In Sicilia: Going for Baroque (Part 2)

Chiesa del Gesù

OK, it wasn’t the smartest move, I acknowledge. We’d spent the morning at the stunning Capella Palatina (more on that anon). As we strolled back to the apartment, we happened on the 16th century Chiesa del Gesù. Though we were more than a little peckish, we decided to stop in for a “quick look” prior to lunch.


The church was a casualty of Allied raids in 1943. “[A] bomb fell on the church’s dome, causing it to collapse, taking with it most of the surrounding walls and most of the wall paintings in the chancel and transepts.” [citation] Here’s a photograph taken after the bombing:

It’s worth a digression on the work of the Monuments Officers of World War II, whose charge was “to safeguard landmarks and works of art from war damage.” The official name of the unit was “Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives” (MFAA), which was assigned to the “Allied Military Government for Occupied Territories” (AMGOT).

The Monuments Officers . . . were art historians, architects, artists, archaeologists and archivists: a straight civilian lot who had no business, in the eyes of many soldiers, moving around a theater of war telling colonels and generals what not to bomb. . . . Almost as soon as they set foot in the country they were nicknamed “the Venus Fixers.” . . .

As soon as the first Monuments Officers reached Sicily, the implications of such a mandate proved as difficult as its scope was vast. . . . As General Mark Clark declared with frustration, fighting in Italy amounted to conducting war “in a goddamn museum.” . . .

Palermo had suffered greatly from the intense Allied raids that had preceded the landings; “spectral” and “ghostly” are terms that recur persistently in the Venus Fixers’ early reports on the city’s Baroque churches. For the first time in Sicily, MFAA officers had the disheartening experience of walking along a church aisle knee-deep in rubble, stepping carefully among dismembered marble statues and peering with a heavy heart at a large swath of the deep blue Sicilian sky where once had soared a richly decorated dome.  . . .

[The Monuments Officers] found ideal partners in local fine-arts officials, the Italian soprintendenti. . . . Their cooperation was based on a division of labor: The soprintendenti knew what each monument required to be salvaged; the Venus Fixers could provide resources in the form of building materials, fuel and transportation. Together they started a first-aid program that focused on replacing windows and temporarily covering roofs in churches and palaces before the onset of winter. The workers employed in the rehabilitation of buildings were mainly local craftsmen: stone-cutters, masons and carpenters, generally selected by soprintendenti with the approval of Monuments Officers. [citation]

I’m left to wonder who’s standing in the rubble of the Chiesa del Gesù in the photograph above, and what it took to resurrect the Chiesa from its devastated state.

The Chiesa “perhaps represents the peak of the Baroque art in Palermo.” It’s reputed to be the first church the Jesuits built in Sicily. “Work on the decoration began in 1597 and was interrupted permanently when the Jesuits were expelled in 1860.” [Eyewitness Travel Sicily Guidebook, p. 72]

The Chiesa’s façade served as a set in the film of Guiseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard. Its Jesuit house is said to be the one where Don Fabrizio deposited Father Parrone while the Prince went elsewhere for an assignation with Mariannina. As the Prince and Father Parrone approached Palermo

. . . the road was crossing orange groves in flower, and the nuptial scent of the blossoms absorbed all the rest as a full moon absorbs a landscape; the smell of sweating horses, the smell of leather from the carriage upholstery, the smell of Prince and the smell of Jesuit, were all cancelled out by that Islamic perfume evoking houris and fleshly joys beyond the grave.

It even touched Father Pirrone. “How lovely this would be, Excellency, if . . .”

“If there weren’t so many Jesuits,” thought the Prince, his delicious anticipations interrupted by the priest’s voice. At once he regretted this rudeness of thought, and his big hand tapped his old friend’s tricorne. [The Leopard, pp. 22-23]

Carlo Gastone Gaetano della Torre di Rezzonico (who seems an interesting character)  wrote of the interior of the church:

Tutte le pareti sono coperte da marmi, da tarsie, da statue e da rabeschi senza fine, che debbono aver costata immensa copia di danaro. [C. Gastone, Viaggio della Sicilia (1793) p. 14]

Or, as Google Translate would have it

All the walls are covered from marble, marquetry, with statues and arabesques endless which must have cost immense copy of money.

Despite the paucity of the translation and the passage of centuries, I feel I know what he meant. Pondering the damage wrought by the Allied bombing, it’s almost unimaginable what it must have taken to restore this extravagantly decorated church.

The Eyewitness Guidebook tributes the stucco work to Giacomo Serpotta (1652-1732).

Serpotta was born and died in Palermo; and may have never left Sicily. His skill and facility with stucco sculpture appears to arise without mentorship or direct exposures to the mainstream of Italian Baroque. Rudolf Wittkower describes him as an aberrancy in an otherwise provincial scene, a “meteor in the Sicilian sky”. [citation]

As one commentator wrote,

Giacomo Serpotta is credited with creating an original technique for polishing stucco, imparting to his work a lustre not unlike that of stone. . . . Serpotta is the artist said to have elevated stuccowork in Italy from a craft to a high art.

According to the Chiesa Guidebook, after the 1943 bombing, “All the decorations are by Federico Spoltore (1956).” [Chiesa Guidebook, p. 8] It’s not at all clear what’s meant by “decorations,” though Spoltore is said to have contributed a thousand square meters of paintings. At first glance, Spoltore’s work for the Chiesa seemed to blend with its surroundings. On a second look, however, there seemed a peculiar disconnect. Whether that matters, I don’t know.

Federico Spoltore ceiling painting

Spoltore (1902-1988) was apparently in demand for his portraiture, which included portraits of Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, Truman, and Pope Pius XII. In later years, he moved to abstract painting, including a music cycle (1973-1979). Here’s a description, albeit, once again, through the scrim of Google Translate:

The latest artistic production of Spoltore can be summed up in the music cycle (1973-1979) dedicated to the symphonic works: the music highlights the artist’s desire to transfer onto canvas the pathos and harmony dictated by listening or by the memory a piece of music; so the cycle defined the Visions cosmic (the mid-70s onwards): lyrical expressions of purely abstract art, in which the coloring becomes softer, less harsh. It’s time to create a universal image above of all nationalities and all ideology. [citation]

I left the Chiesa utterly unclear (aside from Spoltore’s distinctive, somewhat fairy-tale, style of work) not knowing what was original, restored, or new, let alone how faithful any restoration might be. Whatever the combination, the effect was overwhelming. I definitely recommend a visit to anyone who might be in the neighborhood, though do have a hearty breakfast (or lunch) before you go.

Read Going for Baroque (Part 1) here.

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Listening List

 Antonio Vivaldi, Concerto for 3 Violins in F major, RV 551 (despite its “look,” the video is available)


Bonus track: A stucco restorer (albeit Rococo, not Baroque) demonstrates how he does his work. (Part 2 is here.)


Credits: The sources for quotations may be found at the links in the text. The photograph of the bomb damage may be found here. The remainder of the photographs, as always on the blog, the photographs, unless otherwise indicated, are mine.

4 thoughts on “In Sicilia: Going for Baroque (Part 2)

  1. David N

    Jeez, yes, the Spottore is awful, I remember now. Serpotta’s three main achievements were one of the revelations of Palermo for me – I hadn’t heard the name before.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: I suspected Spoltore’s paintings might have had something to do with your response to visiting Chiesa del Gesù. I wonder what would have worked? I remember, for example, visiting a church in Germany many years ago in which the juxtaposition of old and new seemed to work very well.

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