parallax background

Baroque Blossoming

The Papyrus Museum
February 22, 2021
Eugenio Vazzano
February 28, 2021
All photos © Church of Santa Sofia, Sortino

The exceptional flowering of the Baroque after the earthquake of 1693

In the Baroque architecture of the Val di Noto “its movements, the fluctuating and wave-like swellings, the tension and vibrations like wind-filled sails, seem to represent the earthquake itself: destruction turned to construction, fear to courage, dark to light”. These words by Vincenzo Consolo describe most effectively both the horror and the beauty of rebirth caused by the earthquake of 1693.
If we ask ourselves what caused the extraordinary flowering of the Baroque in south-eastern Sicily, with its scenic squares and grand buildings, the wealth of carved decorations and the theatrical facades with their angels, mermaids and saints, monsters and masks, the answer lies in the event which has perhaps marked the collective imagination of the Sicilians more than any other; the earthquake of 1693 that struck on January 9th and 11th, 328 years ago this year.
Antonino Mongitore writes in his Istoria cronologica de’ terremoti di Sicilia: “On the day of Friday 9th January at the fourth hour of the night, all of Sicily trembled, shaken by a terrible earthquake. In the Val di Noto and the Val Demone it was bolder, less violent in the Val di Mazzara I […] but on Sunday the 11th day of the same month, at about 21:00, all of Sicily was shaken by a most violent earthquake, followed by death and damage such as had never been seen in earlier centuries”.
In a letter from Count Domenico Lacorcia we learn that the quake on Friday lasted “the length of two Paternosters” and that the more violent tremor that followed lasted as long as “a sung litany”. The Bishop of Siracusa Francesco Fortezza noted that of the 64 monasteries of the diocese, only three were still standing, while “the others were all on the ground”.
According to an estimate of the Senators of Siracusa sent to the Supreme Council of Italy at Madrid (Sicily was governed from Spain at this date) “in all, 2 bishoprics, 700 churches, 22 collegiate churches, 250 monasteries, 49 cities are ruined and demolished, with 93,000 dead”. Tremors continued throughout the whole month of January. Commentators noted about 1500 more quakes of varying intensity which lasted throughout the year 1693 and into the following year, continuing to cause damage.
La città di Noto prima del terremoto del 1693
From the chronicles and descriptions written after the quake, we get the idea of an appalling disaster, almost “an image of the Last Judgement” which was interpreted by contemporaries as supreme punishment for the sins of mankind. “Memorare terremotu et non peccabis” we read in one of the diocese documents after January 1693, a warning for the entire population that was invited to contribute with private sums to the reconstruction. The Spanish government and the aristocracy did their part too and the rebirth could be described as the result of a team effort, a sense of society and of community.
The Val di Noto became the biggest building site in history and an international laboratory of Baroque models, which reached its greatest heights in the extraordinary final flowering. However, not all of the 50-60 cities, small and large, damaged or devastated, saw a reconstruction due entirely to the actual damage done. There is enough evidence in the archives to be able to state that there is not always a close correspondence between the declared, real damage and the vastness of the reconstruction undertaken; often the disaster was transformed into a possibility for development, thanks to the actions of the ruling classes of the time.
The real protagonists of the rebuilding, the farsighted architects, engineers, master-builders and craftsmen, Gagliardi and Vaccarini, Palma, Picherali and Battaglia, Ittar and Vasta, the Alì and Cultraro families and many more, left their mark on the architecture which is characterised by a strong sense of movement and space, which refers back to Roman and international Baroque, but which at the same time demonstrates an exceptional decorative richness which produces joy and wonder in the spectator. “The aim of the poet is Wonderment” wrote Giovan Battista Marino, great poet of the 17th century. The artifices and caprices of the Baroque are the signs of a culture where apotropaic symbolism and allegory refer back to ancient names and to the symbol that identifies Sicily: the Gorgon.

... the movement, the fluctuating and wave-like swellings, the tension and vibrations, like wind-filled sails, seem to represent the earthquake itself: destruction turned to construction, fear to courage, dark to light

sortino_diruta_prefazione (Small)
"Sortino diruta"
grammichele (Small)
La nuova città di Grammichele
The Val di Noto during this rebirth manages to attract a workforce from the South of Italy and Malta; master-builders come from Calabria bringing their families to live in the area where there are many opportunities for work. The reconstruction gives a chance to jump-start the economy after the crisis of the end of the 17th century, thanks to the huge investment in building. This was all helped by the fact that the network of town-centres of the south-eastern region of Sicily after the earthquake inherited an urban plan that had been maintained almost unchanged from the medieval period. The towns were marked by relative continuity in the architecture, and they often stood on hilltops, surrounded by walls and with narrow, unsafe streets. It seemed a good moment for the town-based society that had hardly been touched by the great transformations which had already affected the bigger cities of the island such as Palermo and Messina, to impose a rethinking of the cities in the style of the new models of baroque culture. The urban morphology inherited from the past would often only have permitted small scale operations of repair, but now there was a chance to put daring reimaginings into place, and in some cases even to re-found cities in new sites, such as Noto, Avola and Grammichele. Other towns were doubled-up, such as Ragusa and Palazzolo, others shifted slightly, like Scicli and Modica, and some were reconstructed in situ like Siracusa, Caltagirone and Catania.
The modern plan for rebuilding Catania suggests there was a desire to equip the city with an anti-seismic plan (also found in other cities) which led to a reconstruction that combined the beauty of scenic urban views and wide, elegant squares, with an architecture that could survive other quakes, “should God will it”. The relationship between religion and science had changed and the architects and master-builders of the Val di Noto were aware of this, initiating a culture of construction that became a model for other seismic areas in far corners of the world; a history lesson to share.
Gennaio 2021

Professore associato di Storia dell’Architettura Moderna nella Scuola di Architettura dell’Università di Catania e Direttore scientifico del Centro Internazionale di Studi sul Barocco, di cui è fondatrice. Ha coordinato il dossier scientifico per l’inserimento delle città del Val di Noto nella World Heritage List dell’Unesco e numerose iniziative editoriali ed espositive finalizzate alla migliore conoscenza e valorizzazione del patrimonio del Sei-Settecento. Autrice di molti saggi e volumi, dirige “Annali del Barocco in Sicilia”.