Another garden, but this time a very different story …

12 May, 2010

There was a rather curious article in this morning’s paper headed   ‘The squalor of a garden closed for 25 years – works started and not finished are to blame’.    The heading itself wasn’t so surprising – it’s not all that uncommon for buildings to be closed for twenty five years here – but having read the article, I was left with the sense that something was missing.  Or perhaps I was missing something.  Surely the works in question couldn’t have been started twenty five years ago?  What else had gone wrong?  

The garden is not in a poor part of town.  It’s in the centre of an otherwise attractive square, Piazza Principe di Camporeale, close to a desirable residential area.  I was curious to see it for myself, and decided to pay a visit.

I found that almost the entire garden was enclosed by a high green corrugated iron fence, which looked as though it had been there for a very long time.  The occasional small hole in the fence revealed a garden completely overgrown and abandoned. The small section that remained outside the fence was taken up by three or four large Ficus Macrophylla (Moreton Bay Fig) trees.  Under their spreading branches, a handsome white marble sculpture, surrounded by iron railings, had survived.  Rubbish of all sorts littered the ground; old clothes hung on the fence.  Behind the sculpture, someone, apparently asleep, was lying on the ground wrapped in a faded, patterned pink blanket. The article was right: it was a scene of total squalor.

According to the article, some of the residents remember a time when things in the Piazza were very different.  One is quoted as saying: “My family had a business there, a kiosk, with more than a hundred small tables outside.  Now it is all gone.  Many times they’ve said the garden will reopen, but nothing has happened. ”   The residents have, over the years, made many formal complaints, collected signatures and presented petitions to the authorities.  All no avail! 

The article didn’t explain how it was that a twenty five year closure could be blamed on   ‘works started and not finished.’  It merely reported that the Councillor responsible for public works had explained that inside the garden there is an access point to the city’s sewerage system, and that the contract for works on the system, which had been granted to a private company, was about to be rescinded.  This meant that the works would have to be put out to tender again.  In the meantime, everything would be at a standstill.   As to when the works would recommence, or the garden be usable again, the Councillor had “nothing to say”. 

What I found curious about the article was this: although what the Councillor said didn’t even begin to explain the twenty five year closure- in fact, it raised many questions – the journalist reported it without comment.  The Councillor’s explanations were simply left hanging; the questions they raised, unanswered.  I was left wanting to know more, and wondering if perhaps I had missed something.   I showed the article to a friend.  She read it and smiled as she handed it back, saying:  “It is unclear.  Vague.  Like a lot of things here”.

So, for the moment, there I left it.  Another thing I only partly understand.   

But the Piazza’s neglect represents only one aspect of the city.  Its name, Piazza Principe di Camporeale, is a reminder that things were once very different.  In 1900, when the Prince of Camporeale was Mayor, Palermo was still a beautiful city, fast becoming a capital of art-nouveau, or Liberty, style, and a centre of European high society. The Prince of Camporeale himself was a highly cultivated Anglo-Italian who, while still a child, inherited a string of titles and large estates in Sicily from his father.  His mother, Laura Acton, ensured that he had an English education and access to a wider European society – including that of his cousin, the well-known English writer, Harold Acton.  By all accounts, Laura was an interesting character: beautiful, talented, and highly ambitious for her son.  Palermo’s State Archives apparently contain a collection of over 500 of her letters to to him.  But that is for another day!

4 Responses to “Another garden, but this time a very different story …”

  1. Sally F Says:

    Go check those archive letters – it is all very intriguing. We had a branch of the Acton family (I think they are all linked)in old Southern Rhodesia and my father used to advise Lord Acton out there on the production of Turkish Tobacco. The current Lord Acton (Richard) was once married to political activist, Judith Todd.

    • kateludlow Says:

      All very interesting – thank you! After her first husband died, Laura apparently married Marco Minghetti, who subsequently became Prime Minister of Italy; her daughter, second time round, married Bernhard H. K. von Bulow, one time Chancellor of Germany. I must say Laura seems to have been a figure to be reckoned with – she sang, painted, played the piano and philosophised and, as if that was not enough, had great organisational and political capacity! Her salon in Rome has been likened to that of an 18th century grande dame. I was keen to find out more about her and all set for a few days in the Archives; however, I find that, as was common among her circle at the time, all the letters are written in French – and unfortunately I don’t read French!

  2. Antonio Says:

    Absolutely fascinating Kate. And what a contrast the two strands of your note draw between what Palermo once was and now is! As you say, Laura Acton certainly seems to have been an interesting character – someone to be reckoned with! And it is such a pity that the garden in the Piazza Principe di Camporeale looks set to rot for ages yet, unquestioned and abandoned.

    • kateludlow Says:

      Thank you for the comment. Hopefully, Palermo might one day be able to restore some of its past glory. Meanwhile, I’m intrigued to know more about Laura Acton and bemoaning my inability to read French.

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