Behind closed doors …

8 May, 2011

“This is not Rome or Venice, where the city’s treasures are on display, there for all to see.  Palermo is quite different: here, things are hidden away behind closed doors”.   That was part of my landlady’s introduction to Palermo. 

As I wandered the streets of the old city over the next few weeks, catching fleeting, tantalising glimpses of vaulted ceilings, leafy colonnaded courtyards and frescoed interiors disappearing behind rapidly closing doors and shutters, I began to realise how very apt her introduction to the city had been.      

Gradually, with the passing of time, I have managed to see behind some of these doors, but, until now, one particularly intriguing one has remained firmly closed to me.  It is a heavy wooden door with ornate baroque surrounds, tucked away between candle factories and printing shops in via Ponticello, a narrow paved street in the old city.  Partly because of the door itself, partly because of the sign beside it:   ‘Oratory of a Congregation of Noble Women 1733’, I always suspected there was something of interest here.  But I wasn’t at all prepared for the treasures, both artistic and historical, that I ultimately found.      

The opportunity to visit the Oratory came quite by chance when I met the current Superior of the Congregation – an impressive, intelligent woman, elegant in the way that only European women can be elegant – at a casual outdoor lunch.  As the afternoon progressed and the sun became stronger, we sought shade under the nearby orange trees.  I remember the scent of orange blossom being strong in the air as the conversation drifted idly here and there, before turning – I don’t remember how or why – to the little Oratory.  Then, very graciously, this woman offered to take us there.    

I found that the door  I had passed so many times leads into a small glassed corridor opening onto a prolific little garden and from there into a richly decorated, frescoed and gilded, baroque oratory, full of artistic treasures and historical interest.  As some of the details of the Oratory, and some of the history of the Congregation, were explained to us, I had the feeling of excitement you might have if you were to stumble upon a precious jewel in some dusty, forgotten corner, or a beautiful, fresh flower in the middle of a desert.

It is not entirely clear when the Congregation was formed, but it is thought to have been at the end of the 16th or beginning of the 17th century, when a group of noble women came together for the purposes of personal spiritual development and the provision of assistance to the underprivileged.  The Congregation was established in what was one of Palermo’s poorest areas, the Albergheria, under the title of the Congregazione di Maria Santissima dell’Aspettazione al parto,  i.e. the congregation of Mary, most holy, waiting to give birth.  Apart from the spiritual development of its members, its main focus was to provide assistance to local pregnant women who were in need.  The Congregation is probably one of many similar organisations that were formed at the time of the Counter Reformation when the Catholic Church, in response to the Protestant Reformation, began taking steps to put its house in order.  But, unlike many of those organisations, this Congregation has continued for more than 400 years to be an active and vibrant organisation, closely connected to the society in which it operates.  It has made, and continues to make, a valuable and interesting contribution to Palermo’s cultural and social history.   

From the outset, the Congregation was formally structured, with a Superior at its head, two Assistants, a Secretary and a Treasurer, positions that have traditionally been held by members of the Sicilian nobility – at one time, only nobility of at least a hundred years’ standing.  

 The Oratory is full of valuable works of art and craft, from 18th century frescoes on walls and ceiling to inlaid and gilded wooden seating and a variety of beautiful silver objects.  A painting of the pregnant Mary hangs above the altar, framed in a massive and richly ornate gilded wooden frame.  We were told that people come from all over Europe to see this frame, a very particular one of its kind.   As the various works of art and craft that decorate the Oratory have, from time to time, been commissioned by the Congregation, or individual members of the Congregation, the Congregation Archives contain a valuable record of many of the artists and craftsmen who have worked in Palermo over the centuries.   

Over the years, the Congregation has accepted responsibility for maintaining the Oratory, often at the personal expense of its members.  Congregation members were, for example, responsible for repairing the quite extensive damage caused by bombing during the Second World War.  More recently, the Congregation has been enlisting the support of organisations like FAI, the equivalent of the National Trust, to help preserve something that is a valuable part of the city’s heritage.  

 Coming out of the Oratory, we had a few minutes to admire the little garden, fragrant and prolific in the Spring sunshine with fig, loquat, peach, lemon, and bitter orange trees, climbing jasmine, rose and wisteria, and a large tub of papyrus and white calla lilies.   Then, at the back of the garden, there was a huge bush of zagara regina, which I think is a type of mock orange (philadelphus), covered with orange blossom perfumed white flowers – and as we left, we were given a small branch to take home.  The flowers decorated and perfumed my apartment for days, bringing back very happy memories of my visit to the Oratory.

                                     *        *        *

It might be tempting to dismiss the Congregation as an elitist organisation, but to do so would be to overlook the real contribution that these women have made, and continue to make, to Palermo’s artistic and cultural heritage.  In recent times, the scope of the Congregation’s charitable activities has been expanded – and hopefully the door on via Ponticello might be open a little more often in future, giving the public access to what is truly one of the city’s great treasures.

4 Responses to “Behind closed doors …”

  1. richmondrambles Says:

    Sometimes it takes time to find the hidden treasures and the syncronicity of wanting to know and then sitting next to the person who can ‘open the door’ for you. What a wonderful example of your interest – and patience – and then to be rewarded with this gem! Jan

    • kateludlow Says:

      It was amazing really – even sitting next to this woman, the chances were I’d never have discovered her connection with the Oratory. And even if I had, it wasn’t likely I would have the chance to visit. I thought it extraordinarily gracious of her. Now that I know what lies behind those doors, I hope I’ll have the chance to return there some time. Thank you for your comment. .

  2. Cate Says:

    It is no wonder you remain so enchanted and intrigued by the city! There must be endless treasures and interesting stories hidden behind closed doors. The Congregation sounds like a very interesting and beneficial organisation.

    I loved your description of the orange blossom. I could almost smell it as I was reading!

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