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Dessert for the Eyes: Sicilian Baroque

Americans’ ideas about Sicily have been mostly shaped by a few well-known films depicting a certain criminal society whose reach now extends around the world. While the island has its difficulties, Sicily today is among the most progressive and culturally engaged regions in Italy, and the island is enjoying a rebirth of prosperity and cultural prominence. From the large cities to the smaller towns, there is a wave of restoration and rejuvenation that is making the beauty of the place even more apparent.

The Oratorio of Santa Cita, Palermo. The stucco sculptural decoration by Serpotta fills the walls with figures and scenes at various scales but is unified by its consistent whiteness. Color is introduced only in the sanctuary, with the painting of the altarpiece. (Photo by author)

Blessed by a superb climate, some of the most appetizing produce and foods in the world, a dramatic and varied landscape and extraordinarily friendly and welcoming people, Sicily is a wonderful place to study architecture, and my students, colleagues and I have the pleasure of doing this for a week every spring. While all the great periods and styles are represented, from the ancient Greek to the modern, what stands out for me is the marvelous Sicilian Baroque. For those more familiar with the grandeur of the Baroque in Rome, the Sicilian variety offers a more intimate and playful variation on the main themes of the style.

Here there are no mile-long axes or ponderous elevations stretching for hundreds of feet. There are no piazzas with acres of stone paving without a tree in sight. Rather, there is always the sense of being in a very well-appointed garden, brimming with orange trees, cypresses and olives. Fountains are frequent, and nature always seems near. Important buildings seem to be sprouting balconies supported on humorously sculpted brackets, while pilasters and entablatures twist and bend as if starting to dance.

In Sicily, the Baroque is not so much about the representation of power, but more about local pride, exuberant craftsmanship and an approach to decorative detail that is simply dessert for the eyes. Those who know Sicilian confections like canoli, cassata, sfince and other pastries stuffed with candied fruit, ricotta cheese, chocolate, pistachios or almonds can make the requisite translation to the visual field.

Cathedral of Modica, view of the nave with original Baroque interior decoration and a late 19th-century organ case designed to harmonize with the pre-existing setting. The limited color palette and geometric rigor of the ornament give the interior a lace-like lightness, in contrast with the more robust quality of the Roman Baroque. (Author photo)

There is a tragic side to this picture, too, reflecting the frequent earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and other disasters that have struck the region. The towns of southeastern Sicily were all rebuilt after the devastating earthquake of 1693, and Catania has been destroyed and rebuilt at least seven times in its long history. Surprisingly, this series of catastrophes has not led to widespread fatalism but seems only to make the beauty of the place and the life within it even sweeter because of its vulnerability.

Not only is the Sicilian Baroque different from the Roman Baroque, but the Sicilian version differs among the various cities and designers on the island; one must travel around to see the different characters the style takes on. The historic center of Palermo retains the exotic charm of the several different civilizations that built it and left their distinctive mark on it: Phoenician, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Arab, Norman, Spanish and Italian.

At the church of La Martorana, several of these layers are visible simultaneously, with Ravenna-like mosaics vying for our attention, along with Baroque sculpture and mural painting beneath an Arabic dome. The Oratorio of Santa Cita, however, is pure Baroque theater and surprising in its intimate scale: The early 18th-century sculptures in stucco by Giacomo Serpotta (1652-1732) covering the walls are marvelous in their number and complexity yet all perfectly composed with the architectural lines and unified by their consistent whiteness.

The Cathedral of Noto. Part of the early 18th-century reconstruction of the city after its destruction in 1693, the cathedral is built of the local golden stone as the centerpiece of the city’s orthogonal street grid and is flanked by squares enclosed by ficus trees trimmed to create green walls. The dome has just been reconstructed after another collapse in 1996.

The city’s elegant squares are unusual in Italy for their landscaping, brimming with oranges, palms, olives and, at the Piazza Marina, giant Banyan trees like those I climbed growing up in Florida. Throughout the historic center, many buildings still show the damage caused by Allied bombing in 1943, though the extensive and continuing restorations are a sign of hope. Happily, the Palermitani are not slaves to the Venice Charter, and so their very capable restorations and reconstructions are returning the city as it was.

In the southeastern corner of the island is a trio of wonderful cities, all rebuilt after the 1693 earthquake and all monuments of Baroque architecture and town making. Modica and Ragusa Ibla were rebuilt where and as they had been before, with their winding streets following the hilly topography, while Noto and Ragusa were rebuilt on new sites according to new, geometrically formalized plans.

I find Modica and Noto the most satisfying, reflecting the best of what we might call the “topologic” and the “geometric” approaches to city building, respectively. The first has become an international hot spot, with a particular focus on gastronomy, while the second, with a stronger local flavor, is made more magical by the golden stone of which most of it is built. Noto’s cathedral – designed, like all the principal buildings of the town, by Rosario Gagliardi (1698-1762) – suffered another loss in 1996 when its grand early 18th-century dome suddenly collapsed. Now completely restored “where it was, as it was” under the guidance of Paolo Marconi, the interior is currently being decorated in classical style by a team of Russian painters. Another setback for the Venice Charter crowd but absolutely right in this case.

Cathedral of Siracusa, the heart of the city’s historic center on the island of Ortigia. The Baroque façade masks the Norman cathedral, which remodeled a Byzantine refashioning into a Christian church of the fifth-century B.C. Greek Temple of Athena. The bold Doric peristyle of the ancient temple is partially visible both inside and outside the cathedral. (Photo by author)

At the cathedral of Siracusa on the island of Ortigia, the nave and aisles occupy the former cella and peristyles of the fifth-century B.C. Greek Temple of Athena – perhaps the only place in the world where one can see the Italian Baroque and the ancient Greek Doric in almost inconceivable juxtaposition; the temple-cathedral is also a remarkable example of continuity of form, materials and use over the course of many centuries. Outside is one of the most beautiful piazze in the world – the facades opposite the cathedral bending in a long, graceful arc.

The Baroque is again different in Catania. The lava from Mount Etna that has several times buried the city has also produced one of its main building materials, and the buildings around the main piazza are banded in volcanic gray pumice and creamy limestone. This gray and white palette might be dreary were it not for the abundant sunshine, palm trees, orange trees and bright flowers that are equally characteristic of the place.

While the facades of the churches in Ragusa Ibla, Modica and Noto tend to bow in and out in a dance of complex concave and convex curves, the facades of Catania, like those in Palermo, are more planar, with gently twisting columns and pilasters and lace-like ornamental patterns in the flat surfaces.

Wherever you go in Sicily, the Baroque architecture is food for the eyes and the soul, and the sweets just make the experience even more satisfying.

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  1. Assen Assenov
    April 17th, 2013 at 14:14 | #1

    Enchanting descriptions and sublime writing!
    Thank you, Steve, for seeing the good in our country and for valorizing it so well.