Benedictine Monastery today is the seat of the University of Catania. The church of San Nicolò l’Arena, where ‘rena’ refers to the red rena, a dialect term for the volcanic sand found in the area, is a unique place that recounts the human and historical vicissitudes of the city of Etna from antiquity to the present day.
Presented to visitors’ eyes as a jewel of late Sicilian baroque, it was founded by the Cassinese monks in 1558. Devastated by natural disasters, destroyed and rebuilt, the Monastery is an example of integration between historical eras. Visiting it, one can read, as in an open book, the changes undergone first by the lava flow and then by the earthquake, but also the civil uses to which it was put immediately after the Unification of Italy.
The first layout was square-shaped with an inner cloister defined as “Marbles”, due to the presence of precious Carrara marble in the elegant 17th-century colonnade, the fountain in the centre and the Renaissance decorations that softened its appearance.
After the succession of various catastrophic events, reconstruction began and the Monastery was repopulated by monks. Enlarged with respect to the original plan: the Marble or West Cloister reconstituted and renovated with late Baroque elements, the East Cloister is added, with the garden and Caffeaos in an eclectic style, and the north area with the spaces intended for the monks’ daytime and collective life: the library, kitchens, novitiate wing, refectories, night choir. The lava bank is used to create the two hanging gardens, the Botanical Garden – the villa of wonders – and the Novices’ Garden.
The church of San Nicolò l’Arena, annexed to the new monastic complex, is conceived as a small Sicilian St. Peter’s, a place of historicity and unmistakable beauty.