History dissembled

Noto, like other cities in the southeast of Sicily, is a near perfect encapsulation of the Sicilian Baroque, built on a planned grid, its buildings designed by notable architects, on a new site selected after the old city’s near total destruction in the earthquake of 1693. In contrast to Palermo it is a well-tended city, pandering far more to the tourist trade. It is a tasteful place, unmarred by the grime and graffiti of the capital, but also lacking in any signs legible to the casual visitor of the vitality and communality that are so obvious in Palermo. At first glance, its cathedral seems of a piece with its refined  and tidy character, but the harmonious facade conceals a history of architectural syncretism and structural instability.

The facade has a certain restraint to it, as late Baroque buildings go, demanding less of the passerby’s immediate attention than the flamboyantly theatrical staircase which compensates for the steep slope of the site, whose contours are doggedly sectioned by the rectilinear street plan. Once the viewer has gotten past the visual impact of the flight, which pleads to host some great cinematic scene like that filmed on the steps of Palermo’s Teatro Massimo for The Godfather Part 3,  the honey-toned tufa facade seems relatively unassuming. Its simple neo-Classical design, like the interior, whose frescoes have largely not been restored, has an almost Northern European austerity. It is something of a stylistic fusion, with principal doorways in a revived fifteenth century style appended to a composition which evolved into neo-Classicism over the course of its drawn-out construction under the supervision of two different architects, but none of its elements jar.

After its completion in 1776 the structure had to be repaired several times through the nineteenth-century, particularly the dome, and a great deal of questionable refurbishment was carried out in the 1950s, which may well have contributed to the roof and dome’s near total collapse in 1996. The building was carefully and expensively repaired, re-opening in 2007, and although the work was done to a high standard of quality and authenticity, its resulting perfection, and the newness of all its surfaces seems to dissemble its complex history, in terms of both engineering and aesthetics. The plainness of the interior serves to emphasise the mellifluously proportionate morphology of the stonework, but in comparison to the unselfconscious extravagance of much Catholic ritual and architecture it feels constrained, paralysed by middle-class inhibitions and ‘good taste’. What frescoes have been restored to the ceiling of the nave are still satisfyingly gaudy, although they are restorations of presumably nineteenth-century work from a time when the technical demands of such painting had been so systematically conquered that the results feel anodyne and routine. They also offer a surprising amount of ‘fan service’, with pertly upstanding breasts positioned on either side of the nave near the western end, where those wishing to ogle them could best evade observation from the pulpit or altar.

The cathedral is a dramatic centrepiece to an architecturally impressive city. But in a country where every moment is layered on the tangible remains of many previous moments, and architectural history is literally visible in the accretion of elements in so many buildings, both city and church are cut cleanly off from their histories by the scalpel of 1693. That the cathedral embodies a further elision of its own short but eventful biography, and that so much effort has been made, so successfully, to harmonise and integrate the disparate elements of its design, represents a tariff on its undoubted beauty. The perfected image that greets the visitor is of a building without history, an autonomous aesthetic object like Ferdinando Scianna’s large prints of Marpessa Hennink, which we saw in Palermo, that fits into the viewer’s pre-made expectations of Baroque Architectural Beauty as snugly as dopamine into its corresponding neuroreceptor. There is no room here for the grit around which pearls grow. That grit, the corpus from which Noto has been decapitated, lies eight kilometres to the north.

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