Palazzo Alliata Villafranca – a sad story behind a noble façade …

24 October, 2010

The Palazzo Alliata Villafranca is one of Palermo’s grandest  palaces, in one of the city’s most beautiful squares, Piazza Bologni.  The façade of the palace is huge and imposing, with two grand pillared entrances, row upon row of curved iron balconies and two large plaster crests of the Alliata family.  It is a building of great dignity, dominating the piazza and demanding respect, but at the same time, possibly because of the air of neglect that surrounds it, stirring the imagination.  From the  minute I saw it I longed to know more about this palace, but it’s only rarely open to the public and it wasn’t  until this week that I was able to go inside.      

Two of the rooms have been open this week to display two recently restored paintings of Matthias Stom, a Dutch baroque painter in the style of Caravaggio.  I suspect I wasn’t alone in visiting more to see the palace than the paintings.  And I wasn’t disappointed.  But just as interesting as the palace itself, was the sad, and rather strange, story of how, in 1988, after more than 300 years, it  passed out of the hands of the Alliata family.    

 

Palermo is a city of lost palaces and squandered fortunes, but the story of Palazzo Alliata Villafranca is different from the others.   Over the years, the palace had survived both earthquakes and bombing – and the Alliata family, one of Sicily’s oldest and most titled, was certainly not one to squander its fortune.    It took its responsibilities seriously:  privileges carried with them strict obligations.  They were seen not as an opportunity to indulge in luxury, but, rather, the possibility of bettering oneself through education,  particularly in fine arts, music and literature.  The greatest sin of all was to do nothing. 

Giuseppe, the 15th Prince of Villafranca died in 1979, entrusting his wife,  the Princepessa Rosaria Correale Santacroce Alliata (known as Saretta) with his two ‘jewels’: Palazzo Alliata Villafranca and another grand palace at Bagheria.  In his will he promised “eternal gratitude”  to those who would retain the family property for future generations.  Saretta has been described as attractive, dynamic, intelligent and determined, with a good business sense.  While her husband was alive, she had worked closely with him on both a plan begun by his mother to secure the family fortune, and restoration of the palace.  After he died, it seemed that the whole purpose of her life was to defend the two ‘jewels’ he had left her. 

Then, in 1984, in a carefully hand written will of two pages, and quite contrary to both her husband’s last wish and, seemingly, everything she had done and was  doing, she left everything, including the palace, to the Church.   She died on 7 February 1988.  Rumours that the Church had its eye on the palace had apparently been circulating in Palermo drawing rooms for some time, but I imagine it was not until the will was read after the Princess’s death that the family actually believed that the palace would no longer be theirs.   

A legal battle continued for years during which time the palace, closed and neglected, fell into disrepair.  The  family did not succeed in getting the palace back, but it seems that the Church’s ownership is now subject to the grand first floor, the piano nobile, being opened to the public. 

The staircase that leads up out of the courtyard behind the grand entrance was redecorated in the 19th century.  I found it disappointing; not at all what the facade had led me to expect.  But the two rooms that are open to the public are well-proportioned and give a glimpse of the elegance and grandeur that must have been.  The  first is the ballroom, the second a room known as the Prince’s salon.  The plasterwork on the ceiling of both rooms, the frames and the wooden furniture have all been re-gilded and the canvases above the doors restored.  A family crest in maiolica tiles that was on the floor in the Prince’s salon has been taken up and placed on an end wall of the ballroom.      

After my visit, I found an interesting article in which Giuseppe’s brother, Francesco, a well-known film producer and director, and pioneer of underwater cinematography, talked about the palace with the kind of attachment to place that I normally associate with the natural world.  Like his father, grandfather and great grandfather before him, Francesco had been born in the palace.  It was the place of his childhood, the centre of his world; for him, a fixed star in the firmament.  He talked movingly about returning to Palermo, even after travels to the most exotic places in the world, and seeing the goose breast iron balconies of the palace appear.  As he got closer, his emotion would increase; by the time he arrived in the piazza, it would be pure happiness.  “You realise that you belong to the place – the feeling has nothing to do with the grandeur of the palace, it’s because it’s so closely tied to the family.  It transmits invisible waves of affection.  Just to see it has the power to calm you, to assure you that there’s nothing to fear, that some things are constant”.      

I went back to the palace.  This time, as I came upon the desk at the top of the stairs, with its three very pleasant young fine arts graduates selling tickets and providing information about the palace, I wondered what it would be like for Francesco, Prince of Villafranca and Duke of Salaparuta,  to climb the stairs and be greeted in the same way.  I rather hoped it’s something he doesn’t do.

9 Responses to “Palazzo Alliata Villafranca – a sad story behind a noble façade …”

  1. Louise F Says:

    Very evocative description and photos – it seems Il Gattopardo was far from unique although in this case the Church won. You really should publish your writings about Sicily and especially Palermo!

    • kateludlow Says:

      Thank you very much for your comment. I’m glad you enjoyed the post – and I’m sure you’d enjoy the palace. There’s so much more that I want to explore and write about Palermo – but I think a little more discipline is required!

  2. jan Says:

    such a wonderful read
    your writing transports one to the location that you are describing with such elegance
    keep doing it – you have a book in you!

  3. Antonio Says:

    A fascinating post, as always. I agree with your other correspondents that there is definitely a book to come!

    The story of the Alliata family’s loss of the Palazzo reminds me of the loss of Castle Malahide in Ireland, which I recently visited, but seemingly appropriately for Sicilia, the circumstances were more unfortunate. It is tragic that the Palazzo has fallen into disrepair and its grandeur has been diminished.

  4. Cate Says:

    I loved reading this. It evoked Il Gattopardo for me also. So sad, so Sicilian – your writing captures it perfectly. Keep writing!

  5. Sally F Says:

    That book must come …


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