Palermo – Baroque architecture – Serpotta’s stucco

Giacomo Serpotta (1656–1732) was a Sicilian sculptor who worked in the late baroque Rococo style. He’s particularly revered for his works in stucco (plaster).

Below are my photos from the most famous locations for his work in Palermo; Oratorio di Santa Cita, Oratorio di San Lorenzo, Oratorio di San Domenico and to a lesser extent, Oratorio di San Mercurio. You can find them all on my map.

An oratory is a chapel or prayer room intended for the private worship of families or communities. Unlike a church it’s usually connected to other buildings while having its own facade and independent access.

Oratorio di Santa Cita, with its pleasant courtyard, was my favourite of the four oratories I visited.

The interior walls are richly decorated with allegorical statues in a floral setting.

In this oratory many of the figures are playing musical instruments.

The most common figures are those of ‘putti‘ (chubby male cherubs or cupids) who, especially in Rennaisance and Baroque decorative art, are a typical motif symbolising the omnipresence of God.

Also known as amoretti or amorini, putti are usually naked and sometimes winged.

Serpotta playfully depicts them cavorting with each other while flying and climbing all over the window frames and walls or interacting with wild animals.

On the backwall the historic battle of Lepanto is depicted as a victory of Christians over unbelievers (the Muslim Turks).

The small theatre tableaux in the centre shows the Madonna of Lepanto appearing in the clouds above the battle to give courage to the fighting sailors.

My second favourite was the Oratorio di San Lorenzo, built in 1569.

Famously, the oratory once had an altarpiece depicting the Nativity with Saint Lawrence and Saint Francis of Assisi (to whom the oratory is dedicated), painted by Caravaggio, but sadly it was stolen in 1969.

Serpotta’s stucco decoration dates back to 1699. Once again the walls are alive with putti engaging in various antics (click on the gallery for the best view).

The female statues depicting the Virtues; Welcome, Penance, Constancy, Mercy and Faith are on the right wall…

…while Charity, Humility, Alms, Truth and Glory are on the left.

The eight small theaters on the walls, known as “teatrini”, are a typical feature of Serpotta (corresponding to the theatrical style of Rococo) and demonstrate his mastery of perspective. Here the tableux depict scenes from the lives of the Saints Francesco and Lorenzo.

Serpotta often has his cherubs watching the scenes as they unfold.

This interaction between different characters within his works is also characteristic of Serpotta.

Another gem is the Oratorio di San Domenico.

The oratory was founded in 1574 but the sumptuous Serpotta decoration was added between 1714 and 1717 to provide a backdrop for the collection of important artworks on display.

Of particular value is the altarpiece by Anthony van Dyck, depicting the Madonna of the Rosary, commissioned in 1624.

Serpotta’s sculptural scenes depict episodes from the Apocalypse. The lifelike form of the devil’s body falling from Paradise is particularly renowned.

In the niches between the paintings, more allegorical statues of the Virtues can be seen, dressed in French clothing as was the fashion of the time.

And of course there are putti getting up to mischief everywhere.

So those are the big three. I also went to one of the lesser visited oratories, Oratorio del Rosario di San Domenico, which is located in an alley off Via dei Benedictini (right by the not-very-exciting San Giovanni degli Eremiti, mentioned in my earlier post on Arab-Norman architecture).

The oratory was the first important commission for Giacomo Serpotta when he was just twenty-two years old, so the putti here, with their big heads, soft curly hair, plump limbs and pronounced abdomens, can be considered his prototypes.

The oratory took over 100 years to complete during which it was worked on by other members of the Serpotta workshop, including Giacomo’s brother Giuseppe, his son Procopio and the latter’s son-in-law Gaspare Firriolo. Giuseppe finished the work in 1682.

The Serpotta family workshop decorated many other religious buildings around Sicily, some of which I plan to track down in the future. You can find a full list of works here.

Just a little more Baroque before we move on…

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