As the road picks its way to Agrigento,
the almond trees gradually become more numerous. When in flower
(January and February), their blossom appear like little clouds
of white against the green fields and the bare earth of the hillsides;
it is precisely at this time of year that the town comes to life
and puts on its Sunday best for the Sagra del Mandorlo in Fiore
(Almond Blossom Festival) Visitors approaching Agrigento from the
coast will be treated to a glorious sight, particularly if arriving
at sunset when the houses along the crest of the hill are coloured
with paste hues and the Temple of Heracles dominates the foreground
from on high, illuminated by the last rays of sunlight (enter the
town from the Valley of the Temples).
Having reached the town by way of
the Porta Aurea, two high tufa walls mark and protect the entrance
to the old town. The Church of St. Nicholas appears on the left,
built of the same rich gold tufa which characterizes the vestiges
from Antiquity and the old town.
of Akragas – The site upon which Agrigento was constructed
has been inhabited since prehistoric times, but it was not until
about 580 BC that a group of people from Gela, originally from Rhodes
and Crete, decided to found Akragas, taking its name from one of
the two rivers which confine the city. Under the tyrant Phalaris
(570-554 BC), the city was fortified and organized politically.
It is to him that the ancients attribute the idea of using a hollow
bronze bull (commissioned from the sculptor Perillus) as an instrument
of torture for his enemies. These unfortunate
victims were imprisoned in the belly of the animal and roasted alive;
the screams of the condemned emanating from the animal were likened
to the lowing of a cow. Hated by his people, Phalaris was publicly
stoned to death.
city reached its height under the tyrant Theron (488-472 BC): the
military might, having defeated the Carthaginians several times,
enforced a rule which, among other things, forbade them from making
human sacrifices. Economic stability, coupled with political strength,
favoured a flowering of the arts: the Temple of Zeus was built,
literature and the performing arts flourished.
philosopher Empedocles (c492-c432 BC) advocated a moderate form
of democracy which lasted for some time. In 406 BC, Akragas suffered
a crushing defeat at the hands of the Carthaginians,
who destroyed it. It was rebuilt in the second half of the 4C BC
by Timoleon, a mercenary general from Corinth engaged in the fight
against the Carthaginians in Sicily. It was at this time that the
Greco-Roman quarter was built, the remains of which give some idea
of the town’s reformed urban planning.
In 210 BC, Akragas was besieged
by the Romans. They conquered the city and changed its name to Agrigentum.
Vicissitudes of Girgenti –
With the fall of the Roman Empire, the city passed first to the
Byzantines, then into Arab hands (9C). They built a new town centre
higher up (at the heart of the modern town), calling it Girgenti
– this lasted until 1927, when its Latin name was restored
– which became the capital of the Berber kingdom. In 1087,
the town was conquered by the Normans, prompting a new phase of
prosperity and power which also enabled it to repel the frequent
attacks of the Saracens.
It was during the reign of Roger
the Norman that the churches of San Nicola, Santa Maria dei Greci
and San Biagio were built. After a turbulent period which resulted
in a gradual decline in the population of the town, Girgenti enjoyed
a change in fortune, most notably in the 18C when the town centre
was shifted from Via Duomo to Via Atenea. In 1860, the inhabitants,
dissatisfied like the rest of the island with Bourbon misrule, enthusiastically
supported Garibaldi’s mission. During the Second World War,
Agrigento suffered a number of air raids.
Two famous Sons – Agrigento
has nurtured famous personalities both in Antiquity and in more
recent times. Among the most renowned are the philosopher Empedocles
(5C BC), who died, according to legend, by leaping into the crater
of Etna attempting to prove his divine powers (and, as in confirmation
of this, Etna is supposed to have thrown back his shoes, which had
turned to bronze).
the 20C, the greatest figure with which it is associated is Pirandello,
the famous playwright and novelist born in the small village of
Caos below the town, where his ashes are interred. The more fanatical
Pirandello enthusiasts should visit the Biblioteca Luigi Pirandello
at 120 Via Regione Sicilia, which also contains a vast selection
of works by other Sicilian authors.
Where to eat - The Kokalos restaurant-cum-pizzeria
in Via Cavalieri Magazeni offers traditional cuisine in a rustic
setting. There is also a well-stocked wine bar.
Where to sleep – Visitors
wishing to sleep “among the Ancient Greeks” might check-out
the Villa Athena, an 18C residence, situated right opposite the
Temple of Concord.
Stoai – The age-old covered
market where shop-stalls were once ranged opposite each other among
the arcades, survives just outside Agrigento (1 Via Cavalieri Magazzeni
- 0922606623), converted into a multimedia environment used for
craft shows and other events.
The broad Viale della Vittoria,
shaded by trees, provides beautiful views of the Valley of the Temples
and leads to a square before the station. On the right stands the
16C Church of San Calogero, dedicated to a saint who is particularly
venerated in this area. The façade has a fine doorway with
a pointed arch.
The nuns of this closed Benedictine
order make exquisite almond sweetmeats (ricce, conchiglie, amaretti
and paste nuove) and the famous cuscusu (even its name recalls the
more typical semolina dish using coarsely-ground wheat, which is
steamed and served with fish to make the Trapani variety of cous-cous)
- a semolina pudding served in small bowls, sweetened with chocolate
and pistachio nuts, and decorated with candied fruit.
A little further on is Piazza Aldo
Moro, where the lovely Via Atenea begins. Along this thoroughfare
are to be found: on the right Palazzo Celauro (best admired from
the street of the same name) where Goethe sojourned when on his
Grand Tour, and, on the left, the Franciscan Church of the Immacolata
(Blessed Virgin), altered in the 18C. To the right of the church,
beyond the gate, can be seen the façade of the 14C Conventino
Chiaramontano, so called because of the style of the portal between
the two-light windows.
Return to Via Atenea and continue
to Piazza del Purgatorio, which is overlooked by the splendid façade
of San Lorenzo (18C), its golden ochre tufa contrasting dramatically
with the whiteness of the doorway, ornamented with twisted columns.
The interior contains stuccoes by Serpotta and a painting by Guido
Reni. Nearby, level with Via Bac Bac, stands the Chiesa di San Giuseppe,
a church dedicated to St Joseph.
In Piazza Pirandello stands the
Town Hall, formerly a Dominican monastery (17C), and an adjacent
church with a fine Baroque façade overlooking an elegant
flight of steps. Set back, on the left side of the church, is the
Abbazia di Santo Spirito –
From Via Atenea, take Via Forcella, follow the steps up Salita di
Santo Spirito. The church and its dependent convent date from the
13C. Sadly, the state of the buildings is gradually deteriorating.
The front of the church has a fine Gothic doorway with a rose-window
above. The Baroque interior consists of a single nave. On the walls
are four high reliefs attributed to Giacomo Serpotta: The Nativity
and The Adoration of the Magi on the right, The Flight into Egypt
and the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple on the left. To the
right of the façade is a doorway into the cloister, leading
under two of the great buttresses supporting the church. At the
far end is the beautiful entrance to the chapterhouse, consisting
of an elegant doorway through a pointed arch, flanked by highly
decorative Arabo-Norman two-light windows.
Via San Gerolamo – This street
is lined with elegant palazzi: of note in passing, is the front
of the 19C Palazzo del Campo-Lazzarini at no. 14 (opposite Santa
Maria del Soccorso) and that of the 18C Palazzo Barone Celauro at
no. 86, which has two rows of small balconies gracing the windows
which are articulated with semicircular and triangular pediments.
Biblioteca Lucchesiana – The
library founded in 1765 by Bishop Lucchesi Palli contains mare than
45,000 ancient books and manuscripts. The central hall, dominated
by a statue of the bishop, is lined with beautiful wooden shelving.
Books on profane subjects are kept to the left of the statue, while
religious texts are on the right. This division is echoed by the
two sculpted wooden figures behind the statue: on the left is a
woman meditating; on the right, a woman holding a mirror, symbolising
the search for truth in the inner self.
Cattedrale – The side of the
cathedral facing onto Via del Duomo still bears traces of the Norman
original (notab!y the 11C windows). The main church was rebuilt
in the 13C-14C and remodelled in the 17C; it was then restored after
the landslide of 1966. A broad double stairway leads up to the main
door, marked by a tympanum, flanked by pairs of pilasters. On the
right stands the unfinished bell-tower (1470), which on the south
side is articulated with four blind arches in the shape of an inverted
ship’s keel, and a series of pointed arches above.
lnside, the nave has a beautiful
wooden ceiling with tie-beams decorated with figures of the saints,
painted in the 16C. The section beyond the triumphal arch is coffered
(18C): the great two-headed eagle in the centre is the symbol of
the Royal House of Aragon. The Baroque exuberance of the choir,
with its angels and golden garlands, contrasts dramatically with
the sobriety of the nave.
Santa Maria dei Greci – The
14C church dedicated to St. Mary of the Greeks was built upon the
foundations of a temple dedicated to Athena; it celebrated mass
according to the Greek-Orthodox liturgy.
Chiesa di San Nicola – Built
of tufa, the Church of St. Nicholas was erected in the 13C by Cistercian
monks in a transitional Romanesque to Gothic style. The stone blocks
used were taken from the Giant’s Quarry, as the ruined Temple
of Zeus was known providing, as it did, an almost inexhaustible
easy source of building material.
The façade is dominated by
two imposing reinforcing buttresses (added in the 16C), which flank
a beautiful pointed-arched doorway. The interior is enclosed within
a single barrel-vaulted nave. Four chapels open off the south side.
The second contains a fine Roman sarcophagus (3C AD), known as the
Sarcophagus of Hippolytus and Phaedra, with which Goethe was particularly
smitten. Inspired by Greek prototypes, all four sides are sculpted
in high relief, the compositions are animated by clean flowing lines
and the figures are endowed delicate features set in gentle expressions.
The subject treated is the tragic story of Phaedras unrequited love
for her stepson Hippolytus, who is banished from the kingdom and
killed by crazed horses under the shameful (and unfounded) accusation
that he had tried to seduce her. On the sarcophagus (going anti-clockwise
starting from the first long side), the hero is shown making preparations
for a hunting expedition, at the moment when he rejects the message
brought by Phaedra’s nurse; Phaedra’s resulting anguish
and delirium, as she is waited upon by nine handmaidens: Hippolytus
hunting wild boar on horseback and, finally, the death of the hero.
Besides the altar, on the left,
is a fine 15C wooden crucifix, nicknamed Il Signore della Nave (Lord
of the Ship), which inspired Pirandello’s short story of the
same name included in his anthology entitled Novelle per un Anno.
From the terrace before the church, there is a beautiful view over
the Valley of the Temples.
Oratorio di Falaride – According
to legend, the oratory occupies the site of the palace built by
the tyrant Phalaris (see introduction), hence its name. The present
monument was probably a small Greco-Roman temple, converted in Norman
Next to the oratory are the remains
of an Ekklesiasterion, a small amphitheatre used for political meetings
(from the Greek ekklesia, meeting) – identified as an ancient
agorà (market place or place of assembly).
Greco-Roman quarter – This
extensive urban complex contains the vestiges of houses in which
survive fragments of ancient pavements laid with stone tesserae
(protected by roofing and plexiglass) with geometric or figurative
motifs. The network streets follow the standard rules advocated
by the Greek town planner Hippadamus of Miletus of having broad
parallel avenues (decumani) bisected at right angles by secondary
Chiesa di San Biagio – There
is space to park in front of the cemetery. The church is on the
left, and can be reached by a path. The Norman church, erected in
the 3C, stands on the remains of a Greek temple dedicated to Demeter.
Just below the church, there is another more rudimentary temple
to her (Tempio rupestre di Demetra) although inaccessible, which
bears witness to the popularity of the cult of the goddess in ancient
MUSEUM AND EXCURSIONS
Museo Archeologico Regionale –
Entrance from the cloisters of San Nicola. Partially housed in the
old monastery of San Nicola, the museum contains finds from the
province of Agrigento.
Pre-Greek conquest – Among
the prize exhibits is a fine two-handled cup with a very tall base
decorated with geometric patterns: its shape may stem from the custom
of eating seated on the ground with the cup at chest level.
Others of note include a small elegant
Mycenaean amphora, the mould of a patera with six animals (oxen)
in relief, and two signet rings, again bearing animals. The most
interesting, meanwhile, is a dinos (sacrificial vase) depicting
the triskelos (literally “three legs”), the symbol of
Sicily (in the guise of Trinacria, meaning “three-pointed”).
Colonisation – The superb
collection of Attic vases (Room 3) consists mainly of black- and
red-figure ware, including the Cratere di Dionisio (or cup of Bacchus)
pointed with Pan: the god of wine, dressed in flowing robes, holding
a sprig of ivy in his hand, and with a leopard-skin draped over
his arm. Among the other vessels, look for a krater with a white
background, depicting the proud figure of Perseus on the point of
liberating Andromeda from her chains.
Room 4 contains a large number of
votive statues, theatrical masks, moulds and other terracotta figures
found during the excavations of the temples. The central well is
filled by the massive figure of Atlas from the Temple of Zeus, the
only one to survive of the original 38 male caryatids which once
adorned the building. On the left, in a case, are the heads of another
three such powerful figures, one of which has well-preserved facial
The Ephebus of Agrigento (Room 10)
consists of a marble statue of a young man (5C BC), found in a cistern
near the Temple of Demeter, which was transferred during the Norman
period to the Church of San Biagio. It is thought to represent a
young man from Agrigento who won various events at the Olympic games,
and thus destined to be subjected to heroic status.
archeological finds – Artefacts retrieved from various other
sites in the province include sarcophagi, prehistoric remains and
the magnificent krater from Gela (Room 15), attributed to the painter
of the Niobids.
The upper half depicts a centauromachia
(battle between centaurs and Lapiths) while the lower section shows
scenes from battles between the Greeks and the Amazons.
Favara – 12km north-east.
A town of Arab origin, Favara reached its apogee under the powerful
Chiaramonte family (13C-14G) who oversaw the building of the massive
castle. Piazza dei Vespri is dominated by the imposing facade of
the 18C Chiesa Madre, its tall dome resting gently on a ring of
Racalmuto – 22km north-east.
Fame for this little town comes from its status as the birthplace
of Leonardo Sciascia, the 20C Sicilian writer and astute commentator
who spent much of his life here. He is buried in the small cemetery.
In the centre of the town are the remains of the Chiaramonte castle,
marked by two large towers.