In recent weeks we’ve written about the beautiful Norman buildings that this year were included in the UNESCO World Heritage List. This time we want to tell you about some churches from a completely different historical period: the 17th and 18th century. The buildings in this period are characterized by the Baroque style which, after being born in Rome, gradually established itself in other Italian regions. In Palermo, many buildings and churches were built in this style, as aristocratic families and religious orders in the city vied to show off their wealth with the greatest pomp possible.
At the beginning of the seventeenth century, when the via Maqueda was realized, many tried to grab a lot on the prestigious new road to build their own residence. Among them the Theatine fathers who built a monumental church right on the corner of Piazza Vigliena where the Cassaro (now corso Vittorio Emanuele) and via Maqueda crossed each other. The Theatine Church, which was dedicated to San Giuseppe (St. Joseph), was started in 1612 and is one of the most significant examples of Palermo baroque. It is also one of the largest, with the huge dome that stands out above the surrounding buildings. One of the sides of the church, the one overlooking the square, is sumptuously decorated with statues and fountains, a pattern that is repeated in the other corners of the square and up the so-called Quattro Canti (Four Corners), another magnificent treasure of the baroque city.
The interior, divided into three naves, is decorated with frescoes – including those of the dome, by the Flemish painter Wilhelm Borremans – and fine marble. Also noteworthy are the works of art that can be admired, such as the statue of the Madonna by Gagini, a wooden statue of St. Joseph, a crucifix attributed to Brother Umile from Petralia and the altar in semiprecious stones and bronze. In the crypt under the church of St. Joseph there is another church, dedicated to Our Lady of Providence. The picture depicting her (now in the church above: in the crypt there is a copy) was considered miraculous, as well as the water that flows from a spring under the high altar. Even today many devotees flock to the church to stock this water (visits Monday – Saturday 7:30am to 12am and 5:30pm to 8pm, Sundays and holidays 8:30am to 1:15pm and 6pm to 8pm; no visits during mass).
Behind the complex of the Theatin fathers (besides the church they had a large convent, now the seat of the Faculty of Law), nestled in the tangle of narrow streets of the Albergheria district, we find another amazing example of baroque: the Chiesa del Gesù (Church of Jesus) also known as Casa Professa. Founded in 1564 and repeatedly enlarged and decorated, it is a very big church, beautifully decorated with marble, stucco and frescoes. Every corner is covered with paint or decorated in some way. The “marble mingling” decoration is especially noteworthy: it is made by inlaying pieces of fine marble of different colours in order to make detailed images, like real paintings. In the apse there are very beautiful eighteenth-century marble bas-reliefs depicting the Adoration of the Shepherds and the Adoration of the Magi. The visit to the church also includes the monumental sacristy, the museum of the Society of Jesus, the crypt and the Saturday oratory (visits weekdays 6:30am – 1pm and 4pm – 7pm; Sundays and holidays from 6:30am to 12:30am and 5pm to 6:30pm; no visits during services; the other sites are open from Monday to Friday 9:30am to 1:30pm, on Saturdays from 9:30am to 4pm).
Third stop of our walk is the Church of Sant’Ignazio all’Olivella, which was built in the late sixteenth century and the first decades of the seventeenth century. It boasts an imposing façade framed by two bell-towers and an exquisite floor in polychrome marble. Inside there are numerous works of art – statues and paintings – including two beautiful statues made by Ignazio Marabitti depicting Saints Peter and Paul and arranged on either side of the main altar. The chapel of the Sacramento is exquisitely baroque. It was designed in 1630 and the interior is entirely covered in marble and semiprecious stones (visits Monday – Saturday 9am – 10am and 5pm – 6pm, holidays 9am -10am, closed Wednesday morning). The church is located on the square with the same name and you can reach it walking down Via Maqueda towards the Massimo Theatre and then turning into the small via Bara all’Olivella, flanked by shops and pubs.
Leaving the church of Sant’Ignazio, is a few steps you reach via Roma, a long road built in the late nineteenth and early decades of the last century. The buildings that flank it date almost all back to that time but walking towards the station there is still a beautiful baroque church, that of San Domenico. Situated away from the new road axis, the church in fact was not touched, whereas the square in front of it was disrupted in its original format. Just in front of the church there still stands the high Column of the Immaculate, built in the eighteenth century.
Established already in the thirteenth century, San Domenico was rebuilt twice and the current building dates back to 1640. It is the second most important church in the city after the Cathedral and since 1853 it is used as a pantheon of illustrious Sicilians (visits Tuesday – Sunday 8am – 12am, Saturday and Sunday 5pm-7pm). In the ancient convent of the Domenican fathers, whose cloister is still visible, the small Museum of National History has been arranged, with many relics of the Risorgimental period and from Garibaldi’s expedition (visits Monday – Friday 9am – 1pm).