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Art Nouveau was an artistic and architectural movement that blossomed late in the nineteenth century and (in Italy) lasted into the 1930s. In Italy the movement was
called "Liberty" for the firm Liberty and Company in London's
Regent Street, which sold this kind of art for several decades. In architecture
and painting the Art Nouveau movement took different forms in different
countries, so the style varied from London to Paris to New York. Its flowing,
flowery forms distinguished Art Nouveau from contemporary architectural
styles such as Art Deco. The sculpted leaves (shown here) over the entrance
of Villino Ida are a typical motif. With Liberty stained glass windows were
widely introduced in Sicily for the first time; these were absent in the
earlier Romanesque-Gothic and Baroque movements, and the pure Gothic never made great inroads into Sicilian architecture.
Like Art Deco, Art Nouveau was a total style encompassing architecture,
interior design, painting, graphics, fashion, furniture design and other
areas. Unlike Art Deco, it looked directly to nature for its inspiration.
In design the glass of Louis Comfort Tiffany (an American) comes to mind,
and much of the art of Gustav Klimt, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Maxfield
Parrish may be classified as Art Nouveau, which in Germany was "Jugendstil"
and in Spain "Modernista."
In Sicily the greatest centre of the Art Nouveau was Palermo, where hundreds
of examples can still be seen. So many buildings were constructed in the
style on a single new street that Via Libertà ("Liberty Street") was named after the movement. While most visitors come to Palermo to see the medieval sights, the city boasts far more Liberty buildings than anything else.
Giovanni Battista Basile was the first local architect to experiment
with the new style. Villa Favoloro (in Piazza Virgilio off Via Dante) was
built to his designs in 1889. Certain elements of Villa Igiea and other structures adhered
to the new forms, and before long entire city districts were designed in
Italianate Art Nouveau.
Architect Ernesto Basile followed in his father's footsteps, to be joined
by Vincenzo Alagna and others. Two particular areas are dominated by the
Art Nouveau: Via Libertà and the streets running off it between Politeama
and the Giardino Inglese, and Mondello (a seaside district outside town).
Palazzo Dato (at Via XX Settembre 36), designed by Vincenzo Alagna, seems
to epitomise the Art Nouveau. Around the corner (at Via XII Gennaio 32),
Villa Failla is another fine example of Sicilian Liberty. Ernesto Basile's
own home, Villino Ida (at Via Siracusa 15), completed in 1904, is Art Nouveau
with a touch of what looks a little like early, geometric Art Deco. Villino
Caruso, designed by Filippo La Porta during the same period, is a fine example
of the new movement, inside and out.
The interior of the Teatro Massimo (the exterior is Neoclassical)
features some Art Nouveau paintings and decoration. Villa Malfitano, the
Whitaker home in Via Dante, has a few very early Liberty elements, though
that is not its principal style.
In contrast to many architectural styles, the Italian form of Art Nouveau
is obviously eclectic and varied. Certain elements more often associated
with the Neoclassical or even the Rococo find expression in the context
of Italianate Art Nouveau, making it difficult to define the external architecture
of certain buildings as "Liberty." More often, it is their interior
decoration that justifies the definition --things like wall murals and painted
ceilings reflecting, to some extent, the indirect Japanese influences on
early Art Nouveau. There's also a dash of Gothic in some Liberty style buildings.
About a decade would pass following the rise of Fascism (1922) before
the new "Socialist Classicism" (typified by Palermo's courthouse
and main post office, and EUR outside Rome) and Bauhaus architectural styles
completely supplanted the Art Nouveau in Italy. The most impressive Liberty
buildings --mostly residences-- will be seen in Palermo, Milan, Turin and
In most cases, it was the "new rich," rather than the nobility
or bourgeoisie, who commissioned such structures. That construction of these
luxurious homes reflected a general prosperity would be an overzealously
optimistic statement. While the prosperous classes were growing, and challenging
the old aristocracy for power (Palermo's Florios come to mind), they represented little more than a tiny fraction of thepopulation, and even today Sicily cannot be said to have a very large or
sophisticated middle class. The Art Nouveau was the last desperate breath
of a new class seeking to express itself.
By the 1970s Palermo found herself saturated with unattractive architecture
designed, more often than not, according to the opportunistic and parsimonious
whims of the poorly-educated owners of Mafia-controlled construction firms
quickly established to cash in on political support, and then just as quickly
dissolved to hide criminal tracks. Not only did the so-called "Rape of Palermo" result in new neighbourhoods, it led to the destruction of many historic homes along Via Libertà, leaving ugly mini-skyscrapers in their place. Thus, no matter how much of
the Liberty style one sees in Palermo today, there used to be much more
There's a little Liberty everywhere in Palermo. Movie houses, theatres,
stately homes, a kiosk across from the Politeama opera house, and a number
of monumental mausoleums in the local cemeteries were built in this distinctive
style free from conventional architectural strictures. Nevertheless, the
significance of the Italianate Art Nouveau in Sicily is often overlooked,
perhaps because the term "Liberty" is so elusive to those unfamiliar
with its role in the more general Art Nouveau movement. Liberty lives up
to its name.
About the Author: Architect Carlo Trabia has written for this publication and others.