Ukraine can turn tragedy into triumph

On the evening of January 11, 1693, the ground in southeastern Sicily began to shake violently as an earthquake with the maximum rating of XI on the Modified Mercalli Intensity Scale gripped the region for four minutes. “It was in this country impossible to stand on our legs, or in one place on the Earth that dances”, recalls an eminent Account.

An eight-meter-high tsunami followed the quake, which had been preceded two days earlier by a massive omen. The trio of disasters decimated an area the size of Connecticut or half of Qatar. Some 70 towns were destroyed – the regional seat of Catania was razed, smaller towns like Noto, Avola, Mellili and Ragusa lost their cores and buildings fell as far away as Malta.

The most powerful earthquake ever recorded in Italy has killed up to 90,000 Sicilians, including two-thirds of the inhabitants of Catania. Official documents written in its wake reference “the city that was once Catania”. However, the devastation did not last long.

The government, then controlled by the Spanish crown, moved quickly to begin reconstruction, with the effort placed almost entirely in the hands of the Sicilians. Spain’s official representative, Sicilian Giuseppe Lanza, was fully watched and worked with a council of nobles and church officials to devise plans for the most devastated towns.

Rather than being sent to Madrid, all taxes collected in the region were spent on reconstruction. To encourage renewal, property prices have been cut by a third and building regulations have been lifted in Catania and the nearby Noto Valley, or Val di Noto. Within weeks, many citizens who had fled returned and built temporary shelters. By the end of 1694, several houses and shops had been rebuilt and reopened.

At first glance, Sicily and Ukraine seem like opposites. Yet both are prisoners of geography…

The council brought in a few luminaries of the day to advise them, such as the Flemish architect and engineer Carlos de Grunenberg, but relied primarily on local talent. A great wave of Sicilian engineers, architects, planners and craftsmen, many trained in Rome, returned to contribute. They embarked on a wave of design and construction rarely equaled in post-Renaissance Europe, creating a style all their own, Sicilian Baroque, which added new flamboyance to the highly decorative form that had emerged a century previously.

Alonzo di Benedetto, considered Catania’s only surviving architect after the earthquake, oversaw a team that built many of the city’s best-known palaces, or palazzi. Locals such as Rosario Gagliardi, Vincenzo Sinatra, Giovanni Battista Vaccarini, Andrea Palma and Marchese Landolina achieved legendary status for their planning, palaces, facades and cathedrals in Catania, Ragusa, Noto, Modica, Scicli and beyond . In just over half a century, this tide of Sicilian skill has turned tragedy into triumph, transforming their homeland from a place of devastation into one of the continent’s great flourishes of creativity and rebirth.

I had to land somewhere after fleeing violence in my adopted country, Ukraine, and decided to shake off a long-standing itch and visit the largest island in the Mediterranean. I didn’t expect to find a lesson here, but admiring the architectural marvels of Catania, Syracuse and Noto while keeping up to date with the latest in Ukraine, I couldn’t shake it off.

Syracuse Cathedral is a former Catholic church in Syracuse, Sicily.  Melinda Healy

At first glance, Sicily and Ukraine seem to be opposites: Mediterranean openness versus Slavic strength; an arid island and a lush, almost landlocked nation. Yet both are prisoners of geography, ruled for eons by one more powerful neighbor or another. Both are considered European satellites, part of the continent’s periphery.

Both were conquered and ruled in the Middle Ages by supposed foreigners: the Aghlabid emirs for Sicily; the Mongols for Ukraine. As a result, the two cultures today represent a kind of melting pot. Ukrainians, for example, love their rice dish plownative to Central Asia, while Sicilian cuisine is dominated by pistachios and citrus fruits introduced during the Emirate of Sicily. To top it off, for centuries before Ukraine took the crown, Sicily ranked among the world’s top producers of wheat.

Of course, an earthquake is not a war. One is a natural disaster and the other is man-made, and often comes with much more personalized horror, as seems to be the case in Ukraine, especially if early reports of war crimes in places like Bucha are accurate. But the devastation facing Ukraine today echoes that of southeast Sicily then.

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Hundreds of hospitals and government buildings and over 1,000 civilian structures were bombed. Thousands of people have been killed and large swaths of major eastern cities, such as Mariupol and Kharkiv, have been flattened, recent satellite images show. Mariupol’s mayor said over the weekend that the city would need $10 billion just to rebuild its infrastructure.

As Russian forces withdraw from certain areas and negotiations seem to be gaining momentum, it seems like a good time to look ahead. Spring is synonymous with rebirth, especially when you stroll through the sun-drenched phoenixes of Noto, Catania and Syracuse, where the architectural glories built three centuries ago are only now paying their due. Unesco awarded World Heritage status to the historic center of Catania and the Val di Noto in 2002, and to Syracuse three years later – all largely attributed to Sicilian Baroque structures built in the wake of the earthquake.

But long before those honours, reconstruction brought about cultural change and economic growth. The reconstruction of Catania and the Val di Noto inspired wealthy Sicilians all over the island, especially in Palermo, to have their palaces and quarters redone in a similar style. By the end of the 18th century, Catania had become one of Italy’s most modern cities, a hub for the Sicilian aristocracy and a regular stopover for Grand Tour travelers from across the continent.

The Greek Theater in Taormina, Catania, Italy

Tourism is now a crucial source of income for Sicily and Unesco accolades have led to an increase in tourist arrivals, which reached a record number in 2007. After the financial crisis of 2008-9, the sector and Sicily’s tourism economy have recovered faster than the rest of Italy – a testament to the lasting impact of post-earthquake reconstruction.

Years ago, a British journalist describe The highly acclaimed post-earthquake reconstruction of southeastern Sicily reads: “Buildings designed in the aftermath of this disaster expressed a slight freedom of decoration whose incongruous cheerfulness was perhaps intended to assuage the horror .”

These two tragedies left their people wondering if they could ever regain their life, their pride, not to mention their home. Yet both can become turning points in their history, opportunities to find the strength to build a place worthy of their resilience.

Surely Ukrainians could find far worse ways to quell their horrors than to rebuild with a commitment and creativity that sparks a national renaissance.

Published: 04 April 2022, 02:00 PM

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