A small hole in a wall recalls a dramatic event from the city’s past …

19 June, 2010

Most mornings, my route to the waterfront joins via Alloro, a stone paved street once lined with some of the most important palaces of the city.  As I turn into via Alloro and head towards the water, I pass the large  15th century church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, known as La Gancia.  There is a marble memorial mounted on its wall, and beneath it a small, irregularly shaped, marble-framed ‘hole’  labelled ‘Buca della Salvezza’- Hole of Salvation.  Almost every day I have passed this wall, sometimes wondering vaguely what the memorial is commemorating, but not, until recently, taking the time to investigate.  When I finally did investigate, I found there is a fascinating story behind the Buca della Salvezza – a story that has become part of the fabric of the city.  Everyone who knows anything about Palermo seems to know it.      

The story concerns an event that occurred during a popular uprising in 1860, when Sicily’s patience with Bourbon rule was wearing very, very thin.  Just a little more than a month later, Garibaldi’s 1,000 entered – one step closer to the unification of Italy.  The story behind the Buca della Salvezza is a story of rebellion, betrayal, bravery, endurance, solidarity – and, perhaps above all, luck.      

Early on the morning of 4 April 1860, the tolling of La Gancia’s bell echoed along the stone paving of via Alloro and through its surrounding streets and laneways.  It was the signal for a popular uprising, initiated by Francesco Riso and about 80 of his followers.  The 34 year old Riso , a modest fountain attendant, inspired since childhood by notions of liberty and equality, had managed to store arms, including two wooden cannons, in a  storeroom in the church/convent complex.  To what extent the Franciscan brothers were aiding the rebels has been the subject of much debate.  Many contemporary sources say they were actively involved. 

When the bell rang out that morning, however, the streets surrounding the church were thick with police and soldiers who had positioned themselves there during the night.  Riso and his followers had been betrayed by one of their number, and within three hours the soldiers had managed to enter the convent.  Some rebels managed to escape, some were killed and thirteen, including Riso’s father, were taken prisoner.  Ten days later all thirteen were killed in a piazza that is now called Piazza of the 13 Victims.  Two of the rebels, Gaspare Bivona and Filippo Patti, managed to hide among dead bodies in the Church’s crypt.  There they stayed for five days unable to escape as the church continued to be under surveillance.   Some sources say the dead bodies were bodies of their fallen comrades; some say they were bodies being mummified in accordance with the practice of the time.  Either way, Bivona and Patti’s hiding place must have been far from pleasant. 

These two men, Bivona and Patti, and the citizens who came to their rescue, are the heroes of the story.  Finally, desperate with hunger and thirst, the two rebels managed to make use of a ventilation space to attract the attention of some women who had a shop nearby.  The women decided to orchestrate a noisy street brawl which would allow the men to escape.  Exactly what happened is not clear, but it seems the men were able to make a small hole in the wall without being detected.   Some say that the women then managed to orchestrate a ‘collision’ between two carts that were full to the brim with straw, and that the ensuing ruckus was such as to divert the attention of all the guards surrounding the church and allow the men to escape.  Some say that a brawl among the women themselves diverted the guards’ attention, allowing the men to escape by mounting a passing cart and hiding in its load of straw.  Whatever the precise details, the men managed to escape through the hole in the wall that has come to be known as the Buca della Salvezza.    

The group of rebels was made up of men from all walks of life and all levels of society.  In Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard, the Prince’s handsome and forward looking nephew, Tancredi, takes part, making him a fictional comrade of Bivona and Patti.  I felt I knew much more about the fictional Tancredi than I did about Bivona and Patti who remained little more than names to me.  I was curious to know what these men might have been like.   I have been able to find just a little about Bivona, nothing at all about Patti.  In 1860, when the insurrection took place, Bivona was thirty years old.  In the same  year, his third child was born.  It is said that he was of a ‘modest but dignified’ social position, and that the wooden cannon made by the rebels was initially stored in his shop. It seems that following the April uprising his patriotic zeal remained undiminished – he joined Garibaldi and his followers when they entered the city the following month.  He died in 1891.             

One thing does seem certain about these two men, at least according to my calculations: they must have been physically quite small.   Measured from the outside edge of the Buca della Salvezza’s marble ‘frame’, the hole is just a little more than 50cm at its widest point and 35cm deep.

Now when I pass along the quiet morning streets surrounding La Gancia on my way to the waterfront, I often think about the drama that took place here in the month of April, 1860.     


6 Responses to “A small hole in a wall recalls a dramatic event from the city’s past …”

  1. Antonio Says:

    A fascinating note and and excellent piece of research detective work, Kate. It seems the history of Sicily generally is littered with examples of rebellion, betrayal, bravery, endurance, solidarity to which you refer and, I would add, blood. Luck, I am not so sure.

    It is a pity for the participants that this uprising occurred so shortly before the arrival of Garibaldi’s 1000. And I suspect the Franciscans would have been involved, even if only with a blessing or moral support.

    • kateludlow Says:

      Many thanks for the comment. At least these two men seemed to have a little bit of luck! I think that this uprising and others like it probably had some effect on the timing of Garibaldi’s arrival.

  2. CateM Says:

    What an exciting story! It would make a great scene in a movie. Perhaps it is a scene in The Leopard? I can’t remember. It seems that everywhere you turn in Palermo there is an interesting story waiting to be uncovered. We are lucky to have you on the case!

    • kateludlow Says:

      There are stories everywhere you turn! I really wish I could do them justice. I’m glad you enjoyed this one. I agree it would make a great scene in a movie – hadn’t thought of that. I’m pretty sure it’s not in The Leopard – I think the fighting scenes in the film only take place after Garibaldi has arrived. Thank you for commenting.

  3. Dominick Cirri Says:

    I and our family of Bivona are especially very proud of this story of “la bucca di servezza” Gaspere Bivona was my Great Grandfather, one of the main characters in this historic story of the Italian Unification of Italy. My Great Grandfather did in fact fought with G.iuseppe Garibaldi. I have in my possession one of Gaspere’s honor medals given by the king of Italy Vittorio Manuele, in that time. I hope this story goes futher and noted in history, and yes, wouldn’t this make a movie or operetta?

    Dominick Cirri

    • kateludlow Says:

      Thank you for the comment. I am very interested to know that Gaspare Bivona was your great grandfather and that he fought with Garibaldi and receved a medal from the King. I had been curious about him – and would like to find what else has been written about him, and about this event. I agree, it is the perfect subject for a film.

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