Preface The Southern-Italian American
“State of Mind”
If a scientific random sample, representative of 17 million southern-Italian Americans, were presented with pictures of Italian architecture and asked to indicate the structures they recognize, I think the overwhelming majority would identify northern Italian structures. Few would be familiar with the architecture of Italy south of Rome.
There are many obvious reasons why southern-Italian Americans would not recognize the architecture of their ancestral home. Mass media, schools, the Italian tourist industry continually present us with Renaissance history and culture.
i-Italy.org for example, in the week of November 20, 2010, featured prominently under its title bar an icon link to “The Architecture of Michelangelo.”
In schools, the AP Italian language success trumpeted in i-Italy is wonderful news for students; however, it is also good news for the northern Italian tourist industry. A typical pedagogical device used in Italian language textbooks features American student tourist engaging in dialogues at northern Italian Renaissance tourist centers (e.g. Prego! by Lazzarino et. al. and Adesso! by Danesii, many more can be cited). History courses always mention the northern Renaissance and never southern Italy.
We virtually (indeed, literally) never hear about the South, unless the topic is crime, corruption or volcanoes.
Renaissance architecture is prominent in media and tourism because those structures tend to be monumental in size, making them fascinating; like the Pyramids of Egypt - always intriguing. But, while size may be fascinating, it is not necessarily beauty. Michelangelo’s 17 foot high David conjures a sense of awe. But, is it judged to be more beautiful than Donatello’s 5-foot version? I think generally not. When seeing Donatello’s, I think “beautiful” or similar adjectives come to mind. Rather, I think, descriptives such as “incredible” or “amazing” are applied to Michelangelo’s.
Thus, because of our fascination with the grandiose, we are continually presented with the mega-buildings of northern Italy more in line with the massive gothic structures of northern Europe. We never hear about the more delicate architectural ‘beauty’ of Sicily, which is more in the Arabic tradition - “Architecture of the Veil”.
To my mind, the inundation of southern-Italian Americans with northern Renaissance architecture and more generally northern culture is tragic. The culture of the southern Italy is being systematically obliterated from the minds of southern-Italian Americans.
The purpose of this essay is to try and shed some light on the virtues of southern-Italian architecture.
Introduction – Earthquakes, Bricks/Marble and Veils
The architecture of a given culture is determined by many variables: sociological, economic, ideological, etc. For example, two variables that determined the architecture of the northern Italian Renaissance were the enormous egos of both the secular aristocracy (e.g. de Medici) and the nominally sacred aristocracy (e.g. Pope Julian II). Those egos were complimented by enormous money available to build monuments celebrating their glory.
Geology is also a determinate of architectural design. There are two geological variables that have to taken into consideration when considering the architecture of Sicily vis-à-vis northern Italy: earthquakes and available building material. Both lend themselves to explaining the mega structures of the north and the Sicilian “veils”
The first and most important geological fact to take into consideration regarding the character of Sicilian architecture is the fact that the whole of Sicily is in a very active and violent earthquake zone.
Some of the most devastating earthquake events in Sicily:
Palermo: 1726,1823 and 1940 suffered large-scale earthquake destruction
Val Noto: 1693 all significant structures were destroyed in forty towns and cities
Messina: 1908 was completely destroyed by an earthquake.
These were examples of major quakes that destroyed large portions or whole cities. Moreover, throughout history, Sicily experienced periodic ‘minor’ tremors. Accordingly, earthquakes were always on the minds of Sicilian architects and engineers.
The architectural implication of building in an earthquake prone area is that tall masonry buildings (i.e. structures made with brick and stone) must be avoided because they are especially susceptible to destruction from earthquakes. Today for example, in earthquake prone California, even small single-family masonry houses are required to have steel reinforcement.
Accordingly, it would be irrational to build tall masonry buildings like the ‘top heavy’ Palazzo Vecchio in Florence (picture below left) or large domes such as St. Peter’s in Rome (pictured below right). Both would be severely damaged if not destroyed by even a relatively moderate earthquake.
Note: the issue here is the scale (size) of the structures. This is to say: if one compares random samples of structures from the North with those in Sicily; I think, the average size of the northern domes, vaults and towers would be significantly larger than the Sicilian. For example, while I don’t have the exact dimensions, I judge the tower and dome of Cathedral Santa Maria Assunta in Palermo below to be significantly smaller than the Vecchio tower and St. Peter’s dome.
However, the smaller scale of Sicilian architecture relative to the north should not be construed as having anything to do with inferior designers, craftsmen, finances, aesthetics or (needless to say) egos. Rational design dictates that the scale of the building conforms to the given geological conditions. The sheer logic of building structures that have a higher probability of surviving earthquakes entails avoidance of mega structures such as those constructed in the north.
The second geological factor leading to the differentiation of Sicilian and Northern architecture has to do with the raw materials available in the respective regions; especially materials for making bricks and marble quarries.
Bricks have been used since Babylon and still, even in this age of reinforced concrete and steel, a very popular building material. They have structural and aesthetic qualities and are also an efficient means of construction. They were widely used in northern Italian buildings, the most noteworthy: one of the world’s most incredible structures - Florence’s Duomo.
A generally overlooked material advantage northern Italy had over Sicily is the raw material for making brick. While clay is the essential component of bricks, the wood to fire high temperature kilns to produce brick was also a necessary condition for brick manufacturing. Large-scale brick construction entails large-scale brick manufacturing; which in turn entails large amounts of conveniently accessible clay and firewood.
According to Ross King, in his incredible history of Florence’s Duomo, the manufacturing of brick for the Duomo required:
“Heating a wood burning kiln containing 20,000 bricks to a temperature of 1,000 degrees Celsius for several days...
“The Florence Duomo required 4 million bricks...”
In short, many of the mega buildings so prominent in northern architecture were dependent on large amounts of readily accessible clay and wood. King notes the proximity of the raw material to Florence:
“[The kilns] were located in the country side [outside of Florence] close to the clay pits as well as the supplies of the timber and brushwood that fueled the kilns.” (Brunelleschi’s Dome” p.92-93 emphasis +)
Four million brick represents an enormous amount of clay and more importantly an enormous amount of wood fuel to manufacture the brick for just one part of one church. I cannot determine if Sicily would have had similar volumes of clay conveniently available. However, everything I have read suggest that there is no way that Sicilian brick-makers could get the huge volume of wood necessary to produce 4 million brick for just one part of one building.
Accordingly, they could not take advantage of the structural qualities of brick necessary for large structures such as the Duomo.
Northern Italy has huge quarries of the best marble in the world. A major contribution to the excellence of Michelangelo’s Pieta, David and other carvings is due to the excellent marble from the Carrara quarry in Tuscany.
Similarly, the marble of northern Italy is a major component of its architecture. For example, according to Ross King, in his excellent history of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, when Michelangelo agreed to build Pope Julian II tomb:
“He spent eight months in Carrara, sixty-five miles northwest of Florence, supervising the quarrying and transport of the white marble for which the town was famous, not the least because both the Pieta and the David had been carved from it...he had transported more than ninety wagonloads of marble to the square where the tomb was to be built...” (Michelangelo & the Pope’s Ceiling p3-5)
Marble has both structural and aesthetic properties. Architects who have access to it have advantages over those who do not. As far as I can determine, the architects of Sicily did not have large quantities of high-grade marble at their disposal. This is not to say there is no marble in Sicily; the issue, as with clay and wood, is quantity, quality and availability.
Sicilian builders had to make due with the limestone and lava stone available to them. Consider the following pictures as a comparative study in colored stone facades:
I Santa Maria Maggiore II Chiesa Madre III San Mattiai
I. On the left, a portion of the Cathedral of Santa Maria Maggiore in Bergamo Lombard near Milan. It is faced with highly polished black, red and white marble. It is a truly beautiful structure, a tribute to the designers and craftsmen and patrons who brought it forth. However, for purposes of this discussion, clearly the beauty of this structure is associated with the beautiful tri-colored marbling. This magnificent beauty was made possible by the availability of the marble in northern Italy.
II. In the center is a portion of the façade of Chiesa Madre in the town of Trecastagni near Catania. Notice that black lava stone is used; not black marble. Lava stone is soft and porous; it cannot achieve the high luster and reflectiveness of polished marble. Clearly, lava stone does not conjure the same aesthetic experience as polished marble.
III. On the right is the monastery and church of San Mattiai in Palermo. In this building red lava stone is set against white stucco. However, rough stone against textured stucco is not the same aesthetic as polished red and white marble.
In short, these three pictures are meant to demonstrate Sicilian designers were as conscious of the aesthetics of color facades as northern; but, they could not achieve the same aesthetic quality of the northern buildings for want of the high quality marble.
In sum: The mega buildings of northern Italy with their beautiful facades would not have been possible if the north were susceptible to massive earthquakes, and if the north did not have huge volumes of natural resources like marble, clay and wood.
Sicilian designers and craftsmen are to be respected for how they met the challenges of earthquakes and limited raw materials with a variation on the theme of the Arabic architectural concept “Architecture of the Veil”. In this motif, both designers and craftsmen extended the concept of architectural beauty to breathtaking dimensions unrivaled in northern Italy and much of the world.
“Architecture of the Veil”
The “architecture of the veil” is an Arabic concept of architectural design. As with any aesthetic concept there is not a simple denotative definition. There are probably volumes written on the subject. For present purposes, I will posit the concept in its most atomic fundamental form, along with two paradigm Sicilian examples.
The “architecture of the veil” implies that the façade of a structure is the least significant part of the structure, indeed often intentionally mundane. The façade merely serves to ‘cover’ (veil) the inner beauty of the structure.
As argued above, the facades of Sicilian structures are necessarily simplified because of geological factors. Nevertheless, behind a great many of these relatively simple, mundane and even ugly facades are housed incredible beauty. Two such examples:
Palazzo Ajutamicristo in Palermo was built at the end of the fifteenth century at the height of the Renaissance. Look at the exterior below.
Is there anything here that remotely conjures a sense of the beautiful northern Renaissance art? Nevertheless, it is “today regarded as one of the most prestigious examples of late fifteenth century Sicilian architecture.” The reason being that this, I would say, ‘ugly’ façade is in fact a ‘veil’ that covers incredible beauty that rivals the northern Renaissance art. Consider just two rooms exemplifying its ‘hidden beauty.’
Also, significant in the ‘architecture of the veil’ are courtyards and gardens. Below, is a picture of the Ajutamicristo courtyard.
A second example of the Sicilian architecture of the veil is Villa Valguarnera at Bagheria.
The exterior façade, while a significant improvement over Ajutamicristo, would not generally be considered exceptionally significant artistic beauty.
And again, this unexceptional façade hides a very exceptional inner beauty. Consider the room and staircase below. What more can be said about the beauty of Sicilian architecture?
The above are just two examples of Sicilian palazzo veil architecture that exist literally from one end of Sicily to the other.
Many dozens of examples of palazzos, villas, cathedrals, etc. illustrating the scale, materials and veil in Sicilian construction are document in three magnificent books. Please see:
Palazzi of Sicily by Angheli Zalapi with brilliant photographs by Melo Minnella .
The Baroque Architecture of Sicily by Maria Giuffre and Melo Minnella
Sicilian Twilight - The Last Leopards by Gerae Gefen et al.
This paper has argued that the structures and facades of pre-modern Sicilian architecture were generally limited in size and façade eloquence by the geographic variables of earthquakes and available raw material.
Accordingly, Sicilian designers vented their quest for beauty via interior design. Architecture, which minimizes the exterior and exalts the interior, is called “Architecture of the Veil”, and Sicilians were masters at implementing that concept.
Sadly, Americans of southern-Italian descent are largely uninformed about this noble architectural tradition of their forefathers. They are being conditioned to believe that the architecture of the North is superior because they are not informed about the nuances of southern architectural beauty.
Nevertheless, there’s good news, as evidenced by all the smiling faces: children of southern-Italian descent will get college credit for conjugating proficiencies.