The Italian Baroque was one of the most florid and proliferous art movements in what is modern-day Italy, lasting from the late 16th to the early 18th centuries. Its famous art and architecture are particularly known for their grandeur, drama, and exuberance.
The Sicilian Baroque, however, is its own movement. Although related to the wider Italian Baroque, the Sicilian baroque was developed on the island in the 17th and 18th centuries when the region was part of the Spanish empire.
Eastern Sicily was ravaged by a great earthquake in 1693. This made a sort of tabula rasa on which Sicilian architects of the period – many of them educated in Rome and influenced by the baroque style – could develop a new form of architecture.
Characteristics of the Sicilian Baroque
The Sicilian architects employed some of the classic, theatrical aspects of Baroque architecture, including: grandiose domes, grand staircases, oval and elliptical spaces, mirrors, overhead sculptures, and quadratura painting (that is, a type of perpectival painting that creates the illusion of geometric forms, such as when the surface of a flat ceiling is painted so as to make it appear a dome).
But the Sicilians also incorporated their own unique additions to create a different type of baroque aesthetic. These include:
- “grotesques” – whether masks or “putti” (cherubs), these grinning, disturbing faces are frequently seen on the entablatures of buildings or holding up balconies
- incorporated belfries – instead of the bellfry occupying a separate part of the church (the campanile or bell tower), they became incorporated into the facades of buildings
- balconies – the balconies themselves, usually wrought iron, are another addition of the Sicilian baroque
- lava stone – the addition of volcanic stone from Mount Etna created different colors and contrasting design
- grand external staircases – the use of large and often intricate, ornamental entry staircases were popular in the Sicilian baroque
These are just a few of the characteristics of the period.
When the earthquake hit in 1693, it destroyed dozens of towns and killed some 60,000 people. Among the cities that were the hardest hit were Modica, Ragusa, Noto, Ispica, and Scicli. When rebuilding started, the aristocracy and the church began to rebuild in the lavish Sicilian baroque style. The result can still be seen when you visit this part of Italy on our Baroque Sicily culinary vacation.
Baroque Sites to Visit on a Sicily Culinary Tour
Modica, your home for our Baroque Sicily tour, has a wealth of Baroque sites to see. There are two parts to this densely-packed city, Modica Alta (or “high”Modica) and Modica Bassa (or “low” Modica), so named because of where they are built into the steep gorge that houses the city. The Duomo di San Giorgio is the city’s most famous site, a Baroque masterpiece at the top of tall staircase, overlooking the rest of the city. But you will see other examples of the Sicilian Baroque when walking through Modica, including the church of San Pietro in Modica Bassa. Another site to see in Modica is the famous chocolate museum!
Ragusa is perched on a hilltop and is also divided into two sections, lower Ragusa (called Ragusa Ibla) and upper Ragusa (Ragusa Superiore). Most of the famed sites you will want to see are in Ragusa Ibla, including:
- Duomo di San Giorgio, with its massive staircase and ornate columns
- Chiesa di Santa Maria dell’Itria, built by the Knights of Malta and known for its bright blue, domed bell-tower
- Chiesa delle Santissime Anime del Purgatorio, with its famed baroque portal
- Chiesa di Santa Maria delle Scale, which was damaged in the earthquake and partially rebuilt, so half of it is in the Baroque style, half in the Gothic
- Chiesa di San Giorgio and the nearby Chiesa di San Giuseppe, both with Baroque facades
- Palazzo Zacco, with its grotesques, wrought iron balconies, and columns
The Cathedral of San Giovanni, also built in the Sicilian Baroque style, is located in Ragusa Superiore.
Noto is considered by some to be the epitome of the Sicilian Baroque, in part because it was so extensively damaged in the 1693 earthquake that the city had to be almost completely rebuilt. The Spanish viceroy in charge of Noto employed three architects to design a new Noto that would embrace the aesthetics of the new Sicilian Baroque. Adding to the harmonious effect that this type of urban planning encouraged is the uniform use of local limestone, which gives the buildings a golden, pleasant glow.
Visit the Duomo di Noto (the Cattedrale di San Nicolò di Mira), the city’s main landmark. It lies at the end of an immense staircase and glows golden in the light of the setting sun. The Church of San Domenico is considered one of the premier examples of Sicilian Baroque architecture and was designed by Baroque architect extraordinaire Rosario Gagliardi.
The Palazzo Ducezio is now the town hall, and it boasts a decorative Hall of Mirrors. The Palazzo Nicolaci di Villadorata and the Palazzo Castelluccio are also worth visiting.
Smaller and lesser known that Modica, Noto, and Ragusa, Scicli, which is just 15 miles from Ragusa, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site known for its picturesque city center. There are many baroque churches to visit, including the Churches of San Matteo, Sant’Ignazio, San Bartolomeo, Santa Maria la Nova, and San Michele Arcangelo. Not to miss also are the baroque palaces and town hall.
Like Scicli, Ispica is a smaller town known for its Baroque architecture. Particularly of note are the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, designed by Vincenzo Sinatra, the Carmine monastery, the Chiesa di San Bartolomeo, and the Basilica della Santissima Annunziata. Although not related to the Sicilian Baroque, another interesting site is the Cava d’Ispica, or Ispica Cave, a series of residences carved into the rock that was built in ancient times and was used until the end of the Nineteenth Century.
You can visit these sites and more during our Baroque Sicily culinary vacation, or during many of our other Sicily tours.
Contact us to start planning!
Try a classic Sicilian recipe for sardines “a beccafico.”
By Peg Kern
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