For decades, scholars have claimed that if you want to uncover the history of Western civilization, you need look no further than the island of Sicily. The original melting pot is a showcase of art and architecture of the Mediterranean, as each conqueror brought a different style and artistic statement to the island over 10,000 years of history. From the earliest graffiti found in caves, to the glorious Doric temples at Agrigento, to the pinnacle of the unique Late Sicilian Baroque in the southeast, each wave of civilization has left its mark. Sometimes the styles of two different occupiers have been uniquely blended, as evidenced in the combination of Arabic and Norman art and architecture.
Much of Sicily's artistic legacy has been damaged by volcanic explosions, earthquakes, and a range of man-made forces, from Hannibal's invading troops from North Africa to the Allied bombardments of 1943. Much that remains is threatened by decay.
The Mafia hasn't helped, either. The looting of the island's treasures for sale abroad to wealthy anonymous buyers has taken a vast toll on Sicily's artistic heritage, and the precious painting by Caravaggio that once adorned the Oratory of San Lorenzo in Palermo is said to have been fed to pigs (and only for spite).
Artists have been at work in Sicily since prehistoric times, as rock paintings and graffiti discovered at the Addaura caves in Palermo and in Messina reveal. Even in the Neolithic period, the first indigenous cultures, such as those who settled Lipari, were turning out artful ceramics and terra-cotta, many of which remain to this day (visit the Museo Archeologico Eoliano in Lipari).
The most remarkable cave paintings were those found at Grotta del Genovese on Levanzo, one of the Egadi Islands off the western coast of Sicily. Discovered by accident in 1949, the Paleolithic wall paintings and Neolithic drawings are anywhere from 6,000 to 10,000 years old. Most of the drawings are of wild animals, such as deer and horses. Even the mighty tuna, traditionally found in these waters, show up here.
The Legacy of the Greeks
From the 8th century B.C. onward, the Greeks settled on Sicily, leaving great contributions to architecture before they were replaced by other conquerors. Much of their heritage was destroyed by pillagers, but much still remains to delight us. The Greeks left a legacy of some of the best-preserved Doric temples in the Western world, especially those at Agrigento in the Valley of the Temples, those in the ruined city of Selinunte, those in the archaeological gardens at Syracuse, and (best of all) the magnificent and still-standing temple at Segesta. The temples constructed in Sicily were more innovative than even those of classical Greece.
The archaeological museums of Sicily are filled with artifacts from the Greek occupation: Painted ceramics and amphorae, sculptures and metopes, and bronzes and carved ornaments for temple buildings.
The Coming of the Romans
Unlike the Greeks, the Romans did not leave a great artistic legacy in Sicily, except for the Villa Romana (Roman villa) at Casale, outside the town of Piazza Armerina. The vast polychrome floor mosaics at this 40-room villa from the 3rd century A.D. are worth the trek across Sicily. Villas on much smaller scales, and not as well-preserved, are found in Palermo, at Durrueli near Agrigento, at Tellaro near Noto, and in Patti on the northern coast. Other traces of Roman architecture can be found in the amphitheaters of Taormina, Syracuse, and Catania, as well as in Syracuse's Christian catacombs.
Artistic Flowering under the Normans
Subsequent conquerors such as the Byzantines and the Arabs made little artistic impact on Sicily until invited back by later conquerors, the Normans. The Byzantines transformed Greek temples into Christian basilicas, while the Arabs built palaces, private residences, and religious buildings with such Asian characteristics as domes piercing the roofs. Arabo-Norman architecture represented an innovation of art and architecture.
From the 11th century on, the Normans began to transform Sicily, and much of their achievement remains today. The Normans erected huge cathedrals, or duomos. Their achievements -- the cathedrals at Monreale and Cefalù, and the Palatine Chapel within the Norman Palace in Palermo -- remain among the greatest sightseeing attractions on the island today.
Roger II (1131-54) founded the first major cathedral in northwest Sicily at Cefalù, using a Latin cross plan with a chevron pattern. Pointed arches and angled columns particular to Sicily, as opposed to mainland cathedrals, still characterize this landmark church. The mosaic decorations in the central apse alone would make this one of Sicily's greatest churches.
The mosaics in the cathedral at Monreale cover the entire surface of the interior and are therefore even more stunning and beautiful. It was at Monreale that Sicily reached the apex of its contribution to medieval art in Europe. The Monreale Duomo also contains the most examples of Norman sculpture on the island, more than 200 slender columns with twin capitals. Each of these capitals is graced with a singular composition. Similar capitals, though not as elaborate, can be found at the cloisters at Cefalù, with a stunning capital depicting Noah's Ark.
Palermo also has a splendid cathedral and important churches of the period, such as Santa Maria dell'Ammiraglio (La Martorana), San Cataldo, San Giovanni degli Eremiti (St. John of the Hermits) and San Giovanni dei Lebbrosi (St. John of the Lepers), the first Norman church in Palermo, along with the Arab-influenced palaces that served as summer retreats, like La Cuba and La Zisa.
But the Normans lavished the most attention on the seat of their power, the mammoth Palazzo dei Normanni in Palermo. This sumptuous palace became the seat of the Hauteville dynasty. Using a palace originally constructed by the Arabs in the 9th century, the Normans greatly extended it between 1132 and 1140. The crowning architectural glory of this palace is the Cappella Palatina (Palatine Chapel), with its Arab-inspired cupola and a stunning modern honeycomb ceiling decorated with Arab designs. With the passing of the Normans and the arrival of the Hohenstaufen rulers in the 13th century, the great flowering of Sicilian art slowly died. The Hohenstaufens were more interested in fortifications and castles than in art, as evidenced in Milazzo, Catania, and Syracuse. The dark ages of Sicilian art had descended on the island and would last for 4 centuries.
Sicily Sleeps Through the Renaissance
At the height of the Renaissance, Sicily remained under Spanish occupation. That may explain why Sicily virtually slept through the Renaissance, which began in Florence and swept across the rest of Italy. Although no great architectural heritage remains in Sicily from this era, painting and sculpture was preeminent, revealing mainly Spanish but also Flemish influences.
Sicily's greatest artist, Antonello da Messina (1430-79), emerged during this period, initially inspired by the Flemish school and later showing the influence of his encounters with Piero della Francesca and Giovanni Bellini in Venice. One painting more than any other exemplifies his work: Portrait of an Unknown Man, in the Museo Mandralisca at Cefalù. His other notable works, the greatest of Renaissance art in Sicily, are the Polyptych of St. Gregory, in the Museo Regionale in Messina, and his two versions of the Annunciation. (One, a simple portrait of the Virgin Mary, is housed at the Palazzo Abatellis in Palermo, while a more detailed version is in the Palazzo Bellomo in Syracuse.)
The Gagini family of sculptors and architects moved down from Lake Lugano and had an enormous impact on Sicily. The founding father of the Gagini school was Domenico Gagini (1420-92), who often worked in conjunction with his son, Antonello, born in Palermo in 1478. Their sculptures still adorn many of the churches of Palermo, and a Gagini school flourished in Sicily until the mid-1600s.
Baroque & Neoclassical Overkill
The baroque style swept Sicily, awakening the island from a long slumber since the Normans' departure centuries earlier. The baroque came into vogue as a result of a devastating earthquake in 1693 in eastern Sicily that leveled such cities as Catania, paving the way for their own unique brand of the style, the Late Sicilian Baroque, which combined the Spanish-inspired version of the baroque with Sicilian decorative and structural elements. Rosario Gagliardi (1700-70) designed the magnificent Cattedrale San Giorgio at Ragusa Ibla. The baroque city that emerged after the earthquake in Catania was created in part by Giovanni Battista Vaccarini (1702-69), who devoted 3 decades of his life to pulling a new Catania out of the ashes.
Noto, in southeastern Sicily, is another city that was rebuilt in the baroque style after the earthquake. The unity of the baroque style here remains unequaled anywhere else on the island.
In Palermo, the baroque style came under the influence of Spanish dons who preferred spagnolismo, or a love of rococo ostentation. The Quattro Canti crossroads of the city remains today as the most lavish example of the dons' taste for overly adorned squares and streets. Private palaces, or palazzi, were also richly adorned, with sculptures ranging from angels to nymphs to gargoyles. Chiesa dell'Immacolata Concezione (Church of the Immaculate Conception) at the Capo, and the convent of Santa Caterina, among others, were adorned with dizzying intarsias of marble that reek more of opulence than charity.
The master of the Palermitan oratories, Giacomo Serpotta, born in Palermo in 1656, specialized in adorning church oratories with molded plasterwork in ornamental frames. You can see one of his masterpieces today, Palermo's Oratory of the Rosary, in the church of Santa Cita. The neoclassical movement that soon followed yielded some less-elaborate but more elegant edifices (the two theatres of Palermo, the Massimo, and the Politeama, are prime examples).
Along with Paris, Vienna, and Brussels, Palermo was also one of the shining stars of Art Nouveau, the artistic and architectural movement that blossomed in the late 19th century and lasted into the 1930s. Also known as Liberty, it introduced to Sicily a first: Stained-glass windows and decor. (Gothic architecture, which utilized stained-glass windows, never made it on the island.) Palermo stood out when it came to the Art Nouveau style, thanks to the genius and innovation of such architects as Giovan Battista Basile and his son Ernesto, and artists such as Salvatore Gregorietti and Ettore Maria de Begler, who painted the dining room of the Villa Igiea hotel. Furniture design was also at the forefront thanks to the Ducrot factory. Regrettably, during what was known as the "rape of Palermo," between 1960 and 1980, many of these buildings were torn down and replaced by uglier ones. The two kiosks in front of the Massimo Theater are still great examples of Art Nouveau, and Villa Malfitano and Villino Florio deserve a visit.
Contemporary art in Sicily is synonymous with two artists: Salvatore Fiume (1915-97) and Renato Guttuso (1911-87). Fiume was an eclectic painter, sculptor, playwright, and set designer whose works are housed in some of the most prestigious museums around the world, including the Vatican Museums and the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia. Painting in a style often called visceral, Guttuso became renowned for his nudes, landscapes, and still-lifes. His most famous work, The Vuccuria, is housed at the Steri Palace in Palermo.
Agorà -- Marketplace in an archaeological site.
Apse -- The half-rounded extension behind the main altar of a church; Christian tradition dictates that it be placed at the eastern end of an Italian church, the side closest to Jerusalem.
Atrium -- A courtyard, open to the sky, in an ancient Roman house; the term also applies to the courtyard nearest the entrance of Byzantine churches.
Baldachin -- A columned stone canopy, usually placed above the main altar of a church.
Baptistery -- A separate building or a separate area in a church where the rite of baptism is held.
Basilica -- A rectangular public building, usually divided into three aisles by rows of columns. In ancient Rome, this architectural form was frequently used for places of public assembly and law courts.
Capital -- The top of a column, often carved and usually categorized into one of three orders: Doric, Ionic, or Corinthian.
Cavea -- The curved row of seats in a classical theater; the most prevalent shape was that of a semicircle.
Chancel -- Section of a church containing the altar.
Cornice -- The decorative flange defining the uppermost part of a classical or neoclassical facade.
Cortile -- Courtyard or cloisters ringed with a gallery of arches or lintels set atop columns.
Crypt -- A church's main burial place, usually below the choir.
Entase -- Convex curve in the shaft of a column.
Grotesques -- Carved and painted faces, deliberately ugly, used by everyone from the Etruscans to the architects of the Renaissance; they're especially amusing when set into fountains.
Hypogeum -- Subterranean burial chambers, usually of pre-Christian origins.
Loggia -- Roofed balcony or gallery.
Narthex -- The anteroom, or enclosed porch, of a Christian church.
Piano Nobile -- The main floor of a palazzo (sometimes the second floor).
Pieve -- A parish church.
Portico -- A porch, usually crafted from wood or stone.
Pronaos -- Vestibule at the front of a classical temple.
Pulvin -- A four-sided stone that serves as a substitute for the capital of a column, often decoratively carved, sometimes into biblical scenes.
Putti -- Plaster cherubs whose chubby forms often decorate the interiors of baroque chapels and churches.
Telamone -- Structural column carved into a standing male form; female versions are called caryatids.
Transenna -- Stone (usually marble) screen separating the altar area from the rest of an early Christian church.
Tympanum -- The half-rounded space above the portal of a church, whose semicircular space usually showcases a sculpture.
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