and Roman civilizations in Marsala and surrounding areas. The museum also encompasses an archeological park – an open-air area with unearthed remains of structures from the ancient city Lilybaeum (Roman baths, mosaics and bath from patrician residence, individual houses… ) as well as the Church of St. John with its underground Cave of Sybil.
The main exposition is famous for housing the remains of the Punic (Carthaginian) ship found in 1971 in nearby waters. Although only stern and port-side of the ship are preserved – even this” little” is of extreme rarity given the fact that this ship was plowing the waters of the Mediterranean Sea back in the 3rd century BC. The exposition in Punic Ship Hall includes also a large collection of amphoras recovered from Greek’s and Arab’s shipwrecks (quite numerous in the waters given the fact that Lilybaeum was an important harbor and commercial hub).
Actually, it was this shipwreck that triggered decision to open the Archeological Museum in Marsala. Known as “Baglio Anselmi”, the museum is housed in the former vinery that belonged to the family Anselmi (word “Baglio” is the mixture of the old French-Sicilian dialects and can be related to the “courtyard”).
The Lilybaeum Hall houses local findings from the area of today’s Marsala and Mothya. One of the most precious findings in displayed collection is the marble statue of Venus Kallipygos (from Greek’s - Venus of “beautiful buttocks”). It is a live-size nude female torso of unusual beauty. Dated to the 2nd Century BC it is believed to be the Roman copy of the famous Greek’s original known as Aphrodite. Another smaller statue depicts goddess Isis (both goddesses - Isis and Venus were worshiped in Lilybaeum).
Exhibitions includes also findings from the period of early Christianity – mainly from the catacombs under the Chiesa San Giovanni.
Chiesa San Giovanni (Church of San John de Baptist)
Church St. John the Baptist
Entrance to the Sibilla Cave
... and the cave itself
The Church of St. John de Baptist was built by Jesuits in the middle of 16th century. It is a modest structure, today recognized mainly by its location on the site having roots back in ancient Roman times. Under the church there is a large circular crypt with two semicircular niches traditionally known as the Cave of Sybil. The shallow “basin” holding the water from an invisible source most likely made this cave a perfect place for Sybil (Oracle or “prophet” in the ancient Greek world). In this sense it was a perfect location for the church dedicated to St. John the Baptist. One “prophet” was seamlessly replaced by another Prophet… Similarly effortlessly the source of Pythic inspiration became the baptismal font…..
The cave still holds small stone altar with the carved image of St. John. Visible are also poorly preserved wall frescos and fragments of floor mosaics from the Christian times.
In early 1930’s the church was abandoned. These days only the Feast of St. John the Baptist celebrated in the third week of June brings to the Church and Cave flocks of pilgrims. Good news for tourists – it is open for visits (see opening hours at the Museum of Baglio Anselmi)
Facade of the church of Our Mother of Sorrows (on the left the Garibaldi Gate)
Fragment of the nave above high altar
The church of Our Lady of Sorrows also known as Our Lady of Lightning was built at the site where as it is believed, the miracle saved the life of a young knight from the striking lightning. He found the shelter from the thunderstorm under the arch of the Porta di Mare (Sea Gate – today Garibaldi Gate). As soon as he got off the horse to pray to the statue of Virgin Mary standing in the niche under the vault of gate’s arc, the deadly lightning struck his horse…..
Answering the demands of Marsala’s population in the same year of 1691 the small church was raised next to the Porta di Mare to glorify Virgin Mary for this miracle. It had the entrance from under the gate’s arch. As the news spread around the Island, the church became the favorite destination for pilgrims. That led to the decision of the City Council to enlarge the church. Re-construction works started in 1790, the church’s entrance was moved to the square in front of the Sea Gate, and church got the beautiful dome crowning its circular structure.
White marble portal beautifully contrasts with tuff-made neoclassical façade. Above the doors there is the carved marble effigy of pierced heart – the symbol of the Addolorata (Lady of Sorrows).
The high altar with the statue of Mary – Our Lady of Sorrows is probably the most notable part of the church. According to popular belief, the sculpture (painted cypress wood) was made by a Spanish officer in the late 18th century…….
Palazzo VII Aprille
Palace of 7th of April
This beautiful palace with a dual arcaded portico supported by columns is facing the Piazza della Republica. It was built in the 16th century for city administrators, seemingly on the site of the Pisani’s Loggia. The eye-catching façade designed by Giuseppe Rocci was added in 1750’s and instantly made the palace one of the highlights of the central piazza. The slim watch tower with arched opening overlooking the plaza crowns the whole structure.
After April 7th 1860 uprising against the rules of Bourbons the palace was named Palazzo VII Aprille. Subsequently on May 11, 1860, on the floors of this palace, Francesco Crispi - one of the architects of the unification of Italy, declared the end to Bourbon’s dynasty rules on the island and named Giuseppe Garibaldi the Governor of Sicily.
Today the palace is still the seat of the City Council remarkably preserving its original function over so many centuries. Good news for visitors – during the day you can enter interior and take the marble staircase to see the large hall with numerous commemorative plaques and council meeting rooms.
Monastery and Church of San Pietro (St. Peter)
Fragment of the monastery of St. Peter
The early 16th century complex of San Pietro Monastery and Church is located in the heart of the city next to the prestigious Piazza della Republica. Today, the church of St. Peter is largely overshadowed by the imposing structure of the neighboring Chiesa Madre but the monastery, thanks to its impressive square tower dominating this part of the town is still the focal point for visitors. Frankly, it is difficult to miss this elegant structure with double level of arched windows, topped with pyramidal spire crowned by little dome and as it is not enough - “fenced” by a stylish balustrade. Large courtyard and massive surrounding structures reflect the prosperous past of this once radiating religious center.
Today the monastery is the home to public institutions: big Town Library (including the video and music sections), Movie Theater, large auditorium for conferences and Civic Museum. The latter has two sections: archeological one displaying numerous findings from the rich ancient past of the western Sicily and the section dedicated to Garibaldi, displaying various memorabilia related to Risorgimento (19th century Italian movement for unification).
The church of St. Peter was built in 1569. It is a simple, single-nave structure with four side altars, wooden choir balcony and numerous objects of fine art (paintings, frescos, holy water font…). The Renaissance portal on the main façade depicts the symbols of St. Peter (tiara and keys). Beautiful frontal belfries being part of the facade together with those at the back of the church facing a little wooded square add the well-deserved charm to this jewel.
It is not an accident that in 2013 Marsala was officially declared the European City of Wine. Indeed wineries and wine are deeply “engraved” in the history of Marsala giving the city an internationally recognized fame. Florio is one of the most outstanding wineries and definitely place not to miss during the visit to Marsala. The wine tasting tour includes the visit to cellars stocked with countless barrels holding thousands and thousands of gallons of the “divine liquid” that Bacchus will be proud of. Few barrels that “miraculously” escaped the bombing by allied forces still hold the “golden” (read-it “priceless”) pre-WW2 wine…. It is advertised and offered for sell as the “Historic Vintage Wine”….
Large exposition hall displays memorabilia from the past of the Cantine Florio. It includes bronze busts of the most influential family members that contributed to the success of Marsala wines including the founder Vincenzo Florio Sr. There is also some machinery (press for grapes, distillation equipment, carts for transport of barrels etc…).
The tour takes you then to the wine tasting room where you are guided through the degustation of different Florio wines. The stylish table with local fruits, unpretentious decoration and dimmed-lights (for video-presentation) create an atmosphere of tranquility so needed to taste wines: Terre Arse (Marsala Vergine), Targa Riserva (Marsala Superiore Riserva Semisecco) and Grecale (Moscato Sicilia).
And finally, as expected, you will end-up in the factory shop, itself the great example of the famous Italian school of design. That is not even mentioning the rich collection of bottles waiting for now “educated” (or at least “impressed”) visitors… It’s hard to imagine, but in a rare case you did not like the whole tour and wine tasting experience, you should buy one bottle just “out of respect”….
Because, truly, you were tasting here the “bouquet” of wine known for its centuries’ long history and well-kept secrets…
OK, you should not miss this place, so here is the chance:
But Marsala is more than the glory of the past. It is a city where you will certainly find vibes of the modern life.
Let's start with the sea washing Marsala's shores
Stop at the Cavalotti Garden
And end-up in one of stylish cafe-bars you will find along the streets
And do not forget - after all Marsala is the city of wine (Citta Europea del Vino in 2013)
Once you get back to "yourself" after the wine tasting tour (and visit to winery shop) you may consider going north along the Salt Road to see salt pans and windmills representing centuries old business --> Stagnone Lagoon
Do not miss just slightly farther north two Sicilian jewels:
--> Top Sites to see in Trapani, and
Visiting Sicily, you will find how across millennia different Mediterranean civilizations shaped island's cultural and architectural "Landscape" .....