“A Miracle of Architecture”: The Billiemi limestone Columns of the Church of San Giuseppe dei Teatini in Palermo and Domenico Fontana’s Method for Lifting Monoliths

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Abstract

The Church of San Giuseppe dei Teatini in Palermo, whose construction began in 1619, is a singular structure in thecontext of 17th and 18th century international architecture. The unconventional formation of the vaulted basilicacomprises a series of colossal monolithic columns both in the aisles and at the crossing where the dome is supportedon 10m tall columns. The origin of this unique structure had several strands. The construction of the church was madepossible by the discovery of a dense limestone called Billiemi at the end of the 16th century in the area aroundPalermo. It has aesthetic and structural qualities similar to those of marble enabling it to be used to make robustmonoliths. This sparked a revolution in the design of columnar basilicas in Sicily, which reached its peak in theChurch of San Giuseppe dei Teatini. The visual impression is that of a skeletal structure supported entirely by slendercolumns. The construction was also made possible thanks to the application of the advanced techniques for liftingmonoliths, which Domenico Fontana had devised for moving the Egyptian obelisk to St Peter’s Square in the Vaticanin Rome, in 1586. Word of the church and its construction soon spread throughout Europe and was hailed by GiacintoFortunio in 1655 as a “miracle of architecture”.1 Drawing on a contemporary unpublished chronicle of the project,this paper presents the first in-depth historical analysis of the construction of this remarkable building which concernsthe crucial role of the Billiemi limestone columns.
Lingua originaleEnglish
pagine (da-a)25-50
Numero di pagine26
RivistaConstruction History
Volume29.1
Stato di pubblicazionePublished - 2014

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Architecture
  • Building and Construction
  • Visual Arts and Performing Arts

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