A bridge, a palace and a great sense of discovery …

15 January, 2010

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.                     

On browsing through it when I got back to Palermo, I came upon a short entry describing the Ponte dell’Ammiraglio.   This bridge, built by the Grand Admiral George of Antioch in 1113, was, it said, a testament to Norman engineering, having been in use into the 20th century, and remarkable for the aesthetic excellence of its design.  It also had a significant place in Palermo’s history because it was here that  Garibaldi’s Thousand had met the first Bourbon resistance as it made its way into Palermo.  The author concluded his brief note by saying “Not less remarkable [than the aesthetic excellence of the bridge’s design] is the squalor which governmental indifference allows to surround this monument”.

At that stage I hadn’t seen any mention of the bridge in other books and thought it quite likely that the squalor that had surrounded the bridge in 1972 would by now have completely overwhelmed it.  I set off, with slightly hazy directions, to find out.       

My path took me out of the city along Corso dei Mille, a broad street near the Railway Station that follows the route that Garibaldi’s Thousand eventually took into the city.  I stopped to enjoy the sunshine and admire the surrounding mountains, photographing prolific oleander blossoms against a brilliant blue sky.  I wasn’t really expecting to come across the bridge.  In fact, I had rather forgotten all about it, when, all of a sudden, there it was –  as aesthetically pleasing as my book had led me to believe , and  in excellent condition.  I felt a mixture of surprise and elation.

Even the surrounding squalor seemed to have disappeared.  At some stage, the government had obviously focused its attention on the bridge.  It’s true that much of old Palermo has been either abused or neglected, but it’s also true that a lot of work has been done – and a lot is continuing to be done.     

I had the same sense of discovery when, just a little further on, I found that one of Palermo’s oldest Norman churches, St Giovanni dei Lebbrodi, is also still there and in good shape.  The church, which has been heavily restored, now sits in a simple, peaceful, and somehow very Sicilian, little garden with an ornate and pretty stone water trough surrounded by palm trees, pink oleanders and clipped hedges.       

Palazzo Lampedusa

The second book was David Gilmour’s excellent biography of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa,  The Last Leopard.  In the Foreward, he talks about a trip he made to Sicily in the 1980s to visit the various Lampedusa houses.  In particular, he talks about visiting the remains of the Palazzo Lampedusa in Palermo: “Amid all the other spectres of decadence, all the other evidence of feudal and island decline, one sight stood out in a special, abject category of its own”. 

He tells how the Palace was bombed by the Americans in 1943, and how, forty years later, the remains ‘gutted and plundered’ were still there.  He describes how he was not permitted to enter the site, but went back very early the next day, which was a Sunday, and squeezed through a gap in the gate.  He knew the layout of the house and, climbing over the rubble, was able to recognize the bedroom of Lampedusa’s mother, with its ‘domed ceiling in gold and shades of blue’ and the library where ‘tattered shreds of green velvet lay among splinters of cornice and large chunks of plaster’, along with pages of Lampedusa’s favourite authors, scattered library cards, and family letters, documents and photographs. 

I knew where the Palazzo had been – in via Lampedusa at the end of via Bari dell’ Olivella – and it was not very far from where I live.  I didn’t imagine that,  more than sixty after the bombing, the remains of the building would still be there, but I was curious to see where it had been.  I turned into via Bari dell’Olivella, expecting to find a modern office building or an apartment block at the end of the street.  Instead, incredibly, I found the remains of Palazzo Lampedusa.  They were still there.  The walls were broken,  edges jagged against the sky, the windows were either gaping holes or spaces filled with bricks or  iron grilles, and inside, where once there had been rooms, trees and weeds were growing.     

I suddenly felt as though the bombing had just happened.  I had an image of Lampedusa himself, distraught, leaving the site to walk eight miles to his friend’s  house and arriving, covered in dust, saying over and over again “My house has been bombed, it’s been completely destroyed’ –  then  remaining completely silent for three days.  It was as though the past had forced its way into the present – the past and the present had become one.  And not for the first time here, I had tears in my eyes.

6 Responses to “A bridge, a palace and a great sense of discovery …”

  1. CateM Says:

    Wonderful discoveries! I’m curious to know what happened to Lampedusa’s letters and documents. I assume his biographer retrieved them. I wonder what he did with them. What a discovery for him also!

    • kateludlow Says:

      Interesting! I don’t really know what happened to the letters and documents that Gilmour found, but I think,from something he says in the Foreward to his book, that he did retrieve them and my guess is that he would have added them to the material held by Lampedusa’s adopted son, Gioacchino Lanza Tomasi.

  2. Makaratta Says:

    I think I may have come across this bridge before. Do you recall if the Author gave a name to the type of arch used? I have heard some “experts” describe them as “Pointed Arches” and sometimes a “Gothic Arches” although in this case, it would be a tad early for true “gothic”. Learned authorities seem to suggest that the form was borrowed from the Moors and quite possibly brought to Europe by the Crusaders. There are also suggestions that the Chinese may have used it even earlier.

    • kateludlow Says:

      I don’t think the Author was as knowledgeable as you are about the technicalities! Your comment sent me off to a knowledgeable engineering friend who agrees with you and says he thinks the arches are properly described as ‘pointed arches’.

  3. Antonio Says:

    You are surrounded by history in Palermo! Like Catherine, I wondered what had happened to the books and letters from Palazza Lampedusa. Were you able to get into the building and, if so, were any of the “internals” still as described in the book?

    And the bridge was an amazing find. I wonder if the comments of the author you read sparked the authorities into action – presumably unlikely in Sicilia!

    Love the blog, Kate – looking forward to the next instalment. Beautifully written.

    • kateludlow Says:

      No, there’s no way of getting inside now so I don’t know what is in there. As for the bridge, I don’t think the book I read would have had any effect! The authorities have done a lot of work in the city though – it’s just that there’s still a lot more to do. Thank you for your comments – I’m glad you are enjoying the blog.

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