Benedictine Monastery of San Nicolò l’Arena 

The Benedictine Monastery of San Nicolò l’Arena in Catania is one of the largest monastic complexes in Europe and one of the main examples of Baroque architecture in Sicily. Founded in the thirteenth century, the Monastery has housed for centuries several communities of Benedictine monks. Today it is a university and the animation of the students is combined with one of the most beautiful and characteristic places of the city. The guided tour is recommended and will allow you to discover the wonderful history of this place.

History of the Monastery of San Nicolò -From the origins until the beginning of the ‘700

Around the second half of the twelfth century, on the slopes of Mount Etna, a chapel was erected and a shelter for the sick monks of the nearby monasteries of Santa Maria di Licodia and San Leone del Colle Pannacchio, near Paternò. Then, at the behest of Frederick III of Sicily, a monastery was built, which became the main seat of the cenobi. This monastery was named “San Nicolò la Rena” for the devotion of the monks to San Nicola di Bari and for the characteristic sandy land, called red sand, that covered the area. The village of Nicolosi soon developed around the monastery. Over the years, the cenobium expanded, surpassing that of Licodia. The numerous visits of the queens Eleanor of Anjou and Blanche of Navarre, as well as the constant favor of the rulers, are a testament to its importance. The monastery accumulated considerable wealth and became a religious center of great prestige. 

The term “cenobio”, from the Greek koinobion meaning common life, refers both to a monastic community in which monks live together under a common rule and share daily activities, both spiritual and material, or a type of architectural structure designed to house that community.

In 1483, the Benedictine monasteries of San Placido Calonerò, San Nicolò l’Arena, Santa Maria Nuova and Santa Maria di Licodia formed the “Congregation of the Monks of San Benedetto in Sicilia”, approved by Pope Sisto IV, with privileges similar to the “Congregation of Santa Giustina”. In 1504, with the annexation of Montecassino, the Congregation of Santa Giustina became the “Cassinese Congregation”, and in 1506 the Sicilian monasteries also converged. Because of the raids of brigands, the harsh climate of Etna and the isolation, the monks asked to move to Catania, the safest city, both for the monastic community and for the venerated relic of the Holy Nail. The eruption of 1536-1537, which destroyed San Leone, accelerated the transfer. The monks of Nicolosi, Santa Maria di Licodia and the survivors of San Leone obtained permission to move within the walls of Catania. The Benedictine monks then moved to Catania in the sixteenth century and obtained permission to build a new monastery within the city walls, in the area called the “Cipriana” and the “Park”. 

In the 17th century, the monastery and church were enriched with elaborate decorations, including a large cloister with white marble columns in 1608. The eruption of Etna in 1669 damaged the cenobio and destroyed the church of San Nicolò. The Benedictines started an impressive renovation, also building a marble fountain in the cloister, and in 1687 began the reconstruction of the church to a design by Giovan Battista Contini.

On 11 January 1693, an earthquake devastated Catania, causing the collapse of the monastery and the death of most of the monks, saving only three. The structures of the church, still under construction, were spared, but the works were suspended for about twenty years.

After the earthquake of 1693, the surviving Benedictine monks tried to move to Monte Vergine to build a new monastery. However, the city senate forced them to return to La Cipriana in 1702, where they began reconstruction. The project, entrusted to the Messinese Antonino Amato, envisaged an even more monumental complex than the previous one, reflecting the rich and grandiose ambitions of the monks.

The eighteenth century

In the eighteenth century, the sixteenth-century complex was expanded eastward with the construction of a second cloister next to the oldest. Two other cloisters had to close the complex symmetrically to the north, but the project was never completed.

In the following twenty years the stone carvings of the main façades were made, and the works of construction, enlargement and decoration continued throughout the eighteenth century. First the marble cloister was completed, or “west”, where the seventeenth-century columns and the fountain were put back in place.

Later, architects Francesco Battaglia and Giovanni Battista Vaccarini expanded the complex to the north. Battaglia started the northern extension to the upper lava bank of the 1669 eruption, while Vaccarini modified the original design symmetry. 

The communal and representative rooms of the monastery occupied the area planned for the third cloister, marking the abandonment of the grandiose initial project. 

After 1747, Francesco Battaglia completed the work of Giovanni Battista Vaccarini, creating various structures including the bridge to the Benedictine flora, a garden located to the east (now Vittorio Emanuele II Hospital), the Chorus of Night and the continuation of work on the Church of San Nicolò the Arena. In 1767, the presbytery of the church was enriched with the large organ of Donato Del Piano, although the nave was completed much later. Stefano Ittar finished the dome in 1780, but the façade designed by Carmelo Battaglia Santangelo remained unfinished.

Foto : Monastero dei Benedettini

From the nineteenth century to our days 

Much of the monastery and church was completed by the 19th century. The monks enriched the interior with marbles, paintings and artistic, archaeological and scientific collections, making the complex famous in Europe. Around 1840, engineer Mario Musumeci completed the cloisters. In 1866, as a result of the suppression laws of the religious guilds, the monastery was confiscated by the state property and the monks were forced to leave. The last abbot, Giuseppe Benedetto Dusmet, delivered the complex to the city institutions in 1867. Then, the monastery was divided and used for various purposes: barracks, schools, technical institutes, Civic Museum, astrophysical observatory, laboratory of geodynamics and Civic Library, now Libraries gathered Civic and Ursino Recovery.

During World War II, the monastic complex suffered damage from bombing. After the war, the monastery was ceded to the University of Catania, while the Church of San Nicolò was returned to the Benedictines. The architect Giancarlo De Carlo led a vast recovery project, transforming the complex into the seat of the Faculty of Letters and Philosophy, Foreign Languages and Literature, now part of the Department of Humanities (DISUM). Among the works stands out the “red room” by Antonino Leonardi. 

The Church of San Nicolò l’Arena, designed by Giovanni Battista Contini and begun in 1687, preserves works by various artists and houses a large Baroque organ and a sundial of 40 meters.

The architecture of the Church and the Monastery of San Nicolò l’Arena

The architectural complex, followed by Francesco Battaglia and Stefano Ittar, remained unfinished in the facade, but reflects the influence of the Roman architectural language. Inside, it houses the Shrine of the Fallen of the two World Wars, curated by the Noble and Honor Guards at the War Shrines of Catania.

The Church, with a Latin cross plan, is one of the largest in Sicily, passing the Cathedral of Sant’Agata. Externally unfinished, it has four pairs of cut-off columns and an unfinished table. The works, begun in the 17th century, were not completed in 1866, when the structure was confiscated.

The monastic buildings of San Nicolò l’Arena, which surround the church on three sides, occupy a large area and maintain a recognizable structure despite the changes. Separated from the rest of Catania by a high wall with two main portals, the Monastery of San Nicolò represented the western end of the city. The first portal, located to the north, now serves as the entrance of via Biblioteca and is located at the end of via Gesualdo Clementi, continuation of via Antonino di San Giuliano, originally called via Lanza in honor of Giuseppe Lanza, Duke of Camastra, who traced it immediately after the earthquake of 1693. The second portal, overlooking Piazza Dante, corresponds to the ancient sixteenth-century monastery, rebuilt by the monks after the great earthquake.

The second portal leads to the large external courtyard, which served as a filter between the external and religious world of the building. Along the boundary wall there were service rooms such as horsemen, stables and carts.

At the centre of the court stands the majestic monastery, defined in 1773 the “Sicilian Versailles” by Patrick Brydone, a Scottish scientist, soldier and traveller.

The monastery has a low ground floor and two main floors, necessary to align the second floor to the level of the 1669 lava bank. This solution, together with the boundary wall that isolated the cenobio from the city, made the Benedictine building of San Nicolò original in the architectural panorama of Catania.

The southern and eastern facades of the monastery are richly decorated in late Baroque style, with scrolls, flowers, fruits, masks, cherubs and nymphs. The windows and balconies are adorned, while the giant pilasters with Corinthian capitals characterize the cornice, separated by a decorative fringe of volutes and shells. The main portal, added by Carmelo Battaglia Santangelo towards the end of the 18th century, has an almost neoclassical style. Inside, the structure is very symmetrical, with two square cloisters around which there are intersecting corridors orthogonally. Along these corridors are the doors of the monks’ cells, the abbot’s and the king’s apartments, all lined up on the external facades. The stairs, including the large pincer staircase designed by Girolamo Palazzotto, provide vertical connections.

The first cloister, called of the east, is completely portico with pillars and round arches and surrounded by a dense garden. Initially built only on the northern side, it was completed in the nineteenth century by adding arcades on the other three sides, with the addition of a neo-Gothic Caffeaos in the center. The Caffeaos takes its name from the German term Kaffe-Haus, that is a small place to drink coffee outdoors.

The second cloister, known as the marble, is the oldest and stands on the foundations of the previous building. Originally paved with pebbles and lava stone, it preserves a large marble fountain of the seventeenth century in the center and porches with white marble columns dating back to the eighteenth century. Between the two cloisters stretches the Corridor of the Clock, the longest of the complex (214 meters), connecting the private and representative wings of the monastery. Originally designed with two symmetrical cloisters, it was modified by Vaccarini in 1739: instead of new cloisters, he built the antirefectory, refectories, kitchens, library and museum, following a non-symmetrical baroque conception. The University Library, located in the basement, houses mosaics of an ancient Roman Domus of the second century AD, restored and exhibited in the Emeroteca.

They were found mosaics in Opus tessellatum belonging to the Peristyle of the Domus and a Triclinium dating back to the second century B.C. A room with a fresco of the first century A.D. is called “room of the table laid”. A suspended space with bridge facilitates access to the Library, avoiding damage to Roman mosaics. During the war, the basement was a bomb shelter. The Novitiate, initiated by Francesco Battaglia and modified by Vaccarini, welcomed novices from aristocratic families. In architecture, the term “novitiate” refers to a specific section of a monastery or convent dedicated to novices, individuals who are going through the period of formation and trial before becoming full members of the religious community.

The antirefettorio is a round room decorated with Tuscan columns, statues of cherubs and a dome. The refectory, with its high ceiling and numerous windows, is more reminiscent of a church than a refectory. The Sicilian terracotta pavement surrounds the room with tables for the monks, while in the center there is a majolica carpet. The fresco by Giovanni Battista Piparo, depicting the “Glory of Saint Benedict”, has survived and is in the room now used as the Aula Magna Santo Mazzarino.

The Libraries Civica and A. Ursino Recupero, formed by the library collections of the Benedictine monks and other religious congregations of Catania, contain about 270,000 volumes and a wide range of historical and cultural materials. The ancient rooms of the Museum, originally intended for the art collections of the monks, now house the Libraries. 

The art collections were transferred to the Ursino Castle in Catania in the 1930s. The Vaccarini Room, designed by the homonymous architect in 1733, is the main room, with large oval windows, high shelves and frescoes by Giovanni Battista Piparo. Among the treasures preserved there are ancient tabulars of local monasteries, historical and cultural testimonies.

How to reach the Monastery

Once in Catania, you can reach the Benedictine Monastery, the current site of disum of the University of Catania, in several ways. To visit the complex, booking for guided tours is required. For information on times and access, please consult the official website of the Benedictine Monastery of Catania.

  1. If you are in the historic centre of Catania, the Benedictine Monastery is within easy walking distance. Just follow the signs to Via dei Crociferi, where the main entrance of the Monastery is located.
  2. You can take a taxi to the Benedictine Monastery. 
  3. By car, you can reach the Benedictine Monastery. However, it is important to keep in mind that the historic center of Catania is characterized by narrow streets and traffic restrictions. It is advisable to park your car in one of the public car parks nearby and walk to the Monastery.

Copertina : Monastero dei Benedettini

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