Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Jesuit At Work: Fr. Angelo Italia, S.J.

A Baroque wonderland built by Jesuits and kings
A unique mix of fortuitous patronage, foreign influence and the quality of native stone gives Sicilian architecture its striking and variegated style, finds John Graham
4 July 2008
San Francesco Saverio in Palermo
The Baroque Architecture of Sicily
by Mario Giuffre and Melo Minnella, Thames & Hudson £48
Anthony Blunt described the Baroque architecture of Sicily as being the style "in which the energy and imagination of the South attained full and mature expression". Mario Giuffre, Professor of Architecture at Palermo University and the author of this book, seeks to explore what Blunt meant in his enigmatic, slightly confusing assessment and to define what makes Sicilian Baroque different from other architectural languages. The artistic and cultural background and influences which helped shape the particular character of Sicilian Baroque are the author's base upon which he then builds his thesis. The great earthquake of 1693 meant considerable construction came out of devastating destruction. The influence of the vice-regal powers, Spain, the House of Savoy and the Bourbon Kings of Naples, had a significant part in architectural commissions since these nabobs and aristocrats always had a keen eye for pomp and grandeur in buildings. The rise of the religious orders, particularly Dominicans and Jesuits, anxious to augment their prestige and influence, is important since the leading Baroque architects were themselves usually members of religious orders. The ashlar stone of eastern Sicily was and still is of exceptional hardness for masonry purposes and therefore perfect for sculpting and carving; this and the volcanic lava freely available meant that the necessary materials for what proved to be remarkable buildings were in abundance and close at hand. The fact that for four centuries, until the mid-19th century, Sicily was governed by foreign powers certainly played its part in the development of Sicilian Baroque, particularly the long years of Spanish Bourbon ascendancy from 1735 to 1860. The labyrinthine, endlessly complex, unwritten rules of patronage and protocol which surrounded these Bourbon viceroys, the constant demand for new displays of prestige by creating increasingly elaborate commissions, led to a large increase in building projects from the 17th century onwards. This, in due course, led to a large number of foreign architects arriving in Sicily, many of whom were members of religious orders, whose fraternal connections allowed them the opportunity to travel widely and learn from the great libraries of their own particular brethren.This is true of the great Jesuit architect-priest Angelo Italia.

Thanks to the presence of the Society of Jesus throughout Latin America as well as Europe, Fr Italia and other Jesuit architects were able to develop new building designs, having been influenced by styles and modes which other members of the Society had already demonstrated, if only in theory, by writing treatises and drawing plans. As is well-known, Jesuits even today pride themselves on being able to absorb and develop foreign influences and cultures without losing their core identity.

Thus Fr Italia created highly original designs for prestigious projects such as the Church of the Salvatore in Palermo. The diversity of ideas which he demonstrated in his plans, using elaborate, even exuberant decorative sculpting for the magnificent façade, illustrates the fresh approach which this architect-priest brought to Sicily. The vivid sculptures which embroider the exterior of the Jesuit College in Mazara del Vallo are un-European, almost Inca, in their rawness and simplicity.Bearing in mind that all designs for ecclesiastical commissions had to stay within Charles Borromeo's stipulations following the Council of Trent, at least in broad principle, Fr Giacomo Amato, of the Order of the Crociferi, was particularly skilful at both heeding these requirements while also employing an array of modes which softened the rigidity of the laid-down classical forms. He would often create a Baroque wonderland, with the facades of buildings, even supposedly demure convents and monasteries, exploding in a frenzied riot of highly decorative, playful stonework. Eccentrically shaped anterooms, pentagonal, hexagonal, octagonal, decahedronal, dodecahedronal and asymmetrical all added to the somewhat anarchic fun. The use of Sicilian coloured marble, especially reds, yellows, ultramarine and ochre, and the settings of precious hardstones, known in Sicily as marmi mischi, were used to create a tapestry of colours, particularly in altarpieces and choir stalls, which even today prove strikingly original and very unlike the designs and embellishments used in Rome or Tuscany. It is this use of decoration which more than anything else makes Sicilian Baroque so strikingly different. There are throughout the book a considerable number of photographs which capture how different Sicilian buildings really are. No single volume, however capacious - and this is a very large, heavy book indeed - can include all aspects of this complex, multi-layered subject. However, unless you wish to approach the subject at post-doctoral level (in which case you will need Italian, since only this and Blunt's slim volume are in English), there is every likelihood that Professor Giuffre's magisterial volume will more than answer your needs on this fascinating sub- kingdom of Baroque architecture.
Link to the Catholic Herald article (here)
Picture is of Fr. Italia's work in Polermo at the Immacolata Concezione (here)

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