The church of San Domenico, located in the homonymous square (the ancient Imperial Plan) that dominates like a majestic queen, in size, historical, cultural and religious importance comes immediately after the Cathedral.
Surely it is one of the most beloved churches of Palermo, also because it is considered a “Pantheon of the illustrious men of Sicily”. It is also considered the church symbol of the fight against the mafia.
The church of San Domenico was built three times in the same place, even if the information about the first two is rather incomplete. The original factory dates back to the last part of the 13th century, shortly after the “preaching friars” had settled in Palermo (the Dominican order was present in the capital of the island since 1221) on land located “extra moenia” (outside the city walls) donated by the noble families Santa Flora and Mastrantonio, where there was already a small church dedicated to St. Ursula.
Later, in the Renaissance period, between 1458 and 1480, given the considerable flow of the faithful, the Fathers decided to reconfigure and expand the building completely and, under the patronage of Archbishop Simon of Bologna, entrusted the project to the Dominican lay architect Friar Salvo Cassetta Doza: of this second building today only very few architectural traces and some works of art remain.
Finally, in 1640, the temple was demolished and rebuilt with the approval of Cardinal Giannettino Doria, Archbishop of Palermo: on February 2 the solemn ceremony of the laying of the first stone was celebrated with the placement of the traditional chest containing the epitaph, present, in addition to the archbishop, the Attorney General Nicolò Ridolfi, the praetor Nicolò Valdina and the entire city senate. The realization of the project was entrusted at first to the Dominican architect Andrea Cirrincione and then to the most experienced architect of the senate Vincenzo Tedeschi who made important changes to the basic project of the Cirrincione, whose role would seem limited only to the management of the preliminary phases of the construction site, which sacrificed the entire southern wing of the ancient convent and gave the church its present forms in which all the Baroque creativity meanders.
Most of the works were defined in the seventeenth century except for the imposing and harmonious ochre and white facade completed in 1726, modifying the original design of the Cirrincione, by the Dominican Tommaso Maria Napoli (designer in 1724 of the square). The elevation, according to a typical scheme of Roman baroque architecture, is divided into three levels and is marked by twelve columns of marble Billiemi arranged in pairs. In the lower one there are three entrance portals delimited by four pairs of Doric style columns, of which the central one, larger than the others, is surmounted by the coat of arms of the Dominican order (a dog with a torch in its mouth with the mountain and the star in the background”) and by a scroll with their motto (Ordo fratrum praedicatorum fidelis Domino). In the second order there are four stucco statues of Dominican popes (Innocent V, Pius V, Benedict XI and Benedict XIII), and two others inserted into niches, depicting St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Peter the Martyr: the author of these works was Giovan Maria Serpotta, nephew of the great master Giacomo.
In the centre, framed by two pairs of Corinthian columns, there is a large window where at the top, in a stucco frame, we find a biblical verse written by the prophet Malachi: “Lex veritatis fuit in ore ejus” (the truth of the Law was in his mouth).
On the last level stands out in the center of the pediment the statue of St. Dominic of Guzman, founder of the religious order. At the extremities of the facade two soaring and imaginative symmetrical bell towers (built at different times by architects Andrea Palma and Lorenzo Olivier) with high, richly decorated cusps make the figure slimmer and accentuate its monumentality.
The interior, a majestic hall, has a Latin cross plan with shallow wall chapels and a slight transept, characterized by three wide naves divided by sixteen mighty columns of Tuscan order that support fourteen large round arches, seven on each side: all harmoniously balanced.
In the minor naves there are splendid chapels, almost all of which were once under the patronage of noble families, which house numerous works of art of absolute artistic value.
On the sides of the entrance two magnificent marble holy water stoups depict “the entrance of the Dominicans to Palermo and the blessing of the church”, surmounted by two canvases attributed to Vito D’Anna, “the Elemosina of Blessed Jeremiah on the right and the Guardian Angel on the left”.
The right nave
In the first chapel, dedicated to the Holy Rosary, we find a polychrome wooden sculpture group depicting the Madonna with the child in her arms and St. Dominic, an object of strong popular devotion: the splendid simulacrum was made at the beginning of the eighteenth century. by Girolamo Bagnasco.
The following chapel, dedicated to the Madonna of Lourdes, houses the sepulchral monument of Francesco Maria Emanuele and Gaetani, Marquis of Villabianca, created by the sculptor Leonardo Pennino in 1802, the year of the death of the famous scholar; on the altar, a painting depicting the Madonna of Lourdes by Giuseppe Di Giovanni.
The next chapel has, on the altar, a sixteenth-century panel by Giovan Paolo Fonduli from Cremona, the Crucifixion with the Saints Thomas Aquinas and Mary Magdalene and the funerary monuments of Lauretta Li Greci and Giuseppina Turrisi Colonna.
Then there is the beautiful chapel that once belonged to the Oneto Dukes of Sperlinga, made by Gaspare Serpotta based on drawings by Gaspare Guercio. The chapel, sumptuously decorated with polychrome marbles, has in the aedicule of the altar, flanked by two twisted columns all in mix, a marble statue of St. Joseph attributed to the great Antonello Gagini. On the sides two medallions depict on the right the Duchess of Sperlinga Marianna Oneto Monroy and on the left Giacomo Majorca di Francavilla by the sculptor Antonio Ugo, also the author of the bust of Luisa Majorca Mortillaro placed in the niche of the aedicule above: the vault was made by Ernesto Basile in 1898.
In the beautiful altar of the next chapel, dedicated to St. Anne, there is a fine seventeenth-century painting by Rosalia Novelli, daughter of Peter, representing St. Anne with Mary as a child and Saints Joachim and Agnes of Montepulciano, on the left the funeral monument of Caterina Perdicaro.
In the room that follows in the center there is the monument to the jurist Emerico Amari, by Domenico Costantino (1875) and right the monument in memory of Gaetano Daita.
Here, the community of the Friars Preachers hopes, in May 2015 the remains of Judge Giovanni Falcone, killed by the mafia in 1992, were moved into a simple tomb.
The last chapel of the right aisle has on the altar a work by Giuseppe Velasco from Palermo depicting the Spanish Saint Vincenzo Ferrer from 1787; on the left wall there is the funeral monument in mixed marble of Troiano Parisi made in 1637 by the marmoraries of the Scuto family, while, on the right, there is the monument to Paolo Anzalone.
Then follows the majestic chapel of the transept with elegant marble columns and allegorical statues on either side of the altar, made in 1758 by copying the transept on the left. The chapel, dedicated to San Domenico, has on the altar a canvas depicting the Saint in ecstasy in front of the Crucifix surrounded by 18 small squares ascribed to Gaspare Bazzano, known as one of the two “Zoppo di Gangi” of 1603. The stucco works date back to the first half of the eighteenth century and are attributed to Silvestre Castelli. On the left wall there is the funeral monument of Giovanni Sammartino Ramondetta, a refined work created by Paolo Amato and executed by Gerardo Scuto and Pietro Nucifora on models by Giacomo Serpotta; on the right there is the funerary monument of Vincenzo Errante.
On the right, outside the chapel, above a small altar, a nineteenth-century work by Giuseppe Carta depicts the Blessed Giovanna de Aza.
Passing the transept we find the marble funeral monument to the memory of the statesman Francesco Crispi by Giovanni Nicolini (1904).
In the chapel on the right of the apse, one of the most evocative of the church, there is a fine display of a Crucifix in mixture by the Messina carver Giovanni Matinati from the early sixteenth century; note three works attributed to the school of Antonello Gagini, a magnificent stoup, a dramatic Pieta and the high relief depicting St. Catherine. In this chapel are placed some funeral monuments, including that of Domenico Lo Faso di Pietrasanta by Benedetto De Lisi: outside the chapel, leaning against a pillar, the monument in memory of Annetta Turrisi Colonna by Antonio Canova.
Then, turning right, we arrive at the presbytery area with the high altar in mixed marble made in the eighteenth century to a design by the Dominican architect Giovan Battista Ondars, behind which is placed a precious wooden choir in walnut of the fifteenth century, made by the master Nicola Nuchu.
On the sides of the apse there are two gilded carved wooden choir stalls overlooked by two large eighteenth-century organs of great value (recently restored).
Next to a pillar is a plaque commemorating Giuseppe Pitrè, the great scholar of popular traditions who founded the museum of the same name in Palermo.
To the left of the apse is the chapel of the “Sacred Heart of Jesus” entirely rebuilt in the early twentieth century by engineer Ignazio Caramanna; to the right is the sarcophagus of Michele Amari by Giuseppe Patricolo, to the left the monument of Dominican Luigi Di Maggio: there is also a bas-relief representing St. Jerome and a medallion with the “Annunciation” of the Gaginesque school.
The left nave
The altar, framed by a pair of twisted stucco columns, shows a painting on blackboard by the patron saint of the chapel, probably by Gaspare Bazzano: on the left, the monumental sarcophagus with the remains of Ruggero Settimo by Salvatore Valenti and Domenico Costantino, designed by the architect Ernesto Perez.
Continuing along the nave, in the magnificent transept on the left, we find in the altar made by marmoraro Giuseppe Allegra to a design by Cosimo Agnetta a masterpiece by Vincenzo degli Anzani known as da Pavia, depicting the Madonna del Rosario with the SS Cristina, Vincenzo Ferrer, Tommaso d’Aquino and Ninfa (1540): the chapel also houses several funerary sarcophagi.
This is followed by the chapel of Santa Rosa da Lima, which has on the altar a painting of the Saint, the first woman canonized in South America and attributed to Girolamo de Fiandra.
In the following room is the tomb of Raffaele Di Benedetto erected in 1870 by Benedetto De Lisi Jr.
The next chapel is dedicated to San Raimondo da Penafort and contains a canvas depicting a miraculous episode of the Saint (the Saint crosses the sea using his cloak as a sail) by Gaspare Bazzano; on the right is the funeral monument of Rosolino Pilo, by Valerio Villareale, and on the left is the monument to Giovanni Denti di Piraino.
Followed by the chapel with the passage that leads to the cloister, with the tomb of General Antonino Cascino and the monument in memory of Stanislao Cannizzaro.
Continuing on the left is the chapel dedicated to Saint Catherine of Siena with a statue of the Saint inside a shrine.
In the first chapel on the left dedicated to Santa Rosalia there is a painting on canvas of the Sanctuary of Andrea Carreca from Trapani and the funeral monument created by Valerio Villareale, which commemorates the distinguished man of letters Giovanni Meli first, in 1853, among the illustrious people to be buried in the church. Leaning on a pillar, placed on a pedestal, is the bust of the illustrious scholar and collector Agostino Gallo, who promoted the idea of making the church the “Phanteon of the men who have left their mark on Sicilian history”.
Before leaving we find, leaning against the wall, the majestic monument to the distinguished economist and politician Francesco Ferrara Palermo, Giovanni Nicolini.
Just outside the church, in the centre of the square, facing the church, you can admire the bronze statue of the “Immaculate Virgin” modelled by Giovan Battista Ragusa in 1726, surrounded by marble statues of the angels Michele, Gabriele, Raffaele and Uriele and by two bronze statues of the Popes, Pius IX and Pius XII, at the top of a 25-metre high grey marble column.