Thefts and contentions: the daring adventures of St. Agatha’s relics

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Hidden between a fish restaurant and a store of local stuff in Catania, after centuries the Fonte Lanaria still reminds everyone of one of the most significant moment linked to St. Agatha’s cult: the removal of her remains by the Byzantine commander Giorgio Maniace and the legendary origin of the traditional white habit worn by devotees

The Fonte Lanaria is located near the remains of the walls of Charles V that surround the historic center of Catania, between a fish restaurant and a small shop of local stuff. It was called this way because it was built in 1621 by Francesco Lanario, governor of the city, and then nicknamed Fontanella by the residents. Even if, in the eyes of most people, it can appear as one of the innumerable tributes to the Patron Saint whose bust surmounts the inscription, it actually remembers one of the fundamental places linked to St. Agatha’s cult. Her remains had been resting in her hometown for centuries before being the protagonists of a daring adventure, when they were stolen by the Byzantine general Giorgio Maniace. While he was returning to Constantinople, in fact, he decided to take the body of Agatha and her cousin Lucia (the Patron Saint of Syracuse) body with him. In 1040 Maniace reached the Byzantine Empire and is said to have sailed right where the Fonte Lanaria stands today.

The events related to Saint Agatha’s relics, however, were not finished yet. 86 years later, they were brought home by the two brave soldiers Gisilberto and Goselmo, who sailed until 17 August 1126, when they reached the castle of Aci and met the Bishop Maurizio, who received them with pleasure. Before arriving in Sicily, however, the two had landed in Gallipoli, the birthplace of Goselmo, to give the citizens one of the two precious breasts of the Saint, which for centuries had been disputed between Gallipoli (a city of which Agatha is the Patron Saint) and Galatina (where the breast is now preserved) because of a theft committed by Raimondello Orsini del Balzo in 1389. This episode is also linked to the origin of the white habit that the devotees still wear today during the ceremony. According to an untested legend, when the relics were brought back to Catania, people were so happy that they went out into the street wearing their nightgown, while according to others this typical white vest represents the purity of the young martyr. Whatever the truth, after so many wanderings the remains of the Saint returned to their homeland, unlike what happened to Saint Lucy, who instead still rests in Venice.

Translated by Eva Luna Mascolino

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