IMG_2170Le Stanze al Genio is a beautifully displayed collection of Sicilian and Neapolitan majolica floor tiles, mostly 18th and 19th century, some earlier.   The tiles, all hand painted, are attractive and interesting in their own right, and an essential part of the decorative tradition of Southern Italy:   you see tiles of this sort  – in an endless range of designs, from floral to geometric, mythical figures to rural scenes and coats of arms – on the floors of the grandest palaces and the smallest country churches throughout Sicily.  That would be enough to make this museum a place of interest.  What makes it so inspiring is the passion, dedication and skill of its creator – evident in every detail.

As Pio Mellina talks about his lifelong passion for these tiles, and his commitment and dedication to the collection, I am reminded of Gavin Maxwell’s wonderful description of a gamekeeper he followed round as a child on the heather and bracken covered hillsides of his family’s property at Elrig in the lowlands of Scotland, a man who “with the wisdom of a lifetime … outwitted birds and beasts ….”  At the end of a long reminiscence, this gamekeeper would conclude “Ay, you come to know, through time …”   That is the sort of knowledge one feels that Pio has – and that has enabled him to create this jewel of a museum.

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“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.      

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Caravaggio, the dramatic and now greatly admired Italian artist of the 16th and 17th centuries, was on the run when he painted the Nativity with Saints Francis and Lawrence in Palermo in 1609.  A year later he was dead. 

The painting he left behind, and the mystery of its disappearance has become a metaphor for the city: the work itself a powerful masterpiece, one of Sicily’s most valuable works of art; its disappearance, a tale of  darkness, intrigue and uncertainty. 

Until October 1969, this huge painting of the Nativity, 268cm x 197cm (8’10” x 6’6”), hung above the altar in the Oratorio of S. Lorenzo in via Immacolata di S. Francesco, a narrow street in Palermo’s historical centre.  At that time, the streets  surrounding the Oratorio were neglected, dark and virtually empty; the  power of the Mafia was strong.  The Oratorio opened only for Mass on Sundays, and the painting was virtually unprotected.  

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One of Palermo’s most interesting five-star hotels, the Villa Igiea, sits on a rocky headland overlooking the Bay of Palermo, just north of the city centre.  Below it, at the bottom of sheer rocky cliffs, is the tiny fishing village of Acquasanta, so called because of the curative thermal waters that have flowed through its rocky caverns since ancient times.  By the end of the 19th century, these ‘miraculous’ waters were attracting the rich and famous to the thermal baths that had been established there; now the thermal baths are deserted and the precious waters left to flow into the sea.  Acquasanta has seen better days.  If they come to this part of the world at all, the rich and famous are now likely to remain on top of the cliff at Villa Igea, completely unaware of the existence of the little village of Acquasanta and its precious waters below.  

Villa Igea’s history, however, is closely linked to that of Acquasanta and its healing waters.  There are those who wish that its future might be too.         Read the rest of this entry »

This week I took a bus south from Palermo through the panoramic  countryside of vines, olive groves and sweeping tracts of golden stubble almost to the south coast. I was visiting a recently opened Ceramics Museum in the small hill town of Burgio. The museum, housed in a beautifully restored 16th century convent, was well worth the visit. But more of that another time! At the end of my visit, I was lured, not at all unwillingly, down a side-track that  produced the most intriguing tale of the byzantine icon that once again resides in Burgio’s main church, the 12th century Chiesa Madre.

The attendant at the ceramics museum was a young girl who had grown up in Burgio, and was both knowledgeable and passionate about the town. She had the sort of ‘passion for place’ that I am often struck by here. and rarely encounter outside Sicily. Or perhaps it’s just that on this subject  Sicilians tend to be particularly eloquent!  As I was leaving the museum, she asked if I had already visited the small church next door, the church of S. Maria delle Grazie. When I said I hadn’t, she said I really must see it, and offered to accompany me. Had she not, I might never have heard the story of how a precious byzantine icon had been stolen during the 1960s and returned more than 25 years later. Read the rest of this entry »

In the early 1980’s, having been buried deep under Sicilian soil for almost 2000 years, 16 beautifully made pieces of silver emerged into the dubious world of the international antiquities market, ending up in the  display cabinets of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.  At the time, the Met announced with excitement that it had acquired  “some of the finest Hellenistic silver known from Magna Graecia,” i.e. those parts of southern Italy and Sicily that had been colonised by the ancient Greeks.  As to the provenance of the objects, however, it stated only that they could have been made in “Taranto [in southern Italy] or in eastern Sicily”. 

It is now believed that the silver was made in Siracusa, on the east coast of Sicily, in about 300 BC, and that, before finding its way onto the international antiquities market,  it had been stolen from the archaeological site of the ancient Greek city of Morgantina in central eastern Sicily.  In January this year, after thirty years of investigation and negotiation, the silver, now generally known as the Morgantina silver, was returned to Italy.  This week I went to see it in Palermo’s archaeological museum, where it will remain on display until August.  Then, it will be returned to the archaeological museum in Aidone, a small town just two kilometres from the Morgantina site.             Read the rest of this entry »

Most mornings, my route to the waterfront joins via Alloro, a stone paved street once lined with some of the most important palaces of the city.  As I turn into via Alloro and head towards the water, I pass the large  15th century church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, known as La Gancia.  There is a marble memorial mounted on its wall, and beneath it a small, irregularly shaped, marble-framed ‘hole’  labelled ‘Buca della Salvezza’- Hole of Salvation.  Almost every day I have passed this wall, sometimes wondering vaguely what the memorial is commemorating, but not, until recently, taking the time to investigate.  When I finally did investigate, I found there is a fascinating story behind the Buca della Salvezza – a story that has become part of the fabric of the city.  Everyone who knows anything about Palermo seems to know it.      

The story concerns an event that occurred during a popular uprising in 1860, when Sicily’s patience with Bourbon rule was wearing very, very thin.  Just a little more than a month later, Garibaldi’s 1,000 entered – one step closer to the unification of Italy.  The story behind the Buca della Salvezza is a story of rebellion, betrayal, bravery, endurance, solidarity – and, perhaps above all, luck. Read the rest of this entry »

Sometimes, whatever else they do or were intended to do, works of art take on an iconic significance. That is certainly true of one of the best known works in Sicily’s Regional Gallery, a 15th century fresco, The Triumph of Death.  Perhaps for good reason, this work has become a symbol of Palermo, perhaps of Sicily itself.  It is a huge and dramatic work, measuring 5.9m x 6.4m, beautifully displayed beneath a light-filled dome, on what was presumably the altar wall of a former chapel.  The skeletal figure of Death dominates the scene as he urges his ghost-like, pale and partly skeletal, horse through the population, shooting arrows at all those in his path.

This is not a painting you can readily forget.  And yet, when I first saw it I was bewildered by it; shocked, but at the same time kept at a distance.  I had the feeling I didn’t quite know what I was looking at or how I should respond.   With both art and literature, I have always instinctively sought to see the work primarily as an independent entity, independent of its historic or cultural context.  There can be merit in that: context, unless kept in its proper place, can get in the way.  But used properly, it can illuminate – and with a work like The Triumph of Death it can be essential to a proper understanding and appreciation.   Read the rest of this entry »

A perfect starting point …

10 February, 2010

They don’t really exist, I know, ‘perfect’ starting points! But I think a visit to the richly ornate church of S.Caterina, with its huge, now almost empty, monastery, must come close. It is, in many ways, a perfect introduction to Palermo: it gives you a glimpse of the city’s soul.

I first visited the church on a dark winter’s morning. A shaft of light was coming in through windows high up under the central dome, illuminating some of the church’s incredibly rich decoration, leaving the rest in deep shadow, no more than a promise. The effect was overwhelming: I stood perfectly still at the entrance and instinctively, quite involuntarily, drew in a sharp breath.

The church is generally, and I believe justly, regarded as one of the finest examples of Palermo Baroque architecture, and many hours can be easily be spent admiring its artistic and architectural features. But there is something else. This fabulously decorated church, and the huge silent monastery attached to it, evokes other aspects of Sicily. You feel you are in touch with something that is essentially Sicilian, but difficult to define: a mixture of richness and austerity, worldliness and spirituality, past and present, light and darkness. I have been drawn back to this complex time and again, partly to admire the physical features of the church, partly to experience its evocative power. Read the rest of this entry »

The allure of Eleanor …

31 January, 2010

You will find her in the fourth room of the Regional Gallery of Sicily, located in Palermo’s imposing 15th century Palazzo Abatellis:  a ‘gentlewoman said to be Eleanor of Aragon’, beautiful, refined and serene.   

The work is small, no more than 50cm or so high, and made of white marble.  Its purity and perfection is striking. There is a stillness and quiet dignity about the face –a  delicacy and ‘completeness’ about the work.   Perhaps that, in itself, should have been enough, and in a way it was.  But Palazzo Abatellis is a favourite place; I visit quite often and the more I saw this work, the more I wanted to know about it; about the sculptor, Francesco Laurana, and about Eleanor herself.

So I set about doing some investigation.  I didn’t find all I was looking for, but at least I know a little more than I did before – and the exercise has been an interesting one.  Read the rest of this entry »