The Ear of Dionysius is one of the best-known places in the archaeological park of Syracuse. Tour guides always bring guests here and tell them how it got its name, referring to the ancient legend according to which, lurking at the top of the quarry, the tyrant Dionysius was able to hear even the whispers of the slaves who worked down below.
A few years ago, during a visit, my Syracusan guide stood in the center of the quarry and intoned an opera aria with an unexpected, powerful tenor voice, to demonstrate the acoustics of this rocky space carved into the white limestone. He also told me that the name of the cave was coined by Michelangelo da Caravaggio, as he visited Syracuse during his Mediterranean wanderings, unwittingly giving the cave a further suggestion.
The Ear is located in the great Latomia del Paradiso, a gigantic stone quarry, the easternmost of those that marked the boundary of ancient Syracuse to the north, carving the rocky ridge. For many centuries, slaves worked here and had the task of quarrying the stone necessary for the construction of houses and monuments in the city. It has been calculated that, over time, these unfortunates have quarried almost 900 thousand cubic meters of rock, often dying of exhaustion (without anyone caring, obviously).
Mostly the rock blocks were extracted in the open, but it happened that it was necessary to dig inside the rocky ridge, to find the most compact better-quality layers. Thus gigantic caves were created, with walls up to 40 meters, and vaults supported by massive pylons that were specially spared by the pickaxes. Time and earthquakes have caused the collapse of the vaults of most of the caves, leaving a large green space. Three centuries ago, Syracusan ropemakers settled in one of the remaining caves, and this was their place of work until 1983 when the last master retired.
Since then, what in the meantime had become the Grotta dei Cordari (Ropemakers’ Cave), remained barred and the vegetation was let to grow freely for almost forty years. Visitors used to pass in front of a real forest, without suspecting the existence of other cavities. It took months of work and an indefinite number of trucks to take away the ivy, reeds, brambles, and brushwood of four decades, but today the new path is ready and, with the much-desired reopening, it is now possible to enter these caves.
The Grotta dei Cordari is a bewitching place. The vaults are very high, the rock walls of different colors. Here and there the moss and the maidenhair try to make their way, the pools of water – rain or infiltrated from the subsoil – have incredible colors due to mineral deposits. Next to it is the Grotta del Salnitro (Saltpetre’s Cave), no less fascinating. The name is due to the fact that saltpeter deposited on the damp walls, easy to recover and use. A gigantic boulder has fallen in front of the mouth of the cave. On it the detachment planes of the limestone blocks follow one another like a sort of stairway, testifying the stone extraction work.
The path is still being completed. It will wind towards the eastern area of the Park, beyond the “Roman pool”, a water tank resulting from the transformation of a small quarry between the 1st and 3rd centuries AD (a canal connected it to the Amphitheater, providing water for le Naumachie, the popular water battles), and then plunge into the Latomia of Santa Venera. Less grandiose, it is however very picturesque due to the luxuriant vegetation, among which a centuries-old ficus stands out. In the eighteenth century, the Baron della Targeia transformed it into a subtropical garden.
A gate closes the access to the smaller Intagliatella quarry, on which work has yet to be done: the vegetation has transformed it into a miniature Amazonia. From the Latomia a path leads to the last stage of the itinerary, the so-called Tomb of Archimedes, a Roman tomb that actually has nothing to do with the Syracusan scientist.
It seems that the mistake has been due to the elegance of the tomb, with a tympanum above the opening, and above all to the presence of an incision of a sphere inscribed in a cylinder, a figure linked to Archimedes’ experiments.