Palermo, Sicily’s main port, nestles in the middle of a wide bay enclosed, to the north, by the Pellegrino Mount and, to the south, by Capo Zafferano. It lies on the edge of a very fertile plain that was called in the 15th century Conca D’Oro (meaning the golden shell or horn of plenty) on account of its lush citrus plantations, palm trees and olive-groves. At one time it was a favorite haunt of writers, poets and artists, who were enraptured by its eastern atmosphere and beauty.
Built and grown over the course of centuries, Palermo conveys a range of diverse cultures and traditions. It suffered heavy damages during the Second World War bombings, its old quarters destroyed and never been completely rebuilt. Also, the construction of large modern crumbling buildings in the suburbs has done nothing to improve the city’s image. Nevertheless, it has preserved much of the priceless heritage handed down by the peoples who populated it. They left indelible traces not only in its artistic patrimony but in its very vital rhythm of life.
Palermo becomes particularly lively in July during the Festival of the Patron Saint Rosalie, celebrated with a programme of events lasting five whole days.
An endearing place – Many writers have dipped their pen into an inkwell with the intention of encapsulating the elusive spirit of Palermo or of using the city as the backdrop to their stories. Here is an excerpt from a Sicilian text by a writer who transforms Sicily into a dream, evoking images, smells and sounds through words that are sometimes lyrical, sometimes nostalgic and sometimes crude:
“To Palermo the red, Palermo the child ... Palermo which we might imagine the likes of Tyre or Sidon, perhaps Carthage, like the purple of the Phoenicians; of rich red earth, with springs of water wind where the palm grove rises tall and slender, creating sweet shade, bending with the comfort and prayer, image of the eternal garden of the Koran. A child because she is sleeping and still, content with her own beauty, having always had to be subservient to foreigners, obedient in particular to her mother, her own natural mother who locks her children in an eternal adolescence. She settles down, relaxed and happy, in the gentle hollow of a shell ...”
From La Sicilia Passeggiata (Strolling through Sicily) by Vincenzo Consolo.
Access – The most direct way of getting to Palermo is undoubtely by plane. But it is also easily reachable by car, train, boat or bus.
Plane – The city airport, Punta Raisi (or Falcone-Borsellino as it is was re-christened after the two judges were murdered by mafia), is located some 20km north of Palermo. Buses provide a shuttle service to the city centre, running every 30 minutes; these stop at Via lazio, Piazza Ruggero Settimo, in front of the Politeama theatre and at the Stazione Centrale, in front of the Hotel Elena; tel. 091 580457. 091/580457.
By sea – National ferry companies provide services from Genoa, Naples, Livorno, Cagliari and the smaller islands (Ustica, Pelagian, Egadi, and Aeolian Islands); international services operate from Malta and Tunis. For information contact a travel agent.
By coach – A direct bus service between Palermo and Rome is provided by the Segesta Bus company; coaches departing from Stazione Tiburtina in Rome arrive at Piazza Balsamo (no. 26), in Palermo; they also stop at 3 Via Turati. Journey time is about 12 hours; tel. 091 6167919 or 6169039. A parallel service is provided by Sais Trasporti from Rome (Stazione Tiburtina) to Palermo, changing at Caltanissetta; tel. 091 6171141.
EXPLORING THE CITY
Around town – It is advisable to avoid exploring Palermo by car as streets quickly get snarled up with traffic and parking places are in short supply. There are some large car parkings, however, situated outside the city centre (look for the Ps on the map), and there are often spaces along Via Lincoln, right by the Botanical Gardens and closest to the Kalsa. The best way of going about Palermo is on foot; buses or taxis are recommended for crossing town or anywhere further afield. A slower, yet nonetheless enjoyable way to experience Palermo is to take one of the horse-drawn carriages that are to be found litering outside the central station or hailed elsewhere among the historical monuments. It is advisable to secure a price before setting off.
Radio taxi - Autoradio Taxi 091/512727 and Radio Taxi Trinacria 091/225455.
Buses – There are two types of bus tickets: valid for up to an hour or for a full day (these are worth-considering if public transport is likely to be used more than three times in the course of the day).
Guided tours – The CST (Compagnia Siciliana Turismo) organizes visits to several of the main sights in combination with the Duomo at Monreale every Saturday morning. On other days of the week, it also arranges accompanied day-trips to Segesta, Erice and Trapani; Mount Etna and Taormina; Agrigento and Piazza Armerina; Monte Pellegrino and Capuchin Catacombs (morning visits only) in Palermo via Emerico Amari, 124 091 582294. The AMAT (Azienda Municipale dei Trasporti) organizes seven different bus tours (bilingual guides) around the sights of the city, including two scheduled in the evening (Palermo by Night leaves at 8pm) with a stop for dinner in Piazza Marina. Others take place in the morning (departing at 9pm) or in the afternoon (departing at 3pm). Every tour lasts approx 3hr 45min and costs about 10€; tel. 091 350415.
100 open churches – This excellent initiative, although still in its early stages, hopes to provide access to a number of buildings hitherto closed to the public. At present these number some thirty buildings, but the aim is to open up at least one hundred.for the time being they are accomodated within/at present/for the presentto/fall of roman empire to barbarians/falled to.this initiative, although still in its early stages, hopes to provide accessthe initiative is still in its early stage. The idea is to appoint groups of willing hands to administrate and oversee opening times (approx 9am to 5pm) and provide guided tours. Those buildings to have benefited from the scheme so far include Palazzo Marchesi (Vicolo alla Chiesa Sant’Orsola) complete with its two Scirocco rooms (camere dello Scirocco), that are vaulted and well-ventilated rooms underground equipped with small taps where people could shelter away from the burning heat and oppressive sultriness that prevails when the Scirocco wind blows in from Africa. So does the Chiesa di Santa Maria Valverde (Piazzetta Valverde) which encloses a Neo-Classical-cum-Baroque interior. For additional information contact Cooperativa Azzurra 091 6161091.
Where to shop – The most elegant shops are concentrated in the new part of the town along Via Libertà and the main streets of the city (Via Roma and Via Maqueda). Via Principe di Belmonte has been pedestrianised to facilitate window shopping. The central section has been planted with trees to provide shade for the tables spilling from such bars as the Antico Caffè, the Gelateria Liberty, Au Domino (crêperie and bistrot) and the Café de Paris. Opening hours – Most shops remain closed on Monday mornings (food shops close on Wednesday afternoons). Shops open between 9am to 1pm and from 3.30pm to 7.30pm (4pm to 8pm on Saturday afternoons).
Local markets – The most colourful and picturesque markets are, without doubt, those selling food with their array of multicoloured awnings, their brightly painted stalls decked with assortments of fruit, vegetables or fish, lit with bare light-bulbs. The Vucciria market is certainly Palermo’s most famous, always bustling with colour and noise (which possibly gave rise to its name), stacked high with food supplies. It trades every morning (except Sunday) until 2pm, set back from the waterfront in Via Cassari-Argenteria and the surrounding area (stretching as far as Piazza San Domenico). The origin of its name is controversial: some maintain that it comes from the French term boucherie (meat), whereas for others it refers to the deafening clamour of the voices of the traders drawing attention to their wares. The other lively food markets include the Ballarò which is held in the area around Piazza del Carmine, and the Capo (the first, more picturesque section is round Piazza Beati Paoli; the clothing stalls congregate in Via Sant’Agostino and Via Bandiera). The principle clothes markets, however, are those known as Casa Professa and Lattarini (between Piazza Borsa and Piazza Revoluzione). A flea market (located in Piazza Peranni-Papireto) proffers antique and modern bric-a-brac, while the Calderia market, in the street of the same name, sells hand-made metal objects and artefacts.
SOMETHING TO EAT
Typical restaurants – The Tonnara Florio, accommodated in the Florio villa, an attractive liberty-style building now sadly in need of repair, has a beautiful garden and various out-buildings in which tuna was once prepared and fishing-boats were repaired. Today, one section accommodates a discotheque, another houses a pizzeria (note the fishing equipment and the odd relic belonging to the Florio family decorating the rooms once used for tuna-processing). This is located in the Arenella district, at no. 4 Discesa Tonnara. The Gourmands, at 37 Via della Libertà, and Santandrea, in Piazzetta Sant’Andrea, prepare classical Sicilian dishes, while Trattoria Biondo at 15 Via Carducci cooks a more rustic, country food. At Mondello, the Vecchia Tonnara, no 76 Via Mondello, was used for processing tuna; today it houses a restaurant that specialises in fish and seafood.
For a quick bite – The most traditional ways of quelling those hunger pangs on the hoof include sfincione (thick slab of pizza with tomato, anchovy, onions, artichokes and bread-crumbs), panino con la milza (true Palermo fare: bread roll filled with slices of boiled spleen and melted cheese) and panelle (deep-fried chickpea fritters); these are often offered for sale in local markets. At the Antica Focacceria San Francesco, right in the heart of the medieval quarter – opposite the church of the same name – they sell across an old cast-iron stove-cum-counter in an old-fashioned setting with marble tables such goodies as focaccia farcita (flat pizza-dough baked with various fillings). arancini riso (deliciously moist, deep-fried rice balls sometimes with tomatoes and peas stuffed with meat-sauce; otherwise filled with melted mozzarella), torte salate (Sicilian savoury “cake”), fried ricotta cheese, and sfincione. If you are in the vicinity of Viale della Libertà, try one of the panini (sandwiches) from Di Martino (Via Mazzini, 54), while sitting at a table outside.
For the sweet tooth – Two names stand out from the myriad of excellent pasticcerie offering sinful treats: Oscar, at 39 Via Mariano Migliaccio, boasts about its best-known specialty the Torta Devil (devil’s cake); while Bar Costa, at 15 Via G. D’Annunzio, specialises in a variety of delicate biscuits, cakes and pastries – particularly orange and lemon mousses. Other places of repute include:
Pasticceria Mazzara, 15 Via Generale Magliocco, on the corner of Piazza Ungheria. Once frequented by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, author of The Leopard. Mouth-watering cakes and pastries;
Caffè Ateneo, 170 Via Maqueda. Pasticceria Alba, 7 Piazza Don Bosco.
Palermo’s historic hotels – two names come to mind in a conversation about hotels that have witnessed the colourful life and history of Palermo: The Grand Hotel et des Plames and the Villa Igiea.
This is particularly the case with the Grand Hotel which came to prominence in the mid-1800s when it was used as a residence by Ben Ingham, the Englishman who played a key role in the history of Marsala wine. Soon converted into a hotel, it has provided hospitality to all the people of note passing through the city: musicians (Wagner finished his Parsifal here – his stool is still there), painters (sketches by Guttuso and Fiume furnish one of the salons), writers, politicians of past and present, great names from the theatre world and countless numbers of aristocrats have silently passed through its corridors over the years. It has provided an objective context for important political occasions, newsworthy events, inexplicable and mysterious incidents linked to the world of spies, omertà (tacit complicity demanded by the Mafia), and intrigues which might be more typical of a royal court rather than a hotel. It was here, in 1957, that a secret dinner was held for the top henchmen of the italian and American mafia; that a secret agent died in mysterious circumstances (and disappeared), having fallen from the seventh floor straight through the sky-light of the great hall of mirrors (before being immediately rushed to hospital by two equally mysterious figures on stand-by); it was here that Vittorio Emanuele Orlando, a famous politician, gave a sumptuous twelve-course dinner; here too that, in 1933, a French poet ended his dissolute and tragic life by committing suicide (or overdosing on Hallucinogenics). Another strange story involves the Baron of Castelvetrano who lived hidden away in his suite on the first floor for more than half a century; allegedly, this enforced exile was levied upon him for having killed, so it is said, a boy guilty of petty theft; the sentence, pronounced by the father of the unfortunate victim, seems to epitomise the high respect for dignity and a word of honour so typical of a bygone age. An atmosphere of times past still lingers in the hotel’s great hall – designed by Basile – in the great hall of mirrors, the room with the fireplace, the restaurant where people still request to dine “at the table” or at the bar, where many a client has made his “confession” to the barman over a drink or two.
Villa Igiea, on the other hand, is a much larger building, scenically positioned on the slopes of Monte Pellegrino. It began life as a nursing home for Igiea Florio (who suffered from tyberculosis), adapted from a pre-existing neo-Gothic biulding to designs by Ernesto Basile for a exotically luxurious home. The dining-room in particular, now the Sala Basile (accessible by request and subsequent permission from the hotel staff, who are always most kind), was completely renovated: lovely wooden paneling was installed, and the interior decoration, with beautiful female figures surrounded by delicate, long-standing flowers, was commissioned from Ettore de Maria Bergier, a well-known Liberty-style painter. On the walls of the corridor are photographs depicting illustrious guests who stayed here in the past, including many European kings and queens.
An intermission by a special performance – Teatro dei Pupi – The name synonymous with the ancient tradition of the puppet theatre in Palermo, is that of the Cuticchio family. For generations not only have these highly-skilled puppeteers put on performances, but they have themselves made the actual puppets. Alas, puppet shows no longer attract the same large crowds they used to, for at one time they were the talk of the day, followed by everyone and, as much, provided work not only for puppeteers (of which there were many companies in business), but also for many a skilled craftsman who specialized in giving form to their fabulous creations, ever attentive to every detail and so complex as to demand several days in the making. A sample suit of armour, for example, might comprise some 35 to 36 individual parts before being assembled by hand. The family continues to be quite numerous among whom some members devote themselves to inventing new shows while others concetrate on constructing the puppets.
Working puppets – Opposite the Teatro Di Mimmo Cuticchio (95 Bara all’Olivella, tel. 091 323400) is the workshop (visits welcome) where the puppets and stage machinery are kept (for producing wind and rain). The puppets are hung on the walls according to category; just inside on the left, are little Orlando and his companions (used for shows for children of nursery and Saracens below). At one time, puppet shows were so popular that members of the audience immediately recognized the different characters on looking at the shields. Orlando’s bears a cross, those of Rinaldo and Bradamante (who has long hair) have a lion. A little further on is the workshop of the famous puppet-maker Nino Cuticchio. The workshop and theatre of Girolamo Cuticchio is in Via dei Benedettini. The Ippogrifo, belonging to Anna Cuticchio, is situated in Vicolo Ragusi ai Quattro Canti di Città, tel. 61329194. The workshop is at 14 Via Orologio.
Palazzo dei Normanni – The Norman Palace is located at the heart of the original town, probably on a site occupied in Punic times by a fortress. The earliest documents, however, date from the Arab occupation, these confirm this to be where the Qsar (hence the name of the quarter, Il Cassaro) was situated; the castle was abandoned later following the Emir’s decision to move into the Kalsa (see below); the area returned to favour when the Normans re-established a royal seat there, having extended and embellished the place. Life in the palace revolved around the green hall, an ample space in which regal ceremonies, assemblies and banquets were held. The building comprised various wings, each assigned to different people and functions, inter-connected by a terrace or a lush garden ornamented with pools of water and fountains. Four towers punctuated the corners: the Greek , the Pisan, the Joaria (from the Arabic for airy) and the Kirimbi. Sadly, only the central part of the original complex survives today, together with the massive Pisan tower, although the dome is a later addition dating from when an observatory was installed there in 1791. The palace then endured a period of abandonment and decline (all, that is, save the Palatine Chapel) that lasted well into the 17th century when, under the Spanish viceroys, it was restored. It is then that the impressive south front and the beautiful internal courtyard with its three storeys of loggias were inserted. Today, the palace serves as the seat of the Sicilian Parliament (or ARS, that is Assemblea Regionale Siciliana). The entrance hall, graced by a monumental staricase (where a beautiful senator’s carriage is displayed), dates from 1735.
Cappella Palatina – Up on the first floor (take the staircase on the left). Before entering the Palatine Chapel, it is worth pausing a moment to admire the superb courtyard enclosed by three superimposed loggias. Set into the wall on the left is an incription in Latin, Greek and Arabic; this would originally have come from the base of a bell-tower that once stood before the chapel on the right. The inscription sings the praises of a water-clock that was made during the reign of Roger II. The actual chapel was built by the king between 1130 – the year of his coronation, and 1140. In the beginning it would have stood alone, with the apse at the east end in accordance with Byzantine tradition. Then, through the course of time, it became incorporated into a complex of other buildings which now conceal it completely. Currently, the entrance is via the narthex that precedes the chapel. What can still be seen is the exterior of the side wall (corresponding to the north aisle) with its two-tier decoration. The lower section echoes the decorative arrangement at the same level inside: slabs of white marble surrounded by pietra dura decoration (inlay of semi-precious stones). The upper tier, meanwhile, comprises composite panels dating from the 19th century, depicting scenes from the life of David. At the rear, next to the entrance, Roger II is represented handing a decree instituting the royal ecclesiastic body to the ciantro (literally a singer, but, in this case, the person in charge of the chapel). Once inside, attention is immediately drawn to the fabulous Arabo-Norman interior decoration of blazing gold set off by the marble.
Structure – The internal space, with a rectangular ground plan, is divided into two parts: the first section is articulated into three aisles by 10 granite columns; the second, up five steps, comprises the chancel which is contained within a marble balustrade. On the right, near the division of the two haives, is the double ambo, supported by four beautiful columns and two small pilasters, with integrated lecterns borne by the eagle of St. John and the lion of St. Mark. To one side is the fine Paschal candlestick (12th century), a wonderful piece of sculpture, tall, slender and richly decorated: its square pedestal is formed by four lions intent on mauling two men and two animals; a braid of plant-like branches intertwines the figures of wild beasts and an armed man preparing to defending himself. Above, Christ sits in a mandorla supported by angels, holding the Gospels in His hand, while, below, a figure in bishop’s clothing kneels before Him (possibly Roger II himself). Two tiers of birds (vultures pecking the tails of slender storks) support three figures representing the three ages of man. The acute sense of realism of these figures might suggest they are of a later date; perhaps they were added when the candlestick was moved, and required further refinement. Set against the back wall of the chapel is the majestic royal throne, which also forms an integral part of the mosaic above depicting Christ seated, attended by the Archangels St. Michael and St. Gabriel (representing death and birth respectively) and by the Apostles St. peter and St. Paul. The actual throne is inlaid with mosaic and prophyry, the coat of arms in the centre is that of the House of Aragon. The prophyry hexagon probably bore the image of the reigning monarch. The pavement comprises a geometric arrangement of marble tiles and mosaic, that form large Oriental style rectangles.
Mosaics – The mosaics, exquisitely laid, comprise pieces of coloured paste (cement and pigment) and glass onto which gold leaf has been applied, thus imparting an inherent brilliance. They recount the story of the Old Testament (nave), a selection of the most important episodes in the life of Christ (chancel), of St. peter and St. Paul (aisles). The silent witness include a host of prophets, angels and saints, either shown full-length or enclosed in medallions. The mosaics were executed in two different phases: the oldest ones date from 1140s, the ones in the nave, echoing the style of those at Monreale, date from 1160s and 1170s.
The sequence of scenes in the nave serve a single, didactic function. This is a prime example of teaching through pictures. Of particular note is the illustration of the earth being separated from the sea: the terrestrial globe is shown as a sphere of water in which there are three areas of land (America and Oceania had not yet been discovered), these are divided by sea which takes the form of a Y – the symbol of the Holy Trinity; the firmament, all around, is not yet illuminated by stars. Look out also for the Creation of Adam: note the striking resemblance in the face of Adam with that of God, thereby underlining the inscription in Latin: creavit ds ominem at imaginem sua (and God created man in His own image). The scene recounting the Original Sin sounds an unusual note as both Adam and Eve are shown with the forbidden fruit in their mouths as they reach for a second one. The section that follows on from the second half of the panel illustrating the Sacrifice of Cain and Abel, when the latter lies to the Lord, up to the scene showing the family of Noah (including Noah himself), has been substantially remodelled in the 19th century; this is evident from the radical change in style.
In contrast, the iconography of the scenes in the chancel is modified for contemplation by the clergy and is therefore conducive to reflection rather than teaching by example. This explains why the scenes from the life of Christ are not arranged sequentially but in order of importance (note especially above the right-hand apse). The cupola above the choir contains the figure of Christ Pantocrator, flanked by the three Archangels (St. gabriel, St. Michael and St. Raphael) and Tobit, and four angels. Biblical figures line the inside of the drum, and the Evangelists fill the pendentives (triangular corner sections).
The Annunciation is represented above the arch of the apse, placed there as a reminder of the work of God that foretold Christ in Benediction (in the vault) and the Enthroned Madonna, the Queen of Heaven. On the underside of the arch, at its apex, is a medallion containing throne of justice, the cross hung with the crown of thorns, and the dove.
In the south transept, pride of place is given to the figure of St. Paul (apse vault) surrounded by scenes from the life of Christ, the barrel vault has a medallion filled with the symbol of Pentecost, a dove flying down among the Apostles (figures below). The story of the Nativity is particularly well related: the three kings are represented on their journey towards Bethlehem and the Christ Child (note that the Magi on the left wear Phrygian caps, a pointed hat with the top folded forward, to denote the fact that they come from the east. Historically, the Magi were astrologers of the Persian court, the priests of the cult of Mithras which was widespread throughout the Roman Empire). St. Joseph, on the left of the Virgin Mary, is seated on a typical type of Sicilian chair. The blue lunette below the scene symbolises the Washing of the Christ Child.
Dominating the north transept is St. Andrew (apse vault), but only since the 14th century when he replaced the original mosaics of St. Peter; beside him is the so-called Hodegetria Madonna and Child (Guide or Instructress pointing to the Way of Redemption based on an icon said to be painted by St. Luke). To one side, St. John the Baptist preaches in the desert.
The aisles are covered with scenes from the life of St. Paul (starting from the beginning of the south aisle) and St. peter (last section of the south aisle, along the length of the north aisle). A list of the scenes depicted in the nave is given below.
Nave: Old Testament – Begin from the top of the right-hand side of the nave, follow the length of the top register, along the left-hand side of the nave; continue with the second register, starting again on the right-hand side of the nave. For an explanation of the less well-known Biblical stories, see the description of the mosaics of Monreale, under the same heading.
Royal Apartments – The visit begins in the Salone d’Ercole (1560), now the chamber of the Sicilian Parliament, so called after the large frescoes by Giuseppe Velasquez (19th century) depicting the Twelve Labours of Heracles of which only six panels are visible today (the others being hidden behind the gallery) namely starting from the far end of the hall: Heracles and the giants (not, in fact, related to the Labours), the slaying of the many-headed Hydra of Lerna, the capture of the Ceryneian hind, the taming of the three-headed dog Cerberus, the capture of the Erymanthean boar and the Cretan Bull. The frescoed ceiling illustrates the birth, triumph and death of the hero.
Across the hall of the Viceroys is a small entrance room which once constituted the heart of the Joaria, one of the Norman palace’s original towers, now incorporated into other builidngs. The wall apertures were designed to provide ventilation allowing cool and warm air to circulate through the cavities between one wall and another. On the left is the most interesting room in the palace: Sala di Ruggero II, which is decorated in a way that is reminiscent of the Palatine Chapel. From the high marble panelling, famed within friezes of mosaic, springs the golden mantle that covers the upper sections of the wall and ceiling. Hunting scenes alternate with symbolic animals such as the peacock (for eternity, as it was alleged that its flesh would never decomposed) and the lion (for royalty and strength); all are portrayed in accordance with an eastern iconography, which demanded that they be shown in pairs, one facing the other. Representations are exquisitely detailled, as the figures wander through a typically Sicilian landscape with palms and citrus trees. At the centre of the ceiling is a medallion with the Imperial emblem: an eagle holding a hare between its talons. There follows a number of other 1700’s and 1800’s rooms, including the Yellow Hall or Hall of Mirrors, named after the beautiful gold candlesticks it contains.
Osservatorio Astronomico – Top-floor of the Pisan Tower. Although currently closed for restoration, the astronomical observatory will re-open as a museum of old instruments used in astronomy, meterology, seismology and topography; visitors will be able to experience a fundamental event in astronomy: the discovery of the first asteroid, on this very spot, on 1 January 1801, by Father Piazzi to whom the observatory is dedicated. From the top, there is a fabulous bird’s eye view over Palermo.
Porta Nuova – Built under Charles V, the gateway is topped by a Renaissance-style loggia; note at the end of the pitched roof, the Imperial eagle. Beyond the gate stretches Corso Vittorio Emanuele, a long, straight road which runs across town to Porta Felice.
Palazzo e Parco d’Orléans – This is the house and garden in which Louis Philippe d’Orléans, the future king of France, lived in exile from 1810 to 1814. Today, it is used by the Sicilian Regional authorities. The garden has magnificent banyan trees (Ficus magnolioides) with their spectacular array of roots, and various exotic animals.
San Giovanni degli Eremiti – The Church of St. John of the Hermits and its garden are situated not far from Palazzo dei Normanni, providing a tiny haven of peace where even the noise of Palermo’s traffic seems muffled. Nestling in a luxuriant garden of palm-trees, agaves, bougain villaea, orange-trees and shrubs of various kinds, stands the church that was built around the middle of the 12th century at the request of King Roger II. This is one of the most famous Arab-Norman monuments in Palermo. Its simple, square forms which enclose perfect cubes of spaces rise to a red roof with five squat domes (echoing the profile of San Cataldo not far away), are clearly the work of Moorish craftsmen. The interior, simple and bare, is shaped into a latin-cross plan: the central space is divided into two halves above which hover two domes. The transept is sub-divided into three, each part contained by a dome; the south bay rising first to become a bell-tower that is then capped by a dome. At one time, the church was flanked by its monastery, the abbot of which was employed as the king’s private confessor. Today, only the delightful little 13th century cloister with its paired columns remains.
Villa Bonanno – These lovely public gardens lie behind the Palazzo Reale (Norman Palace). The elaborate 1600’s monument is of Philip V of Bourbon. Excavations conducted in one part of the garden have revealed the remains of Roman patrician houses containing mosaics featuring the seasons and Orpheus, now housed in the Museo Archeologico Regionale (see below).
Palazzo Sclafani – The front of the building (dating from the 1330s), overlooking Piazzetta San Giovanni Decollato, is ornamented with fine Gothic two-light windows within interlacing arches so typical of the Arabo-Norman style, and an elegant cusped doorway surmounted by the royal eagle. It is from this palazzo that the famous fresco The Triumph of Death was tranferred to the Galleria Regionale di Sicilia.
Cattedrale – Palermo’s cathedral is an imposing edifice. It was built in the late 12th century in the Sicilian norman style, but has undergone considerable alteration over the centuries. A notable addition from the 15th century is the Catalan Gothic south porch with, on the outermost wall, the symbols of the four Evangelists (St. Mark’s lion and St. Matthew’s angel on the right, St. Luke’s ox and St. John’s eagle on the left), its fine inner doorway and fine, carved wooden doors. The Neo-Classical dome was added in the 18th century when the interior was also completely refurbished. The original fabric of the building, however, can still be seen in the apses which retain their typical yet effective geometric decoration. Inside, the first chapel on the right contains the tombs of members of the Swabian royal family: Frederick II, his wife Constanza of Aragon, Henry IV and, at the rear, Roger II and his daughter Constanza d’Altavilla.
Tesoro – Entrance from the south transept. The Treasury contains a fine carved ivory staff made in Sicily in the 17th century and various jewels belonging to Queen Constanza of Aragon. Among these, are various rings and the magnificent Imperial gold crown set with precious stones, pearls and enamels.
Crypt – A number of tombs from different periods are preserved in the crypt, a large proportion belonging to former bishops. Note the classical Roman sarcophagus decorated with the figures of nine muses, Apollo, and a seated man wearing a toga.
Chiesa del SS. Salvatore – The present oval Church of the Holy Saviour, built on the foundations of a Norman predecessor, was designed in the late 1600’s by Paolo Amato. The interior is richly decorated in the Baroque style complete with polychrome marble and stucco. Within the dome, may be discerned gragments of a large fresco of the Triumph of St. Basil (1763). Today, the church is principally used as an auditorium. Further along Corso Vittorio Emanuele is Piazza Bologni: among the alignment of fine 1700’s buildings sits Palazzo Alliata di Villafranca which displays proudly the elaborate coats of arms of two aristocratic families including that of the Bolognas. In the centre of the piazza is a statue of Charles V, the Spanish monarch.
QUATTRO CANTI AND ITS NEIGHBOURHOOD
The intersection of Palermo’s two main thoroughfares, Via Vittorio Emanuele and Via Maqueda, is marked by a spacious octagon: the in-filled corners of the square being furnished by four elegant 18th century Baroque palazzo fronts, their elevation sub-divided into sections with classical columns (Doric, ionic and Corinthian); with, at the centre, an elaborate fountain dedicated to one of the four seasons. The niches of the middle storey harbour statues of the four Spanish kings of Sicily, those at the upper level contain effigies representing the patron saints of Palermo: St. Christina, St. Ninfa, St. Oliva and St. Agatha (who was subsequently replaced by St. Rosalie). The crossroads also marks the four districts into which, at one time, Palermo was divided: Palazzo Reale, Mezzomonreale, Castellammare and Oreto, each being entrusted to one of the four female patron saints.
Piazza Pretoria – At the centre of this lovely piazza is a spectacular fountain by the 1500’s Florentine sculptor Francesco Camilliani, originally intended as a garden ornament for some Tuscan villa. Comprising centric circles of gods and goddesses, nymphs, monsters, animals’ heads, allegories, ornamental staircases and balustrades, this fountain is a veritable Mount Olympus. Spouting water brings the whole to life animating it with sparkling light, yet never upsetting the balance of the composition; a rare quality typically often found in Tuscan Renaissance works of art.
The top basin is divided into four sections, below each is a smaller bowl which, in turn, is overlooked by one of the four allegories of the rivers of Palermo: Gabriele, Maredolce, Papireto and Oreto. Among the statuettes guarding the ramps is Ceres, the classical patroness of Sicily, who holds a sheaf of wheat and a horn of plenty. The wrought-iron railing surrounding the fountain is by Giovan Battista Basile. The Piazza is confined by fine buildings: to one side rises the dome of Santa Caterina, on the south axis stands the Palazzo Pretorio (also known as Palazzo Senatorio or Palazzo delle Aquile), the City Hall. Across the road is the Chiesa di San Giuseppe ai Teatini.
Palazzo Pretorio – Concealed by the present rather austere exterior, the result of 19th century renovations, lie the vestiges of a succession of earlier façades in various styles, the oldest of which dates from the 1300s. Since then, it has been the seat of the City Council. The entrance, especially on the inside, is ornamented with a profusion of Baroque elements (1691), including spiralling columns; beyond lies an attractive courtyard with a monumental staircase up to the piano nobile. Here, on the first floor, there is a shallow relief (on the left) of a crowned Ceres, a homage to the patroness of Sicily. The rooms open to the public include the Sala dei Lapidi lined with marble tablets bearing inscriptions and now used for Council meetings (note, in passing the magnificent central 1600’s chandelier carved from a single piece of wood), and Sala Garibaldi, so named after the Italian hero who addressed the assembled crowds from the balcony in 1860. A glass case on the right contains some fine weapons and scabbards inlaid with gold and mother of pearl belonging to Napoleon Bonaparte.
Chiesa di San Giuseppe ai Teatini – The Piazza Pretoria is bordered by the side of the striking Baroque church. The most eye-catching element is the original campanile which rises to an octagonal section with spiral columns at the top. The sides are ornamented with flaming vases. The interior, in the form of a Latin cross, is theatrical, endowed as it is with a majestic ceiling, a stunning array of white and gold stucco decoration and frescoes on a agrand scale. Each aisle bay is capped with a small round dome, itself encrusted with stucco. Set diagonally from the rear wall are two fine organ cases. Sitting to either side of the entrance are a pair of unusually impressive 1700’s stoups each one consisting of an angel in flight with a basin in its arms.
Piazza Bellini – This small square is contained by three churches: Santa Caterina (currently under restoration), La Martorana and San Cataldo which, with its three red domes, endows the place with an eastern feel.
La Martorana – Named after Eloisa Martorana who, in 1194, founded the nearby Benedictine convent, serving as its chapel. The church in fact dedicated to Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio (St Mary of the Admiral), had been founded in 1143 at the request of George of Antioch, an admiral in the fleet of Roger II. The linearity of the Norman original is unfortunately concealed behind the Baroque façade (on the south side of the church) that faces onto the piazza. The main entrance is through a fine portico-cum-bell-tower, articulated by three orders of columns and double arch openings. At one time, this was free-standing; it was the same time as the apse was replaced by a square choir. Mass is celebrated according to the Greek Orthodox dogma.
Interior – The building is divided into two parts. The first two bays, added in the 1500’s, were frescoed one century later; the older church shelters a wonderful array of glorious mosaics that strictly conform to Byzantine iconography, possibly executed by the same craftsmen as those employed at the Cappella Palatina. The wall church which once constituted the main façade has two mosaic panels representing George of Antioch prostrate at the feet of the Virgin (on the left) and Roger II receiving the crown from Christ (on the right). Filling the nave dome is Christ Pantocrator surrounded by the three Archangels (St. Michael, St. Gabriel, St. Raphael) and St. Uriel. In the register below are eight prophets and in the pendentives, the four Evangelists. In the nave vault may be seen the Nativity (on the left) and the Death (Dormition) of the Virgin. The gratings of the nuns’ gallery are a fine example of wrought-iron work.
Chiesa di San Cataldo – This church is the main seat of the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre, was built during the Norman period (12th century). A distinctive Moorish quality is imparted by the combination of its rather severe square forms, crenellated walls, perforated window screens and characteristic bulbous red domes (likened, by the Italians, to a eunuch’s hat). The austere interior is articulated into three aisles by antique columns from more ancient buildings. The nave is crowned with three domes, each supproted on squinches. The polychrome marble paving is original.
Palazzo Comitini – 100 Via Maqueda. The palazzo (1768-71) built for Prince of Gravina incorporates two older ones belonging to the Roccafiorita-Bonanno and Gravina di Palagonia families. The front is graced with two large entrances and nine openings (now windows) on the ground floor, and a series of bulbous balconies (evocatively described in Italian as a petto d’oca which translates as goose breast) on the first floor. The building was radically altered in 1931 with the addition of another floor for use as the administrative of the Province of Palermo. A wide staircase leads up from the internal courtyard to the loggia on the first floor and the Sala delle Armi (Armoury), now the Salone dei Commessi; the two masks flanking the doorway served as torch extinguishers; off to the left is the Green Room, furnished with a fine 1700’s Murano glass lamp. Sala Martorana, now the seat of the Provincial Council, is lined throughout with 1700’s wood panelling inlayed with mirrors; these add luminosity to the room and enhance the impact of the ceiling which is frescoed with the Triumph of True Love. The four corner medallions depict the four Virtues: Fortitude, Temperance, Prudence, Justice. Sadly, the tiled floor is in a poor condition.
Next to the Sala del Presidente, once the Prince’s bedroom, are two small boudoirs; these are panelled in wood and furnished with shelves bearing early-1900’s majolica plates.
Chiesa del Gesù – When the Jesuits arrived in Sicily in the mid-1500s, the Spanish government gave them its generous support. It was here that they founded their first church, although this was considerably altered before arriving at its presernt form at the end of the same century. Sadly, the church suffered serious damage during the bombing of 1943 and has been partially rebuilt. Its sober façade is in marked contrast to the Baroque exuberance of the interior which is encrusted with stucco and pietra dura decoration. The chancel decor executed by the Serpotta brothers is especially fine, populated as it is with a euphoric display of cherubs engaged in all manner of activities: gathering grapes, holding garlands of flowers, torches, musical instruments, rulers, set squares, and lances with which they pierce devils.
The second chapel on the right has two fine paintings by Pietro Novelly: St. Philip of Agira and St. Paul the Hermit. in which the last figure on the left is a self-portrait of the artist. The sacristy is furnished with a splendidly carved cupboard (16th century). Next to the church stands Casa Professa, housing the municipal library which contains a large number of incunabula and manuscripts. The first and second room (reading rooms) are hung with the portraits of 300 illustrious men.
Chiesa del Carmine – Piazza del Carmine, before the Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, is brought to life each day by the picturesque Ballarò food market. Before entering the church, it is worth taking the time to admire from afar the splendid tile-covered dome supported by four giant Atlas figures. Inside the church, the two most interesting features are the sumptuous altars in the transepts, decorated with pairs of golden twisting columns on which spirals of stucco tell the story of the life of the Virgin Mary (on the left) and on Christ (on the right). They are the work of Giacomo and Giuseppe Serpotta. Above the left-hand altar is a fine canvas of La Madonna del Carmine (Our Lady of Mount Carmel ) dating from the 15th century.
The quarter grew up during the period of Islamic domination around the fortified citadel where the emir and his ministers lived, preserving its original name (al Halisah, meaning the elect, the pure). Even today, an unusual Oriental atmosphere pervades the place, accentuated by the presence of monuments the Arab-Norman style. Centrally located and densely populated, the neighbourhood offers an intriguing insight into Palermo life. For example, on passing before the Chiesa di St. Teresa it is not unusual to encounter some local engaged in cooking and selling babbaluci, tiny snails marinated in oil, parsley, garlic and peper and sold in paper cornets to passers-by. The heart of the quarter is Piazza della Kalsa, although the district itself stretches as far as Corso Vittorio Emanuele, and contains many of the city’s most interesting monuments.
The heart of the quarter
The main entrance to the quarter appears to be Porta dei Greci beyond which lies the Piazza and the church of St. Teresa alla Kalsa, a monumental Baroque church built between 1686 and 1706 by Paolo Amato, with an imposing façade with two orders of Corinthian columns. Further along Via Torremuzza sits another church by Amato, Santa Maria della Pietà; inside, in the section reserved for the closed order of Dominican nuns which founded the church, is a choir screen emblazoned with a rising sun.
Via Alloro – Throughout the Middle Ages, this served as the quarter’s main street. Today, most of the elegant palazzi that once lined the thoroughfare have, sadly, either been destroyed or have fallen into disrepair. The few surviving buildings include Palazzo Abatellis which accommodates the Galleria Regionale di Sicilia, and, next to it the lovely Chiesa della Gancia.
Galleria Regionale di Sicilia – The regional art gallery is housed in Palazzo Abatellis, a magnificent Catalan Gothic building with some Renaissance features, designed by Matteo Carnelivari who was active in Palermo towards the end of the 15th century. Its elegant front has a great square central doorway ornamented with fasces (literally faggots), and a series of two- and three-light windows. Within, the palazzo is arranged around an attractive square courtyard.
The gallery’s internal layout is most interesting having been completed in the 1950s by Carlo Scarpa, one of Italy’s foremost contemporary interior designers. For each important work of art, the designer has contrived a tailor-made solution in terms of support and background, using different materials and colours so as to display it in the best possible way while exploiting natural daylight to the full.
The gallery collects together sculptures and paintings from the medieval period. The first exhibit to draw attention on the ground floor is the magnificent fresco of the Triumph of Death (room 2), from the Palazzo Sclafani. The title probably refers to the thirteenth Tarot card as the cards, which were highly popular in the Middle Ages, were also known as Trionfi (Triumphs). The painting shows the cruel and realistic figure of Death, astride a skeletal horse and armed with a bow and arrows, in the act of striking down men and women in the full flush of youth. Note in particular, how colder shades of colour have been used to portray Death, the horse, and the faces of those who have been struck by his arrows. On the left, among the group of beggars and the afflicted who have been spared by the terrible rider, is painted a figure (top) who gazes out from the picture at the observer, the brush in his right hand denotes him to be a self-portrait of the unknown author of the picture. The modernity with which some of the details – such as the stylised nose of the horse – have been rendered is quite extraordinary.
The admirable bust of Eleonora of Aragon (room IV), with its gentle expression and delicate features, together with the bust of a young woman are by the sculptor Francesco Laurana, who worked in Sicily in the 15th century. This was also when the Gagini family were active and works by them are to be found all over the island. Included in the gallery is a fine Madonna and Child by Antonello da Messina. The first floor is entirely devoted to painting (with many works from the Sicilian School). Note the lovely portable Byzantine icon (first room opposite the entrance) with scenes from the life of Christ, and Antonello da Messina’s glorious Annunciation, the peaceful expression of acceptance in the face of the Virgin.
In the room devoted to Flemish painting sits the famous Malvagna Triptych (1510) by Mabuse which shows the Virgin and Child surrounded by angels singing and playing musical instruments in a lavishly decorated frame, set against an equally fabulous landscape background.
La Gancia (S. Maria degli Angeli) – The church dedicated to Santa Maria degli Angeli was originally built by the Franciscans in the late 1400’s; numerous alterations have since modified its appearance, particularly the interior. The exterior retains from the original its square profile and rustication. Before entering, look out for the Buca della Salvezza on the left; this so-called Hole of Salvation was made by two patriots who had hidden in the crypt of the church during the anti-Bourbon rebellion so that they could by pulled to safety by a handful of local people. The interior gives the impression of being Baroque although various elements date from several different periods. The fine wooden ceiling painted with stars on a blue background , the magnificent organ by Raffaele della Valle (late-1500’s), the elegant marble pulpit and Antonello Gagini’s relief tondoes of the Annunciation (on either side of the altar) all date from the 16th century. Among the parts of the original fabric that survive are some very fine details including an original novice monk peeping out over the top of a cornice in the chapel to the left of the altar.
Complesso di S. Maria dello Spasimo – Via dello Spasimo. The church and convent were built just inside the walls of the Kalsa in 1506. The patron of the project was Giacomo Basilicò who, to mark the occasion, commissioned Raphael to paint a picture of the Anguish of the Virgin before the Cross (now in the Prado in Madrid). Building work on the church was slow and not yet completed when the Turkish threat made it necessary to build a new bastion just behind the church. In turn, the complex was transformed into a fortress, a theatre, a hospice for plague victims (1624) then, later, for the poor (1835) and finally a hospital; the place was abandoned in 1986. The church is to be restored while it is hoped that the old hospital will be transformed into exhibition spaces and concert venues. The section that is currently accessible to the public is the part arranged around the 1500’s cloister. Beyond sits the church, the only example of northern Gothic in Sicily. The tall, slender nave, reaches up towards the open sky without a roof (perhaps never built) and ends with a lovely polygonal apse. The original entrance is given prominence by a pronaos in which were installed two side chapels. The one on the left is still visible, complete with its distinctive little bulbous dome. This, in turn, provides access to the old Spanish bastion, now laid out as a garden. The whole complex is most evocative, particularly when caught by the rays of the setting sun.
La Magione – An attractive little avenue of palm trees leads up to the Romanesque church that was founded in the 12th century by Matteo d’Ajello, a prominent official in the service of the Norman sovereigns. In 1197, it was conceded by Henry IV to the Order of Teutonic Knights, in whose hands it remained for more than three hundred years. The front elevation rises through three tiers of pointed arches which at the lowest level are ornamented with decorative features and enclose the doorways. The interior, divided into three aisles, is simple and austere. The church also has a fine cloister with paired columns, unfortunately severely damaged during the Second World War.
Via della Magione runs along the side of Palazzo Ajutamicristo, a large 1400’s building designed by Matteo Carnelivari.
Piazza della Rivoluzione – This delightful little square is so called because it was here that the anti-Bourbon rebellion of 1848 was sparked off. In the centre is a fountain graced by the so called Genio di Palermo, who symbolises the city.
The northern quarter
S. Francesco d’Assisi – very little of the original 1200’s church survives. As it succumbed to damage, repair and alteration on successive occasions, it owes its current appearance to the fact that, the last time it was restored, great efforts were made to respect its original design. The simple front elevation is graced with a fine rose-window and magnificent Gothic portal from the original 1200’s structure. Inside, a strong sense of airiness and space, so typical of Franciscan churches, has been preserved despite subsequent structural remodelling. Of note, there are eight statues by Giovanni Serpotta, while the fine entrance doorway to the Mastrantonio Chapel is by Francesco Laurana and Pietro di Bonitate (fourth chapel on the left).
Next to the church stands the Oratorio di San Lorenzo. This has unfortunately been closed for years, but it contains stucco-work by Serpotta that is considered to be the culmination of his artistic achievements.
Palazzo Mirto – The palazzo, residence of the princes of Lanzi Filangeri, has been altered several times to meet the family’s needs. Its current form dates from the late 1700’s. Just inside, on the left, are the fabulous stables (19th century) complete with stalls and ornamental bronze horse-heads. A red marble staircase leads up to the first floor is still furnished in the main with original pieces. Among the rooms open to the public there is the Chinese sitting-room with its leather-covered floor, painted silk walls depicting scenes from everyday life and fine trompe-l’oeil ceiling: this was used as an intimate smoking-room or for playing cards. The next room, a small vestibule, contains a good set of 19th century Neapolitan plates decorated with people in costume; it is said that each guest was supposed to sit in front of the plate featuring their particular costume. Leading from the vestibule is another unusual smoking-room this time panelled with painted and embossed leather, a material suited to such rooms because it does not become impregnated with smoke. The most striking element of the Pompadour sitting room is the fabulous wall silks embroidered with flowers. The mosaic floor is the only original one. The dining-room contains a Meissen service (18th century) exquisitely painted with flowers and birds.
Piazza Marina – The centre of the piazza, which in itself lies at the very heart of medieval Palermo, is graced with an attractive garden, the Giardino Garibaldi, which is planted with magnificent banyan trees with their large, exposed, trunk-like roots. The piazza is enclosed on all sides by fine buildings: Palazzo Galletti (no. 46), Palazzo Notarbartolo (no. 51) and the famous Palazzo Chiaramonte. Diametrically opposite this, on the far side, sits the lovely Fontana del Garraffo, (from the Arabic gharraf, meaning abundant water) which was made at the close of the 1600’s by G. Vitaliano, to designs by Paolo Amato.
Palazzo Chiaramonte – this splendid palazzo was built in 1307 for the Chiaramonte family, one of the wealthiest and most powerful dynasties of the Aragonese period. The building also came to be called Lo Steri, deriving from Hosterium, a fortified residence, an obvious function given its clean, square form. It passed into the hands of the Spanish viceroys, and thence, in the 17th century, served as the headquarters of the Court of the Inquisition; this situation lasted until 1792, when the institution was abolished in Sicily. The main front is ornamented by two tiers of elegant two- and three- light windows (note the fabulous stone inlays on the underside of the arches on the first floor). The style that in essence was distilled from the Gothic, is so distinctive as to be described simply as Chiaramonte; this may be discerned in many other Sicilian civic buildings of the same period.
Museo Internazionale delle Marionette – The International Puppet Museum contains a fabulously rich collection of pupi (Sicilian puppets based on characters from the French chansons de geste), marionettes (articulated puppets operated with strings), shadow puppets, scenery and panels from all over the world. The first rooms are devoted to Sicilian puppets, many being presented “on stage”. Notice in particular the delicate facial features of Gaspare Canino’s theatre puppets (19th century). The second section presents the European tradition including such renowned figures as the English Punch and Judym and the non-European which comprises a vast Oriental collection: Chinese glove-puppets, string-puppets from India, Burma, Vietnam, Thailand and Africa; shadow puppets from Turkey, India and Malaysia (made of leather). All the caricatures are evocatively displayed in semi-darkness (for preservation purposes) as if to suggest the remoteness of their origins in the distant past and from far afield. In Room IV a hsaing waing has been arranged: this consists of a Burmese orchestra pit where, an hour before the performance, musicians used to sit and play pieces of music that constituted a symbolic rite. The final section is dedicated to special puppets destined for a violent, spectacular death. The museum also has an active theatre (details of performances are available from the museum). The walls are hung with decorative puppeteers’ posters, which were used by story-tellers to illustrate their stories.
Palazzo Branciforte-Butera – This palazzo has been heavily restored. Its main entrance is in Via Butera, altough its main front overlooks the sea. Before it, runs a beautiful promenade and a terrace known as the Mura delle Cattive (which translates as the Wall of the Wayward Ones!).
THE OLD HARBOUR DISTRICT
The cala, the city’s ancient harbour, was once protected by the Castello a Mare, which was built by the Arabs, and later transformed for use as a fortress, prison and private residence. The massive construction was, however, badly damaged in 1022 when the new jetty was extended. A description of the Cala quarter which extends behind the old harbour, must begin with the church, as this was where the chains that were used to close off the aree were kept through the centuries, hence its dedication to Santa Maria alla Catena.
S. Maria alla Catena – The design of the church is attributed to Matteo Canrelivari, its elevation dominated by a broad square protico with three arches; behind these are doorways set with low reliefs by Vincenzo Gagini. A decorative fretwork stone cornice runs along the top and sides of the portico (the flight of steps in front of the church was added at a later date). The overall style is transitional Gothic-Renaissance (1490). The lovely interior is articulated by blind arcading into square bays with pointed cross-arches, the stone ribs being offset by the white vault. The chancel is lit by traceried two-light windows. The second chapel on the right harbours fragments of a frescoed Madonna, and, on the altar, symbolic chains. The church is especially evocative at sunset, when the façade is dramatically set alight by the colours of the setting sun.
Close by stands the monumental Porta Felice (1582), which marks the eastern end of Via Vittorio Emanuele. This is designed in the late-Renaissance style, its two massive uprights elements are softened by an interplay of volutes and openings surmounted by pediments.
Further along the broad curve of the harbour lies Piazza Fonderia, beyond which (between Via Cassari and Piazza San Domenico) extends the picturesque and historic Vucciria market .
S. Domenico – Before the church stretches an attractive piazza with, at its centre, a statue of the Madonna raised on a colunm. The chruch was initiated in the 17th century and completed only a century later. The Baroque front elevation rises in three ordered tiers of Doric and Corinthian columns and square pilasters framing a statue of St. Dominic. The spacious interior is divided into nave and aisles, with a side chapel off each bay. A fine scheme of inlaid pietra dura decoration ornaments the fourth chapel on the right and the Chapel of the Rosary in the north transept. Adjacent to the church is a lovely 1300’s cloister with paired columns.
The neighbouring buildings accommodate the Sicilian Historical Society (Società Siciliana per la Storia Patria), which, in turn, has its own small Museo del Risorgimento containing mementoes of Garibaldi. From the windows of the museum, there is a spledid view of the cloister of San Domenico.
Oratorio del Rosario di S. Domenico – The oratory is a veritable treasury of stucco decoration by Giacomo Serpotta, who succeeded, as always, in conferring a profound sense of movement to the antics of his cherubs. These are characterised by a spontaneous playfulness so often found in children; their unusually expressive faces exuding happiness or thoughtfulness highlight Serpotta’s skill at working with stucco, a medium devoid of any inherent life of its own when compared to stone or marble.
The stucco or plasterwork provides frames for a series of paintings relating to the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary (left and rear walls), which include a Flagellation by Mattias Stomer. In the niches which alternate with the paintings, nestle allegories of the Virtues, a series of extraordinary female figures remarkable for their poise and for the delicate way in which their drapery is rendered. In some instances they are attended by putti; the statue of Meekness, for example, holding a dove, is flanked by a putto dressed in a monk’s attire stretching a podgy little hand towards her.
In the large ovals above the paintings, Serpotta has depicted scenes from the Apocalypse of St. John: note how the figure of the Devil writhes as he falls, having been driven from heaven. Above the dome of the altar, more winged cherubs hold up a great sheet. On the high altar itself, sits the splendid painting by Anthony Van Dyck of the Madonna of the Rosary (1628) with St. Dominic and the partron saints of Palermo; this in turn is framed by two female allegories who look onto the scene as if witnessing a theatrical performance. The ceiling, frescoed by Pietro Novelli, illustrates the Coronation of the Virgin.
Oratorio del Rosario di S. Cita – Access to the oratory is through the Chiesa di Santa Zita (Cita being a Tuscan corruption of the name Zita) which has a fine chancel arch made of marble by Antonello Gagini and a lovely chapel of the Rosary (right of the chancel) decorated with polychrome inlay and delicate stucco. The oratory is considered to be the masterpiece of the leading Baroque decorator Giacomo Serpotta who worked here between 1686 and 1718. A host of angels and cherubs are endowed with carefree expressions and realistic attitudes, completely intent on playing among themselves, climbing up onto the window frames, larking and hugging their knees deep in thought.
The eye is immediately drawn towards the wall at the back of the nave where a great drape hangs across the entire wall, supported by a struggling crowd of cherubs. A central panel depicts in relief the Battle of Lepanto; this is flanked by two emaciated youths, symbolising the horrors of War. All around the oratory, even below the side windows, are panels depicting the Mysteries of the Rosary. On the left wall begin the series relating to the Joyful Mysteries: the Annunciation, Visitation, Nativity and Presentation at the Temple. On the right are the Sorrowful Mysteries: Jesus in the Garden at Gethsemane, the Flagellation, Crowning of Thorns and Calvary. At the far end are a second series of Joyful Mysteries (starting bottom left): the Resurrection, Ascension, Descent of the Holy Spirit, and the Assumption of Mary. At the top, in the centre, the Crowning of Mary. The high altar has a fine painting by Carlo Maratta of the Madonna of the Rosary (1690).
The eight windows along the side-walls are “guarded” by allegorical figures. A little further on, sits San Giorgio dei Genovesi overlooking its own piazza: this is one of the rare expression of the late-Renaissance. It was built by a community of Genovese merchants to shelter those among them who died in Palermo; having been deconsecrated, the former church is now used to house temporary exhititions. In Via Cavour, is the Prefettura, a Venetian NeoGothic building that was once known as the Villa Whitaker, having been erected by one of the twelve grandchildren of Ingham, the British Marsala magnate.
THE CAPO QUARTER
On the far side of Piazza San Domenico, directly opposite the church, is the narrow Via Bandiera which marks the outer fringe of the Capo market and harbours a number of fine buildings, notably Palazzo Termine (no. 14), built in 1573 with hint of the Spanish Style. Its most striking features are the lovely two-light stone traceried windows divided by slender columns; the window on the corner was added during restoration at the beginning of this century. Next-door is Palazzo Oneto di Sperlinga, an elegant 1700’s residence of some other noble family.
S. Chiesa di Sant’Agostino – The splendid 1200’s St. Augustine’s was built at the request of the Chiaramonte and Sclafani families. The front is graced with a beautiful entrance decorated with duotone geometric and flower motifs, and a lovely rose-window. The Gagini-style side-entrance in Via Sant’Agostino is also worthy of note. The interior is largely dominated by Baroque alterations, which include stuccoes by followers of the Serpotta School, signed on the shelf under the second statue on the right with Serpotta’s mark, a lizard (serpe in Sicilian). The heart of the quarter which lies further along Via Sant’Agostino, is brought to life every morning by a busy market, the mercato di Capo. It was in this part of the city that a large number of the Beati Paoli stories were set. This massively popular novel by Luigi Natoli was published in instalments between 1909 and 1910, capturing the imagination of large numbers of Palermitani who read it avidly and who spent hours speculating on the suspense maintained with each new edition. Its vivid style succeeds in painting a provocative yet faithful picture of Palermo in times past. Notice in Via Cappuccinelle (no. 6) the shop sign above the Panificio Morello, this consists of an elegant Liberty-style mosaic panel with a female figure enclosed within a “niche” of wheat sheaves, with a lotus-flower motif below and further wheat sheaves above.
Museo Archeologico Regionale – The Regional Archeological Museum is installed in the 1550’s confines of the Olivella monastery, which, with the adjoining Baroque church of Sant’Ignazio (see below) was founded in the 17th century by the fathers of St. Philip Neri. The museum contains a magnificent collection of artefacts recovered from Sicilian sites, in particular those from Selinunte.
Ground floor – The visit begins in a small cloister with a hexagonal fountain in the centre. At the back, high up in the wall is a beautiful single light window with a decorative surround. The portico shelters an assortment of Punic and Roman anchors (also on display in the large cloister). One small room devoted to Phoenician art displays two sarcophagi from the 6th century BC with organic decoration; another is dedicated to Egyptian and Punic finds, including the hieroglyphic inscription known as the Stone of Palermo (the other three parts are in Cairo and London) which narrates 700 years of Egyptian history, and a Punic one recovered near the harbour at Marsala bearing the figure or a priest before a perfum-burner, worshipping the god Tanit.
Beyond is the large cloister, off which are arranged a series of rooms devoted to artefacts from Selinunte. The first displays the twin steles formed by pairs of busts representing the gods of the underworld, both in shallow relief and in the round. This leads into the Sala Gabrici (interactive information terminals) which contains a reconstruction of the front elevation of Temple C and a selection of the original tryglyphs. Sala Marconi has various lion masks with water-spouts from the temple of Victory at Himera.
The exhibits in the following larger room are principally from Selinunte, including the range of marvellous metopes. The oldest (smaller) artefacts, notably from a 6th century BC archaic temple, are displayed below the window on the right; one fragment depicts the Rape of Europa by Zeus in the guise of a bull. On the left are three more marvellous metopes from Temple C (6th century BC). The high relief, which in places verges on being in the round, shows Perseus severing the head of Medusa while from her breast springs Pegasus, the winged horse born from her spilt blood (central scene); above is the figure of Athena with, to the left, the four-horse chariot of the Sun God Apollo and, to the right, Heracles capturing the Cercopi (two thieving brothers) and hanging them from a stick.
Against the back wall are four metopes from Temple E; these are considered to be the finest in terms of their expressiveness, their sense of movement and their realism which has been described as “modern” in concept. Starting from left, these show Heracles fighting with an Amazon, Hera before Zeus (who, seated, lifts the veil from her face), Actaeon being transformed into a stag (the muzzle of the animal can just be seen behind the head of Actaeon as he is attacked by the dogs), and Athena fighting the giant Enceladus. The four rooms filled with Etruscan finds contain some fine cinerary urns and bucchero ware.
First floor – Among the various bronzes from the Greek, Roman and Punic periods, are a couple of truly superb ones: Heracles catching the stag, perhaps the central decoration for a fountain, and, more particularly, the fabulously lifelike bronze Ram, a Hellenistic work of extraordinary quality, from Syracuse. The following room displays small marble statues including a fine Satyr pouring, a Roman copy of an original by Praxiteles.
Second floor – On this floor are arranged the museum’s prehistoric collections, a selection of its finest Greek vases, Roman mosaics and frescoes. The room with the mosaics includes panels illustrating Orpheus with the animals (3rd century AD), the seasons, representations of allegories and myths closely associated with the cult of Dionysus found in Palermo.
Sant’Ignazio all’Olivella – This fine Baroque church was initiated in the late-1500’s on the site where, according to tradition, the villa of the family of Santa Rosalia once stood. An interpretation of Olivella would confirm this: Olim villa, once a villa (was here). The front incorporates two bell-towers which add a certain freedom to the overall composition. Inside, an eye-catching inscription in bright red proclaims jahvé in the centre of the Gloria behind the altar. The first chapel on the right contains a great wealth of decorative inlay in the form of polychrome pietra dura.
Oratory – Access from the south transept. This was designed by the architect Venanzio Marvuglia. Inside, the stucco work relates the Gloria: the attractive composition with the angel surrounded by groups of cherubs in twos and threes, is the work of Ignazio Marabitti. Via dell’Orologio, opposite the church, leads into Via Maqueda, and Teatro Massimo. Before continuing any further, a backwards glance from the end of the street will provide an unexpected view of one of Sant’Ignazio’s two bell-towers, the clock of which might even have lent its name to the street.
LA CITTA' NUOVA
At the beginning of the 19th century, the city underwent a period of considerable expansion, The wealthy merchant bourgeoisie chose the northwest side of the city to build fine residences in keeping with the new aesthetic taste, lavishly decorated with wrought-iron work, glass and floral panels. The hub of high society shifted form Via Maqueda to its extension which took the name of Via della Libertà. Here they built the great temples of opera, two theatres – the Massimo and the Politeama, and a large number of modern pallazzi scattered through the neighbouring streets. Even today, a walk along Via XX Settembre, Via Dante and Via Siracusa, to name but a few, will reveal a flavour of the splendour promoted by the wealthy upper-middle classes in the late-1800s.
Teatro Massimo – This opera-house, under the watchful eye of Giuseppe Verdi, is one of the largest in Europe. The front of this imposing Neo-Classical structure is composed of six columns and a broad triangular pediment, modelled on the pronaos of an ancient temple. Set back, a great dome rises from its high drum. The initial design was completed by Giovan Battista Basile in 1875; building work was concluded by his son Ernesto, who took it upon himself to add the two small distinctive Liberty-style Kiosks in front of the theatre (the one on the right, built of wood and wrought-iron, is known as the Vicari al Massimo Kiosk, while the one on the left, made of iron, is the Ribaudo Kiosk). At last, the theatre was reopened in 1997 after a long period of closure.
Teatro Politeama – The Politeama Theatre, as imposing and built in the same Neo-Classical style as the Teatro Massimo, faces onto the vast Piazza Castelnuovo, its façade is dominated by a quadriga of bronze horses. Inside, it accommodates the Galleria d’Arte Moderna Empedocle Restivo.
Galleria d’Arte Moderna Empedocle Restivo – The Empedocle Restivo Gallery of Modern Art is contained within an elegant Liberty-style interior (note the large, wrought-iron lights). The collection comprises a highly prized selection of 1800’s and 1900’s paintings and sculptures by a number of Sicilian artists and a few foreign artists. The sculptures include a delightful Faun by Trentacoste, a marble figurine of Classical proportions, but gracefully coiled upon itself like a spiral ready to burst free. 1800’s Sicilian art developed in different directions while simultaneously giving rise to a new generation of concepts. Artists specialised in using the medium they found most congenial. The great themes tackled often revolved around psychological introspection, interspersed with intervals of inactivity and Neo-Classical composure, history and landscape. From this period stem the portraits by Patania, such as Study of a Sick Priest in which the man’s suffering is rendered with piercing realism, and those by Salvatore Lo Forte who managed to impart to his subjects so much strength of character. This is also the age of partiotism which Erulo Eruli encapsulated in his great composition The Sicilian Vesper.
Different trends may also be detected in the style and expression of the various landscape painters represented: Lo Jacono’s realism (Wind in the Mountains) becomes loaded with feeling in the works of Leto who paints impressions by dabbing strong, warm colours onto his canvas (three studies for The Rope-makers); Michele Catti absorbs all the tenets of impressionism before painting his hazy landscapes with horizons lost in infinity (Last Leaves). Onofrio omaselli (The Carusi) adds a note of compassion (in the sense of the Latin word, implying a sharing of pain) with his bold use of warm colours. A few works both from the Italian and other foreign shools exemplify the new trends that emerged at the close of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th: Expressionims in The Nativity by Lienz; Symbolism in the works of Von Stuck (The Sin), and Pointillism in Terzi’s Summer Morning.
The last few rooms collect together paintings from the 1930s and the years following the Second World War: The Tram by Sironi, with its cold colours; The Schoolchildren by F. Casorati, with its geometric lines that seem to accentuate the sadness and immobility of the children (what is haunting is the blank staring eyes of one child in the foreground); an expressive Self-portrait by Guttuso. These rooms also accommodate a number of sculptures, including the fine Acrobat by T. Bertolino, with its curving, sinuous lines.
Villa Malfitano – Via Dante. The famous Liberty-style Villa Malfitano, contained within its glorious garden, was begun in 1886 by Joseph Whitaker, a grandson of the mighty Ingham, that English gentleman-cum-wine-merchant who came to live in Sicily in 1806. Ingham was an entrepreneur who managed to build himself a veritable commercial empire out of producing Marsala wine, a business he founded and developed until it became one of the three leading producers, and a large steamship company. In stark contrast to his grandfather, Joseph was fascinated by ornithology and archaeology; to satisfy his interest he travelled to Tunisia where he studied the birds (later writing a treatise on the subject) and initiated a programme of excavation on the island of Mozia which he had purchased. Another of his passions was botany; he arranged to have trees sent from all over the world so that he could plant them around his villa; these gardens soon comprised a whole range of rare and exotic species: plam trees, Dragon’s blood trees, the only example in Europe of Araucaria Rouler and an enormous banyan tree. The villa soon became one of the main points of reference for high society at that time. Lavish parties were held there and important guests, such as the reigning monarchs of Great Britain and Italy, were received and entertained. The point came when the villa would epitomise the pre-eminence of the family. It was re-modelled upon the Villa Favard in Florence, and endowed with elegant wrought-iron verandas which reflect a taste for the new Liberty-style (the one at the back is especially beautiful).
The internal furnishings are exquisitely chose: a profusion of Oriental items (often purchased at the most famous English auction rooms) include, for example, a pair of cloisonée elephants from the Royal Palace in Beijing, and a pair of large waders riding on the back of a turtle symbolising the four elements (the birds represent the air, the turtles water, the snake wound around the neck and held in the beak of the bird represents the earth and the lantern which acts as a lamp symbolises fire). The best craftsmen from the area and the most famous local artists were employed to work on the villa (the dining-room furniture was all made in Palermo, except for the table, which is English). Worthy of particular note is the Safari in Tunisia by Lo Jacono (in the corridor) and the pastel portrait of Joseph’s daughters by Ettore de Maria Bergler, which hangs above the lovely spiral staircase leading up to the first floor, decorated in the then fashionable Pompeiian style as is the ceiling of the corridor. The real highlight of the Whitaker house, however, is the decoration conceived by the same artist for the Sala d’Estate (Summer Room); this consists of a trompe-l’oeil composition covering the entire room (walls and ceiling), transforming the enclosed space into a cool veranda surrounded by vegetation.
Villino Florio – 36 Viale Regina Margherita. This fantastic house was built for one of the most powerful families in Sicily in the 19th century: the Florio. It is, without doubt, one of the finest examples of the Palermo Liberty-style; designed by Ernesto Basile, it was originally surrounded by a large garden.
Villa Trabia – Via Salinas. A wonderful garden surrounds the villa of the same name, built in the 18th century and bought the following year by Giuseppe Lanza Branciforte, prince of Trabia and Butera. The current appearance of the villa is the result of the many alterations undertaken at the end of the last century. The building, now used as municipal offices, has a splendid entrance with a monumental staircase.
Albero di falcone – This tree stands at the beginning of Via Notarbartolo, on the right, outside the house of Giovanni Falcone, who was killed by a Mafia bomb in 1993. Since his death, the tree seems to have become a token shrine in its own right: messages, photographs, and small offerings bear witness to people’s esteem and affection for the judge.
Museo della Fondazione Mormino – The Mormino Foundation Museum is housed on the first floor of the Banco di Sicilia (Villa Zito). It was formed so as to display an accumulation of art work, original creations and recovered artefacts acquired over the years by the banco di Sicilia. The first rooms are devoted to artefacts recovered during the excavations at Selinunte, Himera, Solunto and Terravecchia di Cuti, a small town further inland where a village from the 6th-5th centuries BC was unearthed. The second section displays majolica from Sicily and from the rest of Italy (with a few examples from Turkey and China). The third section is devoted to a large collection of 13th to 19th century coins and medals: this is complemented by a fine series of Sicilian engravings on the walls. No 936 in particular, dating from the 16th century, provides a view of Palermo as it was, completely surrounded by defensive walls; Palazzo Reale can be pinpointed at the top, and, to its left, San Giovanni degli Eremiti; at right angles to the palazzo runs the axis of modern day Via Vittorio Emanuele, which continues down to the harbour; this is guarded on the left by the Castello a Mare falling into ruin; in the centre is La Martorana.
On the ground floor is displayed the bank’s philatelic collection with stamps dating from the era of the Kingdom of Two Sicilies.
BEYOND THE CITY GATES
Orto Botanico – The Botanical Gardens have occupied their present since 1789. The French architect Dugourny designed not only the gardens but also a series of buildings for use as research laboratories and experimentation. The gardens contain a huge range of different species, including fine examples of Oriental and exotic plants, such as the majestic Dendrocalamus Giganteus – a giant kind of bamboo, or the incredible bayan tree (Ficus Magnoloides), the tallest and most far-reaching tree in the garden. There are various South American plants such as Chorisias, Bombacaceae characterised by their strange, swollen, prickly trunks brought to Palermo in the late-19th century. From the large, deep pink flowers develop the fruits which, when mature, split open, dropping their seeds and their enveloping thick hairy padding, once used like horsehair. One greenhouse contains a fine variety of cactus; note, at the entrance, the enormous barili d’oro (literally “barrels of gold” – also ironically called “mother-in-law’s chairs”).
Ponte dell'Ammiraglio – Corso dei Mille. The picturesque medieval bridge once straddled the waters of the River Oreto, which was then diverted. It was built in 1113 by George of Antioch, an admiral serving under Roger II.
San Giovanni dei Lebbrosi – St John of the Lepers may be the oldest Norman church in Sicily. Its most endearing feature is the red dome which caps the bell-tower-cum-entrance. The Church is supposed to have been founded in 1070 (although some say it may have been a century later).
Chiesa di Santo Spirito o dei Vespri – Inside the Cemetery of Santa Orsola. The Church of the Holy Spirit or of the Vespers was built in 1178 during the reign of Roger II. It came to fame on 31 March 1282 when, during Evensong (Vespers), a French soldier cast some insult at a Sicilian woman, provoking the bystanders to jump to her defence and so providing a pretext for an outburst of growing resentment towards the invaders from beyond the Alps. The incident sparked off the War of the Sicilian Vespers, which in turn led to the eviction of the French from the island.
The front of the church, although incomplete, points promisingly upwards, while a decorative system of duotone interlacing arches, typical of Norman art, extends down the sides to the apses. The interior is austere and simple (largely thanks to the restoration work carried out in the late-1800s), when it was restored to its original state by removing the elaborate decoration added during the Baroque era); the internal space is divided into a nave and flanking aisles by pointed arches that spring from round piers. The east end comprises three apses, in accordance with the Norman tradition. The painted Christ on the Cross above the altar is from the 16th century.
Santuario di S. Maria del Gesù – Follow Viale della Regione Siciliana to where it meets the narrow alleyway called Via Oreto; turn right down Via Santa Maria di gesù, (look out for the green sign above the shoe-shop at the corner). Erected in the 15th century, it occupies a peacefully serene and cool spot on the slopes of Monte Grifone. The way to it leads through a cemetery where, traditionally, aristocratic families have kept their mausoleums. The area in front of the church is surrounded by fine patrician tombs mainly from the 19th century or the beginning of this century, including the Liberty-style chapel belonging to the princes of Lanza di Scalea. The main entrance has a marble surround decorated and delicate shallow-reliefs depicting Christ among angels and Apostles. The doorway on the left side is Gothic in style; it has attractive capitals carved with organic decoration.
Inside, the chancel has two bays articulated by pointed arches; Antonio Alliata’s marble sarcophagus is attributed to Antonello Gagini; in the chancel, high up on the right there is a rare wooden statue of the Virgin (1470); a fine coffered wooden ceiling, painted with flowers and angels (early 1500s), spans the entrance to the church and the organ above it. It is also worth taking note of the brightly coloured wooden organ loft, painted with scenes from the life of St. Francis (1932).
Albergo delle Povere – 217 Corso Calatafimi. Open to the public during exhibitions and conferences. The complex was originally intended at the end of the 18th century as a hospice for the poor of the city; in the 19th century, it was reserved for spinsters who set up a weaving workshop there; it is now used for temporary exhibitions and conferences. The fountain in front is 17th century. The complex, which includes the buildings on other side of the road, consists of two parts arranged round two large, beautiful cloisters; these, in turn are connected by a central courtyard onto which faces the Church of Holy Trinity.
The left wing still shelters Opera Pia, a charity providing assistance to the poor; the right wing serves as operational headquarters for the exclusive Carabinieri hit-squad unit charged with protecting Sicily’s artistic heritage; facilities include exhibition rooms and a lecture-hall with a capacity for 350 people.
Catacombe dei Cappuccini – The Capuchin Catacombs hold a certain macabre fascination; in simple terms they consist of a maze of corridors containing thousands of mummified bodies, contorted in expression and posture, perfectly dressed, appended (as they had been hanged, with a rope around the neck) to the walls, in niches or propped up against the wall. The overwhelming sense of tragedy, which never fails to touch visitors, is heightened by the fact that these figures are shut away behind railings. The catacombs contain the remains of almost 8,000 capuchin friars (the oldest corpses date from the late-1500s), as well as those of illustrious or wealthy people, children and virgins, each category having been allotted its own special area. What is particularly extraordinary is the condition of the corpses, preserved intact by the special environmental conditions causing gradual desiccation. The one exception is the little two-year old girl who died in 1920: she is so well preserved that she seems merely asleep; her body was injected with a concoction of chemicals (the doctor who administered them died without revealing his secret potion).
In the cemetery adjacent to the Capuchin monastery is the tomb of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, author of The Leopard, who died in 1957 (third avenue of the left).
Parco della Favorita – 3km to the north. The large park situated at the foot of Monte Pellegrino was created in 1799 by Ferdinand III of Bourbon, when the Napoleonic troops drove him out of Naples (where he had reigned as Ferdinand IV). The parkland became the King’s private hunting estate; he had a house built there, the delightul Chinese Palace, a curiously-shaped building with an exotic decor, designed by Marvuglia. The servants quarters were accommodated in the building courtyard onto which faced the kitchens (connected to the palace by an underground passageway); this now houses the G. Pitré Museum.
Museo Etnografico Pitré – The Pitré Ethnographic Museum houses a large quantity of artefacts associated with local folklore, in an attempt to explain their significance and use in the customary practices especially in rural areas. Reconstructions of houses, tools, needlework and embroidery, fabrics, a wonderful 1600’s wrought-iron bed-head, everyday pottery, “Sunday-best” clothes for high days and holidays, splendid engraved horn goblets and gourd containers for water or wine provide an introduction to life in Sicily in days of yore. In the rooms around the courtyard are displayed various examples of Sicilian cart, all decorated with an incredible array of elaborate carving, painting and wrought-iron work (pause to admire the intricate detail of these exhibits), two 1600’s council carriages and children’s toys: Amulets and trinkets linked with magic and popular superstitions, together with the fine collection of hand-made votive objects, bear witness to the strong faith of the country people. The museum also has a library (open mornings only) of books about popular traditions in Sicily and beyond.
MEMORIES FROM THE EAST
The parks around Palermo in the time of the Normans covered great areas of land: the one lying west of the city, known as Genoard or the Paradise on Earth, was chosen by the sovereigns as an apt place for a summer residence or a pleasure palace in the Oriental sense of the word: providing a peaceful haven set among gardens of exotic plants, with pools containing fish, water courses and even wild animals from distant lands. Such were the dreams that inspired the building of La Zisa, Scibene Castle – still visible, although much restored, from viale Tasca Lanza – Cuba Sottana and Cuba Soprana – now part of a crumbling Villa Napoli complex (a few arches are just visible), and la Cubola – a small square pavilion surmounted by the characteristic bulbous red dome (see San Cataldo and San Giovanni degli Eremiti), which is accessible from Via Zancla, one of the roads crossing Corso Calatafimi. The two best preserved monuments are, without doubt, la Zisa and la Cuba Sottana.
La Zisa – Piazza Guglielmo il Buono. The name is derived from El Aziz, meaning ‘the splendid’ or ‘noble one’. Today, sadly, only the shell of the palace remains, yet this retains an undeniable aura. It was initiated by Guglielmo d’Altavilla and completed by his son Guglielmo II between 1166 and 1175; work on the building was entrusted entirely to Moorish craftsmen. In the 14th century, after a period of neglect, it was transformed into a fortress, then into a depository for objects contaminated by the plague (16th century), before being converted (and then extensively altered) into a palazzo for some noble family; recent restoration has endeavoured to return it to its original state.
Tour – The main attraction on the ground floor, is the room with the fountain: built on a cruciform plan, open at the front, the room has two square pools that collect water from the main channel in the centre of the room, fed from a water-spout. The upper section of the walls carries a mosaic frieze of peacocks and archers. From here, are arranged a succession of rooms each equipped with a special ventilation system whereby draughts of cool air could circulate through gaps in the walls. The niches and windows have mouqarnas, a highly decorative honeycomb of miniature vaults and stalactite pendants, a characteristic feature in Islamic architecture. The palazzo houses a collection of objects, mainly from Egypt (from the Mameluke and Ottoman periods), that typify the art and style of furnishings that might once have adorned the original palace. The 15th century mushrabiyya, a sort of perforated wooden screen placed in front of doors and windows as protection against excessive heat and light, are particularly fine.
La Cuba – The Cuba Sottana, now incorporated into military barracks, was probably surrounded by a vast artificial lake that was known as the Pescheria (fish-pond). In the old stables, just inside the entrance on the right, is a model reconstruction of how the palace must have looked originally. On the wall, the engraved Kufic inscription celebrates the completion of the building, thereby confirming that it was erected in 1180 at the request of William II.
The decoration of the building is exquisitely simple: above a series of tall pointed arches of different widths are inserted various other smaller openings. La Cuba was built according to a rectangular plan, with four small projections at the centre of each side. The internal space was divided into three parts (the first, or last in the order of our visit, also accommodated two service rooms). In the central section there is an eight-sided star-shaped pool; from here the water would trickle gently into the Pescheria, without breaking the surface so as not to disturb the reflections of the building and garden.
ON THE OUTSKIRTS OF PALERMO
Monte Pellegrino – 14km north. The road up Monte Pellegrino offers magnificent views over Palermo and the Conca d’Oro; in places it is crossed by a wide, much steeper, paved path dating form the 1600s (used by those going up on foot). As the road climbs, it passes on the left the Castello Utveggio, a massive pink construction that can also be seen from the city, and then continues on to the Santuario di Santa Rosalia dating from the 17th century and built around the cave where, according to legend, St. Rosalie lived. It is also said that this was where her bones were found in 1624 and that these, when carried in procession down through the city, liberated it from the plague. Following this event, Santa Rosalia became the patron saint of Palermo. The Cave is covered with zinc guttering which helps collect the dripping water from the walls, as this is considered to have miraculous properties.
Further on up, the road comes to a look-out point which, though dominated by a statue of the saint, provides breathtaking views out to sea.
Grotte dell’Addaura – Between Mondello and Arenella, off the Lungomare Cristoforo Colombo, level with the road turning for Punta di Priola. A series of caves among the lower slopes of Monte Pellegrino have revealed that they were inhabited during Palaeolithic times (5th millenium BC). In one of these caves have been found various extraordinary rock engravings, possibly associated with some initiation ceremony of a ritual. The inscriptions consist of animals and a group of nine human figures wearing strange head-dresses, standing in a circle around another two figures arching their bodies and holding their arms stretched out in front of them, almost as if they are dancing.
Mondello – 11km north. The road passes below the tall rugged slopes of Monte Pellegrino. This area, now an elegant holiday resort, was “discovered” at the beginning of the century by well-to-do Palermitans who decided that it provided the ideal conditions for a weekend away or for a short seaside holiday. As a result, large numbers of elegant villas sprang up (many of which still stand) along the sea front, the length of Viale Principe Scalea (Villa Magherita at no 36), Via Margherita di Savoia (especially at the beginning) or in the steets behind, like no 7 Via Cà da Mosto (Villino Lentini).
The sea front promenade is graced with a picturesque bathing establishment dating from the beginning of this century, which continues to function as such (although part of it has been converted into a restaurant and accommodates a private club).
Palermo was founded by the Phoenicians in the 7th century BC who called it Ziz, meaning flower. This, in time was conquered by the Romans who gave it the name Panormus (from the Greek words meaning “large port of rock”) from which Palermo (corrupted by the introduction of the Arabic name Balharm) has been derived for us today. The city’s golden age began under Arab domination (9th century), when it was established as one of the main Islamic centres in the west; it expanded as new quarters were developed beyond the confines of the old centre known as the Cassaro (from the Arabic Qasr meaning castle, also the old name of the main steet of Palermo, now Corso Vittorio Emanuele); the Kalsa (from Al Halisah – the chose one) in particular flourished down by the sea front, and, once fortified, provided a residence for the Emir. In 1072, the city fell into the hands of the Norman Count Roger, but the transfer was not a violent one: as merchants, artisans and Muslims in general (but also people of other races and religions) were permitted to continue to live and practise their chosen profesions as though nothing had changed. Indeed, it was precisely this magnanimity that made it possible for the so-called Arabo-Norman style, that glorious mix of structural and decorative element, to develop in architecture. The city prospered while benefiting from the wealthy investment of different cultures. Roger II, son of the Count, harbouring a predilection for luxury, built gardens in the oriental style to complement his sumptuous palaces (La Zisa and La Xuba); he surrounded himself with men of letter, mathematicians, astronomers and intellectuals from far and wide. After a short period of disorder and decadence, Palermo and Sicily passed into the hands of Frederick II of Swabia (1212), under whom the city regained its importance and vigour. The Swabians were succeeded by the Angevins; they in turn were driven out at the end of the so-called War of the Vespers, by the Spaniards and, in the 18th century, the Bourbons of Naples, who embellished the city with Baroque plalaces.
In the 19th century, Palermo entered a period of economic prosperity, it establishing new trade and commercial relationships with the main European cities, and expanding remarkably its territory. The middle-classes rise to soon become a major economic and political power. The Viale della Libertà, extension of Via Maqueda, is inaugurated, and the quarter devoloping around it built with a profusion of Lyberty-style palazzi. A period of crisis followed, that comes at its worst with the Second World War’s bombings and an earthquake in 1968 that highly contributed to the old town’s decline. Today, mostly due to restoration work, many of Palermo’s historical palazzi have regained their old splendor that has resulted in an economic, mainly tourist, remarkable growth.