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Serpotta’s “Sirpuzza” on display at Palermo’s historic Oratorio dei Bianchi

by Marco Carminati

In the past, artists would sometimes sign their works in an interesting way. For example, Bolognese painter Bartolomeo Passerotti (1529-1592) would paint a chubby little sparrow in plain sight in his paintings (his surname means “sparrow”), whereas sculptor Giacomo Serpotta (1656-1732), a Palermo native, would similarly adorn his statues with the image of a lizard, or “sirpuzza” in Sicilian.

There are two ways to experience these mannerisms: one is to travel the world, since (thanks to the ease with which paintings can be transported) Passerotti’s works have spread to museums in several countries throughout the world. As for Serpotta, however, it’s much simpler: practically all of his sculptures can be found in Palermo, spectacularly mounted on the walls of churches and oratories throughout the city center. Therefore, in order to globally embrace Serpotta’s creative genius and abilities, all you have to do is come to Palermo: his body of work is all here, exactly where the sculptor created it.

Born in Palermo in 1656 (in the Kalsa neighborhood) to a family of marbleworkers, Giacomo Serpotta concentrated mainly on plaster modeling, and he did so with such mastery that he bestowed this “poor” and “working-class” art with the dignity and artistic prestige of marble; in doing so, he fully joined the ranks of the best Italian sculptors of the 17th and 18th centuries.

The classical ‘route’ of Palermo’s oratories and churches, where Serpotta’s most celebrated works are concentrated, is an exhilarating experience, to say the least. And this summer is truly the right moment to see them, since (aside from the presence of these permanent works) Palermo has decided to dedicate an impromptu show to the master artisan, entitled “Serpotta and his Times.”

The show is based in a very prestigious, and sometimes unseen, locale: the historic Oratorio dei Bianchi, located in the heart of the Kalsa neighborhood. The Oratorio consists of several halls, chapels, staircases and ornately-decorated parlors, which currently falls under the jurisdiction of Palazzo Abatellis. The ground floor of the Oratorio dei Bianchi is home to Giacomo Serpotta’s magnificent plaster sculptures, which were saved from the destruction of the Chiesa delle Stimmate di San Francesco: the church was demolished in the late 19th century in order to make room for Palermo’s Teatro Massimo.

The show begins right here, with a powerful (and quite close-up) look at some of the Palermo sculptor’s most successful masterpieces. But, in order to avoid misunderstandings, the curators immediately clarify that the show isn’t strictly-focused on Serpotta alone, but rather an emotional voyage through Palermo’s artistic phases in the latter half of the 17th century, a period when Serpotta became one of the key figures.

In fact, the sculptor shared this golden era’s glory with other Roman-trained artists from Palermo, like architects Paolo and Giacomo Amato and painters Antonino Grano and Pietro Aquila. His time was a particularly favorable one for the arts to blossom, since Palermo became the lone capital of the Spanish viceroyalty in the second half of the 17th century.

(Serpotta and his Times, Palermo, Oratorio dei Bianchi, on display until October 1st)