Three evocative little gardens with interesting stories to tell …

6 May, 2010

Palermo has some impressive large public gardens, among them the famous botanical gardens, the Orto Botanico, and Villa Giulia, a formal 18th century garden that Goethe described, with perhaps excessive enthusiasm,  as  “the most wonderful spot on earth”.   But three tiny public gardens that have been established relatively recently are, in their own way,  just as worthy of attention.  Each one is evocative of the city’s exotic past and reflective of its somewhat troubled present.  And each has an interesting story to tell.    

Giardino Giusto Monaco   

I came upon this garden quite by chance while exploring one of Palermo’s large public gardens, the Giardino Inglese or English Garden – so called because when created in the 19th century, it was not designed in the formal Italian style, but in the more informal manner of English gardens. 

I noticed, at the back of the Giardino Inglese, a pink Liberty style villa, partly hidden by high walls and foliage, and on going to investigate ,  came upon the Giardino Giusto Monaco, a tiny garden facing via Carlo Alberto dalla Chiesa and overlooked by the villa.  The garden looked  slightly neglected, but inviting: a little haven of green grass and dark leaved orange trees, full to overflowing with fruit.  Even the grass was covered in oranges.  I was already intrigued, when I noticed something else: dotted along the paths around the garden was a series of small metal plaques incised with quotations from various classical texts – Medea,    AgamemnonUlysses, the Aeneid and others, and one or two passages from Berthold Brecht.   “Where else”, I thought to myself, “would you be likely to stumble on something like this?” It seemed a perfect little garden for Palermo  – a little haven providing both shade from the harsh Sicilian sun and the chance to enjoy a garden while reading some carefully selected extracts from various classical texts.   I was curious to know how such a garden came to be created. 

I found that it had been opened in 2008 as a memorial, not to a politician, military leader or famous artist or writer, but to a local classical scholar and, obviously much loved, teacher: Giusto Monaco.  It seemed a fitting memorial.  Monaco, who died in 1994, was obviously a larger than life figure – an inspirational teacher for generations of students, an acclaimed scholar and writer, and an effective fundraiser and organiser.  He made a huge contribution to the revival of interest in classical literature and drama in Italy, and to the activities of the National Institute of Ancient Drama, which include the excellent, and popular, performances of Greek tragedies that take place in Sicily’s famous Greek Theatres each summer. 

It is a beautiful little garden and a fitting memorial to a worthy figure.  But already there are signs that perhaps it is not being looked after with the care it deserves.  Hopefully, that is not the case, but the failure to maintain, or worse the destruction of, initiatives of this kind is not uncommon here.      

Giardino di Piazza Fonderia

On Sunday, 9 May 1943, in little more than an hour, large parts of Palermo’s historic centre were reduced to rubble by Allied bombs.  The bombed areas included Piazza Fonderia, next to the city’s picture postcard little port , La Cala. 

 On a sunny day, La Cala, full of yachts and masts, sometimes seems part of a Mediterranean paradise for the idle rich.  But it’s an illusion.  Until late last year,  part of Piazza Fonderia had remained, essentially, a bomb site.  The rubble had been cleared, but the exposed walls of damaged buildings remained untouched and an air of desolation prevailed.   Sometimes the space would be used as a rubbish dump, sometimes as a parking area, and sometimes, in the summer, it would be home to a temporary bar with roof of dried palm leaves. 

 Then, at the end of last year, the area was reclaimed and the Giardino di Piazza Fonderia created; a small garden, with lawns, paths, a pool, a tiny citrus grove and a garden of frangipani trees.   Once the trees have grown, the garden will, if it survives, be beautiful.  The planting is simple and traditional and the remains of old stone walls, which form part of it, provide a strong reminder of the past. 

Several weeks after the garden opened, a moving little ceremony took place.  The frangipani garden  close to one of the old stone walls was dedicated to the memory of the architect’s young daughter.     A little plaque affixed to the stone wall reads:  A leaf, a flower, a little grove of frangipani for Manu’.  That day, members of Palermo’s famous jazz music foundation, The Brass Group, made music, poems were read, a local bar provided drinks, and people expressed the hope that the creation of this garden might help rekindle the spirit needed to make Palermo a city its residents can be proud of. 

But already there was a fear that the garden might not be looked after.  “I dread the moment in which Palermitani begin to use it” said a local.  And it seemed the fear was justified.  Several weeks later, the papers reported that six of the trees in the garden had been broken by vandals.  They have, however, since been replaced, and once again, the little garden is  full of promise.  

Il Giardino dei Giusti

This is a beautiful little garden in via Alloro, a street in the heart of old Palermo that was once lined with some of the city’s grandest palaces.  Like Piazza Fonderia, it was badly bombed during the Second World War.  The garden has been built into the surviving stone walls of a 17th century palace, Palazzo Graco.  The old walls , their arches and windows filled with iron grids, bring to mind a deserted ruin, and the  plantings of palms  and citrus trees hint at the city’s Arab past. 

When it was created in 1999-2000, the garden was called the Giardino di via Alloro, but in 2008 it was renamed Il Giardino dei Giusti, the Garden of the Righteous.  The background is interesting.

The first Garden of the Righteous was established in Israel in 1960, to honour the memory of those ‘righteous gentiles’ who had given help to the Jews during the holocaust.   The driving force behind the establishment of the garden in Israel was an Israeli magistrate, Moshe Bejski, whose own life had been saved by the activities of the now well-known German factory owner, Oskar Schindler.  In fact, it was thanks to Bejski that Schlinder’s activities came to be known.  Bejski dedicated his life to finding and honouring those who had given assistance to the Jewish people during the holocaust.  He believed it was important that every such act should be honoured and publicised.   The ‘righteous gentiles’ had shown that it is possible for anyone, without becoming a martyr, to intervene against racial injustice and crimes against humanity.     

Since the creation of that first garden, Gardens of the Righteous have been established around the world, including, in Italy, in Florence, Milan, Catania and Padua.

Here in Palermo, the Giardino dei Giusti is still beautiful and extremely well maintained.  Although in theory a public garden,  it is, however, heavily padlocked for much of the time!

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Last night I was driven home from dinner by a voluble Palermo woman who was describing how people here  feel about their city.  “The city is like an overly-protective mother”, she said.  “Everone complains about it and wants to leave, but they never do.  Or if they do, they always come back.  They are never free.  The emotional attachment is too strong”.  While she was talking, I thought about these little gardens, their links to the past, the sentiments that had created them, and the conviction that they would be destroyed.  Gradually, some things seemed to be falling into place.

3 Responses to “Three evocative little gardens with interesting stories to tell …”

  1. Antonio Says:

    What a wonderful, insightful entry Kate – each garden with its own special story dedicated to someone or something special. Whatever Palermiti may seem on the surface they are sentimental within (as highlighted by the comments of your driver).

    If Goethe said Villa Giulia was “the most wonderful spot on earth” it must indeed be beautiful. The Giardino Giusto Monaco sounds perfetto (and appropriate for its namesake) and would appeal to those with a literary bent. The dedication ceremony at Giardino di Piazza Fondera sounds beautiful and a tribute to the best of Palermiti: cf the desecration, even neglect, of the beautiful places.

    I look forward to seeing them. I assume the via Carlo Alberto dalla Chiesa near the Villa Giulia garden was named after the famed anti-Mafia police chief?

    • kateludlow Says:

      Things have changed greatly since Goethe saw Villa Giulia I’m afraid – though the garden still has its charms. It isn’t near via Carlo Alberto dalla Chiesa though – I must have misled you! That street is, however, named after General Carlo Alberto dalla Chiesa, who was killed by the Mafia in 1982. Thank you for the comment.

  2. CateM Says:

    I enjoyed reading about these little gardens. The stories behind them are fascinating and bring them to life. I just hope that they are able to be maintained. Perhaps heavily padlocked is not such a bad idea!

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