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Modica and Chocolate

modica by night

Modica (Muòrica in Sicilian, Μότουκα for the Greeks, Mutica / Motyca in Latin, in Arabic: Mohac) is an Italian town of 54 324 inhabitants of the Free municipal consortium of Ragusa in Sicily. The city by population is the thirteenth municipality of Sicily and the 124th of Italy, while it is by extension of its territory to the 11th place among the Sicilian municipalities, and to the 41st among all the municipalities of Italy.

Modica boasts a rich repertoire of gastronomic specialties, the result of the contamination of the different cultures that dominated it; it is known above all for the production of the typical Aztec-derived chocolate.

The Region of Modica

Mòdica, whose name originates from the Phoenician Mùtika (hotel, dwelling: clear analogy with the Phoenician Utica, city where Catone Uticense died) or from the Sicilian Mùrika (bare rock, not cultivable), later called Μότουκα by the Greeks , is located 15 km south of the provincial capital, and its urban territory is spread over an extensive plateau crossed by deep canyons (locally called “quarries”). The city rises on the confluence of two torrential rivers that divide the plateau into four hills: Pizzo to the north, Idria to the west, Giganta to the east and Monserrato to the south.

By the Rivers

The two rivers, Pozzo dei Pruni and Janni Mauro (now dry and covered in the urban tract), join together to form the Modicano, whose riverbed was covered in the early twentieth century, becoming today’s Corso Umberto I, the city’s main axis. The Modicano had the dignity of a perennial river, until the early decades of the twentieth century, as it was fed by permanent springs, among which the most conspicuous was that of the Fontana Grande, which with its waters allowed that between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, along the banks of the Μότουκανυς ποταμός, as the Greek geographer Ptolemy called it in the 2nd century AD, 23 water mills were built in the Modica section of the river! Then came the industrial mills, and the water from the springs was channeled into the city’s water network.

Characteristic of Modica

Modica, like other historical centers of the Val di Noto, owes its particular urban configuration to the uncommon conformation of the territory combined with the various phenomena of anthropization. Many houses in the old part of the city, leaning against each other, are often the extension of ancient caves, inhabited since prehistoric times. About 700 caves were surveyed that were once inhabited, or in any case used for some use, among those visible and those “incorporated” in new buildings. Of great historical importance is the excellent state of conservation, in the historic center, of the necropolis of Quartiriccio, in the Vignazza district, with some dozens of baked tombs dug into the rock, dating back to 2200 BC The urban fabric, lying on the sides of the two valleys and on the plateaus of the hills above, is an intrigue of small houses, narrow streets and long staircases, which cannot but recall the medieval layout of the historic center, all wrapped around the spur of the Pizzo hill , on which the Castle was placed inaccessible.

the town of Modica
View of Modica

Dry Walls

Another characteristic element of the territory, in particular the countryside, is the dense network of “dry walls” that delimits the plots of land, quilts of majestic carob trees, very frequent throughout the provincial territory (the largest Italian producer of its fruit) . The reason for the dense mesh of dry stone walls is to be found in the early formation of a class of small landowners, who from the first half of the sixteenth century subdivided an immense fiefdom, the County of Modica, corresponding roughly to the territory of today’s Province of Ragusa, delimiting new properties with such fences.
As a legacy and legacy of a historical bizarre, which deprived Modica of its secular political, administrative and cultural centrality, the city retains its district autonomy. For example, when the Diocese of Ragusa was established in 1955, the city of Modica, along with the neighboring Scicli, Pozzallo and Ispica, remained part of the Diocese of Noto, to which it belongs since 1844. In addition, the city has kept its historic Court, which dates back to 1361. The institutions, educational, health and judicial structures, therefore, continue to be a point of reference for the populations of the eastern part of the province of Iblea, besides the entire south-eastern geographical district of the island.

Modica capital of culture

Modica, which from the 15th century until the 1930s was the fourth largest city in Sicily by number of inhabitants and political importance, was economically and culturally lively, thanks also to the presence of ecclesiastical and lay educational institutions that have it made a remarkable center of studies.

The Carmelites and Dominicans established studies there in the 14th and 15th centuries. Already in 1549 in Modica there was a public school, whose teacher was paid by the Municipality with 4 ounces per year. In 1550 the Observant Minor Franciscans, present in Modica from 1343, taught philosophy, theology, Latin and human letters, in their amplissimum studium philosophiae, at the Convent of Santa Maria del Gesù, completed for the munificence of the counts Anna and Federico Enriquez Cabrera. The Jesuits founded it in 1630, at the initiative of Countess Vittoria Colonna de Cabrera (who donated 12 000 gold ducats, to be added to the 10 000 approved by the city council) one of those important public colleges for which they were rightly famous. The Jesuit College granted degrees. in Theology, in Humanities (Philosophy, Rhetoric, Human Letters) and Liberal Arts (Physics, Mathematics) until 1767.

historical view of Modica with lights
Aerial view of Historical Center


From a resolution sent in 1832 to the Commission of Public Instruction of Palermo, in which it was asked to authorize the reopening of the chairs of Laws and Medicine, abolished (with provision of 1775) in the Colleges in order to have to study in the Universities, we deduce that up to to 1767 the Royal Jesuit College of Modica also granted the Diplomas of exercise in all the free professions, of Lawyers, Doctors, Notaries, etc. who became executives with the visa of the Governor of the County.

Monuments of Modica

Church of San Giorgio

The Cathedral of San Giorgio in Modica is often referred to and reported as a symbol of the Sicilian Baroque typical of this extreme corner of Italy. The church of San Giorgio, included in the World Heritage List of UNESCO, is the end result of the six / eighteenth-century reconstruction, which took place following the disastrous earthquakes that struck Modica in 1542, in 1613 and in 1693 (the most serious , see Earthquake in the Val di Noto); slight damages brought the earthquakes in the Hybean area that followed in the eighteenth and in 1848.

The imposing tower façade, which rises to a total height of 62 meters, was built starting in 1702 and completed, in the final crowning and with the affixing of the iron cross on the spire, in 1842.

The current façade – with its surprising analogies with Dresden coeval Katholische Hofkirche – was created by modifying, perhaps with partial demolitions, the pre-existing seventeenth-century one, of which we have no documents or drawings but which had withstood the force of the earthquake. Moreover the liturgical activities in the Cathedral were never suspended, except for a few months after the terrible earthquake of 1693 which had caused the roofs to collapse, restored which already in 1696, to the pastoral visit of the bishop of Syracuse, the church was in full exercise of its functions.

cathedral of San Giorgio in Modica
Church of San Giorgio in Modica

The dome rises for 36 meters. A scenic stairway of 164 steps, designed for the upper part by the Jesuit Francesco Di Marco in 1814 and completed in 1818, leads to the five portals of the temple, which serve as a prelude to the five internal naves of the church, which has a Latin-cross basilical plan and three apses after the transept. The part of the staircase under Corso San Giorgio was designed in 1874 by the architect Alessandro Cappellani Judica and completed in 1880. The frontal perspective of the whole is enriched by a roof garden on several levels, called Orto del Piombo, bordered by the staircase monumental, and composes a set that recalls Trinità dei Monti in Rome.

san Giorgio dome in Modica
San Giorgio Dome in Modica

The interior of the church has five naves, with 22 columns surmounted by Corinthian capitals. The temple is dedicated to the martyrs Saint George and Ippolito, and among the aisles you can admire a monumental organ with 4 keyboards, 80 registers and 3000 canes, perfectly working, built between 1885 and 1888 by the Casamiro Allieri from Bergamo; a painting from the Tuscan school, The Assumption of the Florentine Late Mannerist Filippo Paladini (1610); a naive painting on wood, The Nativity by the Milanese painter Carlo Cane (1615-1688), from the second half of the seventeenth century; the canvas (1671) of the Martyrdom of Sant’Ippolito del Cicalesius, a marble statue of the Gaginian school, the Madonna della Neve of the workshop of Bartolomeo Berrettaro and Giuliano Mancino, from 1511; the polyptych of the high altar, composed of as many as 10 plates, attributed for a long time to the Girolamo Alibrandi messinese as a work of 1513. But the twentieth century art historians and contemporary scholars have definitively attributed the work to the late Mannerist painter Modicano (by marriage) Bernardino Nigro (1538 – 1590), dating back to 1573; the altarpieces depict the scenes of the Holy Family and of the life of Jesus, from the Nativity to the Resurrection and the Ascension, as well as two panels with the classic iconographies of the two holy knights, St. George defeating the Dragon, and St. Martin dividing the his mantle with Jesus, who presents himself under the guise of a poor beggar.

Church of Saint Peter

A document of the bishop of Syracuse attests to its existence on site in 1396, but the date of its first construction is to be placed from about 1301 to about 1350, as attested by the seventeenth-century historian Placido Carrafa. Built as a collegiate church with the bull of Clement VIII on 2 January 1597, two centuries later by Royal Decree of Charles III of Bourbon (1797), and following a centuries-old dispute, the official Church was declared the Mother Church like Saint George “of the Counts. It is also part of the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Church of Santa Maria del Gesù

The church of Santa Maria del Gesù (1478-1481) and the adjoining convent (1478-1520), a National Monument, withstood various earthquakes, belonged to the Observant Franciscan Friars. The church preserves a splendid cloister with two orders in late-Gothic style, with many variously decorated columns and each one different from the other. The church was built by restoring an existing Franciscan building already present at least from 1343, and thanks to the will and the munificence of the Countess Giovanna Ximenes de Cabrera, in order to celebrate, in January 1481, the marriage of her own daughter Anna with Fadrique Enríquez, first cousin of the King of Spain Ferdinand the Catholic.

Portale de Leva

The Portale De Leva, of the early fourteenth century, a National Monument, is an elegant example of the Chiaramonte Gothic style which then dominated as a style in Sicily throughout the fourteenth century. It is, together with the portal of the Palatine Chapel kept inside the Church of Santa Maria di Betlem, the most beautiful portal of Modica, with the arches of a large ogive carved in three orders, with geometric decorations in zigzag, and acanthus leaves to complete the dense pattern of arabesque embroidery. It was probably the front door of a small church (dedicated to the saints Philip and James), as suggested by a small circular window that surmounts the portal, and which must have contained a rose window, a typical ecclesiastical ornament. The church, which survived the 1693 earthquake, later became the private chapel of the noble De Leva family, incorporated into their eighteenth-century palace. The portal, with its Norman Arabic phrasing, recalls the contemporary portals of the Cathedral of Nicosia and the church of San Francesco di Assisi in Palermo.

Sanctuary of the Madonna delle Grazie

The construction of the sanctuary of Modica was decided after the discovery on May 4, 1615, of a slate tablet depicting the Madonna with the Child in her arms; the narration reports that the tablet burned incessantly for three days, in a bush of thorns, without being consumed, so it was shouted to the miracle, and the people wanted a religious building to be erected there. The work, entrusted to the Syracuse architect Vincenzo Mirabella, immediately began, undergoing a temporary interruption due to the death of Mirabella, in 1624. A mausoleum inside contains the mortal remains. The side portal dates back to the early seventeenth century, with its very fine late Renaissance style decorations under the broken tympanum, and probably the bell tower to the left of the colonnade on the main façade, which was also rebuilt after the earthquake of 1693, in late baroque style, with sturdy protruding binary columns, reminiscent of those of the Cathedral of San Giorgio.

sanctuary madonna delle grazie in Modica
The Sanctuary facade

The Madonna delle Grazie was proclaimed principal patron of Modica by a bishop’s decree dated 3 August 1627, as requested by the civic assembly resulting in the copy of Consilii Civitatis Moticae dated 1626, found at the General Archives of the Carmelite Order in Rome. A painting on the vault of the apse, in which Mary stands in the background of the city, reads: Ecce Mothuca Mater Tua. In January 2015, the shrine was raised to the status of minor basilica.

The Chocolate of Modica

Typical production of the city is the famous chocolate, produced following an ancient Aztec recipe, from which derives the Modican recipe which, based on the documentation found at the State Archive of Modica in the Grimaldi Archive, dates back to 1746, when Sicily still depended on the Kingdom of Spain. The processing is strictly artisan and at low temperature, which prevents the loss or the organoleptic alteration of the cocoa components. Furthermore, the cocoa paste does not melt with the sugar (raw processing), giving substance to a dark, slightly grainy chocolate, without added vegetable fats, not subject to liquefy in the hands at summer temperatures, and where it is possible to taste clearly distinguish the three elements that make it up: cocoa, sugar and spices (in the traditional recipe, cinnamon or vanilla). Conquered by the originality and taste of the Modica chocolate, Leonardo Sciascia wrote of it: Another reminder, to remain at the throat, is that of the chocolate of Modica and that of Alicante (and I do not know if of other Spanish countries): a dark chocolate of two types – vanilla, cinnamon – to eat in touch or to melt in the cup: of unparalleled flavor, so that those who taste it seem to have arrived at the Archetype, to the absolute, that the chocolate produced elsewhere – albeit the more celebrated – be it adulteration, corruption. Modicano chocolate is undergoing the procedure to be recognized by the Ministry of Agricultural Policies and by the competent European Commission as a PGI product (Protected Geographical Indication).

Modica chocolate
Modica Chocolate
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