Article by guestblogger Stefano Cappello
I lived in Catania for several years, first as a student at the liberal-arts college, then on the account of my work. Art always fascinated me, and being ale to live and travel throughout Sicily allowed me to discover this place where the highest expressions of human creativity lived together for thousands of years, sometimes blending together with unique results.
Visiting one of Catania’s churches, I happened to notice how the marble on the altar formed curious shapes: through the veinings, one could almost grasp grotesque faces, animal masks, bizarre figures.
The practice of putting two marble stones near each other in order to obtain a specular image is known as “macchia aperta” (book matched). Used for thousands of years, such a technique combines two consecutive slabs, which are cut and then put side by side, so that the veinings can form the image that up until then had been “sleeping” in the marble.
I started to visit other churches in town, only to find the phenomenon was quite widespread. The cutting of slabs and their arrangement were intentional, and these examples cannot be explained with pareidolia — the subconscious illusion that leads us to interpret artificial or natural visual stimuli as recognizable shapes.
Perhaps we should better think of these marble figures in relation to the concept of Gamahés, implying a sacred aspect of images and forms, which the Anima Mundi impresses within the stone in the shape of faces, animals, symbols or even whole landscapes, as in the case of the Paesina Stone. Through the same occult process, pictures could be ingrained in the marble by that very creative force, the natura naturans generating every aspect of reality, and they could be waiting for a sharp wit who, thanks to his sensitivity, will be able to bring them to light.
All these churches have in common the fact that they’ve been rebuilt from scratch after the devastating earthquake which on January 11, 1693, destroyed Catania. The city suffered huge losses, about 16.000 victims on a 20.000 citizen population.
A huge emergency project was set afoot to bring things back to normal in reasonable time. The reconstruction of the city shows how the catastrophe entailed a search for innovative architectural solutions of the highest quality. These innovations, which were applied in various degrees to all the villages struck by the earthquake in the Noto valley, were elaborated by what could be considered as a “unique experimental workshop of Baroque international models”.
In the particular case of Catania, the unity of this project can be seen on a structural level, as shock-absorbing materials were used in view of a possible new shake, and on a urban level. The city was completely re-planned, with broader streets and escape routes .
One of the marbles used in churches, the Libeccio Antico of Sicily, is also called Breccia Pontificia, because it was also used in the Vatican. This rare and precious marble, extracted from the Custonaci caves, is perfect for macchia aperta manufacturing, so that the internal veinings can emerge.
The fact that its figurative use was intentional is quite evident in the S. Agata la Vetere Church where, on the side altar that once contained the remains of the Martyr, these marbles can be found.
It looks like this red jasper slab was meant to represent the outline of the Saint’s body laying in a sarcophage. If we rotate the image, the composition is even clearer.
We can see the head, shoulders, the arms bent on her chest, her hips, legs, and her feet emerging from the garment.
Suggestion may go even further. On the silhouette’s chest, for example, one could almost see a Flaming Heart. A spherical shape is at the base of the figure, which is surrounded by a sort of aura.
The whole shape is consistent, in its proportions, with a female body.
The visual stimuli such a contour can suggest, if we consider it as standing on a globe, refer to the iconography of the Virgin Mary. This hypothetical “transfer” would be justified when applied to a female Saint, as in Christian tradition all female figures are in fact manifestations of the Sacred Feminine archetype.
Another example of the intentionality of these marble depictions can be found in the Church of St. Micheal Archangel. Here, like in other churches in town, the representations often appear in couples, at the bottom of the columns near the side altars.
These marbles show two stylized figures, of which we can make out the head, neck, stretched-out arms, chest and tunic. Behind these silhouettes are shapes that could be interpreted as wings, of which the veinings even seem to trace the plumage. The whole figure could refer to the Byzantine iconography of the Archangel.
In Catania’s churches, marbles take us on a trip through beasts, men, Saints and demons.
The following mirrored marbles seem to represent several faces, each wearing a hat that resembles a wolf’s head. This depiction could refer to the iconography of Hades, god of the Underworld, wearing the kunée, the Helm of Darkness.
If we suppose that marble workers acted freely, without their ecclesial clients knowing, we can imagine that their craftmanship combined with a knowledge of treatises was used to explore this figurative expression, and it could testify the existence of a clandestine ideology. These marbles could offer an example of such underground symbolism.
Here are two grotesque faces, of which we can identify the eyes, nose, mouth, and what looks like a mitre.
Here’s another curious image emerging from these slabs: a grinning creature, with what could be its hands (the veinings seem to outline the fingers) held before its chest, in a triangular shape.
The peculiarity of this grotesque face is that it can be found behind an altar, hidden from direct view. Is this an example of the typical Baroque need to fill out every empty space, of the horror vacui?
In the church of S. Francesco all’Immacolata we can find the following marbles, showing what looks like a donkey-headed seated figure. We can see its long ears, its snout, its nostrils. The hands, coherent in proportions, are in its lap and the symmetrical neinings on the slab’s sides give the perspective idea of a throne. What is interesting is that this figure has been created with an inlay work, using both the natural veinings and an artificial technique in order to obtain a specific figurative suggestion. This practice was already documented by Pliny, who in his Naturalis historia reported how, in his time, marble-cutters managed not only to cover with marble the walls of temples and public buildings, but even to carve them and insert small stones in shape of animals and other things. They actually began “painting with stone” (“coepimus et lapide pingere”, Nat. hist., Liber xxxv, 3).
The composition of these marble slabs seem to copy the structure of a railing from Samothracia, an important place for Mystery (Orphic) Cults in the Greek world. Here we have veinings that take the form of two bucrania on each side, and in the middle — where in the Samothracian version there was an eight-petal flower — a greek cross with four additional rays, as if to remain faithful to the original symbology.
We can imagine that such compositions sometimes referred to pre-existing models, and thus marble-makers were researching those exact shapes in the stone, while in other cases the veinings themselves suggested an image. These simulacra manifested themselves both with the firmness of symbols, archetypes, and the ever-changing uncertainty of the colored surface, the evanescent shape given by an immanent Nature.
The interesting aspect of this unsung chapter of Sicilian Baroque is that the Monstrous, the Grotesque, the Uneven which had not been adopted in religious or civil buildings, actually penetrated them in disguise. From three-dimensional sculpture to two-dimensional slabs, subtly flattened on the walls, decorating the altars right near those very paintings which were used to maintain the Church’s power in the form of Biblia pauperum, these marbles were a kind of parallel stone pinachoteca.
We do not know the ultimate goal of this figurative expression.
We can be sure it was intentional, and it was a thousand-year old decorative system which found its use in representing the bizarre and the grotesque, typical of Baroque culture and especially of the Sicilian Baroque. Probably known in the ecclesial environment at the time, at least in its highest levels, this art form was kept secret and not divulged to the masses.
The inherent ambiguity of these visual stimuli is similar to the lack of objectivity in the Rorschach inkblots, a projective test for which there are no correct answers but rather a subjective meaning.
One could ponder if clients and marble-workers considered the eventuality of the believers noticing these hidden compositions, only apparently chaotic. But even if someone became aware of it, he would had probably never mentioned it without risking the Inquisition, which was active on the island and only abolished in 1782.
Why then selecting rare and precious marbles to compose figures depicting grotesque masks? Was it a simple aesthetic pleasure for a selected few, or rather a specific apotropaic function, the monstrous image used as a spell to ward off the danger of a catastrophe similar to the one that destroyed the city?
The motivation behind such representations is still open to analysis. Several hypothesis could be put forward, just like many analogies can be found with the esoteric tradition — but we should not forget that “there is nothing an enchanted glare cannot recognize in shapes, spots, profiles within the stone” (Roger Caillois, La Scrittura delle Pietre).
To complete our visit to the Stone Pinachoteca, the slab which best represents the beginning and the end of this Voyage is one we can call “The Jester”.
Its vibrant eyes, sardonic smile, cap and bells. It reminds us of The Fool, the tarot card whose value is 0, the great multiplier. It is the archetype of everything beyond comprehension, the pilgrim on its Way, emerging from the stone to shout his warning: “Open your eyes!“
 Giuseppe Lanza Duke Camastra, who was nominated general vicar, and architect Giovan Battista Vaccarini were the two personalities mainly remembered for the reconstruction of Catania, while the documents from the Historic Archive and other sources do not report specific information about the workers, who remained anonymous.
Of the few names mentioned in the first years of re-building after the earthquake, a notable one is architect Salvatore De Amico, who is sometimes called Caput Magister, and was born in Aci S. Antonio, a feud belonging to the bishop of Catania. De Amico for five years acted as a bridge between the bishop’s curia and the construction sites: he himself managed funds, hired, coordinated and directed workers, evaluated and bought the materials and the necessary plots of land (Le maestranze acesi nella fase iniziale di ricostruzione di Catania, S. Condorelli).
The architect also designed the new map, and directed works, for the epicopal Palace and five other churches in the city.
The Episcopal curia was the direct client for these works and it is very likely that some religious personalities, among which the bishop Andrea Riggio (son of luigi Riggio Branciforte prince of Campofiorito, renowned aristocrat and diplomat), visited the building sites during construction, and were therefore aware of the decor that would adorn the interiors. ⇑