Enna is the heart of Sicily, a province that embodies all of the features that make Sicily unique. Visitors can walk among ruins and feel a connection and vitality from past ages, discovering enchanted places, while enjoying an outstanding cuisine that also embraces the flavors of eras past. It is also unique in that it is the only Sicilian province that does not touch the coast.
The city of Enna was known as Castrogiovanni until the 1920s. It is situated high on a mountaintop located almost exactly in the center of Sicily. Its lofty perch offers a panoramic view overlooking the scenic valleys of Sicily’s rugged interior. Enna’s position makes it a natural strategic defensive position; any army that sought to control Sicily’s interior would have to hold Enna.
Enna is not only Sicily’s highest major city (several smaller towns are higher), but at an elevation of 3,050 feet above sea level, it is the highest provincial capital in Italy. Historically, it is unique in being the only important city of ancient Sicily that was not founded by foreign invaders. It was established by one of Sicily’s three indigenous peoples, the Sicels (or Siculi), from whom the name Sicily (from Sikelia) itself derives. This makes Enna one of the oldest continuously-inhabited cities on the island. Although scholars are not certain exactly when Enna was founded, most agree that a major settlement existed there as early as 1200 BC.
The city was first occupied by the Romans in 258 BC during the first Punic War, but it was during the Second Punic War (214 BC) that the area became terribly oppressed. Enna was aligned with Siracusa, which itself was aligned with Carthage. As Rome expanded into an Empire, the bloody wars with Carthage transformed the political, economic and social fabric all around the Italian peninsula. Those who opposed Rome were annihilated and often its citizens became slaves to the Republic. This became the fate of Enna. Romans sacked the city and massacred a large part of the population. The area was transformed into a giant wheat farm whose sole purpose was to feed Rome and her citizens. This was the system called latifundiae and was used to great advantage by Rome, employing what today we refer to as economies of scale to produce the most product at the lowest cost. However, the cost in terms of human life was extraordinary.
A remnant of this terrible period is the prime reason to make the trek to the province. Located a few miles south of Enna is Villa Romana del Casale, in the town of Piazza Armerina. This was the center of the area’s large agricultural estate and the villa was one of the most luxurious of its kind. It is especially noteworthy for the mosaics that decorate virtually every room and are the finest that remain from the Roman Empire. The villa was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. The forty mosaics are breathtaking in detail and astonishing to view. For any reader who has marveled at those found in Rome or Pompeii, you will be overwhelmed by the remarkable condition of the mosaics in Villa Romana. Admittedly, the province is off-the-beaten track, but if the mosaics were located in a major city, they would surely be among the most popularly visited sights and easily can compete for the title of Italy’s richest hidden treasure.
With the decline of the Roman Empire, a period of Byzantine Greek domination began. Enna was exploited purely for its strategic value, with little care paid to economic development or the welfare of its people. It fell to the Arabs in 859 and remained under their control for two centuries, until 1087, when the Normans invaded.
What remains from this period provides one of the provincial capital’s main attractions – the Lombard Castle built by Frederick II in the early part of the 13th century. It is the largest castle in Sicily and was built upon the ruins of an earlier fortification, which itself was likely built on top of an ancient Roman fort. The castle’s name is based on the troops from northern Italy that were garrisoned there. The Lombard Castle originally had 20 towers, but only six have survived to the present day. The Pisan Tower is the tallest and offers a breathtaking view of Sicily’s scenic Dittaino Valley.
The castle lies at the extreme northeastern end of Enna and marks the end of Via Roma, Enna’s main street. Most of the interesting points of the town are located along the road, including the Duomo. Built in 1307, it was gutted by fire in 1446. Restoration was slow and was not completed until the 17th century. As such, architectural styles range from the original medieval Gothic, to late Renaissance, while the final stages were completed in the Baroque style. The elegant apse and transept were part of the original Gothic structure, while the rest of the church boasts many lovely works of art from the Baroque period. The Alessi Museum located near the Duomo contains a collection from the Church Treasury, with many fine examples of Renaissance jewelry, including its showpiece, the splendid gold-enameled “Crown of the Virgin.”
Enna’s other noted medieval fortification is Frederick’s Tower, which stands 100 feet tall and was constructed on the top of a hill. It is a fine example of a medieval defense-tower construction, built on an octagonal foundation instead of the more common round or square floor plan. Local legend maintains that Frederick II had it built to mark the exact center of Sicily.
Situated to the east between Enna and Piazza Armerina is the archeological site of Morgantina. The area is named for a king named Morges, who ruled around the year 1300 BC. Antiquities are still being uncovered at the site dating to the Greek period, during which it had become a wealthy and independent city, renowned for producing the finest wines in Sicily. Mogantina was also the last city in Sicily to be conquered by the Romans, who obliterated the city, but first transplanted its grape vines to mainland Italy. The city was also famous for its mint, the ruins of which have been identified. The ancient site contains an amphitheater dating the 3rd century BC, as well as the ruins of a temple dedicated to Demeter and Kore. Some of the site’s finds, including the Morgantina Venus and a bust of the Greek god Hades, became part of the Getty Collection in California. Both have since been returned to Sicily and reside in the Museo Archeologico di Aidone, only two miles away from the archeological site. The town of Aidone was founded during the Norman period and still preserves ruins of the castle. Visitors are drawn to the numerous old churches which are remarkable in number for such a small town. These include churches devoted to Saints Leone, Anna, John, Maria la Cava and Domenico.
Virtually every one of the hill towns in the province have something special to offer, most often in the form of spectacular views and old churches. A day traveling through the area to towns such as Gagliano Castelferrato, Nicosia, Leonforte, Troina and Agira will reward travelers with a real sense of the heart of Sicily that is the province of Enna.