In the gardens of a Norman king …

29 July, 2010

It might seem fanciful to describe this tangled and overgrown green area, close to one of Palermo’s busiest thoroughfares and hemmed in by ugly modern apartment blocks, as the garden of a Norman king.  But, although a certain amount of imagination may be required to see it, that is what it is.  The area was once part of a huge and exotic pleasure garden created by the last of the Norman Kings, William II, in the second half of the 12th century.   

What led me down a side street and away from the chaotic via Calatafimi to the remains of William’s pleasure garden was a tantalising glimpse of a little red-domed Islamic styled stone pavilion.  The little pavilion, obviously part of Palermo’s Arabo-Norman past , lay behind an attractive iron fence, at one end of a surprisingly large, overgrown and forgotten looking green area.   At the other end, stood a large, obviously once grand, but now abandoned and neglected, villa, with an elegant external staircase and huge ficus magnolioides trees nearby.  Linking the two structures was a tangle of citrus and palm trees, vines, creepers, wild flowers and grasses and here and there the remains of old stone walls.  The fact that these buildings, and the fragment of garden, remain, and the air of abandonment that hangs over them, combine to stir the imagination.  

 Although William II is generally known as William the Good, some maintain that, in fact, he wasn’t particularly good at all: he spent far too much time in his pleasure gardens and far too little on matters of State to be a good king.  Judging by the extent of his pleasure gardens, and the amount of time he apparently spent in them,  that may well be so. 

The gardens were called the ‘Parco del Geneardo’ , a name that apparently derives from the Arabic ‘Gennai al ard’ meaning ‘Paradise on Earth’, and it seems the description was apt.  Perhaps it’s no wonder that William chose to spend more time there than he should have – although perhaps the fact that he chose to create the gardens in the first place might suggest that he gave  higher priority to matters of pleasure than he should have.   The presence of fresh water springs, and channels bringing water from the nearby mountains, ensured that the growth was luxuriant and the gardens cool and fresh.  There were palaces, pavilions, lakes, fountains, trees of every description and a wide range of animals, including wild deer and rabbits, to satisfy the royal love of hunting.  It is thought that the little red-domed pavilion, now just off via Calatafimi, probably originally stood in the middle of a lake that extended to another pleasure dome, the Cuba Soprana, about 200 metres away.  The remains of the Cuba Soprana can still be seen in the walls of the abandoned villa.    

The little pavilion we see today is probably much as it was when it was built in the 12th century.  The red dome is typical of Islamic style structures from the period that still exist , such as the churches of S. Cataldo and S. Giovanni degli Eremiti, and the decoration on the four arches similar to that found on other buildings from the period.    

Unlike the pavilion, the villa at the other end of the enclosed space has undergone many changes over the centuries.  At the beginning of the 20th century it was discovered that the remains of the original 12th century building, the Cuba Soprana, could still be seen in the villa that was constructed around it in the 17th century. 

The villa is called Villa Napoli, after the di Napoli family, the last family to own it.  In 1991, the Region acquired the villa from the family, and in 2004, after lengthy disputes with various tenants and a certain amount of restoration work, it was finally opened to the public.  A commentator at the time noted that the opening of this complex would give both locals and tourists the opportunity to “… plunge into the golden citrus groves and magical atmosphere of royal pleasures”.  Exactly what happened after 2004 I haven’t yet been able to discover, but certainly the complex is no longer open to the public and seems, once again, to be falling into a state of abandonment and neglect.  Presumably, as so often happens, the Region simply ran out of funds. 

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I remember at school always feeling slightly paralysed by history.  Charlemagne to Napoleon!  How could I possibly know who these people were, or judge the significance of their achievements?  Apart from anything else, the canvas seemed far too large.  Here in Palermo it is different: sometimes I can see the brush strokes and feel the excitement.   In his wonderful book about the Normans in Sicily, John Julius Norwich refers to the little pleasure dome I have written about here, saying that it is worth a visit – just!  As a structure, perhaps it is only ‘just’ worth a visit.  But if it stirs the imagination and provides even the faintest of glimpses into that long lost ‘Paradise on Earth’, it seems to me it’s not ‘just’ worth, but ‘well’ worth, a visit.

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2 Responses to “In the gardens of a Norman king …”

  1. Sally F Says:

    I love wild and abandoned gardens like that – my favourite of all time was a sad and romantic mountainside in Jamaica that was covered in blue hydrangeas, run wild. When I left my car to find out more I discovered ruined terracing and an arbour covered in Morning Glory and honeysuckle – what a smell that had in the tropical heat. Who was the woman (a woman it must have been I am sure) who tried to create her own little piece of England in the Caribbean – and who lost out to nature in the end …

    • kateludlow Says:

      I can see that mountainside and smell the honeysuckle – and you’ve started me wondering too! In a way, it’s the same sort of appeal that Palermo itself has. Thank you!


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