Acireale: the Baroque and its Churches
Nestled in the foothills of Mount Etna and the Ionian Sea, Acireale lies on a lava plateau, the Timpa. Founded in 731 BC as a Greek colony under the name of Xiphonia, today it is well-known for its baroque old town, for its Carnival and the seaside villages along the Timpa Natural Reserve. The town was rebuilt after the 1693 earthquake, which shook the whole south-eastern Sicily: the area around Piazza del Duomo, with a number of baroque buildings, the baronial palaces with lava gates embellished with carved masks, the monasteries, the fascinating interweaving of alleys, all testify the relevant role which culture and history have had in this town.
The old town is the most important landmark of Acireale. On the square, which contains architectural gems dating back to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries enhanced by recent restoration, overlook the main buildings of the town: the Cathedral, the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, the Town Hall and Modò Palace.
With its magnificent neo-Gothic façade and bell towers characterised by decorative motifs created with polychrome ceramic tiles, the Cathedral is devoted to Maria Santissima Annunziata but it is commonly attributed to the cult of St. Venera, the patron saint of the town. Inside the Cathedral you can admire: St. Venera’s chapel, which is home to the relics and the silver statue of the saint; the sundial, embedded in the floor and adorned with the zodiac symbols; tombs of historical figures of the town; frescoes, oil paintings and works by Paolo Vasta, Giuseppe Sciuti, Vito D’Anna, Antonio Filocamo and many other great artists.
Built in 1550, The Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul was restored in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Designed by Vasta in 1741, its prospectus is baroque. The bell tower was implemented in the nineteenth century. Despite being planned, a second bell was never built. Inside, a single aisle is home to some paintings by Vasta, by Platania, and to a statue of Christ at the Column, by an unknown author, venerated by the inhabitants and traditionally carried in procession every 70 years.
Formerly called “Loggia Giuratoria” and designed after 1640, the Town Hall is clearly distinguished by a picturesque Baroque architecture, despite being restored in the eighteenth century. Some remarkable features are: on the ground floor, the long balustrade only interrupted by the front gate; on the first floor, the so-called “masks”, bizarre carved figures which hold up the balconies and the elegant wrought iron railings emerging from the terraces of the Town Hall. Inside, you can visit a permanent exhibition of historical uniforms, hosted at sala Costarelli.
Modò Palace (former Teatro Eldorado ) is not directly set on Piazza del Duomo as it looks almost hidden from view. Its original structure has deteriorated over time and was rebuilt in Baroque style. It still presents original features: two balconies with baroque shelf holders, the ” masks” and the name of Teatro Eldorado, used as a theatre until 1920s.
A short walk away from the Cathedral, Collegiate Basilica of St. Sebastian is the most important church in Acireale. Declared a national monument, the origins of the Basilica date back to the Baroque period: the building works began in the first decade of the seventeenth century and ended in 1644. The Basilica presents a façade with multiple orders, preceded by a balustrade with statues of the Old Testament, fourteen putti holding up festoons and countless decorations that greatly enrich the whole of the white façade. The Latin cross interior is decorated with frescoes made in the first half of the eighteenth century by Pietro Paolo Vasta, depicting scenes from the life of Sebastian and episodes from the life of Christ. There are seven paintings: “Pietà” by Pietro Vasta, “Trinity with St. Mark the Evangelist, Bishop Jerome and Liborio” by Vasta and Vito D’Anna, three representations of Saints by Michele Vecchio, “St. Gaetano” and “Jesus and Mary” by Alessandro Vasta. Moreover, the basilica contains the statue of St. Sebastian, co-patron of the town, brought in procession every year on 20th January.
Other main sights include the Gothic-Langobardic church of St. Anthony of Padua, the most ancient religious building of the town; the Church of St. Camillus, characterised by a rather simple external architecture but precious interior decorations; the Church of St. Mary of Suffrage, completely frescoed by Pietro Paolo Vasta, in which the whole cycle of typically baroque frescoes represents the souls waiting for salvation in Purgatory; the fourteenth-century Church of Our Lady of Miracles at the Cemetery and the sixteenth-century Loreto Sanctuary.