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E - 155 : Save Your Soul - Sponsor a Church - Launch the Baroque Exuberance

Updated: Apr 16, 2021

The Piazza Del Duomo in Syracuse, Sicily, with its Baroque Buildings

Am a bit behind schedule this week. The ICRC meetings over the last two days required my attention and time. Writing these blogs makes me painfully aware why the International Committee of the Red Cross exists and why upholding humanitarian principles is essential. Imagine an invading modern army putting an entire town to the “sword” as the Crusaders did in 1099 after conquering Jerusalem or the Turks in 1480 when they took Otranto? The carnage would be unimaginable. Thanks to International Humanitarian Law this is illegal and perpetrators of genocide are prosecuted. All bad people know of this risk and it keeps them in check. The system is not perfect. We do not get everybody. But we get enough of them.

The few more days also gave me time to think about the structure of this blog on Baroque architecture in Sicily, Calabria and Apulia. Will split it into two parts. One on architecture - the second on military fortifications. As a result of the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th century, architecture changed dramatically. Arches became bigger, domes wider, buildings taller, the level of decorations increased and stylish elements from antiquity were used again. Am not going to lecture on Baroque style here – Wikipedia does a better job.

The Baroque Church of San Giorgio in Modica in Sicily

It is simply remarkable how many Baroque buildings there are in Southern Italy. Of course it reflects the influence of the Spanish Empire when the Kingdom of Naples and Sicily were part of it. But where did the money come from for all the splendors? Building such elaborate palaces and churches was expensive and we remember that southern Italy went into economic decline after the 15th century. This was not a wealthy region like Venice or Rome. Upon closer look, most of the splendid Baroque buildings in Southern Italy are palaces or churches. We find them mostly in bigger towns such as Lecce, Catania, Ragusa or Syracuse – centers of episcopal or state power.

The Magnitudes of the Earthquake in 1693

The earthquake of 1693 played a big role and explains why there are so many Baroque monuments in Sicily. The disastrous quake destroyed about 70 towns and killed more than 60’000 people. It was followed by a devastating tsunami in the Straits of Messina which drowned two thirds of Catania’s population. The tremble's cause was the collision of the African and European continental plates we have talked about earlier.

Spain had a strong strategic interest in rebuilding the towns quickly – the Kingdom of Naples was still the frontline facing the mighty Ottoman Empire. Syracuse, Catania and Augusta were thus rebuilt first with lots of government money and repopulated with peasants from the countryside. Sicily became a giant construction site for the next few decades attracting young architects from all over Europe. Of course, they brought the fashionable style of the time to the island: Baroque. Building new is always more fun than restoring old buildings.

Piazza in Martina Franca near Taranto in Apulia

The spending spree of the Spanish Crown explains the Baroque Style of public buildings and spaces but not of churches and religious institutions. They followed a different pattern. Southern Italy was governed since Norman times by a few hundred families – the heirs of the feudal system the Normans had created. These aristocratic families controlled all arable land (except in the remote mountains of Calabria). They had not only access to its wealth but also to its manpower. In a way, these estates resembled the Roman latifundii. Sicilians peasants were not slaves in the legal sense but tied to the land and not allowed to leave. The Sicilian Aristocracy could thus mobilise a large work force for big projects.

The San Biagio Gate in Lecce, Apulia

The aristocracy also had very close ties to the church. To protect the integrity of their estates, the ruling families sent all but one son to the Spanish Army or to the Catholic Church. There they became bishops and cardinals with their lifestyle and projects being paid by a steady flow of family donations. The daughters were married off to strengthen the ties with other aristocratic families and to perpetuate the system. The Church in Southern Italy was thus rich and could live in splendor. It is worth having a look not only at the Baroque churches but also at the episcopal palaces which are as magnificent as their Ducal counterparts. Could not find a number quantifying the wealth transfer from the aristocracy to the church but it must have been significant. Whether it saved their souls is something we will never know.

Episcopal Palace in Modica

Strategic interest and aristocratic money thus built the beautiful Baroque monuments we admire today. The boom came to an end within less than hundred years. With the decline of the Ottoman Empire Southern Italy lost its strategic importance and the arrival of cheaper American wheat killed the last big source of revenue for the Sicilian aristocracy. One has to give credit though to the young architects and engineers who designed these beautiful buildings. They withstood many earthquakes since being built and look as beautiful as when they were first erected. We are going to make time in Syracuse, Catania and Lecce to visit some of these beautiful buildings.

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