Piazza Marina’s Sunday morning market …

18 September, 2010

Every Sunday morning, stalls with goods of every description are set up in the streets that surround the Giardino Garibaldi at the centre of Piazza Marina. Almost certainly you’ll find more trash than treasure, but the market at Piazza Marina is a Palermo institution – and definitely worth at least one visit. In the summer months, the stalls extend into the surrounding streets, the wares become more interesting and varied, the crowds thicker on the pavements, and Dominco’s gelato van parked nearby cranks out loud, up-beat popular music. It is a truly carnival atmosphere.

You’ll find just about everything here, from furniture, light switches and camera tripods to books, old silver and oil paintings. Much like any flea market anywhere – but as with other flea markets, it’s the differences that make it interesting: those things that appear here over and over because they are part of the way of life, part of the city’s past. Here you’ll find stalls with old patterned ceramic tiles of typical design, piles of chandelier pieces, typical Sicilian cast iron bed bases,  silver knives of particular design, and stalls selling etchings and prints and a wide array of books about the city and the island.  These are the stalls that I keep coming back to.                                                                

You will always find stalls selling old patterned and ornate ceramic and maiolica tiles, sometimes broken and not always making a complete pattern, but interesting just the same. These tiles are typical of Sicilian domestic decoration. You will see new houses and apartments with floors tiled throughout with patterned ceramic tiles and the floors of the grandest palaces, particularly those built or decorated in the 18th and 19th centuries, were almost always tiled with patterned maiolica tiles. Sometimes they were simple and elegant pale blue and white tiles in herringbone pattern, but more often the tiles formed heraldic devices or large classical scenes. Typical of the latter are the floors of the gallery and ballroom of Palazzo Gangi, the palazzo used for the ballroom scene in Visconti’s film, The Leopard.

Recently. a museum of these tiles has been created in an apartment of one of Palermo’s palaces, the Palazzo Torre Piraino. It is the collection of a young man who developed a fascination for these tiles and started collecting them as a young child. He now has over a thousand tiles of different design on display. His museum, which so far is only open by appointment, has walls covered, from floor to ceiling, with samples of tile designs. Each one is a group of four tiles placed onto a dark wooden square. The effect is both pleasing and intriguing. Among his most precious tiles are 18th and 19th century tiles from famous workshops in Naples in southern Italy and Santo Stefano di Camastra in Sicily. Often these tiles were the work of acknowledged masters and bore their signature.

Then there are the stalls with bits and pieces of old silver, most of it not of any great value. And here, you will usually find silver handled knives of a particular design –the handles completely without ornament and often engraved with initials. I don’t know whether these knives are typically Sicilian, but I think they are typical of continental Europe. I don’t recall seeing them elsewhere, or not as frequently as I see them here. Some of the ones I have bought have a stamp on the blade indicating they were made in Palermo.

On my very first visit to the market I was struck by the iron bed bases – so much so that I immediately bought some. These are very closely linked to Sicily’s past and would once have been virtually the only type of bed used. I think they have much to recommend them. They are simple, attractive and practical. I’ve seen a variation of them, with higher legs, used to support trestle tables. And I’ve seen them used, with glass tops, as coffee tables. But it seems to me they make perfectly good bed bases – and that is what I intend to use mine for.

And finally, the stall I can never resist: the book stall. I pass through the market almost every Sunday on my way to the waterfront – and almost every Sunday I give in to temptation. The books are usually books about Sicily’s, often Palermo’s, culture and history; often they are books that are out of print. So far, I have had no difficulty justifying a purchase.

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