Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Broken, then Baroque: Triumph over a Sicilian Tragedy

Basilica della Collegiata - Catania, Sicily

Broken, then Baroque: Triumph over a Sicilian Tragedy
non-fiction research and photos
by Gregory E. Larson, AIA
     All was at peace over the Sicilian landscape on the Sunday evening of January 11, 1693.  The fields were in their winter sleep.  The farmers and the shopkeepers were at rest, full of food and time spent with family.  An earthquake had given them a shake two days earlier. Some damage occurred along the east coast, but it was assumed that the worst was over.  They did not know that a stronger quake was yet to come.
     At 9:00 P.M. their world was rocked with an estimated 7.4 (Richter) magnitude earthquake, centered off the east coast of Sicily.  The quake was so violent, that in Palermo, over 100 miles west of the epicenter, parents and children, shopkeepers and laborers, all ran out into the streets in panic.  They thought their world was coming to an end.  Sure, there was significant damage to their city, but what they didn’t know was that the eastern third of Sicily was destroyed – cities unrecognizalbe, structures leveled.  Over seventy cities were destroyed and an estimated 60,000 people lost their lives.  The ocean surge on the east coast (now known as a tsunami) added to the destruction.

Ancient ruins - Siricusa, Sicily
     Slowly, the plans to rebuild emerged city by city.  At the time, Spain ruled the island of Sicily.  The Viceroy in Madrid appointed the Duke of Camastra to be responsible for organizing the rebuilding process.  The Duke collaborated with agricultural aristocrats in Sicily, who were the main economic force behind the cities and churches. There were immediate issues to resolve in each city and village.  Should the rebuilding occur on the same spot as the original city?  Should they rebuild in a new location?  Gradually, the reconstruction began, but many of the homeless endured the hardship of living in temporary camps for years after the earthquake.  Many assumed that God had punished Sicily for various sins.                                                                   
     For the churches, civic buildings and palaces, the aristocracy decided to use the Baroque style of architecture, which was already firmly established on the mainland of Italy in the 17th Century.  The original Baroque style was born out of a desire to break away from the stiff traditions and rules of the Renaissance period, where building facades seemed too predictable, too static and plain.  The term baroque comes from the Italian word barocco, which means bizarre.  Architects and designers wanted to add more movement, more feeling of three dimensions and more personality into the churches and important civic buildings.  The architects for the rebuilding of Sicily took the baroque style to a whole new level – and it is now recognized as Sicilian Baroque, and yes, some of it seems bizarre and a bit cartoonish, or whimsical.
     Catania, the largest city on the east coast of Sicily, was totally destroyed.  Giovanni Battista Vaccarini (1702-1769), a native Sicilian architect, was trained on the mainland in the Renaissance and Baroque styles.  He returned to the island to assist in the rebuilding process, and was selected to plan the main square and church.  Many younger Sicilian architects became involved in the design process, and their work overlapped, due to the length of time required to build the stone structures.  Vaccarini’s design for the Catania Cathedral can be described as a hybrid of Renaissance and Baroque Style.  Overall, the appearance is a bit stiff, but the main façade begins to show the Baroque elements of balcony and movement in the sculpture, as well as various colors of stone.  Vaccarini is now considered the father of the Sicilian Baroque style. 

Cathedral in Catania, Italy
     Many architects who were originally from Sicily came back for the reconstruction.  They were well-versed in Baroque design, and once they became engrossed in their work, the Baroque style began to flourish beyond the unusual style seen on the mainland. 
     The façade designs of Sicilian Baroque each have their own personality, but they have very similar elements, such as balconies, belfries, animated sculpture, curves, and three-dimensional depth.  One of the best examples of a Sicilian Baroque façade is the Basilica della Collegiata in the City of Catania on Via Etna.  It was designed in the latter period of Sicilian Baroque (1768) by Stefano Ittar (1730-1789).  Ittar arrived in Sicily after Catania’s reconstruction was well underway.  He assisted in the design work on the Palazzo Biscari, working for Francesco Battaglia, the main architect for Prince Biscari. Stefano Ittar eventually met and married Francesco’s daughter, Rosaria Battaglia.      
Basilica della Collegiata - Catania, Sicily

      Ittar's front elevation of the Basilica della Collegiata exudes many of the Baroque elements (balcony, belfry, etc.) used in the Sicilian structures.  The main façade column bases seem to pierce the steps, rather than sit atop them, adding to the dynamic quality of the front of the church.
     The palaces of the aristocrats give us an additional glimpse of the Baroque details.  The balconies on the upper floor of the Palazzo Cosentini in Ragusa Ibla are constructed of outward-curving iron railings which allowed space for the women’s billowing skirts.  The stone supports for the balcony are full of grotesque and playful figures ranging from sea creatures to musicians.

Cosentini Palace - Ragusa Ibla, Sicily

Looking up at Cosentini Palace balcony
Balcony detail - Ragusa Ibla, Sicily
     The Church of San Giorgio in Ragusa Ibla is another fine example of Sicilian Baroque style.  The architect, Rosario Gagliardi (1700-1770), was born in Sicily, and amazingly, never left the island.  He developed a great understanding for the elements of Baroque architecture, and designed many churches during the reconstruction, of which two are located in Ragusa Ibla: the Church of San Giorgio and the Church of San Giuseppe.  His design for the Church of San Giorgio (1738) includes a daunting entrance of angled steps, and a façade that blossoms forth with huge oval scrolls and dynamic statues and details.

Church of San Giorgio - Ragusa Ibla, Sicily
Church of San Guiseppe - Ragusa Ibla, Sicily

    The rebuilding process continued for decades.  Many of the elders who lived through the 1693 earthquake did not experience the final fruition of church designs nor were they alive at the time the church rebuilding was complete.  But the human spirit and the Sicilian spirit prevailed, and the reconstruction provided them pride and hope for a better future beyond the natural tragedy.
     What remains today is a magnificent collection of structures that were the response of the vision of the Sicilian leaders and designers at the beginning of the 18th century.  Many of the structures are now listed on UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites.  There is much to think about when looking at the buildings today – mostly the hardships and sacrifices endured by the Sicilians through the natural disaster, and the joy the Sicilians felt when a new church was dedicated.  It makes one realize the Sicilians hearts and minds were stronger than the stone they cut.

Additional Photos:

Church detail - Caltigirone, Italy

Church of San Giovanni Battista - Monterosso Almo, Sicily

Church of the Souls of Purgatory - Ragusa Ibla, Sicily

Town square and Cathedral Church - Grammichele, Sicily