stucco & grime
Not far from our hotel in the center of Palermo is Oratorio di San Lorenzo, a little Baroque church founded by one of those orders that looks after the unwanted dead. The space is crammed with plaster skulls and skeletons, mostly painted, but the last chapel on the right held what we had come to see: matching pairs of stucco corpses by the sculptor Giacomo Serpotta, who could impart life and motion to all kinds of unlikely entities, such as abstract Virtues and tired old scriptural stories. These are called skeletons in the guidebook, but at least half the flesh still clings to the bones, especially on the chest and diaphragm. They've also kept their original grime; in the shadows, the stark white flesh is almost black with it. . . .
Giacomo Serpotta He was born in Palermo's Kalsa district in 1656 to Gaspare, a sculptor. At least two of Gaspare's sons followed in his footsteps to become well-known sculptors. Initially, Giacomo collaborated with his brother, Giuseppe. In Palermo, the oratories of Santa Cita Humility. Church of Saint Francis Assisi.and San Lorenzo bear Serpotta's mark. So does the medieval church of Sant'Agostino. In the Church of San Francesco d'Assisi, Serpotta created several statues, including Modesty and the other Virtues, around 1723. The artist died in 1732. His son, Procopio, was a competent stucco sculptor but never achieved Giacomo's mastery of this unique art.
Giacomo Serpotta is credited with creating an original technique for polishing stucco, imparting to his work a lustre not unlike that of stone. This is why stucco sculptures are often mistaken for polished stone. But while certain kinds of stone weather the elements admirably, stucco sculpture was usually reserved for architectural interiors --especially churches, civic offices and palatial homes. With Serpotta and other artists of his period, the Baroque styles reached a level of technical creativity previously unknown. The Renaissance and Classical influences in his work are difficult to ignore. Bernini and Gagini have been cited as inspirations. Serpotta is the artist said to have elevated stuccowork in Italy from a craft to a high art.
His work influenced southern Italian sculptors, naturally, but his fame soon spread beyond Italian shores. In Serpotta's hands, monumental figures seemed to come alive. However competent his sculpture was technically, it is this seemingly intangible quality that defined his work and influenced, on an aesthetic level, a generation of Rococo sculptors, particularly in Germany. Serpotta used the placement of elements in asymmetrical or unorthodox fashion to create perspective and realism. One might find the Serpotta sculpture of a child "seated" at the base of a larger statue rather than sitting in a rigid fashion next to it. The figures in Palermo's Church of San Francesco d'Assisi almost seem to be floating in space. They certainly seem to have been frozen in time. Source