IMG_3811Palermo has a problem with rubbish.  A big problem.  It’s often the first thing visitors to the city talk about: skips full to overflowing with garbage in the streets of the city centre and piles of rubbish building up on the pavement.

It’s not that the problem of rubbish is peculiar to Palermo.  The amount of waste, much of it non-recyclable, being discarded by industrial societies all over the world is increasing at an alarming rate.  Rubbish is a massive problem world-wide.  But you don’t expect to be confronted with it quite so starkly in a modern European city – and there’s no good reason why you should be.

But there are reasons why you are, in Palermo; some of them quite bizarre.  Both the reasons, and the novel solution recently adopted by one of my neighbours, are very Sicilian.

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Pio Mellina has been collecting the antique majolica floor tiles of southern Italy since he was a child.  Several years ago, he created a small museum in one of Palermo’s many ancient palaces and called it   Le Stanze al Genio.  The museum has already received national and international recognition and is on the ‘must see’ list for many visitors to the city.  It was a pleasure to spend some time there talking to Pio about the collection.

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Pio,   I’m curious to know where your interest in these tiles came from and how you got started collecting them.  

Well – I was very young, only 11 or 12 years old, and I really loved these tiles – the designs and the colours.  There was an enormous variety of designs: geometric, floral, birds, animals, people, everything and  I found them fascinating. Really exciting.   I don’t really know why I started collecting –  it just happened.  At that stage, I had no interest in where the tiles might have come from, or what their stories might have been – I was just interested in the tiles themselves.  I don’t know – I was certainly not a sporty sort of child, for one thing I was a bit overweight, so maybe I was going to be drawn to collecting something.  I lived near via Liberta’, at the other end of town, but I used to search for tiles in the little street markets that were then all over the place in the old city.  I  really developed an absolute passion – and before long I had a lot of tiles!

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These are brief encounters with the lives of some of Sicily’s heroes: people perhaps only Sicily could produce.  Although they are stories that have been told many times before, they bear re-telling.  In Sicily, they will hopefully never be forgotten. 

The first thing you see when you fly to Palermo is the dramatic, rocky coastline of north Sicily; to me, even now, it is exciting and full of promise.  Then, in a wide bay, skirting the sea and ringed by mountains, the city itself.  Looking down, it is easy to imagine it as it once was:  one of the richest and most sophisticated cities of Europe;  a city of palaces and royal hunting lodges, surrounded by the dark-leaved citrus groves of the Conca d’Oro – blessed in both  location and climate.  

The picture changes as you reach the centre and images of the glorious city of the past are replaced by the reality of the city of today.  In places, the devastation caused by the Allied bombs of the Second World War is still apparent:  here and there the jagged, broken walls  of ancient palaces are silhouetted against the sky, and ornate plaster that once decorated  the interior of churches is exposed to the elements.  In many of the narrow alleys there is an air of neglect and resignation – and, all too often, piles of uncollected rubbish.     

But then, as you begin to discover the city’s treasures, the picture changes again: there is the overwhelming richness of decoration in baroque church interiors;  the patterns of  mixed marble floors – black, grey, red, yellow, green and blue; the unexpected whiteness and brilliance of Serpotta’s magical work in stucco; the shimmering gold and deep blue of the famous Arabo-Norman mosaics; and the unforgettable face of the ‘blue  Madonna’. 

It is only later that less tangible things begin to take hold: the rhythms and sounds of the city and, above all, its stories; in particular, stories of  the mafia, and of the men and women who have taken a stand against it.  These inspiring and heroic figures still dominate the city’s inner life.

Giovanni Falcone


I didn’t really want to start with the anti-mafia judge, Giovanni Falcone.  There are many others just as worthy, I thought, who are  not given their due, even though they too sacrificed their lives in the fight against the mafia.  But I kept coming back to  him – his particular qualities and achievements, combined with his considerable personal charisma, seemed to set him apart.  I decided it was appropriate to acknowledge that; and that doing so does not in any way detract from the achievements and contributions of others.

If you drive in to Palermo from the airport with a local, you will almost certainly have pointed out to you two red marble pillars, one on each side of the road, just a few kilometres from the airport.  They mark the spot where, at just before 6.00pm on 23 May 1992, Falcone, his wife Francesca Morvilla, and three escorts, Rocco Di Cillo, Antonio Montinaro and Vito Schifani, were killed as they drove from the airport to the city.  The explosion was massive, hurling cars through the air and completely destroying almost 500 metres of roadway.   On television footage of the scene a voice can be heard saying:  “How much explosive did they use – an atom bomb?”

For the mafia, Falcone had simply become too dangerous.   But mafiosi weren’t the only ones responsible for his death.   Falcone firmly believed that the mafia could be beaten by dedicated and competent investigation and his story shows that he was right.  But it also shows that the mafia will only ultimately be beaten with the full cooperation of the State.    In the words of one of the prosecutors after his death:  “The fight against the mafia begins in Sicily, but it’s won in Rome”.

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Taking a break …

24 February, 2010

I will be away from Palermo for the next few weeks – which means that both my exploration of the city and my blog postings will be coming to a temporary halt. 

A big thank you to everyone who has been reading so far.  I’m already looking forward to being back and getting started again.  I hope you’ll join me then.