Visit Monastery of San Nicolo l'Arena
The benedictine monastery of San Nicolo l'Arena is a substantial monastic complex in Catania, a few hundred metres west of the city centre and one of the most visited attractions in the city.
Explore the Monastery of San Nicolo l'Arena
Italy This Way comment: there are certainly several highlights in the monastery, but it is also rather neglected and oversized so you sometimes get the feeling you are walking along endless, Kafkaesque corridors with no exit...
The monastery was originally built in the 16th century on the site of earlier Roman buildings: remains of these can be seen in the basement of the monastery. It was rebuilt after the eruption of 1669 that destroyed the earlier church and buildings.
The Monastery of San Nicolo l'Arena now incorporates various architectural styles, although most parts are in the late baroque style. The building now holds the Humanities section of Catania university (you will see lots of students studying in the corridors) and was also used as a military barrack, a school and an observatory in the 19th century.
It is possible to visit many parts of the monastic complex free of charge and without a guide: you can ask for a map at the office next to the entry. Alternatively you can pay a few euros and have a guided tour: this has the advantage that you are given access to several areas that remain locked to casual visitors. If you need the guide to be in English or French it is usually necessary to book in advance.
From the entrance you cross the impressive courtyard, surrounded by impressive baroque buildings. You see the first of the highlights, a monumental staircase, as soon as you enter the main building. This staircase is a luxurious combination of marble floors, corinthian columns and baroque style bas-reliefs and paintings.
The corridors quickly lead you to the two cloisters at the centre of the complex. The Cloister of Ponente is more formal, with arcades and columns around the edges and a large marble, and the Cloister of Levante is less formal, in fact the garden was rather taking over this cloister when we visited and it was hard to see the pretty little kiosk covered with colourful majolica tiles.
Other parts of interest in the San Nicolo l'Arena monastery include the library, which also has a beautiful ceiling; the remains of the Roman houses that you can see from the bridge between the library and the newspaper room; and the frescoes on the ceiling of the Abbot's acommodation, a mix of patterns and paintings that were added in the 1820s.
To one side of the monastery, the Church of San Nicolo l'Arena was built after Mount Etna erupted in 1669 and is the largest church in Catania. The facade is incomplete, with columns half built as if the stone mason has gone for a lunch break and forgotten to return, and the inside was also rather too ambitious so is now plain compared to many churches in Sicily.
A museum with items from the observatory is in the cellars that were built directly on the lava of Mount Etna following an eruption, and the kitchens are also in part in the evocative 17th century cellars one used by the monks.
You can find more local travel ideas in the Sicily guide.