Palermo is this year’s Italian City of Culture. The city has stunning architecture, beautiful churches and art that is the equal to that in Rome, but for me, Palermo’s gem is the baroque Oratory of the Rosario in Santa Cita.
Tucked away in a back street of the capital this exuberant masterpiece is often overlooked as one stumbles from one opulent Baroque creation to another in this very theatrical city. The flamboyance is all inside the building however, because the Oratory, by nature of what it was, had to be simple. Perhaps that is why is seems to be hidden from public view.
I first saw the Oratorio on the BBC series Unpacking Sicily, presented by art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon and chef Giorgio Locatelli, in 1912. As the presenters walked us into a room whose walls were covered with sparkling white putti climbing up 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.
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. In 1699 Serpotta, examples of whose work were sited all over Palermo, was commissioned to transform the Oratorio. According to art historian, Anthony Blunt, the sculptor was provided with a carefully worked out and artistically complex iconographical plan for the oratory.
In his use of stucco, he created a new art form that, according to Sacheverell Sitwell lifted a minor art “out of itself into an eminence of its own”. She considered his female figures to be the equivalent of portraits by Gainsborough.
The Oratorio of San Lorenzo is a masterpiece of Sicilian Baroque. It is one of three Oratorios, the others being San Domenico and Santa Zita just a few metres away. Of extraordinary elegance, white swathes of stucco supported by a swarm of putti flow over the walls; cornocupias of fruit and flowers and 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.
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.
This 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 I’d seen playing in the streets outside.
The Battle of Lepanto was the largest naval battle in western history since antiquity,where a fleet of the Holy League (a coalition of European Catholic maritime states) inflicted a major defeat on the Ottoman Empire. I think it fair to say that Serpotta displays an anti-war sentiment in this work which I think was unusual for the time.
The altar in the Oratory is disappointing after the sheer gorgeousness of the walls. It was originally famous because of the painting by Caravaggio, Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence (1609), a masterpiece which was stolen in 1969 but never recovered. It is presumed that the theft was the work of the Sicilian Mafia but despite a massive reward it has never been recovered and is still on the FBI files. 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.
*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 was 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.
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