Standing proudly just off the southern coast of Italy, Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean and has been a cultural crossroads for over 3000 years – something that is clearly reflected in its diverse architecture, cuisine and ancient ruins. Sicilian architecture is a true feast for the senses and is full of fascinating surprises, with a blend of cultures and styles throughout the ages creating a variety of unique and beautiful villas, cathedrals, theatres and historic buildings. We look at the many styles of Sicilian architecture and how a melting pot of western and eastern cultures helped create an island like no other.
Ancient Sicily was a major force due to its location and thriving agriculture, and this is evident when looking at the island’s magnificent ancient ruins. The most important archeological site is certainly the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento, one of the most visited UNESCO sites in the world, but the island also boasts the ruins of Syracuse - the largest, most populous and flourishing city in Magna Graecia when it was built in 734 BC and home to the famous scientist Archimedes.
Sicily also boasts a gem of rural Roman architecture: the Villa in Piazza Armerina. This stunning villa, once the property of a member of the Roman Senatorial class, features an exceptionally beautiful mosaic that represents life at the time.
When the Normans invaded Arab-controlled Sicily in the 11th century they were so impressed with the architecture of the island that they adapted their own architectural styles, giving birth to one of the most extraordinary periods both for Sicily and for the Mediterranean.
The following years saw a flourishing of architecture and activity on the island; in particular the capital city of Palermo, where Byzantine, Arab and gothic influences blended to create a unique experimental style. Architectural highlights included the cathedrals of Monreale and Cefalù, buildings such as the Zisa and the Cuba and the breathtaking Norman palace of Orleans, alongside the lush gardens, palm trees and citrus groves that began to surround the capital.
At the end of the 17th century much of south-eastern Sicily was destroyed after a catastrophic earthquake in the Val di Noto. However, the Sicilians quickly turned disaster into opportunity and Sicily once more became an international cultural centre with new styles and innovations informing the new architectural style.
In search of increasingly more magnificence, the towns of Noto, Ragusa, Modica and Catania were rebuilt, while gorgeous villas sprang up in nearby Bagheria and Palermo reacted by embellishing many of its buildings. Many of the best architects of the time, such as Vaccarini and Gagliardi, helped turn Sicily into a paradise of Baroque architecture.
The ornate facades of churches and aristocratic palaces, the use of chiaroscuro and stucco, monstrous masks and statues of saints, balconies in cast iron and stone, interior frescos, elegant gardens and stairways were just some of the characteristics of this surprising and opulent style, which represented a powerful expression of nobility.
The Modern Age
As Sicily moved in to the modern and industrial world it retained its innovative spirit. Even in the first half of the 19th century, a new style in Sicily was blending the different elements of the time: the neoclassical, Pompeian, baroque and late eighteenth century styles, as well as a taste for the oriental and the Anglo-Saxon - the finest example of this being the amazing Palazzina Cinese in the Parco della Favorita in Palermo.
This innovation and progressive thinking continued throughout the 20th century – an era of liberty boulevards, theatres, opera houses, villas and beach resorts such as Palermo’s Viale della Libertá, the Teatro Massimo and Mondello, a perfect example of cosmopolitan Sicilian Art Nouveau.