The history of the precious Bonajuto Chapel in Catania

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The site, owned by a noble family from Catania, is one of the rare examples of Byzantine architecture in town. Together with the heir and owner Salvatore Bonajuto, we retraced the most significant moments of this place, from Bianca di Navarra’s concession to the studies on its dating

Among the most fascinating places in Catania, one that deserves a special mention is the Bonajuto Chapel. One of the rare examples of Byzantine architecture in town, it owes its name to the famous Bonajuto family, whose coat of arms is still visible on the keystones of some buildings. Salvatore Bonajuto, heir and owner of this place told us its whole story. Saved from the earthquake of 1693 thanks to the presence of the Palace that the Bonajutos had built after the concessions of the queen Bianca di Navarra, the chapel remained intact also because of the urban plan conceived by the Duke of Camastra, In fact, in order to keep safe from earthquakes the citizens, he had modified the obsolete medieval structure with a more modern orthogonal one.

Hidden for many years, the chapel was rediscovered only in the 1930s, when the superintendence decided it was time to dig. “The excavations – the heir told us – began with my great-grandfather. The relationship between him and the superintendence was not easy, as he wanted to reopen the chapel for worship, while they wanted to continue their research. I still keep their correspondence and I learned that they were about to incur a lawsuit, even if, in the end, he managed to close the chapel with a brick floor and avoid any further problem”. This floor was then destroyed by Salvatore Bonajuto, who wanted to give a fundamental piece of its past back to Catania. “I reopened it about 17 years ago, in 2001. A great restoration work has been done, always in an attempt to preserve the whole site”. Among the most significant discoveries of recent years, there is the dating of the building. The Prince of Biscari, like Agnello did later, had already placed it between the VI and VII centuries, a thesis considered valid for many centuries. “When the University of Catania began its research, we discovered a sample of bricks and made the carbon 14 test. Thanks also to the electrofluorescence that can tell us when the bricks were cooked, we can now say with certainty that the chapel was built between the VIII and IX centuries. A.D.”. Because of its conformation similar to the Baths of the Terme della Rotonda, over time some have confused the chapel with a thermal building, while it is almost certain that it was a martyrium, that is, a place where the martyr saints were buried. “We are not yet certain – explained the baron – but it is pleasant to think that our St. Agata may have been buried among its cells, given that the chapel is adjacent to the places that marked her existence”.

After its reopening, for some years the site was used as a pub, as one can immediately notice when googling the name of the chapel. As its owner told us, “in the first years after the reopening I managed the place on my own, then I entrusted it to some other people, but I realized that it would not have been possible. This space must be shown in its beauty and without frills. If you need to choose a destination for use it, you should pick that of a container of art and culture, of a museum and an exhibition space. The Catania of our times is different than the one of our past and I believe it is time to get involved in this project”. A confirmation in this regard came from numerous international newspapers, which talked about the chapel in important guides such as the one by Lonely Planet.

Before leaving, Baron Bonajuto revealed us a secret: Jean Pierre Houël, the famous illustrator who first did the Grand Tour in Sicily, never saw the chapel. Yet his reproduction is one of the most illustrious and faithful of all time, to the point that today it is kept at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. “The truth is that Houël never visited this place. His contacts with the Prince of Biscari are certain, and we know that Biscari knew the chapel well. Houël saw the drawings by other illustrators and some sketches of its plan, but certainly not the chapel itself. And this is extraordinary, given the fidelity with which he reproduced it”. In his gouche you can admire the Christian columbarium, probably dating from the II century, as well as the stairs that gave access to the martyrium, in an artistic reproduction that makes us understand the charm and importance of the chapel both in the past and in our days.

Translated by Eva Luna Mascolino

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