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Gela isn't a popular stop on the tourist trail today, but this ancient city was an important town in Greek Sicily. Unfortunately, some of the most interesting ancient ruins are overshadowed (literally) by an oil refinery, and part of the modern city suffered damage during the Allied military landings in 1943. Most of the city survived unscathed, though, and medieval Gela is not without a certain charm. It is sad when a unique historical heritage goes unappreciated by the descendants of the people who created it or, in the case of the Catholic Church in Sicily, directly sponsored its creation. That's what happened to a medieval church in Gela, but the successful efforts to preserve at least a piece of it are a lasting testament to the tenacity and dedication of a few citizens.
The pure Gothic architectural order is rare in Sicily (Messina's partially preserved Church of Saint Mary of the Germans is an exception), but traditional Gothic elements abound in Sicilian castles and churches. The classic Gothic portal is such a feature, seen in Romanesque and Gothic churches across western Europe. One of these was the early thirteenth-century Church of Saint James in Gela's historical district. The parish itself may have been the seat of a monastic hospital as early as the twelfth century, Sicily's Norman age.
In 1951, the new church of Saint James complete, the medieval structure (shown in this old photograph) was promptly destroyed. The most disturbing issue here was that preserving even part of the original church, or possibly incorporating part of it into the new building, was not even considered. Yet, the cathedrals of Messina and Catania (to cite just two Sicilian examples) integrate older medieval elements of previous churches into newer structures. A few pieces, however, were saved in storage, including segments of the splendid portal arch. Some of these were re-discovered in 1953 and others in 1975.
In the Middle Ages, Gothic portal arches were usually sculpted in segments which actually divide the upright "pilasters" horizontally. It is a detail (sometimes overlooked by those accustomed to the "Neo-Gothic" features of modern churches) which makes it possible to reassemble such an arch, though this probably was not contemplated by medieval architects.
In the 1980s, a younger (more enlightened) generation of Gelans initiated a movement to reconstruct the portal in a museum or, preferably, a square near the former location of the splendid medieval church. First it was necessary to identify and catalogue the pieces. By the 1990s, after some debate, it was finally decided to construct the portal, even though detailed photographs of the portal had been lost. Missing pieces were reconstructed in white alabaster (Italian architectural restorations distinguish original pieces from replacements in this way) and the arch itself assembled within a small wall made of bricks of typical Agrigento stone. Even the stringcourse was duplicated. The work completed early in 1999 is nothing short of remarkable.
Sicilians often criticise local administrators for failing to recognise our island's unique cultural patrimony. Certain cultural administrators (politicians and bureaucrats, for the most part) leave much to be desired in terms of both knowledge and vision, but one hopes that the destruction of a historical treasure like a medieval Gothic portal would not occur today. The past is part of the future.
About the Author: Architect Carlo Trabia has written for various magazines and professional journals.