Grotta dei Cordari - Orecchio di Dionigi - Orecchio di Dionisio

Useful Information

Location: Siracusa, towards Ortigia.
Classification: SpeleologyKarst cave
Light: LightIncandescent Electric Light System
Guided tours:
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17th century Grotta dei Cordari used by rope makers.
1608 Michelangelo di Caravaggio visited Siracusa and also this place.


Orecchio di Dionigi (Ear of Dionigi) map (scan by Deutschen Fotothek).

Latomie (litos=stone, temnos=cut) is a strange place, near Siracusa, which is a historic quarry for the city of Syracuse. It was opened by the Greek settlers to get material for their temples, roads and fortifications. At this time 4.7 Mio. m² of rock were removed. There are twelve quarries arranged in a 1.5 km long bow following the edge of a limestone terrace towards Ortigia.

The blocks were cut out of the rock, as it is limestone or tufa, which is rather soft when it is wet. Later it was dried in the sun and became hard. This rock contains a lot of air bubbles, similar to modern isolating construction material. In the hot Sicilian summers this was very usefull to keep the heat outside the houses.

The Latomie looks rather strange, as the workers followed the best rock qualities and thus a strange labyrinth of quarries, shelters and caves was created. But the shape of this area also changed due to erosion and the frequent earthquakes of this volcanic island. Today the quarries are much wider than originally and so the sun is shining into the crevice allowing the growth of plants.

The caves were built by slave workers, prisoners and captives of war. For example the Carthagans which were captured at Gelone 480 BC. Or the 7,000 Athenians which survived the massacre at Asinaro 413 BC. The quarries were a high security prison, with no chance for the prisoners to escape.

Today there are four quarries open to the public: Latomia Intagliatella, Latomie dei Cappuccini, Latomie del Paradiso, and Latomie di S. Venera. Two more are private and not open to the public. All other quarries are covered by the modern city and do not exist any more.

  1. Latomie del Paradiso: is the first quarry which was opened to the public. It is one of the biggest and the deepest of all quarries. The flat floor was used for a citrus grove for centuries. It is the location of the Orecchio di Dionigi (Ear of Dionigi), see below.
  2. Latomia Intagliatella: one of the smaller quarries, impressive for its high arches and pillars. Connected by a modern tunnel with Latomie del Paradiso.
  3. Latomie dei Cappuccini: was originally called la Perriera od la Pietraia, which was derived from the word pietra (rock). This is the place which was used as a quarry by the Greeks. The absolutely vertical caves make any try to escape futile. This place was bought in 1592 by Capuchin monks, an autonomous branch of the Franciscan order. That explains the modern name.
  4. Latomie di Santa Venera: this quarry was transformed into a garden in the 6th century. Part of this place is the Necropoli Grotticelle, a Greek and Roman cemetry with many cave tombs.

The Grotta dei Cordari really looks and feels a bit like a natural cave, as the moisture allows the growth of typical plants. It was named after the cordari (rope makers) who used this huge chamber to make ropes since the 17th century. This place was cool and moist, which was good for the ropes. The tradition of making ropes here was abandoned only a few decades ago.

The Orecchio di Dionigi (Ear of Dionysius) is a 65 m long tunnel which is between 5 m and 11 m wide and 23 m high. It is shaped like a gothic arch, with a pointy apex. The strange shape gives the place strange acoustics, the sound is reflected up to 16 times. Michelangelo di Caravaggio visited Siracusa in 1608. He visited this cave in the company of the Siracusan historian Vincenzo Mirabella. Caravaggio named this cave Orecchio di Dionigi because of an legend about the tyrant Dionysius the elder, who is said to have constructed this cave as a prison. The strange accoustics allowed the tyrant to spy his captives by sitting at a place high above where even the calmest whisper was amplified to be understandable.

But despite this nice story, the form of the cave is just a result of the technique used by the quarry workers. They started at the top and removed layer after layer at the floor of the cave slightly widening it with every layer. The accoustics is just a coincidence.