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If today you walk through Santa Maria di Gesù square in Catania, among large shady trees, crazy traffic and concrete buildings, you would hardly believe that once, here, there was only a huge expanse of lava. And that even before the lava arrived, a lake existed right here. A lake that wasn’t even supposed to be born, but that was formed – and then disappeared – always and only by the will of the volcano. To remind us that this huge pond existed, today, only a street remains which bears its name and which tells its great boundaries.

Before Lake of Nicito …

Today Catania has an underground river, the Amenano, which flows to the surface only close to the sea. Precisely you can see it in that majestic fountain near the cathedral, the Amenano Fountain, which is fed by it. But in the 5th century AD, that river flowed on the surface and descending from Etna it reached the sea by crossing the small city of that time. All around the town, low green hills and some country villages.

In the year 406, an eruption of Mount Etna which started from some low altitude fractures reached the course of the river right at the point where it entered Catania. The lava then blocked the river’s bed, submerging it. The incoming water, therefore, finding itself in front of a wall of lava, accumulated and was dispersed around it. Then slowly it is channeled between the rocks underground. That constant accumulation formed a large body of water, a lake: the Lake of Nicito (from the Greek word anìketos, meaning “of victory”).

lake of nicito 2
a square replaced the old lake_photo GoogleMaps

A lake that made an era

That lake remained in the Catania scenario for many centuries. It was Catania’s “business card” for those who reached the city from the north and a certain economy had developed around it. There was fishing, breeding, trade all around the lake. When, during the early Middle Ages, the city expanded almost reaching the shores of the lake, it seemed that this should become part of Catania.

It was not so. In 1556 the Spanish viceroy of the time built the defensive walls of the city and the eleven bastions that guarded them. Facing the lake, the Bastion of the Infected was built, so called because it was the boundary of the hospital in times of epidemics. However there are drawings and paintings that depict that lake “outside the walls” of Catania as an effective part of its panorama. But the fate of that magical place would have been dictated once again by Etna.

A lava lake

In 1669 the most devastating eruption of Mount Etna that Catania can remember caused several rivers of lava to pour towards the city. They came out of the Monti Rossi craters, which opened on the southern flank. After having engulfed the town of Nicolosi and many other surrounding villages, the lava reached the center of Catania from several fronts. It overwhelmed the walls, broke through buildings and naturally poured into Lake of Nicito, filling it completely in hours.

For a brief instant, the lake of water became a huge lake of fire. Immediately afterwards the lava cooled, forming an expanse of black rock as far as the eye could see. What was once a navigable, fish-rich space was now a giant black patch of smoking stone. Lake of Nicito was gone forever.

The city and the Lake of Nicito

lake of nicito 3
the surface that used to be Lake of Nicito (Google Maps)

With the passing of the centuries and the increase of the population of Catania, the city has extended more and more inland. New areas were built to the north and west, and the great lava expanse of the former lake was colonized. A neighborhood was built above it – between the 19th and 20th centuries – which became famous for the presence of an important hospital, now moved elsewhere. Today that neighborhood is one of the most dynamic in the city, crossed by Lago di Nicito Street which leads to the square of Santa Maria di Gesù. Admiring the square, a tree-lined and airy open space, one can only have a partial idea of the dimensions of that mirror of water of the past and its wonderful beauty.

Autore: Grazia Musumeci

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