We The Italians | Italian culture and history: Noto

Italian culture and history: Noto

Italian culture and history: Noto

  • WTI Magazine #145 Nov 13, 2021
  • 771

Noto is a petite, Sicilian Baroque gem, splendidly set within a rocky plateau and overlooking the Asinaro Valley. An important hub during all its phases – i.e. Sicilian, Roman, Byzantine, and Arab – it met destruction with the earthquake of 1693, at the height of its original splendor. Yet Noto found a second life in its reconstruction, and became a magnificent city of art – not to mention an eventual UNESCO World Heritage Site, that includes Caltagirone, Militello, Catania, Modica, Palazzolo, Ragusa and Scicli.

The city’s extraordinary beauty is matched by the other aforementioned cities, and thus defines the entire Val di Noto. Such a result was perhaps more than worthy of the grand architects called in for Noto’s reconstruction, almost all of them trained in Rome, the city whose Baroque architectonic style served as inspiration, but revisited. The restorations gave new life to the Valley, leaving behind jaw-dropping forms and structures that vary slightly city to city: from the dark grey, lava rock architecture of Catania to the luminous, honey-hued Baroque of Noto.  

Its Medieval physiognomy – traces of the walls and castle, corresponding to old Noto – are still visible, and lie about six miles from the modern city. This Noto bears ample boulevards and piazzas with stairways leading to levels lower and higher of the city, all on a rather square-grid urban plan. 
Among the principal piazzas, Piazza dell’Immacolata is fronted by the eponymous Church, while Piazza del Municipio is surrounded by four important buildings: the Palazzo Comunale, the Church of the Holy Savior (or Santissimo Salvatore, constructed 1791-1801), the Palazzo Vescovile, and the breathtaking Duomo di San Nicolò (finished 1771), dominating from on high a spectacular and scenographic staircase. Then, the Church of San Domenico (1727) rises over Piazza XVI Maggio, with its curvilinear facade and Dominican convent, characterized by a beautiful, rusticated portal. And the Church of the Crucifix (Crocifisso) preserves inside the Madonna della Neve or Madonna of Snows, sculpted by Francesco Laurana in 1471.

Beyond the Baroque spirit and aesthetics of the Val di Noto, ancient civilization shines just as brightly in the nearby Greek cities of Eloro, Camarina, Palazzolo Acreide (with its Greek theatre), Pantalica (with its Necropolis, also a UNESCO Site), Castelluccio (with its prehistoric village), and Tellaro (with its Roman Villa). One would do well to spend a few warm spring days discovering the area’s magnificent and invaluable archaeological areas.  
Still, Noto is absolutely ideal for a visit any time of year. Summer is the season to marry cultural itineraries with trips to the limpid Sicilian sea, while autumn welcomes those traveling the Val di Noto Wine Route (Strada del Vino) that passes through the six Comuni of southeastern Sicily: Palazzolo, Avola, Noto, Rosolini, Pachino and Ispica.


Historically called Neas in ancient eastern Sicily’s Siculo Language, Neaton by the Greeks and Netum by the Romans, it was the Arabs who had final say on Noto’s name. Indeed, the word noto has the same significance in both Italian and Arabic, and thus the city was so-named for its ‘noted’ beauty and grandeur.