A palace in a street of palaces …

1 February, 2012

After several months away from Palermo, it has taken me several more to start to feel the rhythm of the place again.         

At first glance, Corso Vittorio Emmanuele  doesn’t look at all like a street of palaces.  For the most part, it is rather unprepossessing, none too clean, and usually noisy and full of traffic.  But first glances are usually unreliable; and nowhere more so than in Palermo.   

This is Palermo’s oldest street.  It can be seen on the earliest maps of the city, running in a straight east-west line from Porta Nuova, the decorative city gate beside the Norman Palace, to Porta Felice the city gate by the sea.   Even today you sometimes hear it referred to by its original name, ‘the Cassaro’, from the Arab word al-Csar meaning ‘the street that leads to the castle’ .        

A careful walk along Corso Vittorio Emmanuele, from Porta Nuova to Porta Felice, will reveal more than forty palaces originally built by Sicily’s nobility, some as early as the 16th century, most in the 18th century.  Some are still lived in by the owners, some have been converted to other uses, many are in need of repair and restoration.  Adriana Chirco, a leading Palermo architect, author, and lecturer in the History of Art, has observed that, in many cases, it wouldn’t take a great deal to restore these palaces to their ancient splendour, and that to do so would add lustre to the city and help  conserve its architectural and cultural past.    

Meanwhile, the palaces continue as they are.  Almost every day for the last few years, I have walked past the building I now know to be Palazzo Isnello, paying it no particular attention.  It’s not the sort of building that attracts any particular attention.  On one side of its huge blocked main doorway there are shop fronts at street level, on the other a length of hoarding that is usually covered in posters and other advertising material.  But if I’d looked more closely I would have noticed the elegant columns and the tell-tale coat of arms above the main door and might have guessed that it was, or had previously been, a palace belonging to one of Sicily’s aristocratic families.     

The building was commenced  in the 16th century.  In the 18th century, when so many other palaces in the street were being built or renovated, it was acquired by the Count of Isnello and Prince of Baucina and considerably enlarged to incorporate an area previously occupied by six medieval buildings.  It now takes up a whole block bounded by Corso Vittorio Emmanuale and Piazza della Borsa at front and rear and via Isnello and via Visita Poveri on each side.   It was not modified in any major way until early in the   20th century, when the then owners decided to block the main entrance and dismantle the grand staircase to make room for commercial enterprises on the ground floor.  Things were obviously no longer as easy as they had been for the Count in the 18th century.  In 1943, the palace was damaged by American bombs, but subsequently repaired.  Now, as is the case with many of Palermo’s palaces, the owners live in only part of the building.  The rest has been converted into shops or apartments. 

 When the Count enlarged the palace in the 18th century, he took care to ensure that the reception rooms on the first floor, the ‘piano nobile’ , were appropriately grand:  amply proportioned, heavily gilded, and softly lit by large Murano chandeliers.  Doors and shutters were heavily carved and ornately painted, and some of Sicily’s finest artists commissioned to fresco the ceilings.   The elegant ballroom, with its frescoed ceiling and tall shuttered doors leading onto a long balcony above the street, remains a very fine room.   

The large fresco in the centre of the ballroom ceiling, called The Apotheosis of Palermo,  is of particular interest.  It is the work of one of Sicily’s leading artists of the time, Vito D’Anna, and generally considered to be one of his masterpieces.   I was particularly keen to see it because it contains a representation of that strange figure, the genius of Palermo,  that has long intrigued me.   (Finding the Genius). 

The genius is a very ancient figure and the subject of many legends.  Interpretations as to his precise significance abound, but he is generally seen as a kind of non-partisan, non-religious, spirit and protector of the city. He is represented as an old man with a flowing white beard, wearing a coronet on his head and holding a serpent, usually a very large one, that has its head to his chest.  Often, there is a chest of gold and flowers at his feet. 

It is interesting that when he came to paint his Apotheosis of Palermo, D’Anna chose to put the figure of the genius, rather than Palermo’s patron saint, Santa Rosalia, at its centre.  Perhaps because it is painted, rather than sculpted as are all the other representations of the genius I have seen, his genius seems somehow a much lighter, much less sombre, figure.  He is surrounded by allegorical figures such as Fame and Justice and other mythological figures, as well as the usual cherubs, and although the serpent is present, it looks much smaller and much less sinister than usual.   

Finding representations of the genius in Palermo has become something of a mission.  I am told that there are eight recognised representations.  All, apart from this one, are sculptures.  So far I have only found five, so the search continues.     

Having seen and admired D’Anna’s masterpiece, I then spent some time enjoying the palace rooms themselves.     

All the rooms adjoining the ballroom are frescoed and gilded, and on the ceiling of one I finally found Santa Rosalia – she may not have made it to the centre of the grand ballroom, but she certainly hadn’t been forgotten.    Back in the ballroom,  dim, ornately framed, antique mirrors softly reflected the light from the chandeliers and ornate gilding on doors and shutters glowed richly where the light fell.  The air of faded grandeur evoked images of a time long gone when Palazzo Isnello was truly a palace, and sounds from  summer balls, a mixture of voices and music, would have floated out through the tall open doors, over the long balcony, and down into the night street below.

8 Responses to “A palace in a street of palaces …”

  1. jan Says:

    Lovely to have you back on line – it inspires me to do the same! This story just proves that you need to spend time in a city – or even your local area – and look up, walk slowly and have an enquiring mind – as I look out over the rooftops of working class Richmond (Melbourne) I am sure that the workers cottages and grander buildings would have many stories to tell – Jan

  2. Cate Says:

    Glad to see that you are back into the rhythm of Palermo. I’ll be staying tuned to hear about your discoveries of the remaining geniuses. I have no doubt you will find them. What fun!


  3. According to tradition, the Snake of the Genius symbolizes a creative life force, the renewal and foreigners. So we are happy to discover your point of view about Palermo! Thank you for sharing this article!

  4. Sally Field Says:

    You are always so clever finding ways to get into the secrets of Palermo – this was fascinating, as always – and reminded me of how much I always want to see behind the facades in the old city

  5. TTFN Says:

    It is great to find that you are once again pursuing the history and treasures of old Palermo. Your study of the significance of the Genius in the lore of the city helps to broaden my perception.


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