Catania’s black elephant: a symbol steeped in history and legend.
In the eyes of foreign travelers, Catania may seem a strange city. Beautiful but full of contradictions, it may fascinate, astonish or even disappoint its visitors, depending on their point of view and state of mind. Anyway, nobody remains indifferent at the sight of its most symbolic places, first of all the statue of the elephant situated right in the middle of the main square, piazza Duomo. Such a curious symbol has left many traces in the works of the most famous writers who have travelled to our region.
Have you ever wondered what are the origins of Catania’s symbol?
Commonly referred to as “Catania’s elephant”, this symbol raises curiosity as you would not relate the Sicilian town to an animal from Africa, yet there is a deep connection between Catania and its famous Fontana dell’Elefante. Just consider that the “U Lioutru” – as it is called by locals – is the official symbol of Catania since 1239!
The iconic Fontana dell’Elefante dominates Piazza Duomo (a must visit of Catania baroque arquitecture), the heart of Catania. The statue of the black elephant is topped by a white obelisk and rests on a white marble pedestal right in the middle of the fountain.
The “Liotru” was probably built during the Carthaginian or Byzantine period. After the 1693 earthquake, Vaccarini started the project of the fountain, which became one of the most famous Sicilian monuments. But history is intertwined with legend, starting from the name. Actually, “Liotru” sounds very similar to “Eliodoro”.
Legend has it that Eliodoro was a an aristocrat from Catania who aspired to become archbishop, but he fell into disfavor and he was accused of being a wizard. As a consequence, he was sent to the stake. According to the legend, Eliodoro created theLiotru and used to ride it to go back and forth between Catania and Carthage.
There is no historical evidence about who built the Liotru or when. Some claim it was built in memory of the war between Carthaginians and Libyans; others say it used to be a religious idol, a magical statue that protected Catania from the Etna eruptions.
Among the several hypotheses to explain the statue in piazza Duomo, two have received much credit. On the one hand, the historian Carrara da Militello tells it stands as a symbol of the victory Catania won over Libya. On the other hand, the Arabian geographer Idridi argues that it was built during the byzantine period as it was believed to protect Catania from the Etna dangerous outbreaks, which is the most likely explanation.
Anyway, the Fontana dell’Elefante is a must see for anyone who travels to Catania.