A magnificent pair of Sicilian ten-light silver and gilt bronze chandeliers, assay master Nunzio Gino, Palermo, 1758

The Cusani Chandeliers are extraordinarily rare survivals. Although spectacular 18th century silver chandeliers exist, in general few silver examples have survived; output was always limited, as the cost in metal restricted them to the wealthiest patrons and for the same reason created obvious targets when fashion changed or money was needed.

They were assayed between June and December 1758 (the marks are specific) during Papiniano Cusani’s tenure as Archbishop of Palermo. Whether commissioned for the Cathedral or the palace is not known, but the lack of any religious motifs, apart from the bishop’s hat or galero which is heraldic, suggest the latter. The palace, attached to the Cathedral was begun in the 15th century but underwent extensive changes in the 18th, making it one of the most sumptuous interiors in Palermo.

A long tradition of episcopal commissions to the palace existed, such as Cusani’s predecessor Paolo Basile (Archbishop 1731-36) who ordered frescoes from the Flemish painter, Gugliemo Borremans, and his successor Serafino Filangieri (1762-1776) who commissioned the Roman artist Gaspare Fumagalli and followers, to decorate the walls of the palace in false perspectives.

Gugliemo Borreman, Nativity scene from the diocesan museum, formerly the Archbishop’s Place, Palermo 1733-34

Although not of noble birth, Cusani as a senior church figure was allowed to create his own armorial identity. Clearly proud of his heritage, he did so with armorial devices that represent his calling, his birthplace and his name. The bishop's staff for his calling; a dove in an ash tree representing the town arms of Frasso Telesino, in the mountainous area north of Naples where he was born, and a tower applied three times for the town of Cusano near-by (known as Cusano Mutri from 1862). Other notable members of the family stemmed from this area including Biagio Cusani, Marcello’s great uncle, a poet and lawyer and his uncle Genaro also a lawyer.

Like them, Marcello Cusani trained as a lawyer in Naples; he then joined the Church and was ordained in 1713. He was an enlightened priest and reformer at the time when his church was often reactionary. Cusani’s life-long friend Pietro Giannone (1676-1748) was excommunicated (later imprisoned) for his work Storia civil del region di Napoli (History of the Kingdom of Naples, 1723) in which he took the side of the civil powers against the Roman Catholic hierarchy. Cusani found an ally in Charles of Bourbon (1716-1788), future King of Spain and king in his own right of Naples and Sicily. Their ideas coalesced and the king become founder in 1747 of Cusani’s project the University of Altamura, which he created while archpriest of that city. Teaching the Law, Classics and the Sciences, the latter being a novel thing to learn, the university appointed Cusani as its first rector. He was appointed archbishop of Palermo by the king in 1754 and with the support of the monarch and of Pope Benedict XIV (1675-1758), as Presidente del Regno with the powers of the Viceroy, he began to implement a set of major reforms of the law, the church and the economy