Shedding light on Sicily’s Baroque splendour

( The Times – 2002 – Marcus Binney, Architecture Correspondent )

Alexander Creswell is a master at portraying architecture’s forgotten and vanishing splendours. His latest venture is the Baroque of Sicily, in which he has captured the warmth of glowing golden stone with an intensity perfectly timed for our November downpours.

This is a path trodden first by Sacheverell Sitwell, and then by Anthony Blunt, whose books first brought the island’s astonishingly vigorous brand of Baroque to a British audience. Though the splendours of the cities of Palermo, Noto and Ragusa are well known, Creswell has explored further to places such as Buscemi, Comiso, Ferla, Palazzolo Acreide and Scicli. “There are villages of 3,000 people with nine churches,” he says.

Watercolour can capture wonderfully the effects of light. Here Creswell develops his own distinctive approach, full of Baroque diagonals — dramatically converging lines of palace facades and church fronts, and diagonal shafts of sun often streaming down from behind buildings. “The entrance fronts tend to face north and in the heat of Sicily you have to sit in the shade,” says Cresswell. The result is not chiaroscuro with its dark shadows, but softer shade where all the detail is still clearly visible, often lit by reflected light from below.

The great Sicilian churches are almost like organs — crescendos of freestanding columns. The hilly terrain of Sicily means that staircases and flights of steps are everywhere, surging forward like a torrent in front of churches such as St Giorgio, Modica.

Cresswell has discovered some deliciously pretty interiors. At the Palazzo Beneventano del Bosco the owner asked him up to paint from the balcony where the great Regency watercolourist David Roberts sat nearly 200 years before.

My favourite is the Musicians’ stair in the Palazzo Biscari in Catania, an extraordinary Rococo confection leading up to a large chamber above the ballroom where the musicians played out of sight, and the sound echoed round the room and bounced down through a central balcony to the ballroom below. Equally enchanting is the Bird’s Gallery in the same palace, where the windows are decorated with colourful songbirds.

With prescience Sitwell wrote: “Anyone who made a collection of studied drawings of these Sicilian buildings, put them on exhibition without saying what or where they were, would be the cause of a minor sensation.”

The flowering of Sicilian Baroque was prompted by the earthquake of 1693 that ravaged the island and led to towns such as Noto being rebuilt on new sites on formal classical plans. To Creswell the narrow streets and unexpected views appeal still more, notably the tiny Palazzo Beneventano del Bosco in Scicli with a grand carriage entrance which no carriage could ever turn into — so narrow is the street — and where every cornerstone is carved to look like a battle shield.

He also cleverly captures the rare but welcome sense of cool — a three-tier churchyard fountain in Ragusa, pink sunshades in the fish market at Catania and the curved fronts of the Quattro Canti in Palermo each with fountain inset. Only Noto is underrepresented. It seems that its restoration after the collapse of the dome of the cathedral was just a little over-eager for Cresswell.