There is a sixteenth-century church in Palermo, in the district of Kalsa, which is still used today as a a venue for public performances. It uses to be a lazaretto during an epidemic plague in the late 500s. It temporarily took in the famous painting Spasimo di Sicilia, by Raffaello Sanzio, and this gave it the name we know today: Santa Maria dello Spasimo.
Today Lo Spasimo is a bare church, a good example of late Gothic architecture, deconsecrated, used for shows of various kinds… and for rooftop a sky of stars (quoting an old western). The vault of the church collapsed during the 18th century and was no longer rebuilt, making it one of the most impressive places in Palermo.
What the word spasimo wants to mean in reference to Raffaello’s work and to the Church itself is undoubtedly the sense of suffering, since both are dedicated to Virgin Mary who suffers for Christ’s Crucifixion.
Alessandro D’Avenia, in his book Ciò che inferno non è (What Hell is not), refers to the word Spasimo as the non-stop lust for infinity, a strong desire for life, something that perhaps approaches the decadent idea of Spleen. It is a feeling that all of us undoubtedly experience observing that distant and imaginative line that connects the sky and the sea, when the winter breeze blows against our face but at the same time seems to call attention, a force that attracts us like the mermaids’ song that attracted sailors. But we, like Ulysses, hold up, tied to our city by an unconditional love.
Entering that church, although I know very well what the sky looks like, despite the fact that I have always had it above my head, I can’t help but raise my eyes, empty my mind and let my heart beat fast. Such a place, such a sky, can only be called Spasimo, and it can only make me fall in love.
Copyright photo: Massimo Acquaviva