Sicilian Baroque View From Above Of Ragusa Ibla Hill Town

Building Back Baroque in Ragusa, Sicily

If your city was leveled by an earthquake, would you rebuild in the same spot or start fresh on the next hill over? This was the dilemma facing residents of Ragusa, Sicily in 1693. Much of the aristocracy elected to move, and the town split into two parts. The taller hill (Ragusa Superiore) got a modern grid layout, while the lower hill (Ragusa Ibla) retained its original medieval streets.

In a frenzy of building over the next hundred years, Ragusa and other towns in the area developed a distinctive form of architecture known today as “Sicilian Baroque.” Exuberant and full of surprises, these buildings demonstrate Sicilians’ resilience and creativity. UNESCO declared the region a World Heritage site, noting that the Val di Noto area “represents a considerable collective undertaking in response to a catastrophic seismic event.”

Ragusa Sicily View Of Hill Town With Tower And Buildings In Front

The Val di Noto and the Baroque Triangle

Ragusa and the towns of Modica and Noto form the “Baroque Triangle” dominating the Val de Noto area in southeastern Sicily. For over a thousand years, colonizers considered the region a pleasant backwater. Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, and finally the Spanish monitored little besides the harvests.

In early January 1693, two massive earthquakes struck the area. At 7.5 on the Richter scale, either quake could have been devastating; together they reduced more than 50 towns to rubble. Aftershocks triggered a tsunami, extending damage along the coast. 

Sicilian Baroque Buildings Shades Of Yellow Tile Roofs

The Spanish rulers tried, in their way, to provide assistance. But Sicily was only a small part of their vast empire, functioning largely as a colony to be exploited (and brought under Catholic guidance). In order to eliminate the dangers of cramped, winding streets, the Spanish introduced city planning based on a grid. Unfortunately, these plans reinforced the social hierarchy by focusing on the upper classes. In some towns, such as Noto, inhabitants sabotaged construction when their objections to the plans were ignored.

In spite of city planning controversies, the towns were rebuilt within a relatively short time. Structural improvements helped them survive until the present with their remarkable vivacity intact.

Visiting the Val di Noto

Travel times in the Val di Noto may or may not correspond to distance on a map. Train and especially auto routes wind circuitously between hills. Luckily, it’s hardly a chore to pass an hour or more gazing at the region’s landscape.

Sicily Val De Noto Ragusa Ibla Hill With Buildings And Curving Road In Trees At Base

Many visitors are tempted to visit more than one Val di Noto town in a day – which is a mistake. The Baroque Triangle is not a place to rush, or even to follow a set itinerary. Moreover, the nights are pure magic. With limited time on our trip, we elected to stay in Ragusa for two days rather than dashing from one place to the next.

Arriving in Ragusa

Ragusa Ibla Hillside Buildings And Church With Blue Tiled Dome Sicily

Although accommodations abound in both parts of Ragusa, most visitors opt to stay in the more historic and atmospheric Ragusa Ibla. Since the train station is in Ragusa Superiore, the first order of business is getting to the other hill. When we arrived mid-day, the station was deserted, but we found a woman sitting at the bus stop who confirmed the route for us. (Linea Urbana #11 or #33 Monday-Saturday, #1 or #3 on Sunday and holidays. Purchase tickets on board or at a tabacchi. Buses usually run about every 40 minutes.) When we got on, an older gentleman riding with some buddies took it upon himself to make sure we got off at the right place. I had been tracking the bus’s progress on my phone map, but a volunteer guardian never hurts.

Ragusa Ibla: Piazza Del Duomo

Sicilian Baroque Ragusa Ibla Piazza Del Duomo Cathedral Facade And Steps People Walking

Orientation in Ragusa Ibla begins with the iconic Duomo di San Giorgio and its sloping piazza. Here in the center of town, a modest building on a difficult site was reborn as a Sicilian Baroque tour-de-force.

Baroque buildings on the mainland inspired the Duomo’s undulating curves, clusters of columns, and decorative spirals. However, the cathedral also features elements unique to the region, such as a dramatic staircase and a belfry built right into the façade (instead of a separate bell tower). Balconies were all the rage, and there’s one here, too, although anyone on it would likely be deafened by the bell and maybe even knocked right off by its swing. The neoclassical dome was added later. Note: the piazza features prominently in the hugely popular Inspector Montalbano series, a television show based on Andrea Camilleri’s books.

Exploring Ragusa Ibla

Sicily Val De Noto Ragusa Man In Suit Walking Down Cobble Street With Baroque Buildings And Hills In Distance

Ragusa is better suited to wandering than to checking off a list of sights. Serpentine streets provide glimpses of the surrounding valley at unexpected moments. A secondary population of semi-stray cats monitors the humans (and occasional dog) in between naps.

Pedestrians are also watched over by grotesques clustering on the supports of the ever-present balconies. Sicilian Baroque architecture is famous for these stone heads looking down on and reacting to passersby with sometimes comic abandon. 


Ragusa Sicily Balcony With Grotesques Baroque Sculptures And Wrought Iron

Some scholars have theorized that the grotesques represent past horrors, particularly the plague, which hit the island hard enough to wipe out entire cities. Others have identified elements of folklore or superstition. Whatever their purpose, the grotesques contrast with both the ‘prettier’ ornamentation and the notion of a cleaner, more modern town. Sicily abounds with such seemingly incongruous combinations.

The Valley of the Bridges

Sicilian Baroque Ragusa Val De Noto Weathered Buildings With Hills Behind

Ragua Ibla spills down its original hill and back up the front of the next, with Ragusa Superiore spreading down the other side. Although the ravine between the two hills is known as the Valle dei Ponti (or Valley of the Bridges), there aren’t any direct bridges between Ragusa Ibla and Superiore. Instead, tiny streets and paths wind up and down through Ragusa’s most architecturally diverse zone.

View Of Hill Town Ragusa Ibla Between Buildings With Patio Table And Plants

Panoramic views further up make all the steps worthwhile. On the Ragusa Superiore side, the Santa Maria delle Scale (St. Mary of the Stairs) has a terrace with especially picturesque views of Ibla. The building itself, with Baroque elements filling in remains of the original Norman structure, shows Ragusans embracing contradiction in true Sicilian style.

Sicily Val De Noto Hills With Farm Terracing Sunset

Regardless of which hill they happen to lie on, Ragusa’s post-earthquake structures are still sheltering residents after more than 300 years. The Baroque Triangle demonstrates the potential for reconstruction to bring progress. As climate change ramps up, the increase in catastrophic headlines across the world erodes our sense of security. Witnessing a community like Ragusa, which transformed a tragedy into a means for creating something better, gave me hope.

Further Reading

Our other posts on Sicily include:

Ortigia and Syracuse


The Cathedrals of Cefalù and Monreale

Trapani and Erice

Favignana Island

For more on the Baroque in southern Italy, see our post on Lecce.