Palermo has many charms, starting with the friendly people, continuing with the superb church art and architecture, many lovely parks and piazzas, opera, and a ton of diverse history. To these charms add the Greek temples in Arigento and Selinunte, Erice, Siracusa, Noto and other destinations not far away, and you have a location of major interest to both short and long-term visitors.
Palermo would be a much lovelier city if they could do a better job in the non-tourist areas where they are dreadfully inept at trash removal and street cleaning. There are some buildings in need of demolition or renovation, and exterior cleaning, but given the size and age of the city I am less concerned with those big dollar projects than the daily need to clean up. There is chronic labor unrest, and substandard buildings from the 70’s and 80’s that accompanied the depopulation of rural Sicily. That Sicily largely disabled the Mafia is a vast credit, and it honors those heroes, but corruption of a less invasive type is still an issue. My sense is that with a big push on the clean up Palermo could be a mighty fine place to live given its location, climate, and rich heritage, and while that alone would not solve the other matters, it would cure a lingering source of discontent.
We are near Giardino Inglese. To get there we walk on a few less than well maintained streets, along which you pass some fabulous bakeries and pastry shops, and at least two good restaurants we’ve been to, one being Ristorante di Diego which we enjoyed last Saturday night. Once you get to the parks, you are in a different world – tranquil, clean, beautiful. You might think you crossed a vast ocean between one place and another given the sharp contrasts.
Palermo was heavily bombed in WW2. You can still see some of the effects around the port. However tere are many palaces in good to excellent condition that are hundreds of years old, and you can pay to see some. Baroque architecture is common, especially among the churches. The Arabo-Norman style is unique to Palermo. See my post on the Palazzon Normani
The main street, Via Liberta, is pedestrian only on weekends, from near us down to the center. This makes for tranquil strolling and leisure gazing at the buildings, shops and fast food places along the way. You smell the barbecue wafting from the Ballaro street market. Here, all roads and, as a result all paragraphs, lead to a place to eat.
Palermo is not a top tier city when it comes to art museums. Given its size, around 800,000 people, that is neither surprising nor unusual. There is a very good archaeology museum, the Regional Archeological Museum Antonio Salinas, and there is at least one dig you can visit, Necropoli Punica , taking you back a few thousand years. There are two modern art museums. Neither have the resources for major foreign expositions. You see some of the more well-known Sicilian artists from the 19th c and some of the contemporary artists as well.
From the Museo D’Arte Contemporanea Della Sicilia at the Palazzo Riso:
Check out my posts on several of the more famous churches.
In 1956 the Sicilian Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa wrote a novel called Il Gattopardo, The Leopard. It was published in 1958, after his death. The book won the 1959 Strega Prize, Italy’s highest award for fiction. In 2012 the Observor named the book one of the best 10 historical novels. It’s the story of Don Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina, the author’s great-grandfather and his response to the Risorgamiento, the effort that unified Italy. Garibaldi and his 1000 soldiers in landed in Sicily in 1860 to bring the island into the fold. Corbera, the last in a line of minor princes, finds that he has to choose between upper class values and the changing times. To go along with the latter ironically meant more influence for the family. His nephew Tancredi, who joined Garibaldi, put it thus: “Everything needs to change, so everything can stay the same.” In the end Sicily’s ruling class joined the new Italy, setting aside centuries of Spanish rule.
In 2000 we met Gigi, Tomasi’s great-nephew. He was then in the process of writing a novel. He needed someone to help him write it in English. This was more than normal editing, as although he spoke English quite well, writing is another matter and often not easy to do even for native speakers. Peg took on the task. This led to stay in Sicily for 3 weeks.
We lodged in his family’s turn of the century residence outside Modica, a charming town whose houses line a steep gorge. His house was out in the flatter area however. His wife Marina was there with us as well. Marina was friendly and a very good cook as well. We had dinner with them most nights. I learned to make onions in bread crumbs with garlic, oregano and basil. She made pasta Palermitana, which here in Palermo they are calling pasta sarde, pasta with sardines, and which are very popular. She sauteed fresh sardines, then she added bread crumbs before mixing in the cooked pasta. Marina had a German Shepherd she’d rescued off the street. He had a wild-eyed look to him, like he was deciding if he would let you pass or attack, though he never even growled. She called him simply ‘Cane, ‘ ‘Dog.’ We had a whole apartment to ourselves, on the second floor, with its own kitchen, to give you an idea of the size of the place.
It was in the month of July. When Peg was not working we drove around in Gigi’s Renault 8. They have a dashboard mounted 4 speed manual transmission. It was old and the shifter clunky, but always ran. It was fun to drive such a French car. With it we went to a burial site dating to something like 4000 BCE, a Roman theater, stopped when we saw fig trees by the side of the road ripe with fruit, appearing to belong to no one. We ate fresh tuna in out-of-the-way places and well-known ones such as Noto. Tuna is plentiful that time of year when they run the straits between Sicily and Malta on their way to the cooler waters of the Atlantic. Siracusa is an ancient Greek city in an island with many, with churches built using Roman era marble columns. There is both a theater and an oracle, the oracle now just a cave, not far from town. I took the ferry to Malta, imaging the voyages of Ulysses and the Carthaginians along the way, just an hour and a half on the sea.
In one double take moment I saw a boy and a girl walking ahead of us. They looked just like my brother and the older of my sisters at that age. Unlike me, they are 100% Sicilian, not that all Sicilians look alike. Even in my own family there are vast differences. Zio Matteo, my mother’s half-brother, was blond and blue-eyed, although his hair was gray by the time of my earliest memories. He taught me to use a knife and fork, European style, right hand for the knife, left for the fork. In those days I think they did not allow for lefties. In fact the teachers, nuns I believe, forced her to write with her right hand. Lefties were somehow devils.
Gigi and Marina took us often to a bar in the mornings, one known for their coffee granitas topped with thick whipped cream. We went to a friend’s house one evening. They grilled veggies for the bruscheta (‘ch’ in Italian is a hard ‘k’ sound, so it is pronounced ‘brusKeta’) on great Italian bread. There was pasta and wine, and a secondi, either meat or fish. The food was endless, the conversation in Italian mostly, some of which we could follow with our combination of Spanish, French and a book called “Italian Made Simple.”
As far as we know, Gigi never published his book. Peg said he was rewriting her edits, which she then had to edit. She concluded he could finish it in English. Maybe he wrote it Italian. I read a short story he wrote. It was quite good. A yacht owner took his large boat into the Med with a group of friends. He let his regular captain take the day off. They all dove off the boat to enjoy the lovely waters. However they forgot to lower the ladder beforehand and found they could not get back on the boat. Everyone drowned.
We flew back to Rome from Catania, flying over the isle of Stromboli. It’s a volcano, cone is long gone, with signs of life rising from its depths.
Duomo Monreale , also referred to as the Cathedral of Monreale, sits at height over the valley in which Palermo resides. The views of the city, the large natural port, and the surrounding urban and rural zones are expansive. Here’s a video with some good shots of the valley, taking you then to the Duomo and the adjacent cloisters.
The cathedral was built under the Norman King Guillermo II, who along with his brother is buried here in a coffin aside a petition near the altar. Legend would have it that he fell asleep beneath a tree in the nearby forest. In a dream, Mary told him to build a church here. They found treasure in the tree’s roots. The gold financed the project, which began in 1172. The result today is a UNESCO Heritage Site, one of Italy’s finest churches. It is in the Arabo-Norman Style, 102 x 40 meters in size. The interior is wall to ceiling in what I would call ‘late’ Byzantine style mosaics. The underlying drawings are a bit more realistic than what you might find in Orthodox churches. There is not a bare centimeter anywhere in the buliding. The floors are exquisitely formed patterns in marble. The arches are Moorish in style as is the external decor.
We were doing this and that in our apartment when we finally heard the procession going by. I managed to get a short video. The Mary had already gone around the corner so you can see it just from behind. You can hear the music, though it has been pretty much the same everywhere today, except for the opera singer we heard at a church.
Oratorio della SS. Carita di San Piedro is a small church originally connected to a secular effort to raise funds for the ransom the religious abducted by pirates. The anteroom has outstanding frescoes by Guglielmo Borremans. One is “The escape of St. Peter from the Prison,” the other “The Glory of St. Peter.” There is also “Francis of Assisi,” “Achaio,” “Vincenzo de ‘Paoli,” and “Paolino.”
Oratorio della SS. Carita di San Piedro
Chiesa San Agostino
Construction on the Romanesque Chiesa San Agostino (Chiesa di Sant’Agostino) is locally known as Santa Rita. The building was built in the early 14th century . The rose window has 12 intersecting semi-circles and has an unusual trim that defines the entire otherwise plain facade. The Gothic portal features arabesques (abstract patterns) and plant motifs.
Chiesa de SS. Trinita de Maggione is an 11th century Arab-Norman Church located near the old port area, called La Cala, roughly equidistant from Vila Giulia, thus one of the oldest parts of Palermo. Next to it is where the family home of anti-Mafia hero Giovanni Falcone once stood. The church was built in 1191 near the end of the Norman era, over the remains of a mosque. Starting in 1192 the Cistercian order controlled the church. This order held that mosaics and decoration is a distraction interfering with worship, thus the church is rather bare. Yet it has a certain charm, and a tranquility from the stark contrast between the stone of the building and the green of the grass of the cloisters visible to the left, and the monks’ chants playing over the speakers.
King Tancredi, who ruled over Sicily 1189-94 buried his son Roger in the church and wanted to be buried in the Basilica as well.
As of 1492 the church was governed by one Rodrigo Borgia, from Valencia, who would later become Pope Alexander VI, one of two Spanish popes, both among the most corrupt. Perhaps things were not so tranquil then, given the expulsion of Moors and Jews, and the pleasantries of the Inquisition.
Necropoli Punica dates to between the city’s founding in 734 BCE as ‘Ziz’ (changed to Pánormos by the Greeks) in 734. The Necopolis on Corso Calatafimi has an excellent if somewhat technical narrative panel. You can walk into the dig and one level down into several burial sites. The site is behind the Norman Palace, placing it between the now diverted rivers Papimeto and Kemonia Rivers. (‘Punic’ refers to the Carthaginians, who were Phoenician in origin).
The panels discuss the ancient development of the city. The earliest description of the site dates to the 10th century, by an Arabic geographer. Archaeological digs show the first area settled to be nearby the Palazzo Normani. It then goes through the eastward expansion in the 6th c. BCE. They even discovered the unit of measure used in the layout – the cubit, 54 centimetes/21.3 inches.
Human remains were either inhumanted or cremated. Some remains were found in calcarenite (a type of limestone) slabs, simple trenches, others were laid out in underground tombs. They show you examples in the dig, including that of a 5-year-old girl. There are decorative motifs linked to the Egyptians, and an oinochoe, a large jar used to mix wine.
I should have brought my Indiana Jones hat – I felt the buzz going down these stairs:
Open the door and you are a greeted by an amazing display of Baroque art in a brightly lit interior. There are stuccoes by Paolo Corso and Giuseppe Serpotta. Frescoes in the nave and the vault by Tancredi, Borremans and Velasquez. They were severely damaged during WW2 but expertly restored. There is a wood crucifix by Fra’ Umile. Giacomo Besio of the Theatines order built the Chiesa di San Giuseppe dei Teatini at the beginning of the 17th century. It has a large a blue and yellow ceramic dome.
There is a circuit of churches in Palermo. These buildings are centuries old. Due to high maintenance and restoration costs they charge a small entrance fee. On the circuit is Santa Ninfa which we happened across walking down the center of via Maqueda, today being pedestrian only. I noticed the name on the exterior plaque and as my grandmother was born in a village named Santa Ninfa, we walked up the steps to take a look. Two women sat at the door selling tickets. Neither spoke English. One offered a written guide but none were available in English. I jokingly said, well since there are none in English, please come with us and explain everything. Much to my surprise, she got up and did just that. We were very glad she did. I only wish I could have taken notes.
Construction of the church built in Ninfa’s honor began in 1601, financed by donations from several noble families of the city, including the Englishman Sir John Francis Edward Acton, commander of the naval forces of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany and prime minister of Naples under Ferdinand IV. Giovanni Macolino, Giacomo Amato, Giuseppe Clemente Mariani, Ferdinando Lombardo (the facade) and Giuseppe Venanzio Marvuglia were the architects. Doors opened in 1660, though much was lackeing. They completed the building in 1750 .
There are some relics of Saint Camillus in the church, below a gorgeous altar made of wood painted to look like marble. You have to get close to see that it’s wood you are looking at. In addition the church houses many artworks of important artists. Giacomo Serpotta has several statues fabricated in stucco. The slender curves are exquisite. Our guide explained that these stucco statues are built around a wooden skeletal structure and then formed by hand. Unfortunately I have no photos of his work in this church. Here is an example however:
Here are two pieces that are in the church:
There is a painting by Guglielmo Borremans, a rare if not the lone representation of the “Death of Saint Joseph,” about whom the Christian Bible says so little, as our impromptu guide noted at the end of her charming 45 minute tour of this obscure church.
Ninfa is one of four patron saints of Palermo, and is credited with ending a drought. A few meters away from the church is a four way intersection, Quattro Canti. Our guide told us she is one of the four commemorated in the four statues you see there.
There is a forced perspective wooden roof painted to look like a dome! There is a point at which you can stand, look up and it is as if the peak of the dome is in the very center. There is one in San Ignacio in Rome.