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Gargoyles of Sicily
by Carlo Trabia

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Gargoyle at Palazzo Abatellis, Palermo.In gothic architecture a gargoyle is a stone roof spout carved in the form of a grotesque or fantastic creature designed to convey rain water away from the roof and exterior wall of a church, castle or other building. In precise terms, chimeras and grotesques, which do not function as water spouts, are not gargoyles, but certain forms of gargoyle are sometimes classified as functional grotesques. The classic gargoyles of gothic architecture are usually winged creatures resembling dragons or birds, closely related to some of the winged beasts of heraldry, an artform born late in the twelfth century. The word comes to us from the Old French gargouille (literally "throat," akin to Latin gula and Italian gola), hence the term gurgle.

Gothic gargoyles made their first appearance in the waning years of the twelfth century, but they are a rarity in Sicily, where "Romanesque-Gothic" churches and castles rarely featured decorative roof spouts. It was the later introduction of the Catalonian Gothic and Renaissance styles that saw the arrival of Sicily's first true gargoyles. The one shown on this page may be seen overlooking Via Alloro at Palermo's Palazzo Abatellis (now one of several regional art museums in Sicily), which was constructed late in the fifteenth century, at the tail end of the Middle Ages, and resembles a castle. The portico of Palermo Cathedral also has gargoyles.

The gargoyles of Palermo Cathedral's Catalonian Gothic portico actually resemble angels, while those of Palazzo Abatellis are clearly griffons - very appropriately since that winged beast figures in the Abatellis coat of arms. Historians have long debated the irony in incorporating what appear to be mythological or even demonic figures into the design of churches such as Notre Dame in Paris. One theory advanced in explanation is that the spirits represented by these unsightly creatures could defend Christians against the far uglier demons, evils and sins which might seek to seduce the faithful into Hell. Another suggests that the gargoyles serve to remind Christians of what awaits the less devout if their souls indeed end up in the least pleasant of places.

Gargoyle at Palazzo Abatellis, Palermo.Ugly though they may be, gargoyles are at least interesting. They've found their way into numerous neo-gothic structures across Europe and in the Americas, where modernised stainless-steel gargoyles guard the Chrysler Building, a towering monument to the Art Deco movement.

Gargoyles do not enjoy the exalted place in Sicilian folklore that they do in north-western Europe, where gothic motifs echo popular legend and even heraldic symbolism. In Italy the Renaissance ensured a wholly different spirituality reflected in the construction of giant cupolas, wide naves and pseudo-classical ornamentation based on a rediscovery of realism. Milan's giant gothic cathedral, where gargoyles abound outside despite bizarre neo-classical touches inside, was a prominent exception.

A pure Gothic architectural form might have found a place in Sicily during the reign of Frederick II, who sanctioned the construction of Cologne Cathedral despite his running feud with that city's bishop. Alas, this was not to be, but Sicily's few gargoyles maintain their silent vigil through the centuries.

About the Author: Architect Carlo Trabia has written for this publication and others.

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© 2008 Carlo Trabia