Why Barocco? The Sicilian Baroque is the name given to the style of architecture which found a welcome in the Val di Noto after the great earthquake of 1693. From 2002 the cities of the Val di Noto have had UNESCO status as patrimony of humanity as being perfect examples of the preservation and flowering of the high baroque.
Sicilian Baroque is the distinctive form of architecture that took hold in the 17th and 18th centuries. The style is recognizable not only by its typical Baroque curves and flourishes, but also by its grinning masks and putti and a particular flamboyance that has given Sicily a unique architectural identity.
The Sicilian Baroque style came to fruition during a major surge of rebuilding following a massive earthquake in 1693. Previously, the Baroque style that had been used on the island evolved from local architecture rather than being derived from the great Baroque architects of Rome. After the earthquake, local architects, many of them trained in Rome, were given plentiful opportunities to recreate the more sophisticated Baroque architecture that had become popular in mainland Italy; the work of these local architects inspired more others to follow their lead. Around 1730, Sicilian architects had developed a confidence in their use of the Baroque style. Their particular interpretation led to further evolution to a personalised and highly localised art form on the island. From the 1780s onwards, the style was gradually replaced by the newly-fashionable neoclassicism.
The highly decorative Sicilian Baroque period lasted barely fifty years, and perfectly reflected the social order of the island at a time when, nominally ruled by Spain, it was in fact governed by a wealthy and often extravagant aristocracy into whose hands ownership of the primarily agricultural economy was highly concentrated. Its Baroque architecture gives the island an architectural character that has lasted into the 21st century.
Characteristics of Sicilian Baroque
Baroque architecture is a European phenomenon originating in 17th-century Italy; it is flamboyant and theatrical, and richly ornamented by sculpture and an effect known as chiaroscuro, the strategic use of light and shade on a building created by mass and shadow.
The Baroque style in Sicily was largely confined to buildings erected by the church, and palazzo built as private residences for the Sicilian aristocracy. The earliest examples of this style in Sicily lacked individuality and were typically heavy-handed pastiches of buildings seen by Sicilian visitors to Rome, Florence and Naples.. However, even at this early stage, provincial architects had begun to incorporate certain vernacular features of Sicily’s older architecture.
By the middle of the 18th century, when Sicily’s Baroque architecture was noticeably different from that of the mainland, it typically included at least two or three of the following features, coupled with a unique freedom of design that is more difficult to characterise in words.
1: Grotesque masks and putti, often supporting balconies or decorating various bands of the entablature of a building; these grinning or glaring faces are a relic of Sicilian architecture from before the mid-17th century
2: Balconies, often complemented by intricate wrought iron balustrades after 1633 and by plainer balustrades before that date
3: External staircases. Most palazzi were designed for formal entrance by a carriage through an archway in the street facade, leading to a courtyard within. An intricate double staircase would lead from the courtyard to the piano nobile. This would be the palazzo’s principal entrance to the first-floor reception rooms; the symmetrical flights of steps would turn inwards and outwards as many as four times. Owing to the topography of their elevated sites it was often necessary to approach churches by many steps; these steps were often transformed into long straight marble staircases, in themselves decorative architectural features .
4: Canted, concave, or convex facades Occasionally in a villa or palazzo, an external staircase would be fitted into the recess created by the curve.
5: The Sicilian belfry. Belfries were not placed beside the church in a campanile tower as is common in Italy, but on the facade itself, with one or more bells clearly displayed beneath its own arch. In a large church with many bells this usually resulted in an intricately sculpted and decorated arcade at the highest point of the principal facade. These belfries are among the most enduring and characteristic features of Sicilian Baroque architecture.
6: Inlaid coloured marble set into both floor and walls especially in church interiors. This particular form of Intarsia developed in Sicily from the 17th century.
7: Columns that are often deployed singularly, supporting plain arches and thus displaying the influence of the earlier and much plainer Norman period. Columns are rarely encountered, as elsewhere in Europe, in clustered groups acting as piers, especially in examples of early Sicilian Baroque.
8: Decorated rustication. By the end of the 16th century, Sicilian architects were ornamenting the blocks with carvings of leaves, fish-scales, and even sweets and shells; shells were later to become among the most prevalent ornamental symbols of Baroque design. Sometimes the rustication would be used for pillars rather than walls, a reversal of expectations and almost an architectural joke
9: The local volcanic lava stone that was used in the construction of many Sicilian Baroque buildings, because this was the most readily available. Shades of black or grey were used to create contrasting decorative effects, accentuating the Baroque love of light and shade as demonstrated in
10: The Spanish influence. The Spanish style, a more restrained version of French renaissance architecture, is particularly evident in eastern Sicily, where â€” owing to minor insurrections â€” the Spanish maintained a stronger military presence.
While these characteristics never occur all together in the same building, and none are unique to Sicilian Baroque it is the coupling together which gives the Sicilian Baroque its distinctive air. Other Baroque characteristics, such as broken pediments over windows, the extravagant use of statuary and curved topped windows and doors are all emblematic of baroque architecture, but can all be found on Baroque building all over Europe.