Santa Caterina dello Ionio
The changing beauty of the countryside that generously overlooks the Ionian coast of Catanzaro often changes its conformation, either because of the barren gullies that emerge on the first spurs of the hinterland or because of the steep elevations that, naturally dominating the sea, have favoured the construction of inland villages over the centuries. As in the case of Santa Caterina dello Ionio, an ancient village of medieval foundation that over the centuries has become a coveted prey of the many feudal families who have claimed ownership. The hairpin bends that climb between centuries-old olive groves, ancient farmhouses and oak forests alternately show the Ionian expanse and the mountains of the Serre Park, which seem to loom close at hand here. Passing the historic centre, one can continue towards Elce della Vecchia to enjoy the spectacle of another natural pass that joins the dense maze of roads towards Serra San Bruno.
The history of this beautiful village has been marked by very sad events that the population courageously faced in a true spirit of resilience. But the great disaster of 29 July 1983 created an epochal caesura between the past and the future, forcing most of the inhabitants to move to the then sparse Marina, which has now grown exponentially. On that torrid, yet extremely windy day, a frightful fire broke out in the north-west valley at the foot of the village and, driven by a strong westerly wind, reached the first houses. In a very short time, it destroyed a large part of the upper area: 67 houses, two churches and two noble palaces of great value were reduced to ashes. The fire engulfed the already disused Church of the Annunziata and the nearby imposing Mother Church of the Assumption, devastating its roof and the vault below; it burnt the roof of the Oratory of the Rosary but miraculously the vault did not collapse, sparing the masterpieces it contained. Nothing could be done to save the 19th-century palace of the Marquises Di Francia, the last barons of Santa Caterina, and the palace opposite that of the Del Balzo-Squillacioti barons, where precious artefacts and the family’s ancient library were also preserved. Nevertheless, the old town centre has been partly restored, the Mother Church rebuilt and what the fire had graced, many houses have been rebuilt preserving at least the original layout. But the wounds of almost forty years ago are still open and those who left the village for the marina still struggle to return. Awareness of this sad page of history must therefore motivate us to make an even more dutiful and attentive visit – if possible – in an attempt to understand the extent of the tragedy and the psychological and material consequences suffered by the old and new generations. The castle, documented as early as the 12th century, survived devastating earthquakes and abandonment due to feudal subversion. Nevertheless, it was demolished in the second half of the 20th century and replaced by the municipal kindergarten. The Mother Church, which, as anticipated, was almost completely destroyed by fire, was built in 1606 and rebuilt in its present form after the earthquake of 1783. Much of its elegant decoration in Serrese baroque, now tending towards the incipient neoclassical taste, was saved from the fire, with the exception of the vault. The tiburium, internally built like a dome, resisted but the strong heat caused the destruction of the wooden choir, the pictorial altarpiece and damaged the marble altar, a jewel made by the Pisani marble workers from Serra San Bruno in 1780. Also damaged were the valuable side altars, the work of 18th-century Neapolitan craftsmen, which contain sculptures of the Immaculate Conception and St. Joseph, also made of marble. Among the many surviving works, admire, in the Church of the Rosary, the spectacular Neapolitan high altar in polychrome marble, 18th century like the altarpiece enclosed within it depicting the Virgin of the Rosary, a copy of the famous original by Carlo Maratta admirably replicated by Emanuele Paparo. The church of San Pantaleone, the now-abandoned church of the Immacolata and the sumptuous confraternal church of Santa Caterina, the town’s patron saint, are of interest. The neoclassical interior houses a copy of the original altarpiece by Fabrizio Santafede, replicated in 1866, in the sumptuous frame of the high altar. The statue of the patron saint, a Serrese work from the end of the 18th century, adorned with rich silk vestments embroidered in gold, is an object of great devotion by the people of Caterina, who solemnly celebrate her feast day on 25 November and the second Sunday in July.