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  • Construction and Building Materials 17 (2003) 521532

    0950-0618/03/$ - see front matter 2003 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.doi:10.1016/S0950-0618(03)00051-5

    Building the Cathedral of Noto; earthquakes, reconstruction and buildingpractice in 18th-century Sicily

    Stephen TobrinerUniversity of California at Berkeley, Berkeley, CA, USA

    Received 23 May 2001; accepted 18 August 2003


    The collapse of the nave and dome of the Cathedral of Noto, S. Nicolo, in a rainstorm in 1996 brought to light 18th century`construction errors unique to this building. S. Nicolo is the most prominent church in the city of Noto, a rich Baroque center in`southeastern Sicily completely reconstructed after an earthquake in 1693. During the course of its construction and reconstructionbetween 1696 and 1950, S. Nicolo was plagued by multiple earthquake failures and construction errors. This paper attempts to`assemble the unwritten construction history of the church for the first time in English, and to address the question of howarchitects, engineers and builders responded to the problem of creating a seismically resistant building. 2003 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

    Keywords: Cathedral of Noto; Sicily; Earthquakes; Construction failure

    The Cathedral of Noto (Fig. 1) still dominates its citywith grace and majesty despite its gutted interior andbroken dome. The collapse of S. Nicolo on 13 March`1996 was just the latest misfortune in a long successionw1x. From shortly after the inception of city on itspresent site until the late 19th century, collapses andclosures plagued the church. S. Nicolo collapsed at least`three times before, and on different occasions in the18th and the 19th century, knowledgeable critics allegedit was incorrectly and incompetently built. During themany occasions the building was closed for repairs,other churches substituted as the citys Chiesa Madre(Mother Church) just as the ex-Jesuit church of S. Carlodoes today. Then, as now, the process of reconstructionwas agonizingly slow. Then, as now, a new team ofarchitects and engineers had to cope with the sometimesmisguided decisions of earlier architects, engineers,capomastri and mastri.Earthquakes have played a crucial role in the long

    construction history of S. Nicolo. The foundations of`the original Chiesa Madre of S. Nicolo can still be seen`7 km northwest of the present city among the ruins ofold Noto (Noto Antica), destroyed in the earthquake of1693. The Baroque city of Noto and its Chiesa Madre

    E-mail address: (S. Tobriner).

    of S. Nicolo are products of a massive earthquake`reconstruction effort that continued into the late 18thcentury. When earthquakes rumbled through the newcity of Noto in 1727, 1780, 1818 and 1848, eachdamaged or collapsed S. Nicolo. The last earthquake to`strike the city in 1990 opened cracks in the church,which directly contributed to its failure in the rainstormof 1996 w2x. Since antiseismic engineering was knownin 18th-century Sicily and even in Noto, it is fair to askwhether an attitude toward earthquakes and architecturecan be deduced from the structure itself. After repeatedfailures, is there any indication that an architect, engineeror craftsman working on the structure especially consid-ered the danger of earthquakes?The temporary church of S. Nicolo built in 1693 was`

    certainly influenced by the fear of earthquakes. Becausecitizens feared the return of the deadly earthquakes thatleveled not only Noto but more than 40 cities insoutheastern Sicily, they built small low structuresthroughout the 1690s w3x. Wood for the temporarybuildings, or baracche of Noto, was imported fromCalabria and used sparingly. The baracca of S. Nicolo,`like others in the city, was modest. But within a decade,all over Noto, the temporary buildings were beingreplaced by larger ones in stone. Among these permanent

  • 522 S. Tobriner / Construction and Building Materials 17 (2003) 521532

    Fig. 1. S. Nicolo. Facade overlooking the main piazza of Noto with a fragment of the dome still standing in 1998 (photo: author).`

    buildings was S. Nicolo, begun in 1696. Like other`buildings in the new Noto, S. Nicolo was a patchwork`of newly quarried and previously cut stonework. Asstonemasons established quarries on the slopes of thenew site of Noto, they sent mule train after mule trainto Noto Antica to excavate stone from the ruins. Themarble portal of the main doorway of S. Nicolo, lying`in ruins in Noto Antica, was transported to the new cityin 1696 and incorporated in the new facade. In 1718the insignia of the city found in Noto Antica wassolemnly affixed to the facade of the new Chiesa Madreclearly underscoring the transfer of the city.In the midst of reconstruction a major earthquake

    struck Noto in 1727, badly damaging the new stone S.Nicolo for the first time w4x. So badly damaged was the`marble main portal in the earthquake of 1727 that itwas at risk of total ruin. This decorative feature and thestone around it, which had previously collapsed withthe old church in 1693, nearly failed after it was installedin the new. The interior of the church must have beenat risk as well because authorities removed the preciousArch of S. Corrado (the patron saint of Noto) andinstalled it for safe keeping in the church of S. Domen-ico. The 1727 earthquake not only damaged S. Nicolo`but the facade of the church of S. Francesco broke apart,the vault of S. Agata fell, the cross of the church of SS.Trinita tumbled off, S. Maria di Gesu was damaged and` `a portion of the facade of the Jesuit seminary facing thepresent Piazza XVI Maggio collapsed w57x.The 1727 earthquake should have proven to the

    people of Noto that seismic events recurred and that

    they were extremely dangerous to masonry structures.Yet no evidence of antiseismic construction techniquesappears in the first church of S. Nicolo, badly damaged`in the earthquake of 1727, even though this first churchwas built within memory of the great earthquake of1693. Just the year before, in 1726, a major earthquakedestroyed scores of buildings in Sicilys capital city ofPalermo, only a few days ride from Noto. Palermo hadinitiated some surprisingly avant-garde antiseismic con-struction methods w8x. For example, after the 1726Palermo earthquake we know that antiseismic solutionsfor domes made of stucco and wood instead of stonewere discussed and implemented. Strengthening of dam-aged structures through the copious use of iron wasintroduced. Even a law prohibiting the use of heavybalconies was promulgated. The connection betweenpoor alluvial soil and building damage was being con-sidered, as Domenico Campolos map of Palermodemonstrates.What effect did the lessons of the Palermo earthquake

    of 1726 and the earthquake of 1727 have on reconstruc-tion in Noto? An aristocrat writing Notos early historystates that after the earthquake the walls of convents,palaces and churches were in such poor condition, sofull of fissures, that they had to be repaired either withbuttresses or iron chains. Rosario Gagliardi, the mostfamous architect working in 18th-century Noto, musthave known about how to build antiseismically. Forexample, Gagliardi was employed as the architect of thenew church of S. Maria la Rotonda in 1730 in whichthe walls were strengthened with iron rods w9x. Twenty

  • 523S. Tobriner / Construction and Building Materials 17 (2003) 521532

    Fig. 2. S. Nicolo. Plan illustrating successive building campaigns (drawing: Emanuele Fidone).`

    years later in 1750 in an assessment of the church of S.Michele in the Sicilian town of Scicli, he proposed twosolutions to roofing in relationship to earthquakes w10x.He advised that light vaults of wood and cane andplaster would resist earthquakes more effectively thanstone arches. Gagliardis discussion of vaults in Scicliproves he was cognizant of seismic hazards and under-stood antiseismic strategies. Yet no seismic strengthen-ing is recorded at S. Nicolo. While workers seem to`have been repairing the pietra dintaglio (ashlar mason-ry) of the arches, pilasters, and windows, Gagliardiwas employed to take down and to remount the bells ofthe church. It seems that Gagliardi was adding a singlebelfry to the facade, perhaps a miniature or full-scaletower facade. What is not described are the antiseismiciron rods or chains he used in S. Maria la Rotonda.Instead, the upper part of the facade, probably ruined inthe earthquake, is remade. It is difficult to judge thiswork in relation to seismic safety.Between October 8, 1745 and August 21, 1746, for

    reasons still unclear, the campaign to finish the firstchurch was abandoned and an entirely new churchbegun. Perhaps the earthquake of 1727 had dealt thefirst church a fatal blow, the extent of which expertsonly realized over time. It is possible that the initialdamage caused further failures much later just as the

    damage from the 1990 earthquake contributed to thefailure of S. Nicolo in 1996. Social and aesthetic reasons`could also account for the abandoning of the 1696design. Perhaps the first church, still incomplete, wasinsufficiently large or grand in relation to new motherchurches being erected in other cities of southeasternSicily. The new second church begun in the 1740s wasdesigned to encapsulate the nave of the first church(Fig. 2). Documents record that stone was delivered tothe site as early as 1746. The shipments of stone werepresumably for the new walls for the apse and chapelsbeing built at the northern end of the church, whichcould be built while the facade and nave of the firstchurch remained undisturbed.Authorities called in Gagliardi in 1753 to render an

    experts opinion as to the condition of the first church.The question was whether to reutilize the nave andfacade of the first church or finance new construction.Gagliardi strongly condemns the