Woods, castles, rivers, railway lines, and crypts. Any place throughout the national territory, from the largest cities to the most remote countryside, can take part in the national competition Luoghi del Cuore (Places of the Heart) arranged every year by the FAI, Italian Environment Fund. Last year the competition crowned the “Railway of Wonders” between Cuneo, Ventimiglia and Nice and, as always, it offered an interesting starting point to get to know and enhance artistic or naturalistic sites. Here are the Sicilian participants.

Soaring churches (+ a hidden one)

Among the top fifteen classified in the FAI competition, there are four Sicilian sites. Two are located in Modica: the Via delle Collegiate, in fourth place, and the rock church of San Nicolò Inferiore, in the sixth.

The Collegiate Churches – San Giorgio, San Pietro, and Santa Maria di Betlem – are well-known Baroque masterpieces, but the same cannot be said of the church of San Nicolò which, until 1987, was a warehouse hidden among old houses. The walls had been whitewashed in ancient times, stacks of junk everywhere. Until 34 years ago, when the Modica scholar Duccio Belgiorno managed to identify it.

Its existence was known, in fact, but nobody could tell where it exactly was. In 1992, a group of professionals, members of the Modica County Study Center, bought the warehouse and financed the restoration. Once the plasters were removed, medieval frescoes came out! The small church, with its decorated apse, is the oldest in Modica.

The emperor on the Madonie

When Charles V arrived in Polizzi, in October 1535, the village honored the nickname Generosa (generous), which Frederick II once had given to it, organizing a warm welcome. Even if the people of Polizzi already had had a visit from an emperor, sovereigns were not seen just every day on the mountains. The whole village was polished, the notables invested all the resources to present themselves at their best.

The Church Santa Maria Gesù Lo Piano

The emperor, who was crossing Sicily on his way back to his homeland, after defeating the Turks in Tunisia, was satisfied with the welcome. Before continuing, he established the city Senate, whose seat was set in the fourteenth-century church of Santa Maria Gesù Lo Piano. On one side of the building, a hand of stone was carved to hold the banner signaling to the population that the meeting was in progress.

The interior of the church in Polizzi Generosa

Today the building does not honor this noble past. The passage of time has greatly ruined it and it is unusable. You can see the outside, with the simple façade crowned by a bell gable on the belvedere square of Polizzi, a large space that opens up at the end of the main street. You reach it after a pleasant walk among the old stone houses of the village. Santa Maria was ranked thirteenth nationally.

A view of Polizzi Generosa (ph. Katia Campione)
The underground church

In fifteenth place in the ranking, there is the crypt of the Cathedral of Messina, which was built about a thousand years ago by order of the Norman king Roger II. The underground church of Santa Maria sotto il Duomo is almost unknown, also because it has been closed for services for some time. In the seventeenth century, it became the chapel of a brotherhood of merchants and draperies, who commissioned the decoration of stuccos and frescoes.

The church under the cathedral of Messina

The simple columns come from older buildings and have been enriched with Byzantine capitals. The church, although inappropriately remodeled after the 1908 earthquake, is fascinating. The vaults covered with soft stucco draperies look like a quarrelsome spring sky.

A contest among treasures

Many more or less famous, more or less run-down places are presented at the FAI competition. All sort of places, in short. Among the candidates, we thus find the Andromeda theater, the visionary work of Lorenzo Reina, an artist-shepherd of Santo Stefano di Quisquina. He has built it taking inspiration from the position of the stars of the constellation of Andromeda, as well as from the shape of the classic Sicilian sheepfolds.

The Andromeda Theater

And we also find natural sites, such as the Oreto River in Palermo (which ranked second in 2019), the Scala dei Turchi in Realmonte, the Santo Pietro wood with its ancient cork trees, just outside Caltagirone.

And obviously, a lot of monumental sites, some of which are barely known, such as the fourteenth-century Aragonese Castle in Piazza Armerina and the Purgatorio church in Castelvetrano. Remember to visit them, next time you are around!