A frail monument: the Monastery of San Nicolò l’Arena
In all of its grand monumentality, Catania’s Monastery of San Nicolò l’Arena tells a story of frailty and hard work.
The frailty of man in front of Nature – which monks felt as they ran from the fury of Mount Etna when, in the mid-1600s, they had to flee from the small monastery in Nicolosi. The volcano, towering above their home and town, had awakened abruptly and was obviously in an extremely bad mood. They asked for shelter in Catania.
And the hard work of rebuilding and repeatedly defending the monastery from terrible attacks – not just from the volcano, but also from earthquakes. In 1693, a seism destroyed the building again as well as the annexed church, killing almost all of the monks.
The monastery had to be erected again. It grew more and more in the minds of its designers, and in reality, until it became one of the largest monasteries in Europe in the end of the 1700s.
In the 19th century, it was then taken from the Benedictines and seized by the State.
Thus this wonder – the refined marbles in the inner cloisters, the large church organ, the art in the chapels – is also the fruit of frailty and hard work. And the incomplete façade of the church is a perfect symbol of the impermanence of human buildings.
It is a monumental and beautiful Sicilian paradox.