Best of Sicily
Food & Wine
Map of Sicily
The Gothic movement flourished
in continental western Europe during the twelfth century, and by the thirteenth
it was a widespread architectural trend, first in ecclesiastical circles
and (later) in residential ones. In its purest form, Gothic church architecture
bore certain features lacking in the Romanesque. For example, the higher
walls supported by external buttresses allowed for larger windows because
the walls themselves did not support the structure. Arched Gothic windows
were pointed, while Romanesque ones, at least historically, were usually
rounded. Gothic rosettes (rose windows) were larger than Romanesque ones,
and typically colored. Sicily's two-light windows
are a Romanesque feature.
The earliest Norman churches in England were Romanesque, as were those
those in Sicily. The difference is that before the Normans' arrival Sicily
had a long tradition of mosques and Byzantine (Orthodox) churches built
in the Romanesque style, while most of England's Saxon stone churches were
rather more simple in design. Most cloisters are essentially Romanesque.
In England and France a number of Romanesque churches were converted to
Gothic plans during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. In Italy the true
Gothic never made substantial inroads, though prominent exceptions like
Milan's cathedral stand out. Instead, a kind of mised style evolved. This
so-called "Italian Gothic" or "Romanesque Gothic" was
essentially an updated interpretation of the Romanesque favored by diocesan
sees as well as the religious orders such as the Franciscans. Despite the
addition of a few Gothic details, there wasn't much "Gothic" to
it. No external buttresses, narrow naves, high towers, large windows or
The Gothic is often considered an evolution in architecture. Structurally,
it did represent new principles, but it did not supplant the Romanesque
entirely or immediately. Late in the 1100s, when England's Canterbury Cathedral was rebuilt following
a destructive fire, the new part was Gothic, but the older Romanesque section
may still be seen. Saint John's Chapel, the royal chapel in the Tower of
London, though built just a century earlier, is Romanesque. In Sicily, meanwhile,
the cathedral of Cefalù was constructed in a Romanesque style which
shows distinctly Gothic influences.
There is no simple explanation for the lack of a pure Gothic movement
in Sicily. In later periods (particularly the fifteenth century) Sicilian
architects were late to embrace the certain new styles, such as the Renaissance
movements, of other regions. Nor did the Neo-Gothic ever gain a solid foothold
in southern Italy. The Catalonian Gothic, however, was introduced in the
One of the rare examples of high medieval Gothic architecture in Sicily
is the largely-destroyed church of Saint Mary of the Germans in Messina,
constructed on orders of Henry VI (father of Frederick II) for the Teutonic Order in the 1190s. Some external walls have been
reconstructed but, sadly, little remains of the original structure except
for a few arches.
The epitome of the Italian Romanesque Gothic in Sicily is the Church
of Saint Francis of Assisi (shown here) in Palermo, but it is not unique.
Most of the Sicilian churches constructed between 1250 and 1450 owe something
to this style, even if it's just a rose window or arched portal. An unfortunate
Baroque trend was to use gesso or stucco to obscure traditional Romanesque
facades and interior features, effectively turning medieval churches into
something "new." Several chapels in Saint Francis reflect such
modifications. A number of churches were restored to their original medieval
forms during restorations following the Allied bombings of 1943. This is
true not only of Saint Francis but of the Magione, a twelfth-century structure.
In the Romanesque Gothic the Middle Ages live.
About the Author: Architect Carlo Trabia has written for this publication and others.