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The City Halls of Siracusa and Noto

Immaterial Cultural Heritage
April 22, 2021
Siracusa: a short story
April 23, 2021
Ph. © Eliseo Lupo

Invested with differing symbolic meanings:

The City Halls of Siracusa and Noto.

The seats of civic authority in two of the principal centres of eastern Sicily, Noto and Siracusa, are generally referred to with names which, chosen several decades ago, still retain an elevated air. In the choice of evocative names and, I would claim, in the very sound of the words themselves, Palazzo Vermexio and Palazzo Ducezio manifest very real parallels. However, the relationship goes even deeper.
Palazzo comunale "Vermexio" at Siracusa
Palazzo comunale "Ducezio" at Noto. Ph. R.M.Nobile
Both names are quite recent, and both were suggested by the writings and research of local scholars. I have not been able to investigate fully the deliberations of the council, but it seems clear that, for Siracusa, the choice was guided by a text, published by Giuseppe Agnello in 1959, on the brothers Vermexio, and on the role of Giovanni Vermexio as master-mason of the Senate. Faced with the name of an architect who even left his signature on the palace by sculpting a lizard on the facade, the onomastic tribute seems almost obligatory.
It didn’t seem enough, or perhaps it was too complicated, to take up again the initial term used of the palazzo at the time of its construction: "Bolettero" or “Bouleuterion” (from the Greek). If the rhetorical intention of implying a “renaissance” of the Greek city was the chief underlying motive for that name, the current name is no less problematic. Scholarship has slowly brought into question the whole documentary 'scaffolding', not just those single documents which Agnello presented to construct his heroes and their qualities. We now know that the Vermexios certainly existed; Giovanni was an excellent master-mason, first-class in his technical skills and as foreman of the building-site, but hardly capable of the role of project-designer. We have no sure evidence that the lizard was his signature (why should it be?). History often lends itself to various types of legitimation, but in this specific case the palazzo has taken the name of a master-mason of the Senate, who for a certain period was in charge of the building-site, and who “by chance” was also the brother of the contractor, which had caused conflicts of competence to emerge already during the course of the building work.
"Prospect of the Palazzo Senatorio of Siracusa", Sac. Ant. Bova Sculp.
Equally literary was the decision to baptize the city-hall of Noto with the name of a mythical Sicel warrior like Ducetius. In this case the decision to resort to a hero from the dawn of ancient history was certainly suggested by the 1894 study of Giuseppe Cassone, at precisely the time when his brother, an engineer and architect, was at work designing the new elevation of the building. In this case the short-circuiting with the original intentions of those who promoted the construction and approved the project seems even more singular.
According to a plausible nineteenth-century testimony, the design of the palazzo was brought from Montpellier to Noto during the second half of the 1730s, by baron Giacomo Nicolaci. The master-builder Vincenzo Sinatra, in a role wholly analogous to that of Giovanni Vermexio, followed this plan and directed the building work in full harmony with the architect Rosario Gagliardi (and after this successful collaboration, in 1745, he married his granddaughter).

Palazzo "Vermexio" at Siracusa
Palazzo "Ducezio" at Noto, Ph. R.M.Nobile

In contrast to the Siracusan ambition to construct a new Bouleuterion, at Noto the choice had been made to aim quite specifically at modernity. Besides diversifying in the regularity of the rooms and their decoration (aspects which had harked back to the culture of French architecture), the palazzo, with its arches and curving vaults, offers a tour de force of geometrical and technical experimentation. The architecture of this, the most representative building in the city, provided a demonstration of all the constructive possibilities of the contemporary: it chose to take a position in the age-old debates about the superiority of Ancient or Modern. To conclude: in its daring constructive execution which intended to affirm the primacy of the modern (essential in a new city that had no history) it concealed a need quite opposite to those who, with antiquarian rhetoric, thought to baptize the palazzo in the name of Ducetius.

Hall of Mirrors, Palazzo comunale, Noto. Ph. R.M.Nobile

As has happened before in history, these palazzi comunali have concentrated in symbolic form the expectations of entire communities over several generations. These may be extreme cases, but recognising the existence of subterranean currents of quite opposite intentions and points of view serves to remind us that any claims to objectivity in the explanations and the re-telling of the history of our territory should be viewed with healthy scepticism.
Marzo 2021

Phd in Storia dell’Architettura e dell’Urbanistica presso il Politecnico di Torino, è professore ordinario di Storia dell’Architettura presso il Dipartimento di Architettura dell’Università degli Studi di Palermo. Nel 2015 è stato Visiting Professor presso I Tatti "The Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies". Autore di numerosi saggi, articoli su riviste e monografie sull'architettura di età moderna, dal 2014 al 2017 è stato presidente dell'Associazione Italiana degli Storici dell'Architettura (AISTARCH).
Translation D.R.B.K.