The Church of Santa Maria dello Spasimo is part of an ecclesiastical complex built in Palermo to celebrate the mother’s grief for her son.
Pope Julius II authorised the donation of the jurisconsult De Basilicò in 1509, with a Bull, so that a church could be built in only six years, for the needs of the order of Santa Maria di Monte Oliveto.
Two important works were commissioned, one by Raphael and one by Gagini: the painting ‘Going to Calvary’ (also known as ‘Lo Spasimo di Sicilia’) and the marble altar.
The construction of the monastery complex was fraught with difficulties, ranging from financial ones due to the imposing work, or the vicissitudes caused by the fortification wishes of Viceroy Don Ferrante Gonzaga.
The work ended up incomplete, with major structural damage that changed its fate. The demolition of the bell tower, the cloisters and the monks’ rooms were so severe that they had to ask to be housed in the Church of the Magione, nearby.
The years and the Viceroy passed, but not the situation. The Olivetan Fathers abandoned the Kalsa complex and moved to the Abbey of Spirito Santo.
When the church was emptied in 1582, Viceroy Marcantonio Colonna turned it first into a public theatre, then into a lazaret and sanatorium warehouse for grain reserves. This series of changes of use was followed in 1835 by that of a begging hospice, and in 1855 of a maternity hospital. Finally, during the Second World War it was used as a storehouse for artistic material in order to preserve it from bombing, until it was unfortunately abandoned. It was in 1995 when the Church of Santa Maria dello Spasimo was returned to the public as an open-air cultural space after a lengthy restoration.
The Spasimo of Sicily by Raphael
De Basilicò commissioned the work from Raphael in 1516 to adorn the funeral chapel he had built for himself.
The story told by Vasari is that when it was finished, it was placed in a sealed case and transported by sea to Palermo. Unfortunately, due to a storm the ship sank and miraculously the crate floated to Genoa. When it was discovered, the friars of the Church of Santa Maria dello Spasimo asked Pope Leo X to get the painting back, which all of a sudden became of immeasurable value. Fernando D’Ayala, Viceroy, managed to obtain the painting from Abbot Clement Staropoli in 1661, who in return was granted privileges and annual annuities. The work was then donated to King Philip IV of Spain, who placed it in the Royal Chapel in Madrid.
Today, Raphael’s work is housed in the Prado Museum.