Sicily, an island of secrets
Hidden within these labyrinthine alleyways is one of the masterpieces of Baroque sculpture. Giacomo Serpotta spent 50 years in the 17th and 18th centuries completing the interior of the Oratorio del Rosario di Santa Zita, which looks at first like it might be made of marble, but is in fact a fine stucco mixed with marble dust. The whole church is covered with stories – scenes from the life of Christ and the Nativity – each one a window-box-sized stage and dense with figures. Serpotta covered everything with cherubim putti – decorative babies – which frame the scene but are not actually part of the story. They mimic what our response to the story might be. So when Christ is crucified, the babies all around the ceiling are crying, and when Christ is a little baby himself, sleeping in the manger, one of the cherubs has his finger to his lips as if to say ‘Shush! You’ll wake him up.’
Serpotta was trained in the part of Palermo where they made floats for religious processions and carnivals, as well as props for the theatre. So although he became a specialist in religious art, his work still had a theatrical streak to it. His sculpture at the Santa Zita is a wonderful thing: hugely sophisticated in the level of its craftsmanship and yet entirely popular at the level of its appeal.
One of the things that I like about Sicilian art is that it was always very out of step with mainstream Italian art. Because the population was so poor – and, I think, because there was such a strong Spanish presence – art never became sophisticated in the Renaissance sense. The idea that art would somehow speak at a very high level, that senior clergymen and the Pope would understand but ordinary people wouldn’t, never really caught on in Sicily. Art was always for the people.
To participate in Sicily’s communal and genuinely popular approach to religion, there’s nowhere better than Modica on Easter Sunday. This southern town of higgledy-piggledy houses tumbling down a steep hillside is home to the Madonna Vasa Vasa – an enactment of the sorrow and the joy of the Christian story as a huge piece of public theatre. The idea that Modica exists under the protection of the Virgin Mary is ingrained into the very fabric of this place. Looming over its citizens from the town’s highest point is one of Sicily’s most extraordinary Baroque churches, the Chiesa di San Giorgio. Its façade looks very much like an image of Madonna, its curved shapes echoing that of a woman’s body. Like many other local buildings, it is made from a beautiful, honey-coloured stone – at sunset, the town turns as pink as a prawn.
On the morning of the Madonna Vasa Vasa on Easter Sunday, everyone dresses in their finest. The street becomes a catwalk, from three-piece 1960s suits that you might otherwise only see in a Fellini film to teenagers in coordinated colours. Two huge processions, one carrying the Virgin Mary and the other carrying Christ, make their way through the streets to music with a sombre drumbeat, each purposely evading the other. By midday, 30,000-odd people have congregated in the town square, as mother and child finally come face to face.
Mary – a sort of life-size puppet in this portrayal – opens her cloak to release a clutch of doves and the audience waits to see what happens next. If the birds fly skywards, it is taken as an augury of a good harvest. The climax of the ceremony is the vasa vasa (‘kiss kiss’). At the moment the statues are brought together in an embrace, it’s as if the local football team has just won the cup, the crowd erupting with cries and shouts of celebration.
The people gradually disperse home or to local restaurants to eat painted eggs, roasted lamb and pies crafted into elaborate shapes – holy doves or heavenly stars – continuing the theatricality of the parade itself.
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