by Jeremy Dummett

(Extract from Sicily, Island of Beauty and Conflict)

Rosario Gagliardi, who lived from around 1690 to 1762, was a leading Sicilian architect of the late baroque period, who played a major part in the reconstruction of the cities of the Val di Noto. An innovator in ecclesiastical architecture, he excelled at the design of exteriors, developing the curved façade and introducing the three-tiered tower with belfry. His masterpiece was the cathedral of San Giorgio in Ragusa, which became a prototype for the design of churches in south-eastern Sicily.

As an artist, Gagliardi was unusual. While his experience was limited to a remote part of Sicily, he produced work of international standard. He never designed a building in a major city, such as Palermo, and probably never visited Naples or Rome. Yet he produced designs of an originality and sophistication to rival anyone of his age. His work was hugely influential, setting the style in Noto, and widely copied. He left no heirs, but his followers continued his work into the early nineteenth century.

Ragusa Ibla, cathedral of San Giorgio
Background and early career

The event which shaped the destiny of south-eastern Sicily during the eighteenth century, and which paved the way for Gagliardi’s career, was the earthquake of 1693, in which over 50,000 people died. In total 58 urban centres were affected, 20 of which were destroyed. Among the victims of the earthquake were men from the building trade, which created opportunities for a new generation of architects and craftsmen.

Rosario Gagliardi was born in Syracuse, probably around 1690, to Onofrio Domenico, a carpenter from Calabria, and Maria Condi, from Augusta in Sicily. He had an older sister called Agata. Little is known about his life and character for he had no contemporary biographer and no portrait of him has been discovered. In 1708, Rosario is recorded as acting as executor for an aristocratic family in Noto. In the same year he moved to Noto where, except for occasional visits to other cities in Sicily, he lived for the rest of his life. There he joined his father’s profession and became a carpenter. Gaining practical experience on construction sites, his career progressed so that three years later he was referred to as capomastro (foreman) and in 1723, on a project in Modica, as ingegnere (engineer).

Gagliardi’s background was unusual in that he was not trained in the studio of an established architect nor is there any record of him travelling abroad. He made his own way in his profession and evidently had the personal qualities to gain the confidence of his masters.

His intellectual training took place in Palermo, where he was present at the Jesuit College in 1726, and where he may have stayed for a few years, studying mathematics and architecture. Ecclesiastical libraries were well stocked with treatises and engravings by master architects such as Vitruvius, from ancient Rome, and Palladio, from sixteenth century Venice, and it is likely that Gagliardi had access to such material. Fashionable at the time was an influential treatise on the ideal city published in 1615 by the Venetian architect, Vincenzo Scamozzi, which advocated a town plan based on a grid system, interspersed with a regular pattern of open squares and institutional buildings.

While in Palermo, Gagliardi will have seen churches designed by architects such as Giacomo Amato, who studied in Rome, as well as admiring the city’s monuments like the Quattro Canti (Four Corners), with its three tiers of statues. When he returned to Noto, it was with the title of architect.

Reconstruction of the cities

The reconstruction programme in the Val di Noto was a huge undertaking which continued throughout the eighteenth century. The work in each city varied according to the level of damage suffered. Catania, for example, was completely rebuilt on its original site, on designs by the Palermitan architect, Giovan Battista Vaccarini. Syracuse, Ragusa and Modica, on the other hand, needed partial rebuilding together with repairs to existing structures.

In the case of Noto, it was decided to rebuild the city on a new site, 10 kilometres below the old one. The city’s elders, led by the nobleman Giovan Battista Landolina and the Jesuit architect, Fra Angelo Italia, chose a grid system consisting of three main, parallel streets with smaller streets crossing at right angles. The main civic and ecclesiastical buildings were allocated space around open squares with the nobles’ palaces accommodated close to the centre. Housing districts for poorer residents were allocated on the city’s periphery. As well as improving the quality of life for residents, the grid system, with more space between buildings, provided some protection against earthquakes. This plan was based upon the ideal city advocated in the treatise by Scamozzi.

The stone, which was quarried from hills to the north, added a unique quality to the new buildings, its pale gold colour glowing in the sun to produce a rich effect. Gradually the new city took shape and by 1750 Noto was functioning once more with a population of 10,000.

The architectural style employed in the reconstruction work, which became known as late Sicilian baroque, drew upon a local tradition dating back a hundred years, from when the Spanish rulers of Sicily redesigned Palermo. Starting in the early 1600s, streets in the city were widened, baroque monuments appeared in the central piazzas, while churches and palaces were built in the baroque style. The concept of the city as theatre, as a place for people to congregate and to take part in ceremonies and festivals, became fashionable.

To carry out this work a series of craftsmen emerged, including master builders to manage the sites, stone cutters to prepare the stone, sculptors to create the statues, carpenters to make seating and ceiling decoration and metal workers to produce the ironwork for balconies. They formed guilds and handed down their skills from father to son.

Anthony Blunt in his book, Sicilian Baroque, identified three stages in the development of Sicilian baroque architecture. In the first stage a new fantasy in design appeared, while the style remained essentially provincial. In the second, towards the end of the seventeenth century, a more sophisticated style became evident, introduced by architects who were trained in Rome. In the third stage, the Sicilian architects moved on from being pupils to becoming masters of their own creative style, with the work of Andrea Palma in Syracuse, and of Rosario Gagliardi in Noto, Ragusa and Modica, among the finest examples.

Gagliardi’s buildings

On his return to Noto from Palermo in 1726, Gagliardi took up his profession as architect. He went on to play a major part in the rebuilding of the city as well as in designing buildings for many of the smaller centres in the surrounding district. Initially he referred to himself as city architect, while later he signed himself as architetto e ingegnere della città di Noto e del suo valle (architect and engineer of the city of Noto and its district).

He resumed his earlier work for the church and monastery of Santa Maria dell’Arco and designed the church of Santa Chiara. The exteriors of both these churches were conservative in design, with flat facades, while the interiors showed an imaginative use of space and some fine decoration. In Santa Chiara, twelve columns encircled the oval interior carrying statues of the apostles, capped by a vaulted ceiling in white and gold. Years were spent on the decoration of Santa Maria dell’Arco, with Gagliardi personally directing the stucco work, wood carving and metal ornamentation.

As he took on an increasing workload, two younger architects emerged alongside him. The first was Vincenzo Sinatra who began his career like Gagliardi as a craftsman, in his case as a stone cutter. He worked with Gagliardi on the church of Santa Maria dell’Arco and the two men became close colleagues. Sinatra went on to make his name as the architect of the Palazzo Ducezio, the city hall which faces Noto’s cathedral. The second was Paolo Labisi, who came from an aristocratic family in Noto, and whose training was theoretical rather than practical. Labisi worked on many of Noto’s buildings including one for the Crociferi Fathers which ran into trouble over costs. Both Sinatra and Labisi owed much to Gagliardi and his original designs.

The first example of Gagliardi’s hallmark design, the curved church façade, appeared in 1733 at the Jesuit College in Modica. It was followed by one of his most celebrated buildings, the church of San Domenico in Noto, which was completed between 1737 and 1762. Here the richly decorated curved façade of the church, with both tiers supported by free-standing columns, dominates Piazza XVI Maggio on today’s Corso Vittorio Emanuele.

The design of the curved façade was taken one stage further in the cathedral of San Giorgio (St George) in Ragusa Ibla, built between 1738 and 1775. Drawings found in the building prove beyond doubt that it was the work of Rosario Gagliardi. Approached by a flight of steps, the cathedral looks down on a central piazza containing palm trees and elegant town houses. The elaborately curved façade, in three tiers, is supported by free-standing columns and rises to a bell tower at its pinnacle. It was Gagliardi’s masterpiece, rich and harmonious to the eye, which influenced church design in the Val di Noto into the early nineteenth century.

Earlier baroque churches, such as San Domenico in Palermo, were built incorporating a flat façade with decoration contained in niches. Typically, there was a tower on either side. Gagliardi’s curved structure extended the façade to either side, wrapping it around and integrating it into the core of the building. The clusters of columns added to the three-dimensional effect while the bell tower provided a central focus. It was a new concept in church design, unknown in Italy, a form of baroque beyond the baroque.

Modica Alta, cathedral of San Giorgio

The origins of the belfry façade, other than from the creative imagination of the architect, are unknown. Precedents which might have had an influence include Andrea Palma’s façade for the cathedral in Syracuse and the monument in Palermo known as the Quattro Canti (Four Corners). The nearest examples come from northern Europe, from cities such as Salzburg in Austria. It is worth noting that Sicily was ruled by Austria from 1720 to 1734. While it is known that engravings of architectural designs were freely exchanged, there is no evidence of any architectural connection in this period between Sicily and northern Europe.

A comparable church to that in Ragusa, also dedicated to San Giorgio, was built in Modica between 1761 and 1848. It is one of the most spectacular of the late baroque buildings, dominating the town at the top of 250 steps. Larger than its counterpart in Ragusa, it has a façade of five, rather than three bays, and an entrance through five doors. The curved façade, emphasised by groups of columns, culminates in a tall belfry tower. Opinion is divided as to the architect who designed it. Gagliardi may well have had a hand in the original design, while Labisi is credited with its early implementation.

During his career of over 40 years, Gagliardi was involved in many building projects. Best known for his churches, he also designed palaces and civic buildings. Construction of a building was a slow process which could take 30 years or more to complete and might employ more than one architect. As the records are incomplete, an inventory of his work does not exist.

Four churches in Noto can be attributed to Gagliardi with confidence, Santa Maria dell’Arco, Santa Chiara, San Domenico and SS Crocefisso. Based on stylistic evidence, three more are probably his work, San Carlo, SS Salvatore and the plan for San Nicolò (the cathedral).

In the Val di Noto district, the following churches can be attributed to him: San Giorgio, Ragusa; Santa Maria delle Stelle, Comiso; Sant’Agata and San Giuseppe, Caltagirone and the Jesuit College and part of the work on Santa Lucia del Sepolcro in Syracuse.

Noto, cathedral of San Nicolò
The man

Gagliardi left an unfinished treatise on architecture which provides an insight into the character of the man. On the frontispiece are images of a human body, musical scales and a church together with an inscription which includes the statement: “musical chords adapt perfectly to the rules that govern the human body and civil architecture”. It is an illustration of the importance of proportion and harmony in architecture.

The first volume of the treatise contains drawings of churches and their facades, elevations and ground plans. It addresses the question of how best to design a round, square or a pentagonal church. The other volumes contain geometric exercises and detailed designs for column capitals, altars and military installations. The influence of master architects from the past is evident. The picture that emerges is one of a man who combined a thorough knowledge of the theories of his profession with a craftsman’s eye for detail.

According to official documents, Gagliardi lived in Noto with his mother and two nieces in a house opposite the church of Santa Maria dell’Arco in Via Speciale. It was a large house, with 10 rooms and a courtyard, probably including his studio and library. There is no mention in the records of a wife or children, but he was often asked to be godfather to the children of the craftsmen with whom he worked. One of his nieces married Vincenzo Sinatra and they called their son Rosario.

Gagliardi continued working until incapacitated by a stroke in 1761. He died at the end of the following year, having made Sinatra his executor, and leaving him the pre-eminent architect in Noto.

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