Serpotta’s Stucco in Palermo

Palermo is this year’s Italian City of Culture.  The city has stunning architecture, beautiful churches and art that is equal to that in many other parts of Italy, but for me, Palermo’s gem is the baroque Oratory of the Rosario in Santa Cita.

My favourite putti
The Playful Putti

Tucked away in a back street of the capital, this exuberant masterpiece is often overlooked as one stumbles from one opulent Baroque creation to the next in this very theatrical city.  The flamboyance is all inside the building, because the Oratory, by its nature, had to be simple.  Perhaps that is why it is often missed by visitors to Palermo.

Cherub from Serpotta's stuccoes

I first saw the Oratorio on the 1912 BBC series Unpacking Sicily, presented by art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon and chef Giorgio Locatelli.  As the presenters walked us into a room whose walls were covered with sparkling white putti climbing and curling around pillars, playing with and teasing the allegorical statues I fell in love with the place.  It seemed to me to be redolent of joy and happiness as the impossibly round and naked infants cavorted along the walls oblivious to saints or sinners.

Notice the devil above the statue
Two allegorical figures sit ledges while all around are figures, faces, leaves, fruit.

Giacomo Serpotta (1652-1732) the Sicilian artist responsible for the interior of the Oratory was a sculptor of genius whose work in stucco* produced a very distinctive style. His work was already sited all over Palermo when he was commissioned in 1699 to transform the Oratorio and according to art historian, Anthony Blunt, he was provided with an artistically complex iconographical plan for the oratory.

In his use of stucco, he created a new art form.   Sacheverell Sitwell, who considered his female figures to be the equivalent of those in portraits by Gainsborough, states that the sculptor lifted a minor art “out of itself into an eminence of its own”.

Icons

One of three Oratorios (the others being San Dominico and Santa Zita a few metres away) the Oratorio of San Lorenzo is a masterpiece of Sicilian Baroque.   The artist worked on this interior between 1698 and 1710, and apart from the cavorting, mischievous cherubs, it features a series of 10 symbolic statues, plus panels detailing the lives of Christ, the lives of St. Francis and St. Lawrence, and one that tells the story of the Battle of Lepanto.

Of extraordinary elegance, white swathes of stucco supported by a swarm of putti flow over the walls;  life-size allegorical figures sit casually on ledges as though at a picnic while cherubs play with the draperies of their skirts and blow kisses, and a cornucopia of fruit and flowers adds joy to the scenes.

End Wall of Oratory.
The Battle of Lepanto panel. Below the ship sit two boys, one Christian and a victor, the other an Infidel and a loser in the battle, but they are alike in their sorrow.
Above Lepanto scene - one cherub foot missing, one crying, one supporting
A less-happy trio of cherubs, one has already lost a foot, one is supporting him and one is crying.
These could be today's urchins in Palermo
These could be today’s urchins from the streets around Palermo, clothes, stance, everything. In the middle the detritis of war.

The Battle of Lepanto is the panel in front of which people stand for a long time absorbing the detail of the battle, the virgin protecting the fleet, the stormy seas, and the two boys sitting on the edge of the panel, one Christian and one infidel, who resemble in every way – even down to their clothes – the street urchins one can still see playing in the streets of Palermo.

Centrepiece on a wall

The 16th century Battle of Lepanto was the largest naval battle since antiquity.  A fleet of the Holy League, a coalition of European Catholic maritime states of which the Venetian and Spanish Empires were the main powers, inflicted a major defeat on the Ottoman Empire in the Gulf of Patras.   It marked the last major sea battle fought between more than 400 rowing vessels and was the largest naval battle since antiquity.  Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quixote, was one of those injured in the battle.

I think it fair to say that Serpotta displays an anti-war sentiment in this work which I think was unusual for the time.

Window wall with playing cherubs

The altar in the Oratory is disappointing after the sheer gorgeousness of the walls.  It was originally famous because of the painting, Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence (1609), a masterpiece by Caravaggio, but this was stolen in 1969.  It has never been recovered despite a massive reward being offered.  It is presumed that the theft was the work of the Sicilian Mafia and the latest rumour is that it was shredded and fed to pigs.

In 2015 a rather poor digital copy of the altarpiece was placed in the vacant space but it cannot be considered even a good copy.

And now I’ll let the pictures fill in the gaps.

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*Stucco: The artist first constructed a model using frames of wood, wire and rags, held together by sand and lime. Over the model a mix of lime and plaster was applied, to which marble dust was added to achieve the smooth surface glaze,  This was the invention that lifted Stucco to a higher level and Giacomo Serpotta is credited with creating an original technique that imparted to his work a lustre, not unlike that of stone or marble.  Great skill and dexterity were needed as plaster mix dried very quickly but it was valued as it allows the artist not only to build up forms but to carve into them as well.

Address:  Via Immacolatella, 90133, Palermo.    Tel: 0921 582370

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9 thoughts on “Serpotta’s Stucco in Palermo

  1. What fabulous artwork! I don’t think I can recall ever seeing anything quite like this, so I’m especially glad you posted. It’s one thing to be an artist, but it’s probably another to “install” the art, so to speak. Incredible!

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    1. My photographs don’t do the Oratorio justice as I only had my compact with me that day. The weight of the better camera got too much after so many days sight-seeing and I had left it back in the hotel and we never got a chance to return to the Oratorio. However, I have since found a clip on YouTube and if you click on Sicily Unpacked; Andrew Graham-Dixon you should be able to see it. It’s well worth it.

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  2. I remember watching that episode of Sicily Unpacked (I’m watching the current series on Rome too 🙂 ). They’re a likeable pair, aren’t they? I didn’t actually know what stucco was so thanks for explaining that. It’s a phenomenal piece of work.

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    1. Yes, very likeable. In their last series though I thought their ‘in-jokes’ got a bit tedious but I’m glad to see a return to their old form. The current series on Rome is brilliant and I am so annoyed with myself for missing nearly all of the stuff they are showing us despite many visits to that city. I’m due there again in mid-March for a few days, so maybe will catch up. A lot depends on the weather, and of course I can’t resist the old favourites.

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  3. WP is playing up today and this is my 3rd attempt to leave a reply. I Googled the title to make sure I had the correct year and I’ve just done it again, and yes it was first screened in 1912 with a second outing in 1916. I’ve enjoyed all A G-D’s programmes but it’s quite disappointing when you visit some of the places and realize that he had access to them, alone and with professional lighting. And, the close-ups make some frescoes look much bigger than they really are. TV is essential, after all!

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  4. Thanks, Kelly. Wish my photos were better as even the guidebook produced doesn’t do them justice. It’s hard to photograph pure white when the light is coming from all sides and the camera wants to overexpose, but I had hoped the professionals would have done better. I think I may be tempted to buy the video of the Andrew Graham-Dixon visit there.

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