Just a few years after the papal definitive consent to the Order of Preachers by Honorius III in 1216, a congregation of Dominican friars (as they are commonly called from the founder’s name, Saint Dominic de Guzman) established itself in Sicily, and at the beginning of the 14th century started to build a church and a convent in the area of the present-day church.
In the meantime, the importance of the order accrued, along with the number of faithful and adepts, and in 1458 a decision was made to build a new bigger church. The design of the new building, under the benevolent patronage of Archbishop Simone da Bologna, was awarded to architect Salvo Cassetta Doza. Despite the fact that this second church was bigger than the first, in 1640 the need arose for a yet bigger temple and a new series of works began, and after more than forty years the new church was solemnly dedicated in 1683 in the forms that it has to our day. The only change since then was the facade, dating 1726, made necessary by the opening of the new square two years before.
The baroque style of the facade, divided into two storeys, is influenced by the scenographic approach taken by the architects in Rome in the previous decade. The two storeys are subdivided into three sections by projecting columns and give the geometrically articulated facade a much lighter appearance. The stucco decoration was created by Giovanni Maria Serpotta (of the famous family of stucco-makers) during the years 1755-1756. They make more visible the opposition between the white of the render and the yellow of the Sicilian tufa stone. On the plinths, you can see statues of popes that were members of the Dominican order, along with little angels sustaining symbols of the power of the Holy See. In the second tier there are Dominican saints. The two bell-towers on the sides enhance the vertical aspect of the composition.
The interior is very solemn and imposing, with its latin-cross plan and the wide lateral naves with ample chapels. Its appearance was more modest at the beginning but since 1853, after an idea of Agostino Gallo (a great expert of Sicilian art), the church has been enriched by the funerary monuments of well-known men in the history of Palermo and Sicily in general, transforming the church in a true pantheon. Amongst the people whose moral remains are honoured here, there are the poet Giovanni Meli, historians Michele Amari and Francesco Maria Emanuele e Gaetani, marquess of Villabianca, and the politician Ruggero Settimo. In the lateral chapels and near the altars of the transepts it is possible to admire a real triumph the arts, with paintings, stucco mouldings and frescoes created by famous artists such as Antonio Canova, Giovan Battista Ondars, Antonello Gagini, Gaspare Bazzano aka “Zoppo di Gangi”.
To the left of the church there is the former Convent of Sant Dominic, confiscated by the Italian state after the annexation of Sicily to the Kingdom of Sardinia in 1861. The may rooms of the complex lay around the cloister built at the end of the 14th century, with its ogival arches and coupled columns. From 1886 the spaces of the former convent host the Sicilian Society of Local History (Società Siciliana per la Storia Patria), created in 1873 to promote the study of the history of Sicily in all its aspects. Amongst its members there have been the most renown names in the Italian culture of the 19th century.
The upper part of the building is made of richly decorated rooms with busts, multi-coloured windows, and the marvellous library with its more than 200,000 books (codexes, manuscripts, books printed in the period between the 16th and the 19th century, archival funds, and historic topographical maps). This huge collection its very typical of Dominican convents, that are usually important centres for theological and biblical studies as well as studies in the society. This vast amount of knowledge is the base for the solid cultural foundations needed to combat heresies and threats to the security and the stability of the catholic church.
When: 8:00 – 13:30 every day, also 17:00 – 19:00 on Saurday and Sunday
How much: free