Catania is the Sicilian city near to Mount Etna, the biggest volcano in Europe. It is a beautiful Baroque city and is part, together with other towns and villages of the area, of the so-called "Valley of Baroque". This is a group of places in the Val di Noto that are an example of exceptional quality of late Baroque architecture. It is exceptional also because of the amount of architecture, including churches as well as public and private buildings, concentrated in this area. For this reason, the whole area is included in the UNESCO World Heritage List, one of the 41 Italian sites.
Saint Agatha (Agata in Italian) is the patron saint of Catania and every year she is celebrated here with several weeks of religious, civil and popular events.
Saint Agatha was born in Catania at the beginning of the 3rd century, around the year 235, from a rich and noble Christian family.
At that time Catania was a very flourishing city of the Roman Empire, also thanks to its port and its geographical position in the middle of Mediterranean Sea.
That time was also a time of persecutions against Christians, who were denounced and had to publicly deny their faith. Otherwise they would have been arrested, tortured and killed.
Agatha is a Greek name which means "the good one" and we can assume that she was brought up according to Christian virtues, goodheartedness, prayer, disinterest for earthly riches, in contrast with same age girls of her social status.
Since she was a very young girl she wanted to dedicate herself to Christ and at about 15 the bishop of Catania consecrated her during a ceremony, giving her a red tunic. She was a beautiful girl and one day the governor of Catania, Quinziano, saw her and become infatuated with her, ordered to arrest her, wishing to seduce her. According to the tradition, to avoid being arrested, Agatha stayed some time away from Catania and several places claim to have been her refuge. One story says that Agatha stopped in a place for a rest and an olive tree immediately sprang and she could shelter and eat its fruits. To remember this, on Saint Agatha's day it's a tradition to eat special almond sweets, green and shaped like olives, called "olivette di Sant'Agata" (little Saint Agatha olives).
Back to the story... When Agatha went back home, she was found easily and taken to the court. The governor tried to seduce her without success, so he decided to "re-educate" her with the help of a courtesan, Afrodisia, to make her more willing. Despite a month of temptations and immoralities, Afrodisia had no success and gave Agatha back to Quinziano. Very angry, Quinziano ordered to bring her to trial. Agatha refused to deny her Christian faith and to sacrifice to the pagan gods and therefore was put in prison, then subjected to horrible tortures which only seemed to give her more strength, and eventually Quinziano ordered to amputate her breast. This explains the way Saint Agatha is always portrayed, with her breast on a plate and big tongs.
Agatha was taken back to her cell and that night Saint Peter visited her and through a miracle, healed her wounds. A few days later, Quinziano, upset by the miracle, ordered to kill her. She was placed on burning coals and at that time a violent earthquake shook the city, she was taken back to prison where she died a few hours later.It was the 5th of February 251. Her veil didn't burn and, later on, many times it was used in processions and it's said to have saved Catania from recurring earthquakes, eruptions from the Etna, from the plague and other threats. One year after her death, in 252, during an eruption, a lava flow from the volcano Etna was threatening the city. During a procession they carried her veil was in front of the lava flow which stopped. Since then Saint Agatha has been the patron saint of Catania.
Saint Agatha celebrations
The celebrations are really impressive, it is a three-day event and procession, everything in the city revolves around this.
The first day it's the day of candle offering: according to the tradition the candles offered have to as high or heavy as the person who offers them. Therefore, if one starts doing this as a young boy, every year he'll have to carry a bigger candle. There is a procession with civil and religious authorities, with two 18th century coaches and big "candelore" (sort of huge candles) representing the guilds. In the evening there is a great fireworks show in Piazza del Duomo (Cathedral Square).
On the second day, 4th February, there is the first meeting between the city and the saint. Since early at dawn, the streets populate with "cittadini" ("citizens") wearing the so-called sacco (sack) which is a long white nightshirt up to the ankles, a black velvet cap, white gloves and waving a white handkerchief. These represent the night clothes that Catania's citizens were wearing when they were waken up nighttime, back in 1126, to welcome Saint Agatha's relics brought back from Costantinople (after they had been stolen in 1040). Agatha's statue with her relics are taken out their cabinet in the cathedral, placed on a sort of huge cart with red carnations (representing the martyrdom) and a solemn mass is celebrated by the archbishop, before starting a procession through the whole city. The procession lasts all day, passing near the martyrdom and other important places. Through extremely long ropes, 4,000 or 5,000 people pull the cart (empty is 1700 kilos, with the statue and all the candles it could weigh up to 300 kilos). They all wear their "sacco", most of them carry a big candle (remember, sometimes of the same height or weight as they are!), rhythmically crying out "Citizens, long live Saint Agatha!"
Along all the streets, there is a huge crowd following and accompanying the cart, the whole city centre is closed to traffic. I myself had the opportunity to be in Catania during these celebrations and I was extremely impressed by the overall atmosphere, I didn't know about it. It's nearly unbelievable how strong this tradition is.
Late at night the "tour" ends with the cart back in the cathedral.
On the third day, the red carnations are replaced with white carnations (representing the purity), another solemn mass is celebrated and at sunset the second part of the procession starts. The most eagerly awaited moment is the passage along Via San Giuliano, an uphill street, which is considered the most dangerous part of the procession. It represents a proof of bravery for the "citizens" and the way they overcome the obstacle it's interpreted as a bad or good sign for the whole year. Late at night more fireworks mark the end of the celebrations.
Fire abounds around here: fireworks, fire from the volcano and the fire of Saint Agatha's martyrdom. She is also believed to protect from fires and considered the patron saint of firemen.
It's a really special occasion, they even have special road signs warning about the danger of wax on the pavement!
Catania is a beautiful city, on the eastern coast of Sicily. Its city center has many baroque style buildings, since it was rebuilt after the 1693 eruption which destroyed most of it. Its streets are made of black volcanic stone and also the beaches around Catania have a black sand.
See here a photo of an impressive baroque building facade.