An architectural gem from the Belle Epoque rises from the ashes ….

20 January, 2010

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.       

Wallpaper

The restorers set out to reproduce faithfully the decorative and architectural elements that had been destroyed in the fire.  In doing so, they relied on historical documentation, making three dimensional models on the basis of documents and photographs of the original construction, and sought the assistance of historical silk factories, such as the famous factory that was established by the Bourbon kings at Caserta, for the printing of various fabrics.  They have done well.  The attention to detail is obvious in the wonderful wallpapers, fabrics, furnishings and carved woodwork of the interior. 

The Belle Epoque, that period in Europe between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the First world War, saw the development of the style that is generally known as Art Nouveau, but in Palermo is called ‘Liberty’.

Wallpaper

Here, two names are inextricably linked to the period: Basile and Florio.

Ernesto Basile was the Sicilian architect responsible for the most significant Liberty style buildings in Palermo, including the Villino Florio.

The Florio family, which came to Sicily from Calabria at the end of the 18th century, had, by the time of the Belle Epoque, amassed an enormous fortune.  Now was the time to spend it – and that they did with great style.  Thanks to the Florios, during this period, Palermo became a centre for the international elite.

At Villino Florio, Ignazio Florio, and his wife Franca, entertained on a lavish scale.  Their guests included European royalty, aristocracy, heads of State and high society, among them Edward VII of England and the Kaiser, William II, of Germany.   Franca, in particular, has become something of a legend in Palermo.  By all accounts she was beautiful, intelligent, elegant and refined – and, not surprisingly, feted by all who met her.

6 Responses to “An architectural gem from the Belle Epoque rises from the ashes ….”

  1. CateM Says:

    A wonderful article, especially as I love Art Nouveau (love the wallpaper photos!). Shame it is no longer open to the public.

    I was dismayed to read that so many Liberty villas were burnt down. Not knowing anything about the ‘sack of Palermo’ I had a brief look on the internet and found the following –

    “Real estate developers ran wild, pushing the centre of the city out along Viale della Liberta toward the new airport at Punta Raisi. With hastily drafted zoning variances or in wanton violation of the law, builders tore down countless Art Deco palaces and asphalted many of the city’s finest parks, transforming one of the most beautiful cities in Europe into a thick, unsightly forest of cement condominia.”

    What a travesty. No doubt there was Mafia involvement in this. I’d love to know more.

    • kateludlow Says:

      Thank you! I’m sure you’d enjoy a visit to Villino Florio – it will, no doubt, be open again at some stage. Thank you too for the quotation about the sack of Palermo. When you realise how beautiful the city was, what it was they were spoiling, it’s heartbreaking. Certainly Mafia involvement and I will write more about it. By the way, I might have misled you by suggesting that all the other villas were burned – many, I know, were pulled down. The end result is the same.

  2. Antonio Says:

    What a beautiful house! A tragedy that others were torched; what led to the ‘sack of Palermo’?

    I had heard of Liberty houses but did not know what they were, nor that they were the equivalent of Art Nouveau. Is it too simplistic to suggest that they had this name in Sicilia as they were all (?) on via Liberta?

    • kateludlow Says:

      The background to the ‘sack of Palermo’ was the increasing demand for real estate after the Second World War, leading to a construction boom in which the mafia was heavily involved. Liberty style houses in Palermo were not built only along via Liberta’ – the name, I think, referred rather to the Liberty store in London, which popularised the style. Many thanks for the comment Antonio.

  3. Caryl Says:

    What a grand building, and great that the gardens will be open to the public – well worth a visit.


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