Where to go?
From the period of Greek colonisation to the present day, Sicilian creativity has never been idle. The complex history of this island – fashioned and formed by a number of foreign peoples and cultures, isolated by the sea – in part explains the unique and varied nature of Sicilian expression over the centuries.
Vestiges from Roman times are fewer and less impressive than those from the Greek period, largely because the Romans showed comparatively little interest in Sicily. Once the threat of a Carthaginian invasion receded, the island lost its strategic importance and became prized exclusively as a “Roman granary”. This allowed the enriched native land owners to build splendid villas by the sea – as the ruins at Patti, near Tyndaris, testify. Not until the end of the 3C AD, during the reign of Diocletian, did Sicily become sought after by the Roman aristocracy, who acquired large tracts of land on the island.
During seven centuries of occupation (3C BC–5C AD), Rome did not endow Sicily with any prestigious monuments other than the odd functional public building (amphitheatres, public baths) and the foundations for a comprehensive road system.
Unlike the Greeks, the Romans knew about cement and how to use it effectively. They erected walls, vaults and columns using casements filled with small bricks, and then poured concrete into them. Finishing touches were added in the form of marble facings (or high-quality stone) or, for the interiors, ably applied stucco that suggested splendid stone walls.
Civil architecture – During this period, Greek theatres, like the ones at Taormina and Catania,underwent considerable transformation. The circular orchestra (reserved for the chorus) was reduced to a semicircle, while a stage wall was added for the special effects machinery. The theatre provided a venue both for circus entertainment and combat with wild animals; to protect the spectators, a wall was constructed along the bottom of the cavea (part of which can still be seen at Taormina). Roman monuments of special interest include the amphitheatres at Siracusa and Catania; the odeons at Taormina and Catania, and, finally, the Naumachie of Taormina (now badly damaged), which consists of a large-scale brick-built gymnasium (122m/400ft long) ornamented with niches. Besides these complexes dedicated to sport and entertainment, the Romans left nothing of value in terms of civic architecture. The fine basilica at Tyndaris suggests that the Romans introduced the art of vaulting to Sicily (for it was unknown to the Greek civil engineers), and more significantly, to settlements removed from the major urban centres. Vestiges of public baths complexes (terme), largely dating from the Imperial period, are preserved at Catania, Taormina, Comiso, Solunto and Tindari. Traces of fora have been found at Taormina, Catania, Siracusa and Tindari.
Domestic architecture – The Romano-Sicilian house closely resembles its Hellenistic counterpart. The peristyle town house was introduced towards the close of the 3C–2C BC (Morgantina). The most elegant homes, however, were the country villas, the most typical example being the magnificent Villa Imperiale del Casale near Piazza Armerina. Here, private bath facilities indicate this was a highly sophisticated and luxurious house; it is particularly renowned for its splendid floor mosaics.
Archaeological excavation undertaken in Palermo and Siracusa has uncovered complete cemeteries on the outskirts, dating from Late Antiquity, when the Romans imposed Christianity on Sicily. The catacombs preserve traces of painted decoration – most particularly those at Siracusa (4C–5C AD) – and provide the earliest examples of Christian art in Sicily. Gradually islanders were coerced into erecting churches, modelled on the Roman prototype basilica: this consisted of a simple rectangular building, articulated by columns into three aisles, with a central nave terminated by a single apse. The other, more striking solution, was to incorporate a church around a pagan Antique temple – as with the Temple of Concord at Agrigento and the Temple of Athena at Siracusa. The walls of the cella were cut away to make arcades and the outer colonnade was infilled with masonry.
In AD 535, as a result of the Byzantine conquest, links between the Church of Sicily and the Exarchate of Ravenna were reinforced. In 751 when Ravenna fell to the Lombards, this allegiance was transferred to Constantinople. Interestingly enough, the rift dividing the Roman and Byzantine Churches as a result of Pope Gregory II’s opposition to Emperor Leo III’s Iconoclast movement in 725–26 had serious repercussions in Sicily.
The ban on the cult of holy icons imposed by the Byzantine Emperor prompted crowds of refugees to seek asylum in Sicily, where the icon continued to be venerated. Whole monastic communities and groups of skilled craftsmen found sanctuary and set about applying their trades, notably in the art of mosaic.
This prosperous period gave rise to the building of numerous shrines (including the ones at Cava d’Ispica and Pantalica) and the institution of troglodyte settlements hewn into the bedrock (almost all now destroyed). Small, centrally planned, square (typically Byzantine) churches appeared. A few examples survive in the eastern part of the island, north and east of Etna, in the vicinity of Noto and around Siracusa. Other Byzantine monuments were completely transformed, dismembered or converted to another use through the ensuing centuries.
The Muslim conquest began in 827 in the area of Trapani. During their two-and-a-half centuries of sovereignty, the Arabs transformed the appearance of Sicily. They shifted their power base from Siracusa to Palermo, altering the countryside with irrigation and eastern crops. Most dramatically, they introduced new architectural forms. They were prolific builders and sensitive planners, ever conscious of a building’s relationship with its natural setting: palaces, mosques and minarets stood among gardens and fountains. In terms of design, their acute sense of line and elegance was applied to sophisticated decorative schemes. Human figures gave way to geometric and arabesque forms, house interiors were transformed with coloured ceramic tiles, while ceilings were encrusted with rich plaster decorations (muqarnas).
Alas, no important monument survives intact from the Arab occupation. Indeed, most of their splendid buildings disappeared with the arrival of the Normans, who appropriated, rebuilt and redecorated them. A few examples of Arab craftsmanship survive, as do a number of intricate networks of irregular streets tucked away in cities like Palermo.
The Arabo-Norman style combines elements from Islamic, Romanesque (introduced by Franco-Norman Benedictine monks) and Byzantine art. Much of its wealth is rooted in the Norman sovereigns’ desire to copy the splendour of Byzantium, a city they yearned to conquer. The new Sicilian master builders channelled their creative power into monuments of incomparable beauty. From the end of the 11C and throughout the next century, large churches were conceived by architect-monks, mainly from the Benedictine and Augustinian orders, whether Greek, French or Latin (from mainland Italy). Designs were modelled on Classical prototypes: a transept was incorporated in a basilica giving it a Latin- or Greek-cross plan, towers were erected to house bells, a doorway was inserted in the front elevation, the presbytery was often crowned with a dome. At the same time, these edifices were given the latest contemporary decoration: Byzantine mosaics laid by Orthodox (Greek) artists and Moorish features (horseshoe arches, arabesque and honeycomb ornament). The mixture of these three styles is quite unique.
Byzantine influence – The Eastern elements incorporated into religious architecture include the square centralised plan, adapted in turn to the Greek cross, roofed with intersecting barrel vaults (Church of the Martorana, San Nicolò at Mazara del Vallo, or Santissima Trinita di Delia at Castelvetrano). Elsewhere, the intersection is vaulted with the typical Sicilian Byzantine dome rising from a polygonal drum. Even the capitals reflect an Arabo-Norman style adapted from the Byzantine, by incorporating a dosseret between the capital and the impost of the arch (Monreale Cathedral).
The reason for the lack of Byzantine sculptures of humans is threefold: firstly, the Christians wished to distance themselves from pagan statuary; secondly, the Iconoclastic movement forbade the veneration of anything that might be construed as an idol; and, lastly, the Islamic influence. They also adapted the techniques; stone was no longer worked just on the surface, but in the round, drilling tiny holes and fretting effects that resembled stone lace.
The Byzantine artists’ richest and most effective medium was the mosaic. This they applied to immense areas, animating them with figures and decorative motifs, upgrading the art form to monumental proportions. Apart from the Martorana, which fully conforms to Byzantine canons, the iconography and presentation of subject matter were adapted in Sicilian churches. At Cefalù, Monreale and the Cappella Palatina in Palermo, Christ Pantocrator fills the top of the vault above the apse; in Greek Byzantine churches, he would always be in the dome. Finally, the Norman kings had themselves depicted in areas traditionally reserved for saints, with the symbols of the basilei (Byzantine emperors), as a way of asserting their power.
Islamic influence – The Arabs brought new building methods and decorative know-how that enabled them to create masterpieces. In architecture, they introduced the horse-shoe (or Moorish) arch: the upper part of this arch is semicircular, although it can be pointed at its apex, but comes in at the base to form a horseshoe shape. The interior of Arab buildings were often encrusted with stalactite plasterwork decoration called muqarnas; this in turn was painted, carved and textured into overhanging honeycombs. The interior decoration of Monreale Cathedral, the Palatine Chapel, the Zisa and Cuba palazzi are splendid testimonies to the influence of Islam. The Arab predilection for elaborate ornament featured in the serrated edge to the cornice with merlons of San Cataldo in Palermo – an elegant base for the three pink domes. They also brought an alternative view of proportion and volume, as indicated by the squat domes of San Giovanni degli Eremiti.
Romanesque influence – The most typical elements of the Romanesque style are the Latin-cross plan and the façade framed by massive towers, features that were devised by the Benedictine monks, most notably at Cluny, for the buildings they planned on a massive and monumental scale. On the whole, the religious buildings did not allocate much space to Norman sculpture (primarily geometric motifs on small arches and other decorative details – like strips of small leaves and ovolo moulding – applied to the dosserets of capitals). Their inclination towards stylisation touched representations of animals and plants which are reduced to simple palmettes or rather thin, flat, rigid-looking flowerless species (reeds and rushes). A handful of monuments, including the cloisters at Monreale, preserve some most splendid figurative capitals relating historical and biblical scenes, founded in the Romanesque tradition.
Although many buildings conformed to a clearly defined influence, some combinations of styles became models and prototypes for other art forms promoted during the rule of the Altavilla (de Hauteville) dynasty.
Religious Buildings – The undisputed masterpiece of this Sicilian Norman School is the Palatine Chapel (Cappella Palatina) in Palermo. Here elements of Romanesque art – an extended plan comprising nave, side aisles and narrow windows through which light suffuses – are married with the Moorish love for sumptuous decoration (notable in the ceiling), calligraphy (various Arabic inscriptions) and structural design (pointed arches). All this merges with the monumental splendour of Byzantine art (dome pendentives, gold-background mosaics, marble wall facing, and inlaid floors). The chapel demonstrates how the centrally planned Byzantine choir is superimposed onto the wooden-vaulted Latin basilica nave (set at a lower level). This became a new prototype, subsequently used at Monreale.
Secular buildings – Besides the odd large castle a in strategic position – Palermo, Castellammare and Messina – the Norman kings built various palaces for rest and recreation. At the end of the Altavilla (de Hauteville) rule, there were nine such residences in Sicily; today only the Zisa and Cuba palazzi in Palermo survive. These splendid houses are surrounded by large gardens ornamented with expanses of water.
The interior space divided into two main areas: the iwan (a room with three exedras) and an open courtyard containing one or more fountains and surrounded by porticoes. The first of these two distinctive areas originated in Abbasid Persia, the second in Fatimid Egypt. Together, they appear in Sicily sometime in the 12C, imported via the Maghreb (North Africa), which then extended as far as the coasts of modern Tunisia, and was under Sicilian rule.
The decoration is also largely drawn from Islamic art: herringboned marble or brick cover the floors, Moorish-motif mosaics face the walls. Finally, the ceilings and arches are encrusted with carved and painted muqarnas.
For two centuries, between the 13C and the 15C, Sicily suffered political instability under a succession of sovereigns: the Swabians (1189–1266), Angevins (1266–82), and the House of Aragon.
All appreciated the Gothic style on a grand scale – not the case on the mainland.
Swabian military constructions – Henry VI, and more particularly Frederick II who enjoyed a longer reign (1208–50), preserved the numerous religious and civil buildings erected by the Normans. They also built fortresses designed by northern master masons, who introduced the Gothic style. From this era date the castles at Siracusa (Castello Maniace), Catania (Castello Ursino) and Augusta, as well as the fortifications of the castle at Enna (eight imposing towers survive). These buildings conform to a highly geometric ground plan (square centrepiece defended with angle, and sometimes lateral, towers), doorways and windows set into pointed arches, austerely bare walls pierced with embrasures, that rise to battlements and, finally, quadripartite vaulted casements.
14C: Chiaramonte style – The great feudal dynasties in power during the 14C, most especially the Chiaramonte, demonstrated a real talent for the construction of town houses and churches. The Palermo residence, Palazzo Chiaramonte, provided a model for future palazzi: the façade is extremely refined, the windows set into decorative pointed arches are unique and quite wonderful, the roof line is crested with merlons. The Chiaramonte style is characterised by two-or three-light windows surmounted by arches with tracery or polychrome geometric decoration. The Chiaramonte, who maintained their supremacy throughout the 14C as the royal power base declined, sponsored many new buildings and restored others: from Mussomeli to Racalmuto, Montechiaro to Favara, they are responsible for at least 10 castles and palazzi.
15C: Catalan Gothic – Catalan Gothic flourished easily in Sicily because of the Spanish viceroys’ influence from the late 14C, under the rule of the House of Aragon. This more sober form of Gothic is characterised by elongated forms, a marked tendency towards breadth of space over height (particularly in the religious context), and ample windows alternating with bare flat wall surfaces. Typical examples include the Palazzo Santo Stefano and Palazzo Corvaja at Taormina and the main doorway of Palermo Cathedral. At the end of the 15C, Matteo Carnelivari probably best epitomises the new influence, mixing Catalan features with Byzantine, Arab and Norman elements. Carnelivari designed Palazzo Abatellis and Palazzo Ajutamicristo, and probably the Church of Santa Maria della Catena in Palermo.
Sculpture and painting – Only non-Sicilian artists achieved any renown in these two fields at this time: sculptors were summoned from Tuscany, particularly from Pisa. Nino Pisano completed a graceful Annunziata for the cathedral in Trapani, a place that attracted a large number of sculptors to its marble quarries from the 14C. Bonaiuto Pisano carved the eagle that stands above the gateway of Palazzo Sclafani in Palermo.
In painting, Antonio Veneziano (trained in Venice, worked in Florence), Gera da Pisa, and various Spanish artists such as Guerau Janer also worked in Sicily for a time. At the end of the 15C, some painters became so successful that they settled in Sicily, among them Nicolò di Maggio (from Siena) who worked particularly in Palermo.
Renaissance and Mannerism
Because the Aragonese court favoured the Spanish Gothic style, the Renaissance and Mannerism that spread from Italy to the rest of Europe did not have a great impact on Sicily. It fell to artists trained by the great Tuscan masters to introduce the principles to Sicily.
Painting – In the 15C, Sicily started to show an interest in the new Renaissance movement, prompted by the work of Antonello da Messina. Although his life and career have long been a mystery, this artist remains the most famous Sicilian painter. Born in Messina in 1430; he was in Naples, possibly engaged as a pupil to the workshop of Colantonio, in 1450. There he would most certainly have seen Flemish painting. In 1475–76, Antonello was in Venice, where he must have encountered Giovanni Bellini and Piero della Francesca.
Antonello’s supreme reputation, however, is founded on his mastery of the Van Eycks’ exacting oil-painting techniques. His mature style combines the detail so typical of Flemish art with the breadth of form upheld by the Italian Schools. Indeed, his works all are static in composition, explore texture, and demonstrate an almost perfect tonal unity in terms of colour.
His works found in Sicily include an Annunciation in Siracusa’s Palazzo Bellomo, Polyptych of St Gregory in the Messina’s Museo Regionale, and the Portrait of an Unknown Man in Cefalù‘s Museo Mandralisca. These are among the most notable works of the Renaissance to be preserved in Sicily.
During the first half of the 16C, the painters Cesare da Sesto, Polidoro da Caravaggio and Vincenzo da Pavia played their part in spreading the Mannerist style prevalent in Tuscany and Rome.
Simone de Wobreck meanwhile, who lived in Sicily until 1557, introduced the basic elements of Flemish Mannerism.
Sculpture – In the second half of the 15C, sculpture was completely revitalised by a range of Italian artists, notably Francesco Laurana and Domenico Gagini. The sculptor and engraver Laurana spent five years in Sicily (1466–71).He worked at the Cappella Mastrantonio in the Church of San Francesco and produced the bust of Eleonora of Aragon in Palermo’s Palazzo Abatellis. Other paintings include a Madonna and Child in Noto’s Church of the Crocifisso, another in the Church of the Immacolata in Palazzolo Acreide and a third in the museum at Messina.
Gagini, who was born into a family of Italian sculptors and architects from Lake Lugano, moved south and settled in Sicily. There he practised his art in association with his son Antonello, who was born in Palermo in 1478. Their workshop flourished in the capital, producing works that satisfied the contemporary predilection for elegant, refined forms in Carrara marble, rather than travertine. Domenico’s style and technique were continued by his descendants (including his son Giandomenico), sculptors and goldsmiths who achieved fame up to the mid-17C. Numerous Sicilian churches preserve splendid statues executed by the Gagini, although their very proliferation has aroused accusations of their work being repetitive and therefore considered of a lesser value.
Mannerism exercised its influence on sculpture in the 16C largely thanks to such artists as the Florentine Angelo Montorsoli (1505–63), who was working in Messina around 1547–57. The fact that he had collaborated with Michelangelo in Florence and Rome gave Montorsoli a certain cachet. His work demonstrates a shift from the Renaissance style to a Michelangelesque Mannerism. The works that survive include the Fontana di Orione (1547–50) in Messina, which is regarded as one of the greatest masterpieces of the 16C.
During the 16C, the Spanish authorities asserted their influence in the arts. They imposed the values promoted by the Counter-Reformation (resulting from the Council of Trent, 1545), before choosing to sponsor an elaborate, exuberant form of the Baroque that was more typically Spanish than Italian.
Counter-Reformation – Sicily soon succumbed to the power and influence of the Society of Jesus (later known as the Jesuits), founded in 1540 by the Spaniard St Ignatius Loyola (1491–1556). Modelled on the Chiesa del Gesù in Rome, the Jesuit churches in Sicily were designed with the same features. The one broad nave is devoid of any element that might restrict the congregation’s view of the main altar and obstruct or deflect the words of the preacher from reaching all of the faithful. The solemnity, authority, opulence and luminosity of the internal space is in keeping with the exterior: the main body of the church, so tall and wide, is screened by a central bay; the lateral chapels which open directly off the nave are screened by a lower bay. The bare surfaces that lent a dignity to the Renaissance buildings are here textured with features that vary in weight and depth: engaged columns at ground level give way to superficial pilasters above as sharp contrasts effectively dissolve into lightness (the Church of Sant’Ignazio all’Olivella in Palermo is a good example of this style).
The painting of the Counter-Reformation revives a predilection for those images rejected by Protestantism, subjects such as the Virgin Mary, the dogma of the Eucharist and the veneration of saints. Painting follows the examples of Michelangelo and Raphael, although in Sicily the practitioners of this style, like Vincenzo degli Azani, are few and lesser known.
Politics and style – The Baroque which in Spain reached its apogee in the second half of the 17C, was quickly assimilated by the Sicilians, for they had enjoyed and appreciated the opulent use of marble and gilding since Arab and Byzantine tastes had prevailed in previous centuries. This movement placed great importance on detail, producing finely worked wrought-iron railings and gates, balcony brackets carved with the most original grotesques, and imaginative designs interpreted in polychrome panels of pietra dura.
At the beginning of the 17C, the Spanish viceroy’s administration launched an ambitious building programme. They founded some 100 new towns to reorganise and then develop their extensive territories. The earthquake of 1669, followed by a more devastating one in 1693, destroyed almost all the southeastern part of the island. The rebuilding of the towns was immediately initiated under the combined direction of the local authorities, the aristocracy, town planners (Fra’ Michele la Ferla, Fra’ Angelo Italia) and architects (Vaccarini, Ittar, Vermexio, Palma and Gagliardi). The earthquake laid bare a great expanse of land stretching from Catania to Siracusa, damaging Avola, Noto, Scicli, Modica, Ragusa, Vittoria, Lentini and Grammichele. As a result, Sicilian Baroque is concentrated in this swathe and around Palermo (Bagheria, Trapani), being the seat of power.
Architecture – The majority of the Baroque architects had trained in Rome. They therefore modelled their ideas on Roman interpretations of the Baroque, sometimes exaggerating their iconographic forms, volumes and subject matter for sculptural effect. The delicate relationship between the fragility of life and the forces of nature was translated into an art form far removed from any quest for beauty. The grotesque, excess, death, suffering and even ugliness (decrepitude of old age, poverty and physical deformity) underlie the expressions of exuberance that ornament every surface at this time. Contorted form proved an ideal vehicle for expressing movement through façades or an internal decorative scheme.
Giovanni Battista Vaccarini (1702–69) served his apprenticeship in Rome under Carlo Fontana, through whom he absorbed the ingenuity of the tormented Borromini. On his return to Sicily around 1730, Vaccarini settled in Catania and devoted the next 30 years of his life to rebuilding the city. His undoubted masterpiece is the Church of St Agatha, which is elliptical in shape and has a restless and undulating façade inspired by Borromini’s oval Church of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane in Rome.
Even Palermo bristles with buildings modelled on prototypes in Rome. Most of these were built by one of the city’s most highly regarded architects, Giacomo Amato (1643–1732), who came from Palermo and was trained in Rome. He uses decorative elements borrowed from 16C Roman architecture; characteristic examples include the Church of Santa Teresa alla Kalsa (1686), the Church of the Pietà that rises through two imposing storeys articulated with columns (1689), the Church of the Santissimo Salvatore with its oval dome, as well as numerous private palazzi. The monument that best epitomises the urban Baroque style in Palermo is the Quattro Canti junction faced with four interacting façades and fountains.
Noto had to be completely rebuilt following the 1693 earthquake. Thus it exemplifies the Baroque homogeneity in Sicilian cities, largely as a result of being conceived as a vast theatre. The author of this exceptional ensemble is presumed to be the enigmatic Rosario Gagliardi, about whom little is known other than his year and place of birth (Siracusa, 1680) and death (Noto, 1726). This man, the greatest Baroque architect of Sicily, exerted his considerable impact on this small area around Noto and its two neighbouring towns: Ragusa and Modica. In Ragusa, he is responsible for the churches of San Giuseppe and San Giorgio; in Modica, he designed the magnificent Church of San Giorgio with its distinctive slender bell tower.
The most evocative Sicilian Baroque villas are to be found at Bagheria, about 18km/11mi east of Palermo. One of the most remarkable of these refined residential buildings, endowed with luxuriously furnished halls and gardens populated with statuary, is the Villa Palagonia, famous for its wildly extravagant interior decoration. The villa became a symbol of the absurd, renowned throughout Europe during the Age of Enlightenment, long before Goethe’s famous visit in 1787.
Sculpture and applied decoration – Baroque sculpture and decoration is characterised by rich ornamentation. Altarpieces are provided with carved marble panels and contained among twisted columns; cornices and pediments are crested with figures of angels. Ranking high among his many fellow artist-craftsmen, Giacomo Serpotta (1652–1732) excelled at using marble, stucco and polychrome decoration.
After training in Rome, Serpotta returned to his home town Palermo to work on an equestrian statue of Charles II of Spain. He then embarked on a long career there as a decorator specialising in stucco. The Oratory of San Lorenzo, the Oratory of Santa Cita and the Oratory of the Rosary at San Domenico are encrusted throughout with figures and swirling curlicues in bold relief, executed with an exquisite attention to detail. The other church interiors on which Serpotta worked include La Gancia, and Il Carmine. Later in life, he was engaged on the decoration of the Church of San Francesco d’Assisi and that of Sant’Agostino (with pupils), which contains a number of narrative panels in shallow relief that illustrate a rare degree of virtuosity. While Serpotta is regarded as the greatest exponent of Sicilian Baroque sculpture, he is also considered to be a precursor of the characteristic forms of Rococo.
Baroque painting – Baroque painters were predominantly engaged in experimenting with perspective and trompe l’oeil, constructing complex compositions on diagonal axes around swirling gestures. Their most common subjects were narrative scenes from the Bible or mythology. The most representative adherent of this movement was Caravaggio.Michelangelo Merisi (1573–1610), known as Caravaggio after his birthplace near Bergamo, began his career in Rome alongside Cavaliere d’Arpino in 1588. Thanks to his temper and bad behaviour, Caravaggio was forced to flee the city in 1605, making for Naples, Malta and then Sicily. Venturing to the extremes of every artistic convention, Caravaggio perfected a highly personal style using low-life figures to animate his pictures. He heightened the drama with bold contrasts of light and shadow, the technique known as “chiaroscuro”. While in Sicily, he executed a number of important works, notably the Burial of St Lucy (1609, in Palazzo Bellomo in Siracusa), The Adoration of the Shepherds and The Resurrection of Lazarus (in the Messina museum).
These paintings fired the imagination of many subsequent artists, namely Alfonso Rodriguez (1578–1648) and Pietro Novelli (1603–47). Novelli was also influenced by the Dutch painter Anthony Van Dyck, who, during a sojourn in Palermo in 1624, painted The Madonna of the Rosary for the oratory in the Church of San Domenico.
18C to the present day
Neoclassicism – The Classical revival started in the mid-18C and was fed by the passion for Ancient Greek and Roman architecture, following the discovery and excavation of Herculaneum, Pompeii and Paestum. In the graphic arts, this movement was translated into depictions of Romantic ruins and topographical views that met with great success. One of the most successful of the neoclassical sculptors was Ignazio Marabitti (Palermo 1719–97), who trained in Rome under Filippo della Valle. Works by this artist include the altarpiece of St Ignatius commissioned for the Church of Sant’Agata al Collegio in Caltanissetta. In Palermo, the native-born Venanzio Marvuglia (1729–1814) met with moderate success: a pupil of Vanvitelli in Rome, he was responsible for enlarging the Church of San Martino delle Scale, the Oratory of Sant’Ignazio dell’Olivella (Palermo) and the villa for the Prince of Belmonte. Marvuglia’s predominantly Classical style is sometimes touched with the exotic, as the Chinese pavilion in the park of La Favorita in Palermo testifies.
Naturalism – Although sharing with many other contemporary Italian artists a keenness to portray reality, the sculptor Domenico Trentacoste (b. Palermo, 1859, d. Florence, 1933) still cannot be regarded as a true exponent of Naturalism. Fascinated first by 15C exponents, Trentacoste then turned to Rodin, whom he encountered in Paris in around 1880, before gradually concentrating on popular painting, mythological subjects, portraiture and nude painting (Little Faun in the Galleria E. Restivo in Palermo). Ettore Ximenes (b. Palermo, 1855, d. Rome, 1926) trained first in Palermo and then in Naples under Domenico Morelli.
Stile Liberty – The Art Nouveau style, already well established in Europe, appeared in Italy at the turn of the 20C. Its main impact was on the decorative arts; its most distinctive feature, the serpentine line, insinuated itself into figurative depictions, wrought-iron work, and furniture. The best exponent in Sicily is the architect Ernesto Basile (b. Palermo, 1857, d. 1932), son of Giovanni Basile (designer of the Teatro Massimo in Palermo), who turned to the Art Nouveau style after studying forms of Arabo-Norman and Renaissance design. Examples of his work from this period include the decoration of Villa Igiea (today the five-star Hilton Hotel Villa Igiea Palermo), notably the wonderful floral decoration of the dining room, Caffè Ferraglia in Rome, and various villas in Palermo, such as Villino Florio. He also worked on designing soft furnishings, fabrics and furniture.
Palermo’s Villa Malfitano, once owned by the Whitakers, a prominent English family, epitomises the success and effectiveness of the Stile Liberty in Sicily.
Contemporary art – Although Sicily has not given rise to an international movement, it has nurtured several interesting personalities.
The painter Fausto Pirandello (1889–1975), the son of the famous writer, was mainly interested in Cubist painting (Braque in particular). Later he balanced the abstract and figurative.
The Neo-Realist painter Renato Guttuso (1912–87) studied Classics in Palermo, before moving to Rome and then Milan. There he affirmed his political position as clearly anti-Fascist. During these years he turned to Realist art. His paintings are characterised by a flattened perspective and by form that has been refracted into geometric shapes – reminiscent of Picasso. Yet his subjects always reflect his social predicament. From 1958 onwards, Guttuso was influenced by Expressionism. The result is a new painting style: the realism that pervaded his subject matter is now imbued with emotion, movement is suggested by the use of strong colour and boldly decisive line.
Among contemporary Sicilian artists, mention should be made of various sculptors. Pietro Consagra, who came from Mazara del Vallo (1920–2005), studied in Palermo before going to Rome where he came into contact with abstract art. He experimented with different materials, honing them to produce the finest end result.
The sculptor Emilio Greco (b. Catania, 1913, d. Rome, 1995) sought that elusive harmony and equilibrium, drawing inspiration from Greek, Etruscan, Roman and Renaissance art. One of his favourite subjects was the female body; other concepts and ideas explored are associated with religion (the bronze doors of Orvieto Cathedral and the monument to Pope John XXIII for St Peter’s Basilica in Rome).
Finally, Salvatore Fiume (1915–97), also known as Giocondo, was active in various media, including sculpture, film and painting. The latter range from ideal depictions of nature to flat portrayals of everyday life (such as women at a market). Clearly, he was influenced by the various cultures and civilisations that history imprinted on Sicily. In later life, Fiume devoted himself to religious art, illustrating biblical texts for the Catholic publisher Edizioni Paoline.