The Black Baroque


Everything in Catania is black and white.

Stone, that is.

This part of Sicily has a tumultuous history, and not only in terms of conquest and warfare. The island sits right on top of a fault line, which is the reason for some of its most striking features: volcanoes. Tectonic plate activity is responsible for many of the catastrophes that have occurred in Sicily over the course of time, including high-magnitude earthquakes and violent volcanic eruptions.

One city in Sicily in particular has been shaped by the likes of earthquakes and eruptions several times: Catania. The very name of the city comes from the dark, rough, pocked stone that makes up much of the territory around Catania: The Sicilians called it katane, which means ‘skinning place’ or ‘grater.’ When the Greeks arrived, they thought this an apt description of the place, and simply adopted the Sicilian word.

Had the Greeks known just how apt of a name ‘skinning place’ was for the area around Catania, they might not have settled there. The city and the surrounding area were constantly under threat, whether it be from nearby Mount Etna, devastating earthquakes (one of which was so bad that even the Romans gave Catania a break, and allowed the citizens ten years free of taxes), or marauders after the prime port location. The events which gave Catania the face it has today, though, occurred in modern times, long after the Greeks.


In 1669, Mount Etna erupted spectacularly, and severely damaged parts of Catania. Had it not been for the engineering feat that was the city wall, a very large swathe would have been cut through the city; the walls held fast long enough to divert most of the lava flow around the city and into the harbor, instead of into people’s houses. Just when the city had finished cleaning up the neighborhoods damaged in that eruption (and, presumably, chiseling their through the hardened lava at the city walls), an earthquake leveled Catania in 1693. The city had to be completely rebuilt, from the ground up. Enter Giovanni Battista Vaccarini, architect extraordinaire.

Originally from Palermo, Vaccarini was brought in to plan, design, and execute the new city of Catania. Whether he had a wry sense of humor or he was simply working with a tight budget and had to use the materials at hand, I don’t know, but his choice of building material was interesting.

He chose lava rock.

That’s right, the material chosen to rebuild the city of Catania was the very same material that had threatened it for so long (and threatens it still). The historical districts of Catania are built almost completely using a combination of limestone and lava rock, creating the unique black-and-white color palate that the city still sports today.


The building style at the time that Vaccarini was working was the baroque style. Known for its dramatic flourishes and over-the-top detail work, it’s made ever more dramatic by the use of black and white stone. The whole of Piazza del Duomo is an exercise in craning your neck to catch all the little details, not the least of which is the black elephant, smack in the middle of the square.

La Fontana d’Elefante (lah fohn-tah-nah deh-leh-fahn-teh), or the Fountain of the Elephant, holds a lot of importance for the city of Catania. From the days of old – all the way back to the Arab occupation of the island – the elephant has been a symbol of the city. It was believed that the symbol of the elephant would protect the city from natural disasters, of which, between Mount Etna and earthquakes, they saw a fair few. When he rebuilt Catania, Vaccarini thought it would be a wonderful idea to include the most important symbol of the city – the elephant – in the most important square in the city – Piazza del Duomo. Never mind that the only reason he had the job of designing Catania was because the elephant hadn’t done its job properly.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the Black Baroque, as the building style of Catania has come to be called, is that it’s still in danger. Remember, this part of the world is prone to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Earthquakes happen all the time, and Mount Etna is still an active volcano. Not only did Vaccarini and the people of Catania rebuild their city using the tools of its destruction, but they did so knowing full well that it might be destroyed again. That tenacity, or perhaps audacity, earned the city of Catania a place on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list in 2012.

As if that weren’t enough to recommend it, it’s just plain beautiful.


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