SS. Salvatore: interior
The church of St. Salvadore is in
the shape of a rotundo, pleasing, but overloaded
with party-coloured marbles.
Sir Richard Colt Hoare - A Classical Tour through Italy and Sicily - published in 1819.
When the Normans conquered Palermo and Sicily in the XIth century the Christians of the island prayed in line with the Greek Orthodox liturgy. Robert Guiscard or his brother Roger founded a nunnery at Palermo where the rule of St. Basil was followed. In the following centuries the importance of the nunnery declined and in the late XVth century changes were made to the way the nuns prayed. The use of Latin was introduced in 1501 by Pope Alexander VI.
SS. Salvatore: two altars
The nunnery continued to have a very minor importance until 1625. In that year the body of St. Rosalia was found on Mount Pellegrino and because almost immediately a major pestilence came to an end the two events were associated. St. Rosalia was proclaimed patron saint of Palermo and she was portrayed in paintings and statues. She had lived as a hermit for many years, but it was assumed she had been a Basilian nun and she was portrayed wearing the habit of that order. The devotion to Rosalia was such that many women applied to enter the nunnery and many donations were made to it. In 1682 the nuns commissioned Paolo Amato, the leading architect of the time, with the design of a new large church along Il Cassaro, the main street of Palermo.
Most of the churches are rich in silver, gems and marble, but their style of building and decoration
is infinitely more barbarous and unpleasant to the eye of
a person capable of tasting the genuine beauties of good architecture, than all the extravagances of monkish and
Saracenic artifacts: in several, the walls within are lined with red or yellow marble, upon which ground from the
ceiling to the floor are glued basso relievo figures of angels, beasts and flowers in white marble. Nothing can be more
harsh and unharmonious than this mode of adorning; it has as bad an effect as cut paper pasted on a painted board.
Henry Swinburne - Travels in the Two Sicilies. 1777-1780
The adjoining nunnery was destroyed by Allied bombings in 1943 and the church was severely damaged too. Today it is mainly used as an auditorium, although it is not deconsecrated.
While the church of the Basilian nuns does not retain anything of its medieval past, the same does not apply to the church of the Augustinians which still has its fine early XIVth century fašade. It is located in a very densely populated neighbourhood which in the ancient past was the site of the northern harbour of Palermo. It was eventually filled by the Arabs. Its layout is a real maze and it houses Il Capo, one of the marketplaces of the town.
Of the meat and drink here, in the country, I have said
nothing as yet; however, it is by no means an indifferent
matter. The garden stuffs are excellent, especially the
lettuce; which is particularly tender, with a milky taste: it
makes one understand at once why the ancients termed it
lactuca. The oil and wine of all kinds very good; and it
might be still better if more care were bestowed on its preparation. Fish of the very best and tenderest. We have had,
too, very good beef, though generally people do not praise it.
J. W. Goethe - Italian Journey - Translation by Charles Nisbet
S. Agostino: (left) side portal attributed to Domenico Gagini; the image used as background for this page shows a statue of God the Father at the top of the portal; (right) interior
The order was not founded by St. Augustine, but was the result of the union in 1244 of several communities of hermits and its initial name was Order of the Hermits of St. Augustine. This may explain why this church and the adjoining monastery were built in what was a rather peripheral area at the time.
The interior was redesigned in the XVIIth century and in 1711 it was decorated with stuccoes by Giacomo Serpotta who acquired great fame for his works at some oratories of Palermo. This type of decoration based on white and gold greatly differs from that of many other churches which was based on marmi mischi.
S. Agostino: (left) cloister; (right) some XIVth century architectural elements
The cloister was redesigned in the XVIth century by Vincenzo Gagini, grandson of Domenico, but it retains some elements of the original building. The latter was characterized by zigzag mouldings, typical of Norman architecture and very thin columns, typical of Catalan Gothic style (see a detail of St. Yves' Gate in the Cathedral of Barcelona - it opens in another window).
S. Francesco: (left) fašade; the rose window is a XIXth century addition identical to that of S. Agostino; it replaced a previous simpler rose window which was damaged in 1823; (right) 1777 fountain in the square which houses the outside tables of Antica Focacceria S. Francesco, founded in 1834
The Franciscan Church I had not heard of for as the Laquais de Place (footmen) of Palermo are uncommonly stupid, and there is not the most trifling description of the city in print, it is there fore necessary to walk a great deal and find out the lions one self. This church is one of the best in Palermo.
Sir George Cockburn - A Voyage to Cadiz and Gibraltar: up the Mediterranean to Sicily and Malta in 1810/11.
As a matter of fact it is not very easy to find this church at La Kalsa, the south-eastern historical quarter of the town. It is better to ask for Antica Focacceria S. Francesco, which is highly reputed for its pani ca' meusa, a loaf stuffed with bits of fried veal spleen.
S. Francesco: details of the portal with zigzag mouldings alternating with foliage and acanthus scrolls
A fresco in the monastery of S. Scolastica at Subiaco depicts St. Clare of Assisi repelling Muslim warriors who were trying to seize the town in 1240. They did so by order of Frederick II, German Emperor and King of Sicily who was hostile to the Franciscan Order. The first Franciscan church of Palermo was destroyed in 1240 and it was rebuilt in 1254, after Frederick's death. The portal was paid for by the Chiaramonte.
The church was damaged by an earthquake in 1823, a fire in 1851 and Allied bombings in 1943. The interior however retains some interesting Renaissance works of art. The monument to Antonello Speciale, who died very young, was paid for by his father and placed in the family chapel, which was never completed. It was moved behind the main altar and eventually near the entrance to the parish office. Antonello was portrayed as a knight, but his face shows he was still a boy. Selene would likely mistake him for Endymion.
According to local tradition, which is not supported by written records, Francesco della Rovere taught theology in the adjoining Franciscan convent. In 1471 his election to the Papal throne as Sixtus IV was a boost for the Franciscan Order. He canonized St. Bonaventure, a Franciscan theologian, and four Franciscan missionaries who were killed in Morocco in 1220 and he promoted the construction and embellishment of Franciscan churches. That at Palermo was decorated with (mostly lost) frescoes and statues and reliefs.
S. Francesco - Cappella dell'Immacolata
The Franciscans in general refrained from luxury decorations. This position was confirmed by Cardinal Antonio Barberini, brother of Pope Urban VIII in the design and decoration of S. Maria della Concezione in Rome (1626-1631). There were however exceptions to this rule and in 1633 the Franciscans of Palermo decided to renovate the existing Cappella dell'Immacolata. Actual work most likely began in 1653 and the decoration of the chapel was completed only in 1792 with the main altar. The church has also some statues by Giacomo Serpotta who decorated the adjoining Oratorio di San Lorenzo.
Convento della Gancia
In the XVth century the Franciscans founded a hospital in a former granary (grancia or gancia). In the following century they added a church and a convent to it. It is mainly known for Rivolta della Gancia, an uprising which occurred in April 1860, shortly before the landing of Giuseppe Garibaldi at Marsala. Some sixty opponents of the authoritarian rule of Francis II, King of the Two Sicilies, gathered during the night in the convent and at dawn the tolls of the bell of the church announced the revolt. They had chosen this convent because they relied on the support of the local Franciscans. One of them however alerted the police. Twenty patriots were killed on the spot and 13 were arrested. They were executed a few days later.
St Anne's is a very beautiful church with some fine marble columns and a Convent of Franciscan Friars attached to it.
Giovanni Biagio Amico from Trapani (1684-1754), erected important buildings in his native town s well as in other provincial towns and in Palermo. Although his Late Baroque facade of S. Anna della Misericordia with its convex and concave curvatures is superficially Borrominesque, it is additive in conception and lacks the dynamism of similar Roman structures.
Rudolf Wittkower - Art and Architecture in Italy 1600-1750 - Penguin Books 1958
The church was built in the XVIIth century, but it was redesigned in 1736 after it had been damaged by an earthquake. The new fašade with its curved lines, the columns and the statues on the balustrade has a very Roman appearance.
(left) Madonna di Monte Oliveto, opposite the apse of the Cathedral and with an unusual loggia above the nave; (right) detail of the portal
The church faces the Cathedral because it occupies the former site of the Archbishop's Palace which in the early XVIth century was moved opposite the western entrance to the Cathedral. It was built in the 1620s for a nunnery of Poor Clares who for a short time followed the rule of the Olivetans, i.e. the rule of St. Benedict, hence the name of the church. Eventually Madonna di Monte Oliveto became the church of the Seminary of Palermo, but its portal retains the symbol of the Franciscan Order.
In the square of St Dominick is a large column railed round having a bronze Saint on the top, and two bronze figures on the pedestal: the fašade of the church of St Dominick opposite is very fine. In short every street in Palermo has one or more fine churches or palaces, with a number of fine marble columns, fašades, marble stairs and other ornaments. Cockburn
The first Dominican friars settled in Palermo as early as 1217. Towards the end of the century they built a large convent and a church at Castellammare, a historical quarter of the city, where nor the Augustinians, nor the Franciscans had convents. The church was rebuilt in 1458-1480 and again in 1640 with the fašade being completed in 1726. Colonna dell'Immacolata, the monument opposite the church was built at that time in order to "fill" the square before the fašade. It might have inspired the design of Colonna dell'Immacolata in Rome.
S. Domenico: interior
The church of St. Dominico contains a fine vase, and an ancient basso relievo of boys, over the baptismal font. According to a measurement made, and recorded on a marble tablet in the church, it is capable of containing eleven thousand nine hundred and eighteen persons. The columns are fine; but not equal in magnitude to those of St. Giuseppe. Colt Hoare. The church is the second largest one after the Cathedral.
S. Domenico: (left) XVth century relief showing Dominicans in prayer; (right) St. Joseph attributed to Antonello Gagini, inside a "marmi mischi" altar
Some of the works of art which embellished the XVth century church were used also for the new one, although in a different decorative frame. The Dominicans had two finely decorated oratories in the proximity of the church: Oratorio di S. Cita and Oratorio del Rosario di S. Domenico.
S. Domenico: cloister with palm trees and banana plants
The construction of the XVIIth century church had a minor impact on the cloister which is dated late XIIIth century, so coeval to the first church. Unlike the cloisters of Monreale and Cefal¨ its columns and capitals have a simple design, in line with the teachings of St. Dominic.
St. Catarina is a magnificent church with a Convent attached to it in which one hundred Nuns Dominican are kept in ignorance and superstition besides the attendants nearly eighty in number. This church is very rich and beautiful and has a handsome dome. Cockburn
This Dominican nunnery was founded in the early XIVth century. During the XVIth century it received many applications from wealthy parents who wanted to provide their daughters with a comfortable life. The nunnery and the church were redesigned so that their external appearance corresponded to the social status of the nuns.
In the XIIth century Carmelite monks built a small church which was enlarged in the following one. It was entirely redesigned in the XVIIth century. It is situated at L'Albergheria, a quarter south of Il Cassaro and west of Via Maqueda. In this way Augustinians, Dominicans, Franciscans and Carmelites had their main church each in one of the four historical quarters of Palermo.
Palermo for beauty of situation it yields to none and in the richness and magnificence of its churches is certainly next to Rome. (..) It seems not on this account to have attracted the observations of travellers. Cockburn
The dome was designed in 1680 by a Carmelite monk and it stands out from the many domes of Palermo because of the complex stucco decoration of its drum. The use of coloured tiles depicting a coat of arms can be noticed also at Porta Nuova.
S. Maria in Valverde: (left) portal; (centre) balcony; (right) bell tower (1730)
The Priory of Groenendael (Green Valley - Valverde) was a famous XIVth century Augustinian monastery in Belgium. The name was given to an Augustinian monastery in Palermo which in the XVIth century became a Carmelite nunnery. Camillo Pallavicino, a rich banker from Genoa, promoted the construction of a new church, because his beloved daughter was a Carmelite nun. It was embellished with a fine portal and a balcony in 1691.
(left) S. Maria della PietÓ (Dominican); (right) S. Teresa alla Kalsa (Carmelite)
The masterpieces of the Palermo Baroque are Giacomo Amato's fašades of the Chiesa della PietÓ (1689, church consecrated in 1723) and of S. Teresa della Kalsa (1686-1706), both with powerful orders of columns in two lines. Giacomo had spent more than ten years in Rome (1673-85) (..). His work at Palermo leans heavily on Roman precedent, the fašade of the Chiesa della PietÓ, for instance, follows closely that of S. Andrea della Valle. Wittkower
Chiesa di S. Maria dell PietÓ: (left) interior; (right) detail of the ceiling of the vestibule with stuccoes by Procopio Serpotta and frescoes by Guglielmo Borremans (1670-1744), a Flemish painter who spent the last 30 years of his life in Sicily
Enormous sums of money have been expended here in the erection of churches and convents; the most inconsiderable village has a fine church; and if the monastic institutions were kept up to their full numbers more than half the inhabitants of the island would be Monks and Nuns; but this folly is fortunately on the decline, and I even think there are strong symptoms of its total destruction before many years. Cockburn
S. Maria della PietÓ belonged to Dominican nuns living at Palazzo Abatellis and S. Teresa to a nearby nunnery of Discalced Carmelites, a branch of the order which was founded by St. Teresa of Avila.
Move to see the churches of the XVIth century orders.
Other pages on Palermo:
- Gates and City Layout
- Norman-Arab Monuments
- Martorana and Cappella Palatina
- Public Buildings and Fountains
- Medieval Palaces
- Other Churches
- Palaces of the Noble Families
Plan of this section:
Agrigento - The Main Temples
Agrigento - Other Monuments
Catania - Ancient Monuments
Catania - Around Piazza del Duomo
Catania - Via dei Crociferi
Catania - S. Niccol˛ l'Arena
Piazza Armerina and Castelvetrano
Reggio Calabria - Archaeological Museum
Selinunte - The Acropolis
Selinunte - The Eastern Hill
Syracuse - Main Archaeological Area
Syracuse - Other Archaeological Sites
Syracuse - Castello Eurialo
Syracuse - Ancient Ortigia
Syracuse - Medieval Monuments
Syracuse - Renaissance Monuments
Syracuse - Baroque and Modern Monuments
Taormina - Ancient Monuments
Taormina - Medieval Monuments
Villa del Casale