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The Apse, Construction and Geometry: some ReflectionsThe interest in apses is the result of a chain of episodes, not always connected to one another, outlininga framework for fruitful inquiry. It is no coincidence that this need is felt in a land like Sicily, an islandat risk of earthquakes where history has been forced to make do with an unstable and age-old status-quoexisting between innovation and resilience. Many of the possible lines of reasoning can be found in the following essays, while in this paper I will try using some examples (not just strictly Sicilian) to clarify the meaning and requirements of this field of investigation, in the awareness of all the limits that a short diachronicoverview implies.The apses of some Norman cathedrals of western Sicily (Palermo, Monreale, and Cefalù) are marked bya decorative grandeur and a perfection that are unparalleled at least as far as their exteriors are concerned.For the Normans who ordered their construction, it was essential and rewarding to invest in that part ofthe works that could presumably be accomplished within a few years. This attention to the apses also hada propagandist component. The apses of the cathedrals of Mazara and Catania have resisted for centuriesto catastrophes and human mutations becoming models even centuries after their construction. Comparedwith the weakness of the facade, the solidity of the apse emerges and is visible at a cursory glance. Generallyspeaking, there were three possible geometrical variants relating to the construction of apses; semicircular,polygonal (semi-octagonal), or straight. These options implied a different solution for the conch. Thequarter of a sphere placed over a semicircular apse lent itself to being decorated with a mosaic or fresco.However, if it was made of bare cut stone, it would give rise to a series of complications. The blocks would be placed in horizontal or vertical rows. In some extraordinary examples a fan-shaped arrangement wasused, often creating the shape of a seashell (chapel of the Sailors in the Sanctuary of the Annunciation in Trapani, dating to around 1520) or unique lenticular conformations, as in the case of the church of the Carminein Mazara (1680s). The polygonal shape generally afforded greater ease when fitting openings on the sidesand could be completed with ribbed roofing, which was much more practical, geometrically simpler andstatically safer. The straight termination, finally, would require the construction of pendentives or trumpet shaped easements or, as in Sardinia and the eastern part of Spain, with small simple triangular crossingswith three ribs (“tercerol”) to reconfigure the geometry of the conch. Clearly, over the course of historyapses underwent processes of transformation or radical substitution. The liturgical components and thereasons for these renovations are known, but the phenomenon is not solely attributable to the Counter-Reformation.By contrast, the older apses were also a support on which a new structure or several onescould be built, creating a so-called “telescope” effect, as in the case of Cathedral of Mallorca. In Sicily it isstill possible to observe the dissonant and dramatic effects of structures destined to engulf more ancient edifices, but which stop short before the demolition process is completed leaving visible remains of theoriginal apses (mother church of Sciacca and Church of San Domenico in Palermo). Then there is the caseof the multiplication of the apse that is usually found in centric plans and in those solutions, almost alwaysof the 18th century, which explo
Original languageItalian
Number of pages13
Publication statusPublished - 2015

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