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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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.    

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Like many other Sicilian families of their class, every year, in May, the Agnello family would pack up and travel to their country estate – and there they would remain for the summer months. It was a short journey from the family palace in Agrigento to the large airy farm house at Mose’, but a major excursion. At Mose’, the family entered into a completely different way of life.

For those who made the journey many years ago, the Mose’ of today is obviously greatly changed. The farm, which still produces olives, almonds, pistachios and wheat, as well as fruit and vegetables, is greatly reduced in size, and the house and surrounding buildings have been extensively restored and opened to guests. Nevertheless, thanks largely to Chiara who now manages the farm and Agriturismo business, it is still possible to feel something of the rhythm of a past way of life. Something of those magical summers that linger on in the family’s memory can now be shared by anyone who visits.

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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.    

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Whereas once I tended to dismiss concentration on detail as the preserve of the unimaginative, now I see it as a way of enriching one’s experience and reaching into the heart of things.

This morning, as I passed the Giardino Garibaldi, wondering vaguely how Basile had chosen the theme of the hunt for his fence design (see previous post) and what other ideas he might have had, I noticed a detail that previously had escaped me completely.  All of a sudden it was clear that what I had  previously taken to be merely ornamental loops joining the arrow-shaped railings are, in fact, representations of hunting bows.

Although not in itself an overwhelmingly important detail, I now felt I hadn’t fully appreciated Basile’s design before.  It seemed both more ingenious and more harmonious than I had previously thought.  

I  have a similar feeling whenever I discover that a word or image in a poem has another, previously unnoticed, significance: my experience and appreciation of the poem is enriched in much the same way as my experience of Basile’s design was enriched this morning when I discovered this detail.  

It may be that were I to understand the significance of the shield design that appears at the corners of the fence and beside the gates my appreciation of Basile’s design would be further enhanced.  But that is for another day!

The hunting of wild animals is like a leitmotif that runs through Sicily’s history .  It seems that everyone who has ever ruled the island, from Roman to Bourbon, has derived great pleasure from the extensive hunting that has been available.  Not surprisingly, images of the hunt – wild boar, birds of every description, deer, hare and wild cat – have found their way into the island’s art, architecture and literature.  Vivid hunting scenes can be seen in the Roman mosaics at Piazza Armerina;  Frederick II’s book on the art of hunting with birds, written in the 13th century, continues to this day to be used by falconers; and a stately Bourbon hunting lodge, the Palazzina Reale, still dominates the woods at Ficuzza, not far from Palermo.      

In Piazza Marina, a large and gracious square near Palermo’s old harbour, nobody seems to pay a lot of attention to the elegant iron fence that surrounds the Giardino Garibaldi.  Attention is usually focused instead on the Piazza itself, or the garden – and both have much to offer.   But if you take the time to look closely at this fence, you’ll see that it continues the theme of the hunt.  The design is interesting and evocative – and definitely worthy of closer inspection.   

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It might seem fanciful to describe this tangled and overgrown green area, close to one of Palermo’s busiest thoroughfares and hemmed in by ugly modern apartment blocks, as the garden of a Norman king.  But, although a certain amount of imagination may be required to see it, that is what it is.  The area was once part of a huge and exotic pleasure garden created by the last of the Norman Kings, William II, in the second half of the 12th century.   

What led me down a side street and away from the chaotic via Calatafimi to the remains of William’s pleasure garden was a tantalising glimpse of a little red-domed Islamic styled stone pavilion.  The little pavilion, obviously part of Palermo’s Arabo-Norman past , lay behind an attractive iron fence, at one end of a surprisingly large, overgrown and forgotten looking green area.   At the other end, stood a large, obviously once grand, but now abandoned and neglected, villa, with an elegant external staircase and huge ficus magnolioides trees nearby.  Linking the two structures was a tangle of citrus and palm trees, vines, creepers, wild flowers and grasses and here and there the remains of old stone walls.  The fact that these buildings, and the fragment of garden, remain, and the air of abandonment that hangs over them, combine to stir the imagination.   Read the rest of this entry »

Arenella was once an isolated and picturesque little fishing village at the foot of Monte Pellegrino on Sicily’s dramatic north coast.  Now it is part of Palermo, just a short bus ride from the centre of town: still picturesque, still with fishing boats, but no longer isolated!  Even so, when I visited this week, I felt I was a million miles away.  At this time of year, it is a peaceful and beautiful little haven.  Like most things here, it has an interesting past.        

The tiny bay is dominated at one end by the remains of a tuna fishing establishment and an intriguing little neo-gothic style stone building – a tiny palace, with four small turrets.  At the other end of the bay, a little bar has been established by the water, looking out over the Gulf of Palermo and back towards the city.

I was there on a perfect Spring afternoon.   Across the water, the craggy mountains that encircle the city were various shades of blue, and the city, behind a slight white haze, a faint pink.  It looked beautiful.  Hard to believe it was the city I had left 20 minutes before!   Everything was quiet.  Just the occasional clank of a boat mast or the sound of a voice from the breakwater where small groups were chatting in the sun, and young boys coming and going  up and down the old stone steps to swim and then dry out in the sun.  Read the rest of this entry »

There was a rather curious article in this morning’s paper headed   ‘The squalor of a garden closed for 25 years – works started and not finished are to blame’.    The heading itself wasn’t so surprising – it’s not all that uncommon for buildings to be closed for twenty five years here – but having read the article, I was left with the sense that something was missing.  Or perhaps I was missing something.  Surely the works in question couldn’t have been started twenty five years ago?  What else had gone wrong?  

The garden is not in a poor part of town.  It’s in the centre of an otherwise attractive square, Piazza Principe di Camporeale, close to a desirable residential area.  I was curious to see it for myself, and decided to pay a visit.

I found that almost the entire garden was enclosed by a high green corrugated iron fence, which looked as though it had been there for a very long time.  The occasional small hole in the fence revealed a garden completely overgrown and abandoned. The small section that remained outside the fence was taken up by three or four large Ficus Macrophylla (Moreton Bay Fig) trees.  Under their spreading branches, a handsome white marble sculpture, surrounded by iron railings, had survived.  Rubbish of all sorts littered the ground; old clothes hung on the fence.  Behind the sculpture, someone, apparently asleep, was lying on the ground wrapped in a faded, patterned pink blanket. The article was right: it was a scene of total squalor. Read the rest of this entry »

Palermo has some impressive large public gardens, among them the famous botanical gardens, the Orto Botanico, and Villa Giulia, a formal 18th century garden that Goethe described, with perhaps excessive enthusiasm,  as  “the most wonderful spot on earth”.   But three tiny public gardens that have been established relatively recently are, in their own way,  just as worthy of attention.  Each one is evocative of the city’s exotic past and reflective of its somewhat troubled present.  And each has an interesting story to tell.    

Giardino Giusto Monaco   

I came upon this garden quite by chance while exploring one of Palermo’s large public gardens, the Giardino Inglese or English Garden – so called because when created in the 19th century, it was not designed in the formal Italian style, but in the more informal manner of English gardens. 

I noticed, at the back of the Giardino Inglese, a pink Liberty style villa, partly hidden by high walls and foliage, and on going to investigate ,  came upon the Giardino Giusto Monaco, a tiny garden facing via Carlo Alberto dalla Chiesa and overlooked by the villa.  The garden looked  slightly neglected, but inviting: a little haven of green grass and dark leaved orange trees, full to overflowing with fruit.  Even the grass was covered in oranges.  I was already intrigued, when I noticed something else: dotted along the paths around the garden was a series of small metal plaques incised with quotations from various classical texts – Medea,    AgamemnonUlysses, the Aeneid and others, and one or two passages from Berthold Brecht.   “Where else”, I thought to myself, “would you be likely to stumble on something like this?” It seemed a perfect little garden for Palermo  – a little haven providing both shade from the harsh Sicilian sun and the chance to enjoy a garden while reading some carefully selected extracts from various classical texts.   I was curious to know how such a garden came to be created.  Read the rest of this entry »