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.  

I still don’t know what to make of the symbolism, but I’m working on it.  In the meantime, I’ve discovered that ‘il genio’ dates back to the time of Rome and its pagan gods: his presence in the city today is a link back to those times.  Palermo has two protectors:  one Christian and one pre-Christian.  Its Christian protector, and patron saint, Santa Rosalia, may be much better known, but the spirit of the Genio is still very much alive.  As Salvatore’s story that night made me realise, he is still very much part of the consciousness of the people. 

There are various representations of the Genio in the city and I set out to track them down, starting with the one closest to home: in the Vucciria market. I remember the sense of discovery when I first came upon this statue – I had no idea then what it might represent, but I was struck by the fact that it was there – it seemed something surprisingly rich and unexpected to find hidden in a forgotten little square like this one.  The figure of the Genio is represented seated wearing a coronet and holding a huge serpent.  It is a marble statue set into a niche in the wall just above head height.  A plaque, which has since been placed nearby,  indicates that it was sculpted in in 1483 by Pietro de Bonitate, a sculptor from Lombardy who worked in Sicily for some years. 

From here, I continued on to find two other representations of the Genio : one in Piazza Rivoluzione,  the other, a little further on, in the  in the 18th century garden, Villa Giulia.

In Piazza Rivoluzione

The Genio sits on top of a rocky outcrop at the centre of Piazza Rivoluzione, a cloak around his shoulders, a coronet on his head, and a huge serpent in his arms.  Piazza Rivoluzione, a large space in the historic centre, takes its name from the revolutionary uprisings against the Bourbons that took place there in the late 1840s.  At that time, the revolutionaries placed a tricolour between his arms and the Genio became a symbol of liberty.  Not for long.  The Bourbon government responded by removing him from the square and storing him elsewhere.  Only later was he restored to his current position. 

In Villa Giulia

The representation of the Genio in Villa Giulia is the largest of the three.  The Senate of Palermo commissioned Ignazio Marabitti, one of Sicily’s leading sculptors in the 18th century, to create a representation of the Genio.   The statue is carved in white Carrara marble.   Here, as well as having all the usual features, the Genio is wearing Roman armour and holding a royal sceptre in one hand.  On his right is an eagle, symbol of the city of Palermo, and at his feet, a dog, symbol of faith, and a cornucopia, symbol of plenty. 

There are two more representations of the Genio I am yet to find: one at Palermo’s port, the other at Palazzo delle Aquile.  But that is for another day.

4 Responses to “Finding the ‘genius’ …”

  1. CateM Says:

    What an intriguing figure. Would love to know more about the symbolism. Let us know when you learn more!

    • kateludlow Says:

      He is intriguing! So far I haven’t been able to find out anything very convincing about the symbolism, but am on the trail. I will certainly let you know when I have more information.

  2. Colin Says:

    Congratulations on your excellent research into Palermo and its environs. I look forward to reading more of Kate Ludlow’s blog in the future!

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