Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Palermo, a baroque jewel

Why Sicily? I know exactly why I went to Sicily. It was a trip to the south of Italy the year before that made me go to Sicily. While in Southern Italy, I was enamored by the little baroque town of Leece. The whole town was built in the baroque style. I've never seen anything like it before, the curvy and florid decorations on the facades of every church and building was so delightful. I couldn't get enough. I remember wondering into this old chapel, there were workmen inside who were gutting the interior. I thought to myself, it will make a great loft. It brought back memories of 'The English Patient', of how romantic it was to set up house in an old, abandoned and dilapidated church.
We, Americans, love old ancient piles of stones that they have in Europe. I thought, at that moment, nothing could be more baroque than Leece. I was wrong, a search for the baroque led me to an out of print book by Sir Anthony Blunt called, 'Sicilian Baroque'. I read that in Sicily, whole cities were built or rebuilt in high baroque style. You haven't seen baroque till you've seen Sicilian Baroque.
So a decision was made to search for the baroque in Sicily. That was the easy part, most of the baroque are found in Palermo and the eastern half of the island. Getting there was more difficult, coming from the west coast of the USA. I went on various sites on the Internet, there were lots of alternatives but I prefer an airline that could fly from Los Angeles to Europe non stop. When I land in the US, I want to land in Los Angeles and I want to clear customs and immigration in Los Angeles and not in New York or San Francisco.
Palermo was the Saracen capitol, it took over importance from Siracusa. The Norman rulers continued to use Palermo as their capitol and left their legacy in the Norman Palace with the beautiful mosaics in the Palatine chapel and the very grand duomo at Monreale with its even grander mosaics. Under the Spanish ( a series of rulers ruled over Sicily) the baroque movement thrived. With the arrival of the various church orders like the Theatines and the Jesuits, with the wealth of Palermo and with the commencement of the counter reformation movement, the baroque movement turned on high gear.
The baroque buildings are readily distinguishable by their curvy exterior, their curvy iron balconies supported by curved decoration which could be simple rounded carvings or very iconic and elaborate carvings of animals or half nude ladies with animated expressions. One either loves it or is repelled by it, one might tolerate a little frou frou but repelled by over the top architectural elements.
However, not all exterior are so elaborately done up. According to Sir Anthony Blunt in his book, 'Sicilian Baroque' (now out of print) in Palermo most of the baroque buildings have more austere exteriors. There is another category of baroque where the interior is aplomb with elaborate decorations of colorful inlaid marble or plasterwork of angels, saints, popes, battle scenes, garlands and other flourishes. No expense is spared and no regard is given to tastefulness. In these churches and Oratories every inch is decorated. One has to see it in order to realize either the gaudiness or the immense exuberance. Such is the case in Casa Professa, a Jesuit church, where every inch is decorated with colorful marble inlay work and there are plaster angels every where. At the first sight of Casa Professa, I gasped, wow, what is this? It is truly beautiful. It was a similar reaction with Chiesa dei S Guiseppe dei teatini, though not as elaborate .
Whether one is into baroque or not, there are three places which are de riguer for even an ordinary tourist, these are the three oratories which contained the work of master sculptor, Giacomo Serpotta. The Oratory of Santa Zita is the most delightful. Giacomo Serpotta is able to polish putty and make them look like marble. In Santa Zita, his cute figures adorned the four walls playfully, but meaningfully too. These are biblical scenes and a scene of the Battle of Lepanto.
Here are my notes written March 20, 2007, 'Cheisa dei Gesus (Casa Professa)- incredible plaster sculptures, colorful marble inlay all over church, making it a delightful church. The marble inlay is all over, from to bottom, covering every inch except in places which was damaged by WWII bombing. These areas have been replaced by frescoes. In between and all over are plasterwork of cherubims, garlands of flowers and fruits and angels. ' The amount of work that went into decorating the church is unfathomable. It looked like no expense or effort were spared. It is a Jesuit church and they are still active, opening the church at the designated time and having priests say mass and hear confession even though sometimes nobody attends these services.
When one mentions Palermo or Sicily, one conjures up visions of danger, lawlessness and the mafia. For the tourists, these things are not evident. Palermo is really easy to navigate and the locals are friendly and helpful. The usual common sense of safety prevails here as in any other place in Europe. Stay on the main streets, avoid unfamiliar and shady neighborhoods especially at night. Wear a money belt at all times.

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