Nicosia – City of Barons
Top Sites to See in Sicily

Nicosia - located in landscape shaped by green hills and valleys, nicknamed as the City of Barons for its wealth, prestige and nobility still shows evidence of its past magnificence...

        Nicosia is a charming city picturesquely nestled on four rocky hills belonging to the southern section of the Nebrodi Mountains. 

They are correspondingly: Monte Cappuccini, Monte San Giorgio, Monte Oliveto and Monte San Salvatore….

       The first written documents mentioning Nicosia are from 11th century but it’s obvious that roots of the city (or at least of the castle) are much older. Some believe that the first pre-Nicosia settlement was founded by Greeks and it was one of the “lost cities” described by Romans -Cicero, Pliny and Greek historian Diodorus and known as “Imachara”, Erbita or Engio.

However, as there is no any archeological evidence supporting such theory, it seems that its proponents must still keep searching ….

Nicosia - city located on the hills

Via Castello

From the outside the Municipal Palace looks "unpretentious"

 ... but interior is definitely more impressive

Fragment of decorations on the Piazza Garibaldi

       More realistic scenario claims that the first settlement was built here in Byzantine times. Indeed, numerous caves carved in the rock known as Troglodyte Dwellings were characteristic for that period of time.  Also the name “Nicosia” (probably derived from “Citta di San Nicolo” – in Greek “Nikou Oikos”) or from “City of Victory” (in Greek “Nikes Oikos”) points to Byzantine-Greek “connections”.  “Pre-Nicosia” certainly expanded under the domination of Arabs. What is known however is that the new life to the settlement (if really such one existed before) was brought by Normans when the King Roger ordered to build the castle on the site that will be later known as Nicosia.  

While the Mother Nature was truly generous for inhabitants of Nicosia offering them a homeland shaped by green hills and valleys, it turned out to be a typical “relationship” of Love and Hate. Nicosia, like most areas of the eastern Sicily was badly damaged by 1693 earthquake. And as it was not enough, the forces of nature destroyed also major part of the uptown in a massive landslide of 1757.  But each time after the natural disaster thanks to “fertile” environment and ingenuity of inhabitants the town came back to life in even more beautiful shape.

        In fact in Middle Ages Nicosia was one of the most important Sicilian cities belonging (together with Palermo, Messina and Catania) to the group of “state towns”. Prosperity and splendidness extended over the following centuries. In 1700’s the city counted several aristocratic families (more than twenty Barons, Marquises, Counts…) and hundreds of “noble families”. With them came magnificent Renaissance and Baroque-style palaces. Scattered along narrow, winding streets they were symbols of what once Nicosia was known for: wealth, prestige and nobility. No wonder that at some period of time Nicosia was nicknamed “The City of Barons”. 

Palace Caprini (fragment of the portal)

Palace Caprini

Palazzo Marocco

Palazzo Motta de Salinella

Palazzo Vescovile

       Nicosia was definitely “re-invented” by Normans and thanks to its imposing fortress, it was brought to the status of one of the most important centers of power on the island.  That image certainly did not change for long given the fact that few hundred years later in 1535 the Spanish king Charles V on his way from Africa to Messina decided to stop at Nicosia. The visit underlined city’s noble status and political importance. Let’s face it – at those times kings were not enthusiasts of “Mother Nature” or eco-friendliness, so the decision to stay in Nicosia was certainly dictated by city’s economic, political and social conditions.

In 1817 the church of St. Nicholas gained the prestigious status of Cathedral and the city became an Episcopal See.  It may be worth to mention that at the peak of its glory Nicosia was home to more than 80 churches (and even today Nicosia still counts 28 churches despite the fact that its population is just under 15,000) …  

Till 1927 Nicosia was a capital of the district and only when Enna was elected as the capital of the province, its fortunes turned down, glory largely dimmed and major part of its population moved out in search of jobs and opportunities…. 

Throne of King Charles

        Today’s Nicosia, while still charming visitors is rather a small, sleepy city, somehow unaware of its glorious past. The Piazza Garibaldi flanked by monumental cathedral, Palazzo Marocco and Palazzo Comunale makes the focal point of the Lower Town. And just behind the cathedral stands another architectural jewel - Palazzao Vescovile (Bishop’s Palace). The whole area is known as “Nicoletti” – a name reflecting medieval ethnicity of inhabitants from the neighborhood of the Cathedral San Nicola and their affiliation with the Byzantine-like rite.

From there, narrow streets climb to the Upper Town next to the old Norman castle with the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore at the “center”. The population of the upper town descends from Lombardians (Northern Italians) that settled below the castle following the conquest of Sicily by Normans. Even today after almost millennium after the conquest they speak a Gallo-Italic dialect (noticeably different from modern Italian). At first this “diversity” (in fact quite typical in the Provence of Enna) should add into the beauty of Sicilian “souls”. In practice however (at least in Nicosia) quite often it led to “ethnically-based-religion-fed” conflicts between “Nicoletti” (neighborhood of Church St. Nicholas – with Byzantine-Greek roots) and “Mariani” (neighborhood of Santa Maria Maggiore with Latin roots). 

        The best way to reach the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore from the cathedral is by taking Via Francesco Salamone. The street is lined with some of the most important palaces in Nicosia- La Motta di Salinella, Caprini and Alessi. While all of them are visibly weathered, they still offer a good idea about the splendor and sophistication that in the past characterized the “City of Barons”. Especially the beautiful Sicilian Baroque façade of the Palazzo Caprini seems to be a real gem….. No wonder, Via F. Salamone was nicknamed “Via Baroni” 

Sites to visit:

Norman Castle

       The vast fortress was nestled on two adjacent rocky hills of Monte San Giorgio and connected by an imposing bridge that was also part of fortifications. The fortress was controlling the vital agricultural area and commercial routes between Palermo and big cities on the east coast. The initial fortifications were probably erected in Byzantine times.  However stronghold gained the real significance after massive expansion works carried out by Normans. 

The gigantic blocks of rock were making natural part of the fortification

Ruins of Norman Castle

Fragment of the fortifications: Bridge over the entrance gate

  .... and the gate itself

      Today very little remains of the once powerful castle: the bridge with an arched entrance flanked by remnants of protecting towers, few walls at the brink of collapsing….

The walking path on the top of the long narrow bridge connecting the pieces of the old fortress is an experience on its own. The bridge had been providing a protected connection between the main castle and a so-called “Casteletto”- an outpost on a rocky outcrop overlooking the vast territory dotted with green hills.

Now, the whole castle is rather a matter of imagination allowing each individual visitor to have his own fairy-tale like vision of the past…. But certainly its location and an unusual concept of extending the fortress over two adjacent peaks linked by heavily protected bridge gives a good idea of the importance and grandeur of this stronghold. Renowned Arab geographer Al-Idrisi noted: It’s one of the best protected and most important castles built in order to defend a nearby village and vast swaths of arable lands  ……

Next to the bridge are few caves – seemingly a testimony to a “Troglodyte” settlement from Byzantine times. 

        For those more “down to ground” having problem to visualize the magnificence of the stronghold based on desolate ruins the  effort of climbing the Monte San Giorgio (BTW- you can come very close by a car taking Via di Castello) is awarded by scenic views from the top. Because what did not change since the time when Normans erected the castle is a wonderful view extending from the hilltops on the town of Nicosia and surrounding hilly landscape. 

Cathedral of San Nicola di Bari

       The original Gothic structure from 1340s’ was partially destroyed by an earthquake in the last decade of the 17th century. But the church came back from the proverbial ashes in even more beautiful form. 

The oldest surviving part of the church is the bell-tower. It dates to 12th century when it was part of the pre-existing structure. Although it was significantly altered with time, it still preserves the original Norman-Gothic lines with elements of Arabic architecture. Similarly, a porch with pointed-arches on the left side of the cathedral facing Piazza Garibaldi reveals Gothic roots with elements of just coming to Sicily Renaissance style. Its decorative part is work of sculptors Andrea Mancino and Gabriele Battista carried out over the years 1489-90.

Cathedral: Ceiling panel

The façade preserved 15th century portal richly ornamented with flowers and leaves.

       But the most remarkable part of art is church’s wooden-paneled ceiling covered by paintings depicting mythological, biblical and everyday life scenes. It is also the most disappointing part of the visit to the church because this extraordinary example of 15th century art is hidden behind the newer 19th century barrel-vault ceiling frescoed by Manno brothers.  

Notable and fortunately easy to see works of Sicilian Renaissance and Baroque art are also: marble pulpit and baptismal font by Gagini, wooden crucifix known as “Padre della Providenza” by Franciscan brother Umile da Petralia (“Humble” brother from Petralia), wooden choir-stalls from walnut tree decorated with biblical scenes and statue of St. Nicholas – both by a local artist Li Volsi. Church also houses numerous paintings with the most valuable correspondingly San Bartholomew by Giuseppe Ribera, Madonna delle Grazie with St John the Baptist and Santa Rosalia by Pietro Novelli and Martyrdom of St. Sebastian by Salvatore Rosa.

At the back of the church in a wooden loft is an organ by Raffaele della Valle. 

Church of Santa Maria Maggiore

      The original church that was built in the 12th century was destroyed in 1757 during a massive landslide. It took more than hundred years and dedication of community to rebuild an even bigger and more remarkable structure. In fact donations were quite generous and for example one of the aristocratic families offered a splendid doorway from their palace that was subsequently placed in the main entrance of the new church. The reconstruction works were completed in 1904, but it did not end church’s misfortunes. The 1968 earthquake leveled the bell-tower, so now the bells are installed on the “temporary” structure built from iron. 

Church of Santa Maria Maggiore: Altar

Fragment of the frontal facade

Fresco

In 1825 the church of Santa Maria Maggiore was elevated to Minor Basilica what in a way counterweighted dominance of the Cathedral and in this sense added some “equilibrium” into the rivalry between neighborhoods of “Mariani” and “Nicoletti”.

The marble altar depicting scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary is a work of Antonello Gagini from 1500s’. Of great artistic but also spiritual value is the Crucifix known as “Padre della Misericordia” (Merciful Father). The church houses a throne of the King Charles V used during his short stay in Nicosia in 1535. 

Birthplace of San Felipe

San Felice – A saint from Nicosia

      Brother Felix proclaimed saint in 2005 is a native to Nicosia. He was born in 1715 as Filippo Giacomo Amoruso and spent most of his life as a monk in the Capuchin Order. With great humility and obedience he devoted his life to help poor and sick including those affected by deadly plaque. His earthly remains are in the Church of St. Mary of Angels.

San Felice became the patron of Nicosia and is celebrated each year on the first Sunday in September. The place where he was born is now converted into the museum-shrine.

Nicosia: Mt. San Giorgio

View from the Mt. San Giorgio

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