Sicily – Ragusa – Baroque around the block

Ragusa is one of the eight towns in the Val di Noto (southeast Sicily) which have been listed by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites for their Sicilian Baroque architecture. Below are my photos of some of the prime examples of late-baroque churches and palaces that can be seen in the city. I’ve put them in geographical order so they can slot into the walk I describe in an earlier post. All the buildings mentioned can be found on my map.

After the devastating earthquake of 1693, many people left the old part of town in Ragusa Ibla to rebuild in the new part of the city, Ragusa Superiore. The competition between the two districts resulted in them both having their own cathedrals.

In Ragusa Ibla the Duomo di San Giorgio is located centrally at the top of Piazza Duomo.

It was designed by Rosario Gagliardi, an architect from Syracusa who is considered one of the main exponents of Sicilian Baroque. Gagliardi is famous for his towering facades and here he accentuates the grandeur of the church by locating it at the top of a marble staircase of 250 steps (a classic feature of Sicilian Baroque) and by placing it at an oblique position in relation to the central square.

The facade incorporates the bell tower and ends in a bulbous spire, a feature reminiscent of the seventeenth-century wooden tabernacles of Capuchin churches. Pairs of volutes (spiral scrolls) on two separate levels support statues of San Giorgio and San Giacomo on horseback at the bottom, and San Pietro and San Paolo standing at the top. Below the cross we can see the date 1775, which indicates when the work on the facade was finished.

The central portal has a mixtilinear frame (combining curves and straight lines) which contains a frieze with vegetal motifs.

It was closed for the three days I was there so I didn’t get to see inside but it doesn’t look that exciting going by the photos available on the web. It’s the facade that’s the star.

Towards the bottom of Piazza Duomo is Chiesa di San Giuseppe, another fine baroque church built between 1701 and 1760 and also designed by Rosario Gagliardi. The facade is convex, of composite style, and divided into three orders; all architectural elements recalling those of its near neighbour San Giorgio.

The portal in the first order has a semicircular arch and four statues depicting Saint Gertrude, Saint Augustine, Saint Gregory and Saint Scholastica.

The second order has a central window with small volutes decorating the frame…

… and two much larger volutes next to two rather strange representations of San Mauro and San Benedetto.

The third order has a bell tower for three bells, surrounded by yet more volutes and other decorations. Belfries incorporated into the facade in this way are another characteristic feature of Sicilian Baroque.

Off to one side of Ibla on Via Chiaramonte is Palazzo Bataglia Giampiccolo, another UNESCO heritage site. Probably also designed by Rosario Gagliardi, it was rebuilt in 1724 Baron Grandonio Battaglia di Torrevecchia to replace a building destroyed by the Val di Noto earthquake.

The more interesting facade, on Via Chiaramonte, is characterized by a large gallery balcony connected to an imposing entrance portal by an unusual moulding containing an oval window in the centre.

Walking back to Piazza Duomo and up the right hand side of San Giorgio cathedral, you will come to Palazzo de la Rocca at 35 via Capitano Bocchieri. The ground floor of the palace, built around 1760, is the home of Ciccio Sultano Duomo, the Michelin-starred restaurant I ate at in an earlier post.

The facade has eight bulbous “a petto d’oca” (goose breast) wrought-iron balconies, each supported by three corbels (brackets) carved with floral decorations and mascarons (decorative faces). Three of the balconies have a musical theme with mascarons depicting horn, flute and mandolin players.

“Cupid’s Balcony”, shows a couple in each others arms, flanked by pairs of putti (cherubs representing the omnipresence of God) also in tender embraces.

Another shows a woman, possibly a maid, caring for a child, flanked by two grotesques (mythical creatures) with foliate heads.

Another depicts a Telamon, a giant mythical figure often used as a support in architecture.

Finally at 29 via Capitano Bocchieri, the mascarons depict various men, one carrying a barrel and another a goose, and a freaky one with spectacles and protruding fangs!

On the way to Ragusa Superiore from Ibla, in the ravine that separates the two districts, is Palazzo Cosentini, a baronial palace built in the third quarter of the 18th century.

On Mazzini Street, three goose-breast balconies with carved corbels can be seen. The first is known as the “Storyteller’s Balcony”, with the figure in the middle holding a scroll, from which he is perhaps about to recite, accompanied by the musicians on either side.

The second is the “Balcony of Wealth” with mainly female figures bearing symbols of abundance, such as fruit and cornucopia.

The last one is the so-called “Gentleman’s Balcony”. We can see an innkeeper with a barrel, a flute player and a female figure offering her favors.

Sadly the single balcony on Salita Commendatore was obscured by a banner when I was there but it is known as the “Balcony of Slander” with five human-like masks holding symbolic animals such as a snake and a scorpion in their mouths.

Climbing the hill to Ragusa Superiore, on the corner of Via San Vito and Corso Vittorio Veneto, we come to Palazzo Zacco. The palace was built around 1750 to serve as the townhouse for Baron Melfi di San Antonio and later purchased by the Zacco family who renamed it after themselves.

The balconies on the facade on Via San Vito have corbels with grotesques and putti and are divided by columns with Corinthian capitals.

On the corner of the building the coat of arms of the Melfi family can be seen; a frame of acanthus leaves being held by a putto.

The corbels on the balconies on the facade on Corso Vittorio Veneto have images of musicians on the upper level of the corbel with grotesque faces below.

The palace is not far from Cattedrale di San Giovanni Battista in the centre of Ragusa Superiore. To be honest I’m not particularly a fan of the building but what I found most noticeable was all the space around it, with a large churchyard immediately in front, raised above a sizable square below (Piazza San Giovanni). Freed from the cramped architectural conditions of ancient Ibla, the Baroque town planners of Ragusa Superiore were able to build a city that would be much safer during earthquakes, by having a more spacious grid system.

Built between 1706 and 1778, the cathedral was possibly designed by two master builders from Acireale, Giuseppe Recupero and Giovanni Arcidiacono. The bell tower is a later addition dating from 1820. The central entrance portal is flanked by two pairs of columns supporting a broken pediment with the statues of Saint John the Baptist and Saint John the Evangelist on the sides, and the statue of the Immaculate Conception in an aedicule in the centre.

I did have a peep inside but didn’t walk around as I couldn’t see much that would interest me about the more recent interior. Also there was a Sunday Mass going on, so I went for a coffee and canolo at Caffè Italia in Piazza San Giovanni instead, much more fun.

And those are the Baroque highlights of Ragusa. Off to see the ones in neighbouring Modica next!

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