A hidden gem in the centre of Agrigento
A few weeks back we decided to take a trip to Agrigento to see the spectacular festival of the Mandorlo in Fiore. While we were there we took a trip around the historical centre of the city. There we came upon the Chiesa di Santo Spirito.
As we were stood outside the accompanying monastery reading a sign about pistachio couscous (a dessert couscous that is a speciality there), a nun appeared out of nowhere and started explaining all about the desserts. And that is how we met the friendly guardian of an almost overlooked marvel.
The Chiesa di Santo Spirito is home to a fantastic collection of Giacomo Serpotta stuccoes (plaster-work sculptures). Giacomo Serpotta (1656-1732) was a Sicilian sculptor and the undeniable maestro of this technique. In fact, he invented the allustratura technique which gives the stuccoes their glorious marble-like shine.
His work can be found in many places across Sicily, but Palermo is undoubtedly the place with the highest concentration of his art. The Oratory of Santa Cita in Palermo being his most famous work in the city. That’s why I was so surprised to find out he had also decorated the Santo Spirito Church in Agrigento. Even more surprising was the lack of celebration being afforded to this amazing treasure. In Palermo there’s an entrance fee to the Oratory and you can hire an audio guide. Here, no entrance fee, no guide.
Enter our friendly nun!
The Church of Santo Spirito
Given that we were visiting Agrigento on one of their busiest weekends of the year, awash with tourists for the Mandorlo in Fiore, there was no-one there when we first arrived. By the time we had looked around cloister of the adjacent medieval monastery, there was one other couple in the church.
The nun was obviously desperate to talk to people and tell them all about the church and the art. That is how we ended up with what amounts to a free guided tour.
Giacomo Serpotta completed the work in the Chiesa di Santo Spirito between 1704-1708. It is a more sparse work than the Oratory of Santa Cita, but still has the classic swathes of movement and grandeur. It is thought Serpotta studied in Rome, as there are influences of Bernini in his work. A key influence being found right here in the Santo Spirito Church. Here, the apse decoration is reminiscent of Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa in Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome. There is no actual evidence to support Serpotta ever went to Rome though.
The walls of the Santo Spirito Church are covered in stucco decorations and friezes. There are a number of scenes depicted in various panels. These include: the Navity, the Adoration of the Magi, the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, and the Flight into Egypt among others.
The nun spent a long time talking with passion about how she had studied art and wanted to share this church’s treasure with the world. She took us up to the apse for a better look, and into a ancient crypt. All in all it was a wonderful chance to get up close to some of Serpotta’s beautiful works.
One thing not created by Serpotta is the cupola, which isn’t really a cupola at all, just some very clever painting.
How to Visit
If you would like to visit the Church of Santo Spirito, it is located on Via Santo Spirito , above the main road of the old town, Via Atnea.
As stated, entrance is free, but they welcome donations. Upkeep of the church is not cheap, and the helpful guide deserves some recognition for her time. So please donate and help her protect the church.
The church is open most days for visits as the nun explained that they rarely even hold services there. Don’t miss your opportunity to visit the work of one of Sicily’s most famous artists.