The last legacy of the Sicilian nobility, the island’s Baroque leaves an indelible mark in your memory
Sun-kissed stone buildings, light playing on carved surfaces and niches, sinuous columns climbing upwards. Sicilian Baroque is a fusion of earth and sky: the white and intense ochre of the churches and palaces mixes with the blue background, in a unique and fascinating whole. Walking through the streets of Noto, Modica and Ragusa and finding yourself face to face with the impressive forms of great Sicilian Baroque is an experience words cannot describe: you just have to see it for yourself!
In this treasure chest of an island, Baroque is one of its most precious gems. When admiring the solid-looking beauty of the locations, it’s surprising to remember that all this is the result of a catastrophe: the 1693 earthquake, which razed Noto to the ground, severely damaged Catania, Ragusa, Modica, Ispica and Militello and, set in motion impressive reconstruction work. Under the guidance of the Duke of Camastra, new towns rose whose final urban layouts were extraordinarily picturesque, magnificent buildings and churches of extraordinary architectural virtuosity; and they rose right there, where the earth had swallowed all life; monsters, not seen since the Romanesque period, now appeared once again on the façades, as a reminder of what lay hidden in beneath the surface of the earth.
Today, the Baroque style is frequently seen in the wonderful Val di Noto and also in the interwoven styles found all over Sicily. In this part of Sicily it’s impossible to deny the warmth and colours the ever-powerful sun bestows on the Baroque façades thanks to the chiaroscuro effect. Examples include Noto with its Cathedral, the Chiesa di San Domenico, the Chiesa di San Borromeo al Corso and Palazzo Nicolaci di Villadorata; inRagusa, there’s the Chiesa di San Giorgio, Palazzo Zacco and the Cattedrale di San Giovanni Battista; in Catania, there’s its Duomo and the piazza beneath Palazzo Vescovile, the Seminario dei Chierici and the Palazzo degli Elefanti; Scicli has the Palazzo Beneventano and Modica has the Duomo di San Giorgio and its incredible staircase (the list could go on, there are so many timeless masterpieces). All of them really exude Sicily’s Spanish character: strong and passionate, rational and meticulous, orderly yet elusive, rich and full-bodied.
Cherubs, grotesque masks and faces support the elegant balconies of the houses of the nobility, a mixture of lines and curves vie on the curved church façades, spiral columns twist upwards as though defying gravity, bold bell towers stand out as though bejewelling the world. Not to mention their interiors: the houses of the nobility are decorated with different types of marble, stuccos, frescoes, marble inlays and sculptures. Your eyes linger over their wonderful details and follow the interplay of the ever-different perspectives.
In the province of Trapani, don’t miss the Chiesa di San Francesco in Mazara del Vallo, originally Norman-Arab in style and then transformed into Baroque. You can see it in all its splendour thanks to a restauration started in 1977 to repair the damage it suffered during the Belice earthquake (1968).
In Palermo, one genuine interpreter of more refined and elegant Baroque was undoubtedly Giacomo Serpotta, a sculptor and interior decorator who became famous for his stuccos, made with the revolutionary marble-polishing technique he designed, allustratura, which he shared with his brother Giuseppe and his son Procopio. His other finest works are the,Oratorio di Santa Cita and the Oratorio del Rosario, the Chiesa di San Domenico and the Chiesa di San Francesco d’Assisi.
The brothers Giuseppe and Giacomo Serpotta decorated the small Cappella Palatina in the Castello dei Ventimiglia in Castelbuono, near Palermo.