Baroque art in Southern Italy
|The term itself Baroque originally comes from the Portuguese word “barroco” that means an irregularly-shaped pearl, an obvious reference to the ornate sculptural motifs distinctive of Baroque architecture.
In Italy the Baroque period began at the end of the 1500s, clearly with many local art trends that become parts of local culture.
It’s obviously not a mistake to intend Baroque as a resultant of the influence of the Renaissance and part of Romanesque and Gothic art periods. Clearly “Proto-Baroque” forms are palpable in the work of Michelangelo,while Bernini’s works are almost entirely in Baroque style.
The movement emerged between the Mannerist and Rococo periods, and especially in southern Italy persisted as a predominant form till the end of the eighteenth century. Baroque art is encountered in residential architecture (palaces) as much as ecclesiastical buildings like churches and monasteries. Baroque churches are typified by wide naves and, compared to Gothic structures, rather low ceilings crowned by high cupolas (domes). Painting, music and even philosophy also expressed this art spirit, with its emphasis on glorification of the human and divine spirit.
Baroque in Sicily was historically introduced a few decades later than the rest of Italy. Many observers say that the Baroque art and architecture of Sicily may not constitute a distinct style within the Baroque movement, but they reflect a deep regionalization evident in many parts of Italy.
In Sicily, Ragusa and Noto are celebrated for their Baroque architecture. Catania’s old district is more or less entirely Baroque, and most of Palermo and other smaller Sicilian cities have numerous Baroque structures. While many of Sicily’s churches and palaces built in the eighteenth century are more properly described as part of the Rococo period, their style is often a close picture of the pure Baroque style.
Historically, because the Catholic Church came to consider the Baroque as the essence of artistic expression of the glorification of God, an unfortunate attempt to redesign medieval churches into Baroque ones was born. Palermo Cathedral suffered this fate, and so did many smaller churches built during the Norman and Swabian periods. Some have been restored to their former original states, though this has met with varying degrees of success.
New street plans were developed and a number of churches and palaces were built in a novel “Sicilian Baroque” after the 1693’s earthquake which virtually destroyed a number of southeastern towns (Noto, Ragusa) and heavily damaged Catania. This new “Sicilian Baroque” style started originally from the movements then prevalent in Rome, Madrid and the rest of Italy. Therefore, a degree of stylistic division may be drawn among the products of this new Baroque movement and the new structures erected in Catania after the volcanic eruption of 1669 which destroyed most of that city. The baroque city that emerged after the eruption in Catania was created mostly by Giovanni Battista Vaccarini (1702-1769), who devoted 3 decades of his life to pulling a new Baroque Catania out of the ashes.
The “Sicilian Baroque” movement reached its height in the 1740s, but within a few decades the Neo-Classical movement was becoming popular, and the facades and naves of various new or restored churches actually featured essentials of both styles.
Most of Sicily’s Norman-Arab and Romanesque-Gothic churches were built to be viewed in their entirety, from every imaginable angle, inside and out. Many of the new Baroque ones, however, were built with impressive facades rich of ornaments on the external side, as if they were element of a theatrical stage. And in a certain sense, they most likely were the physical symbol of the society’s prosperity.
Many observers either love or hate Baroque style. Indifference is rare, and in church architecture there is a subtle rivalry between the Gothic and Baroque camps, sometimes an expression of Protestant versus Catholic sentiment. Compromises can be bizarre. For example, Palermo’s main Jesuit church, Casa Professa, is a masterpiece of intricate Baroque lines and ornate Rococo stone inlay, but the latest addition of stained-glass windows (a “Gothic” characteristic missing in most Baroque churches whose magnificence relies on unfiltered sunlight) creates an overwhelming effect beyond the imagination of even the most adamant proponents of the Baroque.
In Palermo, the Quattro Canti crossroads remains today the most generous example of the overly adorned squares and streets. Private palaces were also richly adorned, with sculptures ranging from angels to nymphs to gargoyles.
Giacomo Serpotta, the master of the Palermitan celebrated oratories, born in Palermo in 1656, specialized in adorning church oratories with molded plasterwork in ornamental frames. His masterpieces “Palermo’s Oratory of the Rosary”, is in the church of Santa Zita.
Noto, in southeastern Sicily, is another city that was rebuilt in the baroque style after the earthquake. The unity of the baroque style in the “Noto Valley” remains unequaled anywhere else on the island and for this reason has been included by Unesco in their prestigious, coveted World Heritage List. The city is about 30 km from Siracusa, and has an extraordinary homogeneous town planning. It was built in to an octagonal plan and is crossed through by the main streets. This “stone garden”, as it is commonly called come, contains a never ending number of Baroque monuments that appear on the streets and squares. The material most commonly used is limestone, which creates an extremely spectacular effect at sunset, when the sunlight brings out a pinkish hue from the majestic facades. Piazza Municipio in the center of the town, has an impressive stairway that takes up to the Cathedral of San Giorgio, surrounded by imposing other Baroque buildings such as Palazzo Vescovile, Palazzo Ducezio and Palazzo Landolina di Sant’Alfano. Another Baroque city is Ragusa. With his San Giorgio Cathedral it’s a precious example of the Sicilian Baroque. Erected on the old Church of San Nicolò, it was destroyed by the 1693 earthquake. The reconstruction was initiated in 1738 and completed in 1775. The design, whose project is still preciously preserved, belongs to Rosario Gagliardi from Siracusa, a major author of the post-quake reconstruction of the Noto Valley.
Lecce, the capital of Salento, has always been considered a noble city, the most noble one in the southern region of Apulia, admired for the fine cultural heritage reflected in its architecture, churches and old palaces. The city is indeed a refined and precious Baroque gem, offering its citizens and guests a delicate brocade of amazing sights: a play of light and shadow, the vine-laced contours of a well, the leaves of an ancient capital, the cherub’s wings.
Both monarchy and church considered art a way to celebrate their glory, and desired to leave an enduring symbol of it over history. The baroque of Lecce is quite singular and different for the standard style, and can be discovered through the lovely balconies, windows and doors all decked out in stony floral garlands. Art often reveals the soul of a population, and Lecce’s baroque is representative of the town but also of the entire region.
The unique Lecce’s stone, contributed to make this town elegant and refined, rich in history and culture. This extremely ductile and friable particular white stone, different from the ones in the rest of Italy, has permitted the creation of unique masterpieces of art. Used in buildings, facades of churches and in the richly decorated altars inside them, the characteristic use of this stone is always of an exceptional beauty.
The recurring presence of fruits, flowers, anthropomorphisms and mythological references in the delicate carvings that are upon the architectural structures of the city evoke the antique myths and tradition that are a fundamental part of Salento folklore. Today Lecce is like an open air stage, showing bas-reliefs, statues of saints, zoomorphic and anthropomorphic caryatids, griffins, winged horses, “putti” and large flower and fruit trophies. The facades of the churches and the altars chiseled by the imagination of the artists, intentionally glorified the great quantity of fruits offered by this land and as reminder of the agricultural spirit of this culture. So the baroque can be considered not only a hymn to the Lord to thank Him for His generosity and grace, but also a symbol of the city itself, full of pride and coquetry.
“Sant’Oronzo” square, in the heart of the old part of Lecce, is characterized in his south side by the 20,000 seated spectators of the “Anfiteatro Romano”, which was built in the time of roman emperor Hadrian.
The best baroque churches are all at short distance from the main “Sant’Oronzo” square. The finest, certainly the most spectacular, is the Basilica of Santa Croce, whose elaborate facade, the effort of the local architect Antonio Zimbalo, took almost 150 years to be finished, its upper half a riot of ornamental garlands and flowers around a central rose window. Not far from it, the Church of Santa Chiara, is a must stop; filled of decoration, its interior is full of small chapels groaning with garlands and gilt. The decorated facade with twisting columns of the Church of San Giovanni Battista by the Porta Rudiae in the southwest corner of town is another Zimbalo’s baroque masterpiece to see.
The town of Otranto, just 30 kilometers south of Lecce, is famous for its beautiful castle and his oriental atmosphere. The wonderful Cathedral with its portal and rose window from the late 15th century and its polychrome mosaic of the 12th century gives astonishment of the city even to the most detached visitor.
There are also numerous other beautiful examples of Baroque art in many other towns of the Salento Province: the wonderful sanctuary of the “Crocifisso della Pietà” in Galatone, and the famous baroque “Piazza Salandra” in Nardo’.
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