The allure of Eleanor …

31 January, 2010

You will find her in the fourth room of the Regional Gallery of Sicily, located in Palermo’s imposing 15th century Palazzo Abatellis:  a ‘gentlewoman said to be Eleanor of Aragon’, beautiful, refined and serene.   

The work is small, no more than 50cm or so high, and made of white marble.  Its purity and perfection is striking. There is a stillness and quiet dignity about the face –a  delicacy and ‘completeness’ about the work.   Perhaps that, in itself, should have been enough, and in a way it was.  But Palazzo Abatellis is a favourite place; I visit quite often and the more I saw this work, the more I wanted to know about it; about the sculptor, Francesco Laurana, and about Eleanor herself.

So I set about doing some investigation.  I didn’t find all I was looking for, but at least I know a little more than I did before – and the exercise has been an interesting one.  Read the rest of this entry »

There are a number of tiny workshops scattered through Palermo’s historic centre – for the most part  humble little premises where you can watch traditional papier mache’ toys being made and painted, or wood being turned to produce spinning tops or candlesticks.  Then there is Andrea de Cesare’s ‘I Peccatucci di Mamma Andrea’ (which translates as something like ‘Mamma Andrea’s delicious little sins’), a little shop which is now more upmarket, but has the same origins: a little workshop established in the centre of the city.      

At ‘I Peccatucci di Mamma Andrea’, you will find, all beautifully presented, new versions of traditional Sicilian sweets, as well as jams, honeys, preserved fruits and liquors.   

For me, the name ‘Mamma Andrea’ conjured up an image of an elderly Sicilian woman, rotund and aproned,  who spent most of her time in the kitchen.  Not at all an apt image for Andrea, I have discovered!  She became a ‘mamma’ for the first time when she was only 16, and is now a stylish and successful entrepreneur.   

Andrea started life working in the theatre designing sets and costumes, hence her interest in, and concentration on, the presentation of her products.  In 1989, she changed careers and set up a small workshop in the centre of Palermo, making traditional Sicilian confectionery.  Gradually, she was given more and more traditional recipes that had been handed down by people’s mothers  and grandmothers .  She worked with these  recipes to create new products that embodied the cultural richness of Sicily and made use of the raw ingredients that are available here. 

‘I Peccatucci di Mamma Andrea’ is now a stylish little shop in the centre of town, looking onto the gardens of Piazza Ignazio Florio.  It is full of ‘homemade’ sweet morsels and chocolates, including my favourite candied oranges coated in dark chocolate.  Rows of jams, some without added sugar and sweetened only with agave juice; a range of honeys, including thyme, lemon, red clover and chestnut; various fruits preserved in wine without any artificial preservatives; and a range of traditional Sicilian liquors, from rose or lemon to prickly pear.  “A small sip of one of these liquors after lunch”, says Andrea “will help the digestion”.  The products are all beautifully labelled and presented – and difficult to resist!

One night in 1962, people living opposite the Villino Florio, a house that is often said to be one of the finest examples of Palermo’s famous Liberty architecture, were woken by the sound of crackling as flames tore through the building, destroying most of the interior and some of the external walls.  The fire had been deliberately lit. 

Over the next few years, many of the grand Liberty villas that lined Via Liberta’, the boulevard leading into the city from the north-west, were to meet a similar fate in what has come be known as the ‘sack of Palermo’.   Unlike them, and somewhat miraculously, Villino Florio has survived.  

Recently, nearly fifty years later and after a meticulous restoration, the house was opened to the public for the first time – but only for a limited period.  I managed to visit on the last day, and found both the building and the renovation so interesting that, as I left, I asked the attendant why the house wasn’t going to remain open.   He simply smiled and shrugged his shoulders in a typically Sicilian way that signifies “Who could possibly know?”.   The garden, however, will be open and it is well worth visiting to see the exterior of the house:  a fantasy of turrets, dormer windows and ashlar stonework.  Read the rest of this entry »

Indispensable and enjoyable as they are in many ways, travel guides, books and documentaries often deprive us of a sense of discovery.  The path is laid out for us – we may ultimately be surprised at what we find, but we know, more or less, what to expect. 

Nevertheless, twice recently, I have had a great sense of discovery – not due to any great enterprise on my part, but simply because the books I happened to be reading had been written 30 or 40 years ago.  The first of my  ‘discoveries’ was a 12th century Norman bridge;  the second, the remains of Palazzo Lampedusa, birthplace and home of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, author of the  great 20th century Italian novel, The Leopard. 

Ponte dell’Ammiraglio.  On one of my visits to London I had picked up a copy of The Travellers’ Guide to Sicily in the Oxfam bookshop in Marylebone High Street.   Even though last revised in 1972, the book contained a lot of information that was still relevant and seemed to me well worth the asking price of £2.    Read the rest of this entry »

Almost every day, the Giornale di Sicilia has at least one article, and often a headline, about the mafia.  I try to read and understand as much as I can, but this is an endlessly complex society, and I am an outsider.  Progress is slow.    

 This week, one article in particular has caught my attention –  partly because it concerns a shop that I know, partly because it is a story of courage.

In 2008, Giovanni Ceraulo, the 47 year old owner of a chain of clothing shops  in Palermo, Prima Visione, decided that enough was enough.  He had paid the pizzo, protection money, to the mafia for 13 years.  He would pay it no longer.  He said at the time that he didn’t want to see his children grow up with a father who had allowed the old system to continue.  Read the rest of this entry »

Finding a perfect cappuccino here is not as easy as you might imagine.  In Rome, every bar, even the most unprepossessing, seems able to achieve it.   Here, for some reason, they don’t.  This morning’s discovery of a perfect cappuccino is, therefore, worthy of note.    

The bar is  Bar Bruno, a simple little bar on the ground floor of Palazzo Petrulla, a 17th century rococo confection in via Torremuzza.  In the courtyard of the palace, you will find a tiny, vibrant Sicilian theatre, Teatro Ditirammu, the smallest theatre in Italy and well worth a visit.  More about it another time.  

It’s true I asked for a strong cappuccino this morning, un po’ scuro – something I would never have to do in Rome, but here it often helps.  But this morning the cappuccino that arrived was perfection – a rich coffee flavour with smooth, dense and creamy foam.  When I complimented the barista I was told “Ah, it’s the milk.  We use only the freshest milk”.  Whether or not that is the reason it was so good I have no idea, but I will be back.

Finding the ‘genius’ …

12 January, 2010

Il Genio in the Vucciria

I first heard about ‘il genio’ from Salvatore, a young local who had come to show me how to make a pasta dish with red peppers.  When we finally sat down to eat the finished dish, he started telling me a sad story about his life in Palermo.  Then he moved on to talk about Palermo itself, and the story of ‘il genio’. 

Given what he had been telling me about his life here, I was surprised by his obvious passion for the city.  I probably shouldn’t have been.  I’ve since found many people here with the same deep emotional attachment to the city, and the same capacity to talk about it in almost poetic terms. 

I was immediately intrigued by the story of the ‘genio’, but also confused.  I had mistakenly translated ‘genio’,  as ‘genius’ in the sense of someone of exceptional ability.  ‘Il genio of Palermo’ is better described as ‘the spirit of Palermo’ or ‘a guardian deity of Palermo’.  He is represented as a man, with a young body and an old face, wearing a coronet on his head and holding a huge serpent with its head close to his chest.   Sometimes there is a chest of gold at his feet.   Read the rest of this entry »

I am living in a little apartment that looks down onto one of the narrow winding lanes in Palermo’s historic centre.  I think I am gradually beginning to be accepted by my neighbours, but it has taken time.   The fact that I was still here when summer had come and gone seemed to be a major turning point.  

It is not an easy city to get to know – and for some, not an easy city to get to like.  Much of the historic centre is in a state of degradation: once grand city squares are dirty and littered with rubbish, noble palazzi crumbling and forgotten, their tall once-elegant windows now just a series of gaping holes filled with bricks.  It takes time to see the seam of gold that runs through this city and its people.  But it is there.  And finding it is well worth the effort. 

Why am I starting a blog? There are two main reasons. The first is that  I hope it might help me understand the city better, and enable me to share that understanding with others.  The second is purely personal.  I have always had a memory like a sieve – one with rather large holes – and that, combined with a monumental lack of self-discipline , often leaves me feeling that life is slipping through my fingers.  I am hoping that the process of writing will help me hang onto what I am learning.        

I have been slow to start!  Procrastination, I find, is very closely linked to lack of self-discipline – even now the motivation for making a start comes not from me, but from my daughter.  Several months before moving to Palermo, I met her for a few days in Bangkok, and together we visited a fortune teller at the Wat Po temple.  After examining various charts and perusing the lines on the palm of my hand, he began to say, over and over again: “You should be writing – nothing creative – your material should be what you are doing day to day”.  This struck a chord with me – I had wanted to write ever since I was a child.  Still I did not make a start, but from that day on,  my daughter began saying, over and over again:  ‘Just do it!’  

So finally I take a deep breath and make a start … 

Here’s to her!