U Liotru, between history and legend

The Liotru and the obelisk

U Liotru is the main element of the Elephant Fountain, a monumental work located in Piazza Duomo in Catania, which you cannot fail to stop and admire. It is a black basalt sculpture, which depicts an elephant and is the symbol of the city.

On the animal’s back, there is an obelisk. It probably came from Syene to Catania during the Crusades. Egyptian-style figures are engraved on it that do not constitute a full-meaning hieroglyphic script. On the highest part of the obelisk, you can observe: a globe surrounded by a crown of a palm leaf (representing the martyrdom of Agatha, the patron saint of the city) and a branch of lilies (representing purity), a metal tablet bearing an inscription dedicated to St. Agatha (MSSHDPL, or healthy and sincere Mind, for the honor of God and the liberation of his homeland) and a cross.

The origins of the Liotru

But when was u Liotru built? And by whom? If you have already read some other articles, you know that I am from Catania and, like every other person from Catania, I have often asked myself the question, but no one knows the answer. The Arab geographer Idrisi, who lived between the 11th and 12th centuries, claimed that the statue was built during the Carthaginian domination. And the Sicilian architect Giovanni Battista Vaccarini built the Elephant Fountain between 1735 and 1737. Vaccarini had the task of restoring the statue of Liotru, damaged by the 1693 earthquake. He also added white stone fangs and eyes.

The Liotru
The Liotru, photo by Stefano Mortellaro

You are probably wondering why an elephant is the symbol of the city. I don’t even know this exactly  😁  

First theory

It seems that, in a very distant time, dwarf elephants were present in Sicily. A legend tells it was an elephant to chase all dangerous animals out of today’s Catania, thus making it possible for it to be inhabited. U Liotru, therefore, would have been sculpted as a sign of gratitude to that heroic elephant.

Second theory

Citing Idrisi again, the people of Catania considered the elephant a magical statue capable of protecting the city from the eruptions of Etna.

Now you are surely wondering why the name Liotru. This time I have the answer, and it is related to a legend.

Liotru would be the distortion of the name Eliodoro, a person who existed in the seventh century, when Catania was a Byzantine province of the Eastern Roman Empire.

Eliodoro and the Liotru

Eliodoro aspired to become bishop of the diocese of Catania, but it was Leo II who was chosen to hold this office. The disappointed Eliodoro abjured the Christian faith and devoted himself to witchcraft. According to legend, he forged the statue of the elephant by modeling the lava of Etna. He also had the power to animate and ride her during his travels between Catania and Constantinople. Riding the magical creature, he wandered around the city to spite the population. There are many anecdotes about it, but I will tell you only one. Eliodoro had the nasty habit of going to the market, buying what he liked, and paying with precious stones. But when he left, they turned into stone.

It was Leo II who stopped him by condemning him to the stake. However, another version of the story is circulating, but perhaps it is a bit too fanciful… It is said that the bishop challenged Eliodoro to walk over the burning coals. Leo II succeeded in the challenge thanks to his faith in God, while the sorcerer became ashes.

However, we can all admire his elephant even today.

Tidbit: the people of Catania are so tied to Liotru that they define themselves as Liotru brand to specify that they are from Catania and not from the province.

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