Nicoletta Moncada Paternò - Castello
Via Museo Biscari, 10-16
95131 Catania - Italy
Tel. 095 7152508 - 095 321818 - 329 4145955
Fax: 095 32 1818
Biscari, the most magnificent private building in Catania, is unique in terms
of structure, outlay and decoration. After the earthquake of 1693 destroyed
nearly the entire city, Ignazio Paternò Castello III Prince of Biscari,
obtained permission from the Deputy General Giuseppe Lanza, Duke of Camastra,
to build the new palace on the ramparts of the 15th century walls of Carlo V.
Ignazio died in 1700, leaving his son Vincenzo, fourth Prince of Biscari, to
begin the structural work. The best architects in Catania at that time, Alonzo
di Benedetto, Girolamo Palazzotto, Francesco Battaglia and his son Antonino,
participated in the construction, which lasted more than a century.
In the beginning of the 1700’s the building had the shape of a trapezoid centered upon a large courtyard to which access was gained by a richly decorated doorway on top of which stood the four-quartered arms of nobility. In the first decades of the century Antonino Amato finished the decoration of the seaside façade. From the sea the palace afforded a view of decorated balconies and flowered pilasters. Decorative vestments, putti and telamons emerge from the black lavic base. It is a style not only of style and taste, but also of the technical ability of the carvers and decorators who practiced their skills in 18th century Catania.
The terrace stretches out in an ideal line and connects to the Episcopal Palace, which probably formed part of the Theater of the Seashore and was taken care of by the local nobility and senate of Catania at the end of the 12th century.
Looking of the part from the sea, one distinguishes the more austere and majestic eastern section which was constructed after 1750, it is characterized by the play of columns and deep balconies. Here Battaglia distanced his work from the decoration of the Amato’s, next to which he had done his early wok. The airy gallery divided among twin columns, builds itself on the bank of the walls, lays out flat surfaces and smooth trunks, these are crisp, clean structures, articulate in terms of rhythm and the landscape. Without straining toward a cold, formal composition, Battaglia demonstrates the genuineness, if not the vigor, of his classical inclinations.
The palace reached its greatest splendor under Prince Ignazio V, an eclectic man, a man passionate about art, literature, and archeology, and one of the most significant figures in the cultural life of Catania in the mid-1700’s. The prince, no common client, did not limit himself to dictating his needs to the architect, but he himself proposed models and architectural solutions inspired by what he saw in his travels.
Ignazio V, interested in the cultural progress of the city, had built a private theater with two rows of boxseats. He conceded this theater to the Opera of Catania while waiting for the public one to be completed, he paid for the seats reserved for himself.
But it is perhaps as archeologist that Ignazio V is best-remember in Catania. Riedesel and Brydone personally assisted in the work that, under his direction, brought to light the ancient amphitheater. Ignazio V was given the job of supervising the archeological digs of Val Demone and Val di Noto in eastern Sicily. He also dedicated a great deal of energy to the construction and organization of the museum which would be worthy of the archeological harvest reaped from digs he himself had directed (1746).
The large rooms of the museum, decorated with columns and arranged around two courtyards, houses a collection chosen with competence and which was praised in the diaries of numerous European scholars of the 1700’s who came to visit him. The collection includes not only ancient objects such as vases, medallions, cameos and statues, but also a collection pertaining to Sicilian history (armor, clothing, toys), as well as a private natural history collection. Here one finds, for example, under the name of “Fruits of Etna” samples of lava, of sulphur, etc.
Today the central courtyard of the palace is surrounded by constructions of
various epochs and is dominated by the central double spiral staircase which
leads into the most important part of the edifice.
A visit to the inside is found to be outside common interest. Here is developed a coherent distribution of space, the mirror of one measure of life and tied to the personality of Ignazio, which is carved out in a house comfortable for both body and spirit and which is in harmony with ideals that are not limited to a contemplation of the past.
After the entry hall which contains large canvases illustrating plants of the Biscari estate, one enters the grand salon, which brings together many devices of the Rococo style. All is light: the mirrors, the white doors, the shining floors of neopolitan ceramic tile. Mirrors are placed above the fireplaces in their own elegant niches, and reflect, and, in the allusive world of Rococo, evoke symbolically the fire, whose god we find again in the Cabinet of the Gods, brought together to celebrate the triumph of the family name Paternò Castello in the ceiling fresco by Sebastiano Lo Monaco. Here one find a unique production: the little cupola opens into a gallery around which are arranged the musicians. The large cupola is decorated with eight allegorical and opposing figures: Purity and Vanity, Strength and Virtue, Day and Night, Love and Death.
Above the doors are seven large canvases depicting scenes of Naples, they are of high quality and are full of details of everyday life, topographical references, and architecture. They are the work of Eustachio Pesci (1771), painter also of the scenes present in the Royal Palace of Portici.
In the entrance to the back alcove, the columns are upside-down, their anticonstructive finality releases them from every tenet of the architectural canons, they contribute to the prevailing search of asymmetry. But it is in the gallery that one gathers the most surprising fruit of the new style introduced on the island. The stairs receive the light that enters through the large windows, the stucco-work accompanies the unfurling of the rhythm: together they form the description in space of a vaporous pirouette. This work surpasses the efforts of the local artisans and could have been born of the collaboration of the technical experience of Francesco Battaglia with the decorators, its conception was stimulated by the drawings of Prince Ignazio. Above the door of the gallery, frescoes add an element recurrent in the rococo decoration: gallant scenes à la Watteau are depicted on which foreshortened prosperous looking putti play, they are twins of those that enlarge the crown of flowers and fruit on the ceiling of the salon.
Woodwork, inlay work, mirrors, frescoes, porcelain and chinoiserie are found in the rooms of the first-floor apartment, which contains three small suites, the last of which is of great interest. Here the pavement is made of antique marble and is similar to that in the room of Leda in Palazzo Rondanini in Rome (1766). The taste for antique marble, both for collections as well as for reworking, knew great favor in the second half of the 1700’s due to excavations at Ercolano. While in the Eternal City the abundance of antique marble permitted designs that used such great slabs, an example such as this in Sicily is certainly of great interest for its rarity. The walls are covered with rose woodwork with inlays of cradle motifs as well as braids of branches and pagodas executed with notable skill.
In one room there opens a small alcove frescoed in rocailles motif, on one side is found a large and deep marble tub which does not seem to have served for simple ablutions. It was perhaps serving as internal fountain which, together with the woodwork, created a kind of fresh corner of hallswed Arcadia, like those shady nooks in a garden where one can still hear the echo of long-age conversations. In these rooms elegant glass cases were exhibiting porcelain and precious objects.
“We were introduced to the Prince who, in an act of special deference, showed us his collection of coins… After having dedicated to this task a certain amount of time, in any case always too little, we were about to take our leave when he wished to introduce us to his mother, in whose apartment were exhibited other miniature works of art… She herself opened for us the glass case in which were housed objects of carved amber… These objects, like the carved seashells which had been worked in Trapani and other exquisite pieces of ivory, were of particular delight to the gentlewoman, who found the means to tell us in passing more than one pleasing anecdote. The prince alone entertained us over more serious matters and so I passed several instructive and pleasant hours. In the meantime the princess had understood that we were German, for which she asked us news of the von Riedesels, the Bartels and the Munters, all of whom were known to her and of whom she had also learned to distinguish and appreciate by character and dress. We reluctantly took our leave of her, and she herself seemed unwilling to let us depart.”
J. W. Goethe – Travel in Italy