The Cathedral of San Gerlando is an original composition of different styles, brought together over the centuries
Girgenti, the old centre of Agrigento, is a fascinating maze of narrow streets and monuments: a colourful tapestry woven over the centuries. Shortly after the coronation of Charlemagne, in about 827 AD, Agrigento was conquered by the Saracens. By then the population of Agrigento had already abandoned the Valley and had established the centre of the town on the hill in order to defend it from the barbarian incursions. The Saracens further developed the town, giving it a typical Islamic layout: an intriguing labyrinth of courtyards and alleys still characterizes the old centre today. Two centuries of Arabian domination have also had a lasting influence on local dialect, names of people and places and even on local cooking. For example, both the recipe and the name of the renowned Sicilian “cassata” derives from the Arabian “quas’at” which means ’round bowl’ and refers to the shape of the mould in which it is prepared.
Two centuries later, in the period of the first crusade, the Norman Count Roger de Hauteville conquered Sicily and put it back into Christian hands; Agrigento was freed in 1087. The Norman domination was characterized by an unprecedented degree of tolerance and civilization and various races and religions co-existed. This led to an original stylistic fusion in architecture and other cultural sectors. Many of the most important monuments and churches date back to the 12th century or shortly thereafter, although subsequent renovations and modifications have left visible traces. The most remarkable example is the Cathedral, built by the first Norman Bishop of Agrigento and current patron saint of the city, Gerlando of Besancon.
Not far down via Duomo there are several other wonderful monuments: the Lucchesiana Library, the Bishop’s Palace – which houses the diocesan museum MUDIA – and the Church of Santa Maria dei Greci, built on the foundations of a Greek temple. The main shopping area is located in via Atenea with its boutiques, trendy bars and cozy restaurants; strolling along via Atenea you will encounter mysterious alleys and flights of stairs which conduct deeper into the historical centre of town to hidden pearls such as the Monastery of Santo Spirito. This monastery and its adjacent Church of Santo Spirito boast splendid baroque stuccoes and magnificent arches in typical Chiaramontine style. In piazza San Francesco a stone staircase leads down to the small convent in Chiaramontine style of the Friars Franciscans Minor : another gem representative of the Medieval Era.
Via Atenea was once flanked by elegant and richly decorated villas and some baroque balconies and friezes can still be distinguished; Palazzo Celauro, where Goethe sojourned in 1789 during his stay in Sicily, is a fine example. In front of Palazzo Celauro there is a smaller modern art gallery, the FAM Gallery. The ex Church of San Lorenzo, located in piazza Purgatorio, has a beautiful baroque facade and has been adapted as a venue for various cultural events. A compulsory stop for art lovers is the 17th century ex Collegio dei Filippini (nowadays the Museum of the Filippini) where paintings from the 14th to the 18th century are exhibited. Don’t miss the paintings of the most important 18th century Sicilian landscape artist, Francesco Lojacono.
In the buildings of the ex Convent of the Domincan order, next to the Church of San Domenico, the Town Hall and the municipal theatre are located. The magnificent 19th century theatre is named after Luigi Pirandello, the famous playwright from Agrigento who was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature: manuscripts, letters, photos and memorabilia of Pirandello are exhibited at his birth home, today Museum Luigi Pirandello and at the library-museum dedicated to him. Continue your walk through the old town and discover its history as it enfolds behind every corner and in each hidden courtyard.
The library is a multimedial documentary centre dedicated entirely to the life and works of the Nobel playwright. It’s an integral part of the Luigi Pirandello House Museum.
The Collegium of Saints Agostino and Tommaso, or “Episcopal Seminary”, is a building of the 18th century wich has incorporated the medieval “Steri”: the fortified castle of the Chiaramonte family.