by Jeremy Dummett

Sicily has a rich tradition in sculpture that goes back to the ancient Greeks. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries it included outstanding artists such as Domenico and Antonello Gagini, Pietro de Bonitate and Francesco Laurana, whose work can be seen across the island. A high point in this tradition was reached in the baroque era by Giacomo Serpotta, in the oratories that he decorated in Palermo. The oratory of San Lorenzo (St Lawrence) is a prime example, where a visual feast awaits the visitor which should not be missed.

Giacomo Serpotta

Serpotta was a sculptor of genius who worked in stucco to produce a distinctive style of natural, richly decorated figures. The impact of his densely packed stucco work is dramatic and retains its power today. It was described as follows by the art historian, Anthony Blunt:

“Over the walls flow ripples of the most exquisite plasterwork in the form of decorative frames, imitation draperies, swags of fruit, trophies of armour, life-size allegorical figures set against the wall or in niches, putti (cherubs) poised on ledges or tumbling over frames and panels of tiny figures recounting the stories of the saints to whom the oratories are dedicated”.

Giacomo was born in Palermo in 1656 and together with his elder brother, Giuseppe, learned his trade from his father who worked as a sculptor in marble and stucco. Giacomo’s first commission in stucco, for the decoration of the church of the Madonna dell’Itria at Monreale, came when he was twenty-one. He established a studio specialising in stucco work which, apart from the oratories, supplied decorations to some of the most important churches in Palermo, including the Casa Professa. Working alongside Giacomo in the studio were his brother, Giuseppe, and his natural son, Procopio, both skilled artists in stucco. The tradition was continued by Giacomo’s grandson, Giovanni Maria, whose statues can be seen on the façade of the church of San Domenico.

Work in stucco had been practised since ancient times as a minor form of decoration. It came into its own in the baroque era when it became widely diffused. Statues in stucco were light in weight, suitable for decorating walls and ceilings, and were far less costly than marble. The work was intricate, for the artist first constructed a model using frames of wood, wire and rags, held together by sand and lime. Over the model was applied a surface layer of stucco, a mix of lime and plaster, to which marble dust was added to achieve the smooth surface glaze typical of Serpotta’s work. A high level of skill and dexterity was needed as the plaster mix dried very quickly.

In his use of stucco Serpotta created a new art form, in the opinion of Sacheverell Sitwell, “Giacomo Serpotta being one of those sculptors who lifted a minor art quite out of itself into an eminence of its own where it can exist apart from architecture, and indeed for no other reason. His facility is astonishing; flowers and fruits of stucco grow and burgeon from his hand, and there are full length female figures by him that are tall and graceful as women’s portraits by Thomas Gainsborough”.

Giacomo Serpotta died in 1732 after a career lasting for over fifty years. Among his work was the decoration of the three oratories of Santa Cita, San Lorenzo and San Domenico which are some of the greatest treasures from the baroque era to be found in Palermo.

The Oratory of San Lorenzo

In 1564 a group of Genoese merchants, devotees of San Francesco, founded the Compagnia di San Francesco (Company of St Francis) in Palermo. Five years later they began to build an oratory for themselves on the site of an earlier church dedicated to San Lorenzo. While there is no historical connexion between the two saints, the Company undertook to honour them both in their oratory. It stands today in Via Immacolatella, close to the church of San Francesco d’Assisi (St Francis of Assisi).

Under the Spanish, who had ruled Sicily as their colony since the fifteenth century, a powerful form of Catholicism took hold in the island. It was promoted by the religious orders and regulated by the Holy Office of the Inquisition. New churches, chapels and oratories sprung up in Palermo, with the various orders vying with one another to have the most impressive buildings.

An oratory was a confraternity established by an order of the church. It constituted a kind of rich man’s club, comparable to a guild, where members could attend ceremonies and services in a private chapel. It served both a religious and a social function. Architecturally an oratory was a simple construction, consisting of a rectangular congregational hall with large windows down each side above head height and an altar at one end. Benches for the members lined the side walls.

The Company took advantage of Caravaggio’s presence in Sicily to commission him to paint them an altarpiece. Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, whose fame as an artist spread from Rome, had escaped in the previous year from prison in Malta. After carrying out commissions in Syracuse and Messina, he visited Palermo before leaving Sicily for Naples. (See separate article, Caravaggio in Syracuse). The altarpiece was completed in 1609 and named Natività con i santi Lorenzo e Francesco (Nativity with saints Lawrence and Francis). Caravaggio died the following year on his way back to Rome. His painting graced the oratory until 1969 when it was stolen and never recovered.

In 1699 the Company ordered a transformation of their oratory in line with the new style of decoration, more secular and theatrical, that was fashionable in Palermo. To carry out the work the Company chose Giacomo Amato and Giacomo Serpotta. Amato, the most distinguished Sicilian architect of his day, included among his work the churches of Santa Teresa alla Kalsa and della Pietà, numerous chapels and altars, as well as projects for palaces of the aristocracy. He had spent years in Rome and had studied the work of Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the maestro of Roman baroque. Serpotta was at the peak of his powers at the time of this commission with examples of his work sited all over Palermo. While some art historians claim that he too visited Rome, it seems more likely that Serpotta learned about Roman baroque from men like Amato. Under the eyes of these two masters the oratory was transformed into a marvel of the late baroque.

While the baroque style employed was exuberant and light hearted, the underlying intention of both sculptor and those commissioning the work, was serious. According to Anthony Blunt, the sculptor was provided with a carefully worked out iconographical plan for the oratory. Artistically the plan was complex, full of symbolism, including links between different parts of the decoration. Serpotta, for his part, left nothing to chance and worked closely with the various artists employed on the project.

Upon entering the oratory one is surrounded by an abundance of superbly modelled stucco figures. White is the unifying colour, with some items highlighted in gold, while the atmosphere created is one of joy and elegance. At one end stands the presbytery containing the altar, above which hangs a photographic representation of Caravaggio’s Nativity. The Company’s coat of arms is also prominent. On the wall at the opposite end there is a panel showing the scene of San Lorenzo’s martyrdom. On either side of the altar, and down each side wall, appear life-size figures of the Virtues, Virginity, Fortitude, Mercy and Truth etc, twelve in all. These figures are true to life, aristocratic young women displaying “grace, delicacy and exoticism”, according to Donald Garstang, an expert on the oratory. The joyous element is given full rein in the naked putti who play animatedly among themselves along the walls, oblivious to the cares of the world, behaving just like any small children.