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San Nicolo L’Arena and the labyrinth of learning

San Nicolo L’Arena used to be the second largest monastery in Europe with endless corridors, cloistered gardens and immense halls. An earthly paradise now populated by teachers and students at Catania University.

Outside the still unfinished San Nicolo L’Arena church there is a sign indicating where people should gather in case of earthquake and in the distance the Etna’s cone puffs up smoke. You cannot visit Catania without being aware of the forces of nature that destroyed the original Benedictine Monastery in 1669 and the reconstruction in progress in 1693.

San-Nicolo-L-Arena-2-600x434 San Nicolo L’Arena and the labyrinth of learning

San Nicolo L Arena in Catania, Sicily

During 1700 monks were generally recruited among the local aristocracy and they enjoyed considerable economic power and cultural prestige. By occupying an almost royal palace they were able to live a life of luxury, and the surrounding walls emphasized their sense of autonomy.

From 1977 the monumental complex has been owned by the University of Catania, and it is possible to explore the interior. Among the halls and classrooms there is a hanging garden built on the lava flow of 1669. A fabulous library with frescoed ceilings and two-storey wooden shelves containing the Benedictines’ book collection and a finely decorated kitchen. A labyrinth of subterranean tunnels serve as foundations to support the building and down here you will also find a museum and the remains of two Roman houses.

San-Nicolo-L-Arena-600x433 San Nicolo L’Arena and the labyrinth of learningNevertheless, a walled city covering 100.000 m2 was resurrected in the flamboyant Baroque style characteristic of Catania and the architect Giovanni Vaccarini.

To see it all you need a guided tour, which in the short version is said to take three hours. We wandered aimlessly about and saw only a fraction of the riches. Yet there is a great and pleasant surprise in the discovery of a sumptuous secluded world behind the giant unfinished pillar stumps that marks the unadorned entrance to the San Nicolo L’Arena church.

More on San Nicola L’Arena and other sights in Catania

Catania is better than its reputation

Elephants in Catania

Baroque University Catania: Admiring the spirit(s)


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19 replies
  1. Maria
    Maria says:

    Mette, beautiful site and I appreciate the history (and map) you’ve slipped into this post, but your poetic description is what stays with me, “…pleasant surprise in the discovery of a sumptuous secluded world…” Wow!

    Reply
  2. Cathy Sweeney
    Cathy Sweeney says:

    I agree with Maria – your words really captivated me, too. It’s so interesting to me how they built these amazing places with tunnels and underground houses back then. It’s also interesting that we always think of monks living a quiet, simple life, but these monks lived a life of luxury.

    Reply
    • admin
      admin says:

      Yes, there’s is something about walking and talking that does not quite fit in this case. But I suppose monks were generally rather well off back in the day.

      Reply
  3. Sophie
    Sophie says:

    Love hearing about secret spots like this, especially in a city I’ve only thought as somewhere to land, and then take off for other parts of the island.

    Reply
  4. Mary {The World Is A Book}
    Mary {The World Is A Book} says:

    This looks amazing and I love your description of it as an earthly paradise. Now, I need to do more research on Catania. You’ve piqued my interest. I think this is the first I’ve heard of monks living the life of luxury. What a great experience it must be to study in the university here. Beautifully written, Mette.

    Reply

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  1. […] San Nicolo L’Arena was the second largest monastery in Europe with endless corridors, cloistered gardens and immense halls. An earthly paradise now populated by students.  […]

  2. […] San Nicolo L’Arena was the second largest monastery in Europe with endless corridors, cloistered gardens and immense halls. An earthly paradise now populated by students.  […]

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