Rome wasn't built in a day . . . and neither was Palermo
Teatro Massimo, Europe's Third Largest Theater
Guest piece for Nellino's by Keith Preble, the Italian language guru behind Parola del Giorno, the very best Italian language-learning site on the web, home to the Parola del Giorno app and to online one-on-one language lessons. Keith is currently writing the definitive English-language tour guide to Palermo. Follow Parola del Giorno on Facebook and Twitter.
Palermo is a city that initially can be taxing on the nerves and stamina. As you step out on the city streets for the first time, you will be met with an insane amount of noise, traffic, and crowds of people, cars, and buses heading in so many different directions. It is immediately overwhelming. But as you begin to soak up the atmosphere, you start to feed off the energy and learn to work within the apparent chaos that seems to surround you. It is this mixture of chaos, beauty, calm, and decay that is hypnotic and enchanting, and it is the very soul of Palermo. Palermo is not an easy city to love. It's not like Rome with its compact historic center and convenient public transport, and Palermo lacks the calm and quiet of a region like Tuscany with its idyllic landscapes and tranquil calm. Palermo is a city that presents many challenges and requires one to earn its admiration. From the moment you arrive, you will be faced with obstacles and challenges that will test you. Push yourself to see the city's wonders, have patience, and open your mind to a different kind of Italy. The magnificence of Palermo is not always obvious, but as you make your way through the city and explore Palermo, you will find yourself richly rewarded.
Our first destination in the city is the famed Catacombs of the Capuchins, an underground burial site that is one of the most famous tourist attractions in the entire city. This site clearly falls under the "not obvious" category. At first glance it might seem like a ridiculous place to visit: it's not easy to reach and can be a very macabre experience, as well as a crowded one. Despite its distance from the historic center, there's always a crowd. The catacombs are a rich historical treasure, featuring personages from throughout Palermo's history and of the world's, too, that have been preserved using an embalming method the friars themselves developed. Many of the bodies are still dressed in their "Sunday best," and it can be an eerie sensation to walk through the halls of the catacombs. The best preserved of the bodies is, not surprising, the last one to be interred in the catacombs: the two year old child Rosalia Lombardo. She lies in her coffin, looking as if she had only just passed away. The embalming technique for little Rosalia was created by Dr. Alfredo Salafia, a noted embalmer who came up with the formula that kept her body so well preserved, a formula that killed bacteria and fungus, but promoted rigidity without over-drying. The entire complex takes no more than thirty minutes to an hour to explore and is worth the visit. Photography is not permitted as the catacombs are considering resting places of the dead and a place to be revered and respected. The catacombs lie somewhat outside the city center: your best bet is to either go by taxi or take the 109 bus from Stazione Centrale to the Piazza Indipendenza and then change buses, taking the 327 along Via Pitre', getting off at the stop where Via Ippolito Pindemonte and Via Pitre' intersect. Once you get off the bus, walk north toward the Piazza Cappuccini.
After a trip to the brooding Catacombs of the Capuchins, head on over to the Palazzo dei Normanni. Visiting the Palazzo can be a challenge at times since the hours can change without notice depending on the government business that is taking place (the Palazzo is home to the regional government). Generally, the structure is open from 9:00 AM to 12:00 PM and then re-opens after lunch until 4:30 PM. In Italy, ticket offices generally close an hour before the closing time stated so plan accordingly if you try to visit the monument later in the day. The Palazzo dei Normanni is home to the magnificent Cappella Palatina, a chapel decorated in mosaics showing the Acts of the Apostles, described by the famous French writer Guy de Maupassant in his book Sicily as "the marvel of marvels." Many of the works in the chapel were done by artists of different religions, and you will be in awe of the chapel's splendor. Take note that the chapel has a strict dress code, especially for women, so bare shoulders, shorts, and revealing clothing are not permitted (men in shorts and short sleeves are usually tolerated). If you plan to visit the chapel, dress accordingly, since refunds are likely not to be given after you enter! The chapel is small and you will not be given much time so take your pictures and move along. Try to take a moment to enjoy the golden splendor of this magnificent chapel with its lustrous and luminous mosaics. This is certainly one of the most beautiful places in the city.
The Cathedral of Palermo (il Duomo di Palermo) is a structure that represents Palermo more than any other in the city because of its mishmash of architectural styles. The cathedral has been augmented over the centuries by each ruling group that occupied the city and is an excellent example of the influences that have dominated the city over the centuries. The Cathedral has had many functions throughout the ages, beginning as a church, then a mosque, and then back to a church again. The Duomo's main benefactor was the Archbishop of Palermo, William of the Mill, an Englishman who ruled the Palermo court. With an abundance of money and resources at his disposal, the Archbiship had the cathedral constructed as a response to his rival, William II, who the bishop felt was robbing him of power and influence in the city. The cathedral reflects William of the Mill's influence and his need to assert his power and influence on the city. The cathedral is full of chapels and important works of art--too many to be mentioned here. One of the most unique aspects of this cathedral is what is called the "heliometer," a solar device built into one of smaller domes of the cathedral. A bronze meridiana lines the floor from north to south, with the signs of the zodiac flanking both sides. Since the Church believed that each day began at sunrise, each day would subsequently begin at a different time depending on when the sun rose. The heliometer also helped to mark the first day of winter and summer, and the sun can be seen between noon and 1:00 PM each day.
Piazza Pretoria is a square that sits on the corner of Via Vittorio Emanuele and Via Maqueda and is dominated by one of the few Renaissance monuments in the city, a large fountain encircled by nude statuary. Commissioned for a Spanish diplomat in Florence, the statues were considered too risque' for the diplomat's estate and were put up for sale. The fountain and statuary group were then purchased by the Palermo Senate in 1573. The assembly of the fountain and the repairs to some of the broken statues took several years to complete. The monument was finally completed and installed in 1581. Many of the locals refer to the piazza as Piazza della Vergogna (The Square of Shame) not only because of the nude statuary but also because of the perceived corruption often linked to the municipal government, whose offices, located in the Palazzo Pretorio, sit nearby. The fountain is the centerpiece of the square and on warm, sunny days appears to glow. For the best photographs of the piazza, climb the stairs of the nearby Church of Santa Caterina. If open, have a quick look inside--it is one of the most richly decorated churches in Palermo.
Quattro Canti, officially known as the Piazza Vigliena, is the hub of the city and always crowded with people and traffic. The quadrants represent the symbols of the city, so be sure to take a moment to enjoy them. Designed by the Florentine architect Giulio Lasso, the Quattro Canti were built on the orders of the Duke of Maqueda. Each of the facades is nearly identical, though with a different Carrara marble statuary occupying each, representing the four seasons, the four Kings of Spains, and the four patron saints of Palermo (Agata, Cristina, Ninfa, and Olivia). The sculpture group has a message--one that ties the power of the Spanish kings to the patron saints of the city (who are most certainly pleased). Linking all to the seasons further demonstrates the power of the rulers, who boastfully imply their dominance over nature itself. The city streets around the Quattro Canti are closed on various weekends and holidays to allow for pedestrian traffic, and these are ideal times to photograph the Quattro Canti from the center of the intersection where you can get the best vantage points. How beautiful it must have looked in the days before the automobile arrived in Palermo. Years of exposure to pollution have sullied the structure somewhat, but it can still be enjoyed and appreciated.
Teatro Massimo is probably familiar to many readers who know the The Godfather Trilogy. It is a stunning opera house in the center of the city along Via Maqueda. The Teatro Massimo is the largest theater in Italy and is the third largest in Europe (the first being Opera National de Paris, the second being the Burgtheater in Vienna), has a very active opera and concert season, and is renowned for its acoustics. I was lucky to see Mozart's opera Cosi fan tutti there in 2009 with a friend. The Teatro Massimo also has an impressive roof that allows for the release of the hot air, which otherwise would quickly heat up the concert hall. During performances the air conditioning is generally switched off. The roof is unique in that the large panels that make up the "petals" of the decorated ceiling are able to open, allowing the hot air to escape. This naturally helps to cool the theater without the noise of the air conditioning systems disturbing the performance. Many of the sale (rooms) in the theater also have special acoustic qualities--a tour would not be out of the question if offered at the time of your visit. If you cannot make it inside for a tour, simply relax outside and enjoy the architectural brilliance of this magnificent center of the arts in the city.
Not far from the Teatro Massimo is the Museo Archeologico Regionale "Antonio Salinas," founded in 1866 and located on Via Bara all'Olivella. This museum houses some amazing pieces of Punic, Etruscan, Roman, and Greek art and has some outstanding archaeological finds. The bronze ram to the above right is one of the museums most impressive finds due to the rarity of bronze artifacts, which were often recycled for weapons or other works of art. Guy de Maupassant visited the museum during his travels to Sicily and was impressed by the sculpture's realism and by, what he called in his book Sicily, its "simple beauty!" There is also a collection of metopes from Temple C at Selinunte and the Stone of Palermo, a basalt fragment with a hieroglyphic list of Egypt's earliest rulers. The museum is a rich showpiece of ancient art and archaeology from the region and is worthy of a visit. The museum is currently undergoing renovations so some of the rooms are closed while the work is being completed.
Head on over to the Oratorio dei Bianchi, located on Via dello Spasimo, to see some examples of the works of the great Giacomo Serpotta! His works are not to be missed if you are in Palermo. Fortunately there are many opportunities to see his handiwork in the city. Serpotta worked in stucco the way that Michelangelo and Bernini worked in marble, creating highly creative and skillful works that, often enough, appear as if made from marble. Serpotta wasn't the only stuccatore (i.e., one who works in stucco) in the city, but he certainly perfected it. This method of sculpting is extremely difficult: stucco dries very quickly and even more so in the Sicilian heat, but Serpotta had a way with stucco that few others have ever mastered. The addition of marble dust to the stucco paste is a Serpotta innovation, and even today the recipe for his mix of ingredients is still a mystery. Serpotta's brilliance in this medium surprises many considering that Serpotta never left Sicily and had very little connection to the greater art world at the time, save for engravings of the works of others (Gianlorenzo Bernini, for example). Considering the Serpotta family's extreme poverty, it seems unlikely that he ever left the island, and what skills he acquired, he certainly learned through practice, experimentation, and the artistic community local to Palermo and Sicily. Serpotta's work can be seen not only in Palermo but also in Alcamo, near Trapani. It has been described as a meteor in the Sicilian sky, one of the few artists of this period in Sicily that stands out among what many art historians considered a very provincial art scene.
Just down the street from the Oratorio dei Bianchi is the incomplete church, Lo Spasimo, an unfortunate structure in Palermo that, while seemingly lacking in the splendor and grandeur of many of the places already described, is very unique. It is, simply, a church left in an unfinished state, never completed. When the city decided to reinforce its defenses in 1536, the land around the church was cosigned to these works and even parts of the church's architecture was incorporated into the construction of the city's defenses. Sadly, the church is now often used for open air concerts and performances. Its lack of a roof gives it a romantic quality, especially in the evening hours, and the trees and plants that seem to grow up around it add to its beauty and charm. From an architectural standpoint, the unfinished church is an excellent example of the building practices of the time and seeing a church in this state of construction (or disrepair?) is an amazing sight to be seen.
After being on your feet all day, why not head over to the Bar Rosanero in Palermo. The Bar Rosanero is a small caffe' located on the corner of Via Lincoln and Via Torremuzza and is near the Porta Reale, one of city's old entrances. Sit down and have yourself a mini cassata, a cannolo and coffee, or perhaps try un gelo di anguria, a cold dessert that is popular in Palermo and is sure to comfort if you happen to be there during the summer. They have sandwiches and other savory items, too, if you're not in the mood for dessert. So sit down, at the very least, and have a cold drink before you head back out into the heat of the day. The selection of sweets at the bar is simply amazing. There are dozens and dozens of things to choose from.
Orto Botanico di Palermo is located along Via Lincoln and is one of the most quiet and restful places in the city. There is nothing like taking a stroll through the many gardens and groves of the botanical garden to escape the summer heat and to see a very well laid out and elaborate garden. Now part of the University of Palermo's botany department, the garden offers a respite from the chaotic hustle and bustle of the city, providing an abundance of shade for those of us who are unaccustomed to such intense sun. Make sure that you head over to the Aquarium, a circular pool divided into twenty-four quadrants with each quadrant showcasing different water flora. Stroll through the grounds and relax after a day exploring the city.
Not far from the botanical gardens is the charming and suggestive restaurant, Al Covo dei Beati Paoli, located across from the Piazza Marina. The restaurant, whose name comes from the band of knights, the "Beati Paoli," who sought to protect the poor and the weak, is located in quite an appropriate place. Where's that? The hideout for the Beati Paoli is rumored to have been nearby, and the interior of the restaurant has been designed to resemble a cove or hideout. The suggestive interior, enticing menu, and excellent wine list make this a great locale to unwind after a long day of sightseeing and touring. If the weather is nice, sit outside and enjoy the cool ocean breeze that blows through that section of the neighborhood or eat in the hideout of these Robin Hood-esque bandits. Whether the Beati Paoli existed or not is a matter of debate, but there is no debate about the quality of the food or the uniqueness of this restaurant's ambiance.
Palermo is an extraordinary city full of so many different wonders, sights, sounds, tastes, and smells. While overwhelming, daunting, and every perhaps a little scary, Palermo is a city of immense beauty and inner calm. According to the Palermitan writer Roberto Alajmo, the city is like an onion, a combination of many layers. You can take the city as it is ("E' un bell'oggetto, con una sua eccentrica perfezione" | It is a beautiful object, with its own eccentric perfection), never going deeper if you are happy with what you see, or, you can peel away more of the layers. It is up to you, the traveler, to decide how far you want to go. But Alajmo makes a great point in his book Palermo e' una cipolla (Palermo Is an Onion) where he remarks: "But if you are the skillful traveler that I believe you to be, you have to go ahead and try to peel away still some layers. And you have to be the one to do it. Even if peeling away the layers makes you cry, you cannot let others do the job for you. They do not know which layer of the onion you wish to stop at" (123).
You, the traveler and visitor, must decide for yourself what you want to see and how much of the city you are ready for, and, more important, you must decide for yourself what Palermo is by peeling away the preconceptions and cliches that you might have created for yourself or inherited from others. Only then can you enjoy Palermo for what it truly is.