The churches and palaces of
Sicily and Malta - the
island was part of the Kingdom of Sicily almost until the 19th century -
boast a number of Gothic arched portals. These medieval archways,
which actually began their life as Romanesque details (more about
that in a moment), made their southernmost appearance in this part of the
central Mediterranean some time after 1200. It was a "Latin" thing
which, like the Gothic movement, developed widely in Western Europe but
very little in the East. (The Great Schism was
one of the key events leading to the separation of "western" and
"eastern" ecclesiastical architecture.) By 1200, Sicily, which
at times was ruled from Byzantium (Constantinople), was firmly entrenched
in "Western" Europe and would remain there.
It's difficult to separate the early Gothic from the Romanesque - the
arched two-light window is claimed by both movements. What eventually evolved
in Sicily and much of Italy was a hybrid, the so-called Romanesque
Gothic. Pointed arches, rose windows and Gothic decoration were
part of this. High, thin walls, large stained-glass windows, gargoyles and
majestic bell towers were not. While the Gothic became strongly identified
with Normandy, it was unknown to the Normans who
conquered Sicily and England in the eleventh century. In their earliest
form, the cathedrals of Canterbury and Westminster were Romanesque.
Each style has its devotees who, most typically, abhor the Baroque
style spawned by the Renaissance.
Contrary to popular belief, Romanesque arches - portals, windows, vaults
- were often pointed. In the case of portals (doorways), the Gothic and
Romanesque designs originating late in the twelfth century were virtually
identical. By around 1250, the only subtle difference between the two styles
of arch might be that the Gothic one was pointed while the Romanesque one
was not. Subtle indeed.
One effect of such reasoning is that the arched portals of the Steri Palace (shown here) are regarded as a "Gothic"
form while those of the Gancia monastery around the corner (and the similar
one depicted on the 10-euro note) are usually described as "Romanesque."
Let's consider a simplified
view of the structure of the medieval arch. The segmented, curved stones
of the arch are voussoirs. The voussoir at the top and centre is
the keystone, those near the lowest part of the arch are springers.
These are set upon squarish imposts, the base from which the arches
arise. Ornamentation or moulding toward the intrados (inside edges)
of an ornamented arch is the archivolt. The top edges of the arch's
curve are the extrados. Arches were constructed upon and around a
heavy timber frame shaped to the form of the interior of the arch; the frame
was removed upon completion of the arch or the wall area immediately above
Faux columns, a decorative keystone and a few acanthus leaves or other
detailing rendered each arch unique. All kinds of moulding ornamentation
were used: the zig-zag "dog tooth" motif (a variation is shown
here) was commonplace, and so was various geometry and foliage. In Sicily
it was common practice to use alternating colours of stone along the archivolt,
thus creating an interesting visual effect without altering the cut or shape
of the stones.
The example shown is the entrance to the Hall of Barons in the
Steri Castle. The raftered ceiling of this large
chamber, resplendent with coats of arms and various paintings from the fourteenth
century, has been preserved almost in its original form. The shield atop
this arch, sculpted in relief on the keystone, once bore the coat of arms
of the Chiaramonte family who erected the fortified
palace. The heraldic shield was defaced following the family's fall from
grace. The keystones of the portals of churches and monasteries often bear
decorations such as a stylised cross or the Paschal Lamb; heraldry
is more common in the entrances to castles and palaces.
In Sicily the medieval arched portals represent a very special architectural
link to the rest of Western Europe. It's amazing, considering the wholesale
redesign of medieval churches with the advent of the Baroque, that so many
survive. In fact, some were hidden by stucco or (in the case of the arched gate in Gela) dismantled, to be restored to
their original glory only in the twentieth century. We should rejoice at
About the Author: Carlo Trabia is an architect who
lectures on architectural history.