An afternoon at Arenella …

15 May, 2010

Arenella was once an isolated and picturesque little fishing village at the foot of Monte Pellegrino on Sicily’s dramatic north coast.  Now it is part of Palermo, just a short bus ride from the centre of town: still picturesque, still with fishing boats, but no longer isolated!  Even so, when I visited this week, I felt I was a million miles away.  At this time of year, it is a peaceful and beautiful little haven.  Like most things here, it has an interesting past.        

The tiny bay is dominated at one end by the remains of a tuna fishing establishment and an intriguing little neo-gothic style stone building – a tiny palace, with four small turrets.  At the other end of the bay, a little bar has been established by the water, looking out over the Gulf of Palermo and back towards the city.

I was there on a perfect Spring afternoon.   Across the water, the craggy mountains that encircle the city were various shades of blue, and the city, behind a slight white haze, a faint pink.  It looked beautiful.  Hard to believe it was the city I had left 20 minutes before!   Everything was quiet.  Just the occasional clank of a boat mast or the sound of a voice from the breakwater where small groups were chatting in the sun, and young boys coming and going  up and down the old stone steps to swim and then dry out in the sun. 

This little bay, with its tonnara and neo-gothic style stone building, has close connections with the Florios – one of the most influential families in Sicily in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and an essential part of the fabric of Palermo. 

They arrived in Sicily from Calabria at the end of the 18th century and within a century had created a vast and extensive commercial empire that ranged from ship owning and building to sulphur mining, banking to the manufacture of ceramics, tuna fishing to the construction of luxury hotels, and the production of Marsala wine to the export of citrus fruit .  In 1874, they acquired the whole archipelago of the Egadi islands off the west coast of Sicily. 

The tonnara at Arenella was purchased by Vincenzo Florio Snr,  son of the first Florio to come to Sicily from Calabria, in 1830.  (The word tonnara actually refers to the nets that are used for tuna fishing, but it is used also to refer to the buildings used to process and store the tuna).   Vincenzo then arranged for the building to be restructured by his friend and architect, Carlo Giachery.  It was Giachery who created the little neo-gothic style building, which is known as the Palazzina Quattro Pizzi – the little palace with four turrets.  Giachery had previously worked only on practical buildings, so to produce a fantastic little building like this one must have been quite a challenge.  Part of the tonnara buildings were then used for industrial purposes and part for residential.   

By the end of the 19th century, Palermo had become a European capital of international fashionable society, with  Ignazio Florio, Vincenzo’s grandson, and his beautiful wife Franca, uncrowned King and Queen.  Franca, in particular, has become a legend in Palermo.  Stories about her abound: “Seeing her charm, kings and emperors, princes and musicians, poets and writers bowed”.  The Florios entertained on a lavish scale, regularly playing host to European royalty, heads of State and leading cultural figures.   And the Palazzina Quattro Pizzi was one of the places they used for entertaining.  I have read, but haven’t been able to verify, that when she visited the Palazzina, the Tsarina of Russia was so enamoured that she had a similar building constructed in St Petersburg.  This building, which still exists today, was called ‘Rinella’. 

In later years, Vincenzo Florio, Ignazio’s younger brother, apparently lived in the Palazzina ‘in reduced circumstances’ with his second wife.  He is best known for having founded a famous car race, the Targa Florio Rally, that each year winds its way through the Madonie mountains east of Palermo. 

The Tonnara Florio at Arenella ceased operation early in the 20th century, when the tuna changed course and virtually disappeared from the waters in this area. 

 The tonnara complex, including the Palazzina, is now an entertainment centre, including a concert and conference venue, restaurant and pizzeria.  When I was there, it hadn’t yet opened for the summer, so I went instead to ‘White’, the bar at the other end of the bay and sat there contemplating both the Palazzina, and the city across the water, as I enjoyed a crema de caffe, a delicious iced speciality made of cream, sugar and coffee. 

The motivation for calling this all white bar ‘White’ is presumably the same motivation that might prompt English speakers to call an equivalent bar ‘Bianco’.

8 Responses to “An afternoon at Arenella …”

  1. CateM Says:

    What an idyllic place to spend an afternoon! The Palazzina looks and sounds completely charming. I loved the anecdote about the Tsarina of Russia. Palermo was obviously a hub of high glamour and society life. Wonderful to imagine!

    • kateludlow Says:

      I was intrigued by the Tsarina’s visit too and puzzled because somehow I couldn’t see the last Tsarina with Franca Florio. I now think it was probably Tsarina Alexandra, wife of Nicholas I, who visited Palermo in the mid 19th century. One of the pavilions that was built in the Peterhof Palace and park complex in St Petersburg was apparently intended to remind Alexandra’s daughter, Olga, of Palermo – but whether it bears any resemblance to the Palazzina Quattro Pizzi I don’t know.

  2. Antonio Says:

    I agree with Catherine, come sempre. What a beautiful spot and interesting story. I would love to visit it. I was aware of the Targa Florio but was unaware it was held in Sicilia – the Madonie would be ideal for such an event. I wonder if it is still run?

  3. kateludlow Says:

    Not surprisingly, the original Targa Florio event was cancelled in the early ’70s for safety reasons – cars would race through small mountain villages, while people sat or stood right next to, sometimes even on, the road. There is still a Targa Florio event each year, but it is now a rallying event.

  4. jan Says:

    oooh i do love to read about your investigations
    in the island you call ‘home’

  5. Irina Says:

    About Renella in Peterhof – see Russian and Italian texts with pictures on
    The Tsarina Alexandra visit took place in 1845.
    After Tsar family returning from Sicily two pavilions were built in Peterhof – Olgin (for princess Olga) on the Olgin island and Renella (for Tzarina) in Snamenka.

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