The Church of San Nicolò l’Arena is a church in Catania, located in Piazza Dante Alighieri. The church, measuring 105 meters in length, about 71 meters in width in the transept area, with a maximum height of 66 meters at the dome, is the largest in Sicily.
The first church erected by the Benedictines in Catania was entitled Sancti Nicolai de Arenis, after the Saint Nicholas of Bari and the red sandstone (rena rossa) of Nicolosi, a town in the province of Catania from which the monks arrived.
The grandiose Monastery of San Nicolò l’Arena was founded on November 28, 1558. The church was inaugurated in 1578, in the presence of the viceroy of Sicily Juan de la Cerda.
In 1669, the structure was destroyed by the Etna eruption that struck the western side of the city. Starting with 1687, the church was rebuilt further south than the original site, on a project by the Roman architect Giovanni Battista Contini.
In 1693, the works were interrupted by the violent earthquake of the Val di Noto, and for the next thirty years the monastery remained without a main church. In 1730, the construction of the church was resumed, and continued under the supervision of great architects like Andrea and Antonio Amato, Francesco Battaglia, Stefano Ittar and Carmelo Battaglia Santangelo.
The dome of the church was built in 1780 by Stefano Ittar, who succeeded his father-in-law Francesco Battaglia. After a dispute started in 1797 between the Benedictines and the company that supplied the stone, the facade of the church remained unfinished.
The church, deconsecrated during the Second World War and damaged by bombing, was rededicated and returned to the Benedictines only in 1989. Since that year, the church was the subject of numerous restoration and consolidation campaigns, including the restoration work on the dome begun in 1999 and concluded after a long period of stagnation, in 2012.
The facade of the church, begun around 1775 by Carmelo Battaglia Santangelo, nephew and pupil of Francesco Battaglia, is rather simple, with eight unfinished columns and three large portals surmounted by the same number of windows.
The architecture of the church is inspired by the St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican. References to the basilica are easily recognizable in the pillars with Corinthian capitals that support the aisles, in the windows with purely Roman motifs and, finally, in the Latin cross plan with three naves.
The aisles of the church are divided by large arches, with the vaults placed at the same height. The left side of the transept leads to the sacristy, a work by Francesco Battaglia, and to the Memorial to the Fallen, built in some rooms behind the main apse.
The presbytery and the apse area host the main altar, the wooden stalls of the choir sculpted by the Nicolò Bagnasco from Palermo and the great organ of Donato Del Piano.
In the transept, we can find the great sundial made between 1839 and 1841 by two famous astronomers, the German Wolfgang Sartorius von Waltershausen and the Danish Christian Peters. The sundial is well known for its precision.
HOW TO GET THERE
The Church of San Nicolò l’Arena is located about 1.8 kilometers away from the Catania Centrale railway station. The closest bus stop is Piazza Dante f/co Benedettini, located near the church, on the bus Lines 503 and 504M.