Noto is, quite simply, the apotheosis of baroque town planning and architecture. Completely destroyed by the terrible 1693 earthquake, it was rebuilt from scratch on a new site, about 10km from the old centre.
Under the supervision of the Duke of Camastra, the Spanish Viceroy’s right-hand man, three architects, Labisi, Sinatra and Gagliardi, set to work, intent on creating a new town based firmly on baroque ideals.
The idea was to create a linear, perfectly proportioned urban centre whose parallel lines would provide myriad panoramas. The town was divided into three parts by three roads running from east to west, thus ensuring the constant attentions of the sun. At the top lived the nobility, in the middle the clergy, and at the bottom, hoi polloi.
The principal building material used was local compacted limestone, a substance that seemingly absorbs the sun’s aureate rays and transforms them into a soft golden-honeyed glow. The effect at sunset is quite something.
The main thoroughfare is Corso Vittorio Emanuele along which many of Noto’s most representative buildings stand. It begins at the Porta Reale and extends east via three piazzas, each with its own church. The public gardens are situated along this road (or at least looking on to it) as are the Monastero del Santissimo Salvatore with its graceful tower, the inspired Palazzo Ducrezio, the Cathedral (whose dome collapsed in 1996), the Church of San Francesco, the Jesuit Church and College and Palazzo Nicolaci di Villadorata.
Abandoned for decades, this 18th-century palazzo found its saviour in French journalist and documentary filmmaker Jean-Louis Remilleux, who purchased the aristocratic pad and set about restoring it. Now accessible by guided tour, it offers the most complete insight into how Noto's nobility once lived, its sumptuous rooms awash with original frescoes and tiles, faithfully reproduced wallpaper, as well as Sicilian and Neapolitan baroque furniture from the owner's collection.
Basilica Cattedrale di San Nicolò
Pride of place in Noto goes to San Nicolò Cathedral, a baroque beauty that had to undergo extensive renovation after its dome collapsed during a 1996 thunderstorm. The ensuing decade saw the cathedral scrubbed of centuries of dust and dirt before reopening in 2007. Today the dome, with its peachy glow, is once again the focal point of Noto's skyline.
About halfway along Corso Vittorio Emanuele is the graceful Piazza Municipio, flanked by Noto's most dramatic buildings. To the north, sitting in stately pomp at the head of Paolo Labisi's monumental staircase is the Basilica Cattedrale di San Nicolò, surrounded by a series of elegant palaces. To the left (west) is Palazzo Landolina, once home to the powerful Sant'Alfano family. Across the street, Palazzo Ducezio features a partly convex facade, its graceful arches supported by Ionic-capital columns.
Basilica del Santissimo Salvatore
Situated towards the grand Porta Reale is the Basilica del Santissimo Salvatore. Its recently restored interior is the most impressive in Noto, crowned by a glorious vault fresco by Antonio Mazza depicting the Holy Spirit's descent. Mazza is also responsible for the church's facade, completed in 1791 and showing influences of a more restrained neoclassical style. The adjoining Benedictine convent offers sweeping views from its bell tower.
Palazzo Nicolaci di Villadorata
The fantastical facade of this 18th-century palace wows with its wrought-iron balconies, supported by a swirling pantomime of grotesque figures. Inside, the richly brocaded walls and frescoed ceilings offer an idea of the sumptuous lifestyle of Sicilian nobles, as brought to life in the Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa novel Il Gattopardo (The Leopard).
Inspired by French palace architecture of the 17th century, graceful, porticoed Palazzo Ducezio is one of architect Vincenzo Sinatra's finest works. The lower level, dating from the mid-18th-century, houses the jewel-box Sala degli Specchi (Hall of Mirrors), a richly stuccoed, Louis XV-style room once used as a small theatre. The top floor, built in the mid-20th-century, offers a panoramic terrace with level views of Noto's cathedral.
Teatro Tina Di Lorenzo
A swirl of boxes and stuccowork, this petite 19th-century theatre is named in honour of Italian stage and silent-film actress Tina Di Lorenzo (1872–1930), one of numerous stars to have graced its stage; the supreme Eleonora Duse (1858–1924) is another. The theatre remains in operation, serving up annual seasons of both classic and contemporary theatre in Italian.
Chiesa di Santa Chiara
Commissioned by the Benedictine order, the Chiesa di Santa Chiara was built by Rosario Gagliardi between 1730 and 1758. You can still see the ornate original portal on Corso Vittorio Emanuele, made redundant after the street was lowered in the 19th century. The elliptical interior, awash with whimsical stuccowork, features one of Noto's finest baroque altars, overlooked by apostles perched on lofty columns. The main drawcard, however, is the panoramic view from the rooftop terrace.
In the middle of May, Noto celebrates the marvels of spring and the coming summer with a colourful festa known as the "Infiorata. Via Nicolaci becomes home to flower artists from all over the world who create a carpet beautiful petal mosaics inspired by the year's theme.