Catania is a wonderful combination of ancient and modern. Her history and character is inextricably linked to the formidable form of Mount Etna, who looms over the city like a maternal menace. At the foot of this great volcano, facing the Ionian Sea lies Catania, a Sicilian monument to survival and resilience, defying the ravages of time and nature. Etna has an interesting character, and despite its imposing appearance and destructive potential, is known to many as the "good volcano".
According to historic accounts, it is more likely to damage places than people, as its lava flows tend to be slow, giving town inhabitants time to flee its fury. The main casualties are immovable. Homes and monuments risk damage or annihilation like Castle Ursino, a large proportion of which was buried beneath the flow of slow moving but nonetheless deadly floating lava.
Plucky Catania, despite having been rebuilt seven times due to earthquakes and volcanic damage, is rich in folklore, history and beauty. The obvious hazard of living at the foot of a live volcano has some recompense, as the countryside surrounding Etna is fertile and over the centuries has been coveted and conquered.
If Etna has been the cause of Catania's destruction, it has also been a vital source of the construction of the city, as much of the black volcanic rock which characterises Catania's beautiful Baroque architecture was spewed from the heart of Etna. The way in which these past eruptions have formed the land, gives rise to the origins of the city's name. The historian Plutarch suggested that it came from the word Katane meaning "grated", referring to the uneven surface of the land surrounding Etna, upon which Catania stands.
In the VIII century B.C, Catania was a Greek colony, subject to the Siracusans and later the Romans. The following Byzantine, Arab and Norman epochs each contributed to its characteristics and culture. Though occupied and invaded over the centuries with the rest of Sicily, Catania has a reputation for being a resilient city, tough on unwanted invaders.
The city's symbol is an elephant, as it is said that in ancient times, Pigmy elephants lived there and chased away enemies of the city's inhabitants. Frederic II commissioned the building of the Ursino Castle there, which became a model of military architecture, and was originally built as a coastal fortress to protect the city as well as the island from unwanted marauders.
Notwithstanding the seven times in which the city has been destroyed or damaged by earthquake or volcanic eruption, Catania, like a headstrong daughter refusing to be subdued, insists on rising from the ashes and continues to thrive. Catania then is a monument to survival as much as being a historic or medieval site.
The history of the city lies in its folklore more than its monuments; in fact the last time the city was rebuilt was in 1700. Town planning has been remodelled according to the Roman style, with straight parallel streets forming a grid, bearing little reminiscence of Medieval, Byzantine, or Arab era's which were an important part of its heritage.