Masonic symbols at Palazzo Sant¿Elia?

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Coral branches, compasses and clepsydra, the mythical moon goddess, Diana and the sun god, Apollo: simply decorations in the frescoes of the 18th century mansion houses or esoteric symbols to interpret?

*On reading an interesting essay by Santina Grasso “Echoes of Rococo in the frescoes of Palazzo Santa Croce” published in The 1700s to be found in Palazzo Sant’Elia, published by the Provincia Regionale di Palermo, you cannot be anything other than fascinated, as well as, curious about what has been written, even in the accompanying footnotes, on this noble abode.

Footnote 42 in her work says: “A second more occult level of reading should not be excluded, however, as suggested by M.C. Di Natale (The Use of Internal spaces … cit. pg.84), if you were to interpret the figurative cycle as an initial path connected to the Masons, it would lead you to some of the repeated symbols in the paintings, such as the clepsydra, torches and pyramids, the mythical moon goddess, Diana and the sun god, Apollo”. With reference to these two divinities who are to be found in numerous frescoes in the Palermitan mansions pertaining to the nobility, Maria Concetta Di Natale, in her above quoted work, actually sustains: “According to the Masonic symbols, in use in those days, the sun and the moon to which these two divinities refer, are the lights of the world, day and night, they remain affiliated during the day and during the night in the constant search for the truth, without giving in to the tenebrous luxury of vice. (… ) Wanting to place the mythological theme in these frescoes alongside others by the same painter, ones thoughts run by analogy to the allegorical pictures at Palazzo Butera in Palermo, in which Jupiter, Mars, Apollo – the sun, Diana – the moon, Saturn, Mercury and Venus would seem to provide links to the esoteric culture via the masonic ideology of the patrons”. So if we are to follow this “occult level of interpretation”, what other esoteric symbols are hidden in the frescoes at Palazzo Sant’Elia and, above all, what do they mean? We asked Rosanna Balistreri, the author of “Alchemy and Architecture, a stroll among the 18th century villas of Bagheria”, who is engaged in writing a new publication on Palazzo Branciforte di Butera in Palermo.

Dr. Balistreri, why should masonic symbols be found in the decor of the aristocratic residences?

Many of the aristocracy were Masons and many of the paintings depict their ideology. But let us not forget that the perfect mason is also an alchemist, and the gold that the alchemist aspires to is none other than interior perfection: the transmutation is only interior.

In which of the palaces’ chambers are we likely to find alchemistic and masonic symbols?

Rarely to be found in the reception rooms where all their visitors would have been received, preference was given to rooms that were hidden away from the public eye. Often they are found in the monochrome medallions: here rather than in the brightly coloured frescoes, they are less noticeable and therefore ideal for hosting certain symbols. The symbols can also be found beside certain allegorical figures, and many of these allegories were included to distract our attention.

Could you give us an example?

Often the coronation of the prince was the allegory of the coronation of alchemy itself. Hence, a pyramid was either close by or actually held in their hands, as we can find in this palace, this symbol of alchemy, as well as, being an important Masonic symbol, its squares and triangles respectively represent the union of the divine with its creator. Also, the triumph of the sun god Apollo is none other than a metaphor of the alchemistic conclusion of the alchemistic course. Very often, the order in which the frescoes are arranged from one room to the next on the piano nobile create a path aimed at the step by step path to perfection.

What other esoteric symbols are hidden in the frescoes in Palazzo Sant’Elia?

Uroboroso, the snake biting its tail is also to be found, a symbol of the cyclical nature of things. The compass represents the Sky whose shape recalls the shape of the letter A, therefore the beginning of all things. Then we can also find branches of coral which can also be found in a lot of other historic buildings. Michael Mailer, an alchemist and doctor who lived during the end of the 1500s and the first half of the 1600s, in his famous work L’ Atlanta Fugiens sustains that the only example in nature of a philosophical stone is that of coral, referring specifically to Sicilian coral. Coral contains the four elements of water, air, earth and fire: grows and feeds under water, yet it is anchored to the earth and for it to acquire its fiery red colour it has to be cut while the Borea blows.

Hercules is a constant as a symbol in our palaces, and is also present here in Palazzo Sant’ Elia precisely by the main entrance stood a statue of Hercules. What could the explanation for his presence?

I have come across Hercules, or references to one of his Labours in every palace that I have visited in Sicily. Hercules is one of the eschatological myths, remember that faced with twelve Labours before arriving at Olympus, there are also twelve trials in Alchemy, hence, it is an example of man’s evolution: from a mortal being to being immortal. Finally, the ultimate alchemic philosophy is to be as close to God as possible. I am even more convinced that this is the thread to follow of an entire philosophy that the nobles wanted to represent.