The Ropemakers of Syracuse

I Cordari di Siracusa

Eric Darton

Ropemakers’ Street in Ortigia, Syracuse, Sicily. Local legend has it that a plague in 1501 was ravishing Siracusa. The spread of the pestilence stopped, miraculously, at the border of the rione dei Cordari, the ropemakers’ quarter where the Madonna was venerated in a small chapel. Subsequently, the bishop ordered the building of a church in the district which stands today: Santa Maria dei Miracoli, Saint Mary of the Miracles.

In the part of Syracuse lying to the north, in what is now the vast archeological park which includes an ancient Greek theater, sacrificial altars and a Roman amphitheater, are a series of remarkable quarries. For several hundred years, beginning in the seventh century, BC enormous quantities of limestone were extracted from the site. Numerous descriptions and visual representations attest that Paul, the Apostle, visited Siracusa and preached in the latomi.

One of the of the most impressive caverns in this complex, both in scale and “quarchitecture” is La Grotta dei Cordari, who braided their ropes through its interconnected horizontal chambers until the nineteenth century. (Above)

These magnificent hollowed-out and vaulted structures also served as prisons – one is ironically named the Quarry of Paradise, and a soaring cavern with a narrow vent at the top was purportedly used by the tyrant Dionysus for the purpose of intelligence-gathering since it amplified the conversations of the prisoners below. When Caravaggio lived briefly in Siracusa in the early seventeenth century, he named the cavern The Ear of Dionysus.

All photos by the author