Letter from Palermo

We came to Palermo just to see the stucco work of Serpotta (1652-1732) in the Oratorios and had engaged a guide for that purpose.  Palermo is full of marvels – I visited in 1968, but had never seen the work of Serpotta, who ranks with Primaticcio, Bossi, and Feichtmayr among the leading stuccators of all time, at least in my book.  His most celebrated work is at the Oratorio Sta. Cita (or Zita).

The guide explained that Serpotta mixed marble powder with his stucco to give it a resemblance to sculpted marble – that is, it has a slight sheen rather than the matte finish of most stucco work.  The Sta. Cita is a fantastic marvel in which an entire wall is covered with stucco work, see picture below, including details of the Battle of Lepanto in 1571.  Around the walls are the Mysteries of the Rosary, consisting of putti, allegorical statues, and theaters.  On one wall are the Joyful Mysteries:  the Annunciation, Visitation, Nativity, and Presentation in the Temple.  On the opposite wall are the Sorrowful Mysteries, and on the bottom the Glorious Mysteries: Resurrection, Ascension, Descent of the Holy Spirit, and Assumption of Mary.  The sensation of enveloping stuccation is overwhelming – all in white, with only a faint gleam from the marble dust.

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Serpotta’s work at Sta. Cita was done in 1685 and following.  At his Oratorio San Lorenzo one guidebook says:

“Sicilian rococo at its best, and Serpotta at the height of his powers, this  chapel is not be missed.  Extravagant, riothous and unfalteringly graceful, the white stucco figures descend in a cloud about the beautifully rich- colored church furniture.”

Also at the San Lorenzo is a ligneous intarsia bench, inlaid with mother of pearl and ivory and a merry fellow surrounded by snakes:

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Who can he be, and why his glee?  An artist’s quirk?  But why the smirk?  What artist, what era?  No answers available; Google and Wiki unresponsive.

Our guide would not let us loose without seeing the Palatine Chapel, the most celebrated sight in Palermo, which I visited in 1968.  Unlike the Oratorios, which were practically deserted of visitors, the Palatine Chapel was thronged.  It is an almost unique example of Arab-Norman decoration, dating from 1130-1140, richly decorated with mosaics comparable to those of Ravenna and Istanbul.  I daresay it must be one of the most overpowering interiors to be seen anywhere.

The guide was full of tidbits about Palermo’s checkered history and heritage of Phoenicians, Normans, Swabian Hohenstaufens, and others, and also proudly pointed out the local Sterculia trees, a new one on me, of which Wikipedia says:

Sterculia is a genus of flowering plants in the mallow family, Malvaceae. It was previously placed in the now obsolete Sterculiaceae.  Members of the genus are colloquially known as tropical chestnuts. The scientific name is taken from Sterculius of Roman mythology, who was the god of manure; this is in reference to the unpleasant aroma of the flowers of this    genus (e.g., Sterculia   foetida).”

The Porta Nuova (16th century) contains a couple of telamons and gruesome heads (see picture), sculptor unknown says the guide.  Wiki says it was constructed in 1583 to replace an existing city gate commemorating the victory of Charles V in Tunisia in 1535, thus explaining the four Moors as telamons in the facade. But Kinimonth’s authoritative guidebook tells a different story:  the Porta Nuova “was struck by lightning and repaired in 1667, which accounts for the high baroque passages upon what is essentially a sixteenth century Spanish building.”

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Another landmark of  Palermo is the Pretoria fountain:

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about which Kininmonth says:

“This noble baroque square is almost filled with an extravagant fountain.   A pinnacle of figures rises from the centre of a great circular basin, raised in a kind of moat crossed by four bridges from a circular and balustrade platform, the whole peopled with a colony of white statues – tritons, river gods, nymphs – altogether making a very fine effect though individually of inferior workmanship.  It was built in the third quarter of the sixteenth century by two Florentines, Francesco Camilliani and Michaelangelo Naccherino.”

The guide also took us to a Jewish foccacia deli where they were brewing a huge pot of milza (spleen), which she said is a prominent Jewish dish – another new one on me, although I have frequently enjoyed other innards such as kidneys, liver, sweetbread, brains, tripe, and the like, but I’ve never seen spleen on any menu.  Also she showed us the Jewish quarter of Palermo, which has street signs in Italian, Hebrew, and Arabic, and she reminded us that in 1054 the Normans imprisoned Pope Leo IX for several months in order to get a Papal Legacy (the right to appoint their own bishops) – which I will have to verify with some of my history-buff friends.

 Thomas B. Lemann

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