Monday, July 13, 2020

Photo to the right: Dome inside Monastero Santa Caterina d'Allessandria

"Of the city of Palermo it would be fair to say that it is a place of limitless excitements."  -- Norman Lewis, In Sicily

"What I love about Palermo is what we call promisquità
 -- the way everything is mixed together indiscriminately.  You have beautiful palaces next to alleys filled with rubbish, vivid colors and terrible smells, incredible gardens and grimy buildings.  I don't like tidy cities.  Palermo is a fascinating place because it's very ugly and very beautiful at once."
-- Fabrizia Lanza, Director, Anna Tasca Lanza Cooking
School and author, Coming Home to Sicily

"Except for the hot summers, I'd be happy to live in Palermo.  I know it has problems, some all its own, others not that different from those of Milan, Rome, or many American cities.  But despite the decay and occasional squalor, Palermo is devastatingly beautiful and thrillingly alive." -- Victor Hazan, Travel + Leisure, April 1995

I'm a big fan of A to Z concepts -- if you've read any of my books you know there is an A to Z Miscellany in each one, and my Barcelona and Catalunya e-book is in an A to Z format.  So this post is a Palermo A to Z, more or less (I omitted some letters for which I have no entries).

An addendum to my last post: when I mentioned rental cars and warned against parking on the street, I neglected to explain that from Monday to Friday the historic center of Palermo is designated a limited traffic zone from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.  The staff at your chosen accommodation will assist you with parking, and they will notify the local police if you will need temporary street parking.  

Associazione Liberi Artigiani e Artisti Balarm (ALAB) is an organization of artisans in historic Palermo.  Edizioni Precarie, highlighted in one of my recent posts, is a member of ALAB.  All of these shops and workshops are worth seeking out, and as nearly all of them are concentrated within the centro storico it's easy to include them in any itinerary.  Click on the translate link on the website, scroll down a bit, and click on the Here we are! box to see all the member artisans.

Best articles about Palermo.  My favorite articles in my files about Palermo are: 'Understanding the Mosaic of Palermo' by William Weaver (The New York Times, 27 September, 1987), for its descriptions of the city more than 30 years ago.  What is still essentially the same is that Northern Italians (and others) say, "Sicily's not Italy, it's Africa."  Weaver writes, "Well, in a way, they are right; but it is this foreign savor that makes Palermo so alluring."  'Italy in Full' by Dan Hofstadter (Condé Nast Traveler, December 2009).  'Culinary Crucible' by Faith Heller Willinger (Gourmet, January 2009).  'Sicilian Summer' by Theresa Maggio (Islands, March 1995).  And 'Why Palermo, Italy Inspires Our Obsessive Devotion' by Antonia Quirke (Condé Nast Traveler, March, 2019).  In this last, Quirke asks her friend Luca if he thought Sicilians were pessimistic.  "Oh, no," he said, carefully shaking his head, "not pessimistic.  But our wisdom lies in expecting the worst."  Her friend Domenico adds that "In Naples, all hell is sure to break loose, but they know it will be okay.  In Palermo we just pray all hell doesn't break loose in the first place."

Cappella Palatina.  The Palatine Chapel is inside the Palazzo dei Normanni (also known as the Palazzo Reale), which has always been the palace of the rulers of the island.  Roger II, Sicily's first king, ordered the construction of the chapel shortly after his coronation in 1130.  The chapel is one of many must-sees in Palermo.  Fabrizia Lanza, quoted above, says "It's like getting inside a golden box of jewelry."  Alta Macadam, author of the Blue Guide: Sicily for many years, says "Every detail of the decoration is exquisite."  Dana Facaros and Michael Pauls, authors of the Cadogan Guide to Sicily, refer to it as "the crown jewel of Palermo...intimate, utterly incandescent." The chapel's magnificent wooden ceiling was carved by Arab craftsmen and is the largest surviving Fatimid work of its kind.  Greek artisans were responsible for the gold mosaics that cover the dome and apse as well as those of Christ the Pantocrator and angels (on page 102 of the Time Traveler's Guide to Norman-Arab-Byzantine Palermo, Monreale & Cefalù, by Louis Mendola and Jacqueline Alio, there is a helpful diagram indicating what each mosaic depicts).  The many details of this gorgeous space are easily found elsewhere, so I won't repeat them all here; but there is some interesting background in the 'Norman Monuments: Churches and Palaces' brochure published by Regione Siciliana.  To fully understand the Norman buildings and their lavish mosaic decorations, remember to consider their function as a way of enhancing the stature of the sovereign.  New rulers need some method to exalt their rise to power, and Roger (and the two Williams after him) turned to the Byzantine world, which fascinated them.  "All these mosaics are dominated by the heavenly representation of the earthly monarch, Christ Pantocrator, He who can do everything.  And amongst the representations of the Saints and the stories of the Old Testament and the New Testament, there is always -- in a privileged position -- a picture that portrays Christ himself investing the sovereign with his earthly powers." 

Conca d'Oro. The expression Conca d'Oro refers to the very fertile and green land that Palermo was built on as well as the land immediately around it, surrounded by mountains.  The name was documented for the first time in a 15th century poem by a Sicilian poet named Angelo Callimaco; he used the Latin phrase, aurea concha (golden shell), but conca in Italian translates as 'bowl.'  Helena Attlee, author of a really fascinating book, The Land Where Lemons Grow: The Story of Italy and Its Citrus Fruit (Countryman Press, 2014), explains that "the level ground between the city of Palermo, the mountains and the sea has been known as the Conca d'Oro for hundreds of years."  Indeed, the area around the city was already in the 4th century BC known as "being full of gardens," and under Arab rule it was known by the name of Genoard (Giannat al-ard), garden paradise.  At one time, sugar cane was the main cash crop in the countryside around Palermo, but when it became far more economical to cultivate in America, sugar cane was replaced with vineyards, olive groves, almonds, orchards, figs, prickly pears, carobs and citrus fruits.  The reproduction below, 'View of Palermo From Santa Maria di Gesù' (1875), by Francesco Lojacono, is one of many vedute di Palermo (views of Palermo) that were painted in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries (Lojacono was among the most noted landscape painters).

Another image is this one below, a lithograph by Emanuele Lajosa, with the exact same title as Lojacono's painting, dated circa 1839.  It, too, well illustrates the true garden surrounding the city.

When Goethe visited Palermo in 1787 for twenty days, a painter name Kniep traveled with him; but Goethe was more than an amateur painter himself and he painted a number of his own vistas.  He also, as Attlee relates in her book, "encapsulated a universal longing among northern Europeans for the beauty, warmth and ease of life in the southern Mediterranean in a question that seems to haunt our collective imagination: 'Do you know the land where lemons grow...Do you know it well?'"
Today, visitors to Palermo can still see traces of the former garden paradise on the drive from the airport to the city center, but it is much reduced.  Beginning in the 1920s, the green spaces began to decline.  The influential Florio and Whitaker families lost money, the socialites of Europe were attracted to other destinations, recovery from the Second World War was difficult, and urban expansion almost entirely erased the ancient Conca d'Oro.  But before the decline, the money that was made from citrus translated into almost unimaginable wealth: Attlee notes that in 1860, "Sicilian citrus production earned more money than any other agricultural activity in Europe," and the Mafia got involved.  I'll devote more to the Mafia in a separate post, but Attlee continues by stating that "...many of the new mafiosi were aristocrats, and all of them were modern entrepreneurs who had become the most powerful landowners on the Conca d'Oro.  The speculation, extortion, intimidation and protection rackets that characterize Mafia activity were first practiced and perfected in the mid-nineteenth century among the citrus groves of the Conca d'Oro..."   

Crossing the Street.  Traffic in Palermo is very much in the vein of every-driver-for-him-or-her-self, and though it may seem counter-intuitive, the way to cross a busy street where there is no light or crosswalk is simply to walk right onto it as if you, and not the drivers, own it.  If you're too intimidated, just wait for others to start walking and follow them (even better is to join a teacher crossing with young students).  The cars will definitely slow down and allow you to reach the other side without incident. 

La Cuba.  Taking its name from the Arabic qubba (cupola), the Cuba was a palace (still standing) built during the reign of William II.  La Cuba is similar in style to La Zisa (see entry below under Z) though it's smaller and doesn't have as much left inside it.  However, it appears in Boccaccio's Decameron, in the sixth story of the fifth day.  It's a story that the reader doesn't think will have a happy ending, but it does, and it involves Gianni of Procida (a physician and counselor of Frederick II who later was an instigator of the War of the Vespers - more about this event in my next post) who is in love with a young woman named Restituta and she is in love with him.  Restituta was abducted and then given to King Frederick, who "because he was a little out of sorts, he ordered that she should be placed, until he was stronger, in a palace of his known as La Cuba, situated in a garden, and kept there, and this was done."  Gianni is discovered in La Cuba with Restituta and they are tied to a stake and about to be burned alive but Ruggieri of Lauria, "a man of inestimable worth and at that time the King's admiral," recognized Gianni as the son of Landolfo of Procida, blood brother of Messer Gianni of Procida, "by whose contrivance you are the King and lord of this island" and Restituta as the daughter of Marino Bulgaro, "to whose influence you owe it that your officers have not been expelled from Ischia."  King Frederick was shocked by what he'd intended to do and had Gianni and Restituta released from the stake.  The king arranged for the couple to be married, gave them magnificent gifts, and sent them home quite contented.   

Ditta Parlato.  This is an excellent textiles shop, founded in 1858, with a great and vast selection of fabrics.   You can buy fabric to take home or the staff will make what you want on the premises (obviously, you'll need to be in Palermo for a few days in order to do this, or you could go elsewhere in Sicily and come back).  Beautiful towels and bathrobes by the luxury Italian brand Bellora (founded in 1883) are also sold here at good prices.

Galleria d'Arte Moderna (G/M) and Villa ZitoPalermo has great museums, and I couldn't visit them all.  These two art museums are devoted to Sicilian works and I think they're both must-sees.  G/M highlights works from the 1800s to the mid-1900s and it's located in the pretty complex of Sant'Anna alla Misericordia.  The museum is arranged thematically: 'The Celebration of Garibaldi Between History and Myth,' 'The Realism of Verga in the Painting of Social Protest,' 'Renato Guttoso and the Group of Four,' 'Antonino Leto and the Fortune of the Mediterranean Landscape,' 'Pathways of 20th Century Italy,' etc.  Villa Zito has works beginning from the 17th and 18th centuries and also includes Italian artists from outside Sicily in its galleries of more contemporary works.  The Villa was once a private home and at the time, in the 18th century, it was located outside the city limits, which explains the Latin inscription over the doorway: Hinc lites, strepitus, curae, hinc procul ite cadentes, hic reparent animos otia, rura, quies (Fights, screams, and stress stay away from here / let rest, the countryside, and quiet restore our spirit).  Before visiting these museums, I was unfamiliar with every single artist except Francesco Lojacono, but I left feeling that they all deserve to be better known.  Among them are Giovanni Boldoni, Elisa Maria Boglino, Mario Rutelli, Michele Catti, and Ettore de Maria Bergler.

Galleria Interdisciplinare Regionale della Sicilia.  This fantastic museum, in the beautiful Palazzo Abatellis, is an even more "must-see" than the two art museums above.  The palazzo dates from the 15th century and is in the Gothic-Catalan style.  It was damaged during World War II and in the 1950s it was restored and then was redesigned into a museum by the Venetian architect Carlo Scarpa.  The museum's collection features paintings, drawings, prints, and decorative arts from the Middle Ages to the late Baroque period, and as with the more contemporary museums above, I was unfamiliar with nearly every artist.  I'd seen illustrations of 'Our Lady of the Annunciation' (Antonella da Messina, 15th century) and 'Bust of a Gentlewoman said to be Eleanor of Aragon' (Francesco Laurana, 15th century) before coming to the museum, but I was completely mesmerized by both of these stunning works.  And the famous fresco, 'The Triumph of Death,' whose creator is unknown, is also an incredible work.  I was also quite taken with 'Madonna and Musician Angels' by Antonello Crescenzio and 'The Last Supper' by Pietro D'Asaro.  The museum prohibits reproducing the works without permission so I can't include them here but these are all easily found online.  If I lived in Palermo, I would come here once a week.

Guide.  My feeling of many years that a great tour guide can make the difference between an excellent trip and an outstanding trip was confirmed again in Palermo.  Concetta (Cetty) Spoto was recommended to me by the author and guide Jacqueline Alio, and Cetty is indeed a guide per eccellenza.  Like the best guides anywhere, Cetty, who is also an architect, has some of her own themed walks she can propose or she can craft a custom walk for visitors with particular interests.  We enjoyed a full itinerary in Palermo and then had a quick lunch and went to Monreale.  Cetty knew of my great interest in Giuseppe di Lampedusa, so after we left the Monreale Cathedral she led us through some narrow, picturesque alleyways behind the Cathedral known as La Ciambra, the oldest part of the city.  This little neighborhood covers a little more than three acres and sits on a rocky spur overlooking the Conca d'Oro.  It used to be a citadel and served as a defense outpost for enemy attacks on the Conca d'Oro.  Later, it was filled with workers and artisans of all kinds who were engaged in the building of the Cathedral.  'Ciambra' is from the French word chambre (room) because there were always rooms available here for those serving the Crown.  We ended up in a small piazza, the largo Cutò, where there was a historical marker for the Palazzo Cutò.  The palazzo was built in the 17th century by Alessandro Tasca, otherwise known as the Principe di Cutò.  He was the father of Beatrice Tasca, who married Giulio Tomasi, Prince of Lampedusa, and Beatrice was the mother of Giuseppe di Lampedusa.  It seems not many people know about this at all, and it felt special -- I was happy to be in this quiet, pretty spot that was like being in a cocoon.  It really feels like time has stopped here, and another Lampedusa connection is like icing on the cake.  Cetty may be reached via e-mail at, and I recommend contacting her as soon as you know of your Palermo plans as she is in demand.   

Markets.  Palermo's famous street markets are Ballarò, Borgo Vecchio, Il Capo, and La Vucciria.  As I mentioned in a previous post, La Vucciria is no longer the authentic market it once was, but I think it's true that none of these markets has retained quite the atmosphere they once did.  That's not a reason not to walk through at least one of them, however, especially for the street food (see entry below under 'S').  Both Vucciria and Borgo Vecchio are more authentic as nightlife venues, attracting mostly young people, and they can get a bit rowdy (drinking contests, etc.).  Ballarò is the largest and oldest market and does still have a medieval feel to it.  However, according to Dan Tano of We Are Palermo, the market "seems to be a training camp for tomorrow's professional criminals" so be on the lookout for pickpockets.  Ballarò also has stalls selling household goods and clothing.  Il Capo is really lively and best visited in the morning.  The cooking class with Nicoletta Polo, the Duchess of Palma di Montechiaro, begins at Il Capo, and she told us that though she's been shopping for years now at Il Capo, she used to be a regular shopper at a different market that was closer to via Butera.  One day at the other market, she overheard a conversation between a customer and a vendor she had bought from previously, and she felt that the vendor was not treating the customer with respect and was downright rude.  Understanding one of the rules of shopping regularly at a market -- you cannot switch vendors -- she decided she would have to stop going to that market.  Nicoletta explained further that there is an expression known among all market vendors, un taglio di faccia, which translates as a diagonal face cut, and it refers to how you'll be treated if you stop frequenting one vendor's stall and go to another's.  The expression is also tied to a question -- who do you belong to? -- as it becomes clear which shoppers "belong" to which vendors.  It's only permissible to go to a different vendor if the one you frequent doesn't have what you're looking for, in which case your regular vendor will send you to another one, making it clear that you "belong" to the first vendor and that this is only a one-time purchase.  The painting below, 'La Vucciria' by Renato Guttoso (1974), may be seen in the Sala Magna at the Quadreria Mediterranea (piazza Marina 59) at the request of the painter.

Monreale Cathedral.  In a '36 Hours' column in the travel section of The New York Times in 2008, writer Ariel Foxman shared that "There's a saying in Palermo that goes something like: "He who visits Palermo without visiting Monreale arrives as a donkey and leaves an ass."  While Foxman adds that the slogan is not likely to be seen on T-shirts any time soon, I agree with the sentiment.  It's not a far drive outside of the city and there is parking available, but it's so easy to take the bus (#389 from piazza Indipendenza) that I recommend it over driving.  The Cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage site, was constructed at the request of King William II, who Dante included in 'Paradise' in his Divine Comedy, and in the cathedral's cloister there is a statue of William holding a replica of the cathedral.  There is also a mosaic in the sanctuary of William giving a replica of the cathedral to the Virgin Mary,  and another showing William being crowned by none other than Jesus Christ (which imitates the mosaic at La Martorana -- see below in the entry for Piazza Bellini -- showing Roger II being crowned by Christ).  The sanctuary's walls are covered with mosaics, and at nearly seventy thousand square feet, it's larger than Saint Mark's in Venice and is the largest medieval display of its kind in western Europe.  Ariel Foxman concluded in his column that the 65-foot-high mosaic of Jesus "glows like the sun over the central apse.  The golden age of Palermo, it seems, never really ended."  Don't miss it. 

Museo delle Maioliche / Stanze al Genio.  I mentioned the Stanze al Genio B&B in my last post without saying much about the ceramics (maioliche) museum, which is fantastic.  The owners of the Palazzo Torre-Pirajno have a collection of glazed tiles from Sicily and Campania that were made between the 15th and 20th centuries, and if you are crazy for ceramics like me you will positively love this and your head will pop off.  There are almost 5,000 pieces on display, making it one of the largest private collections in Europe open to the public.  Tiles are arranged by period and geographic origin in 8 rooms, and they may be seen by advance reservation only (book online).  Guided visits are 45 minutes and the museum is ordinarily closed on Mondays.  I took lots of photos but here are a much smaller number below:

Opera dei Pupi (marionette puppet theater).  The popularity of puppets in Sicily can be said to date back to the Middle Ages, when France had its stories of Charlemagne and England had the tales of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.  In the 1500s, writers Ludovico Ariosto and Torquato Tasso wrote an Italian version of the French stories of Charlemagne, and by the 19th century, puppet shows telling tales from medieval literature, like the 11th century 'Chanson de Roland' (Orlando in Italian), as well as those about the lives of saints and notorious bandits, began to be very popular in Palermo and elsewhere in Sicily.  The Normans' rule in Sicily was looked upon as a Golden Age by Sicilians -- none of the island's subsequent rulers even bothered to visit and they left the management (which was mostly corrupt) up to viceroys and petty officials.  As Dana Facaros and Michael Pauls wrote in the Cadogan guide to Sicily, "Dogged by centuries of injustice and misrule, the Sicilians preserved the Norman code of honour amongst themselves.  Even the poorest illiterate could follow the adventures of Carlomagno's [Charlemagne's] paladins in the Opera dei Pupi, where the moral of the story is always the same: a man's most important possession is his honour."  In the early 20th century there were 25 marionette companies in Sicily but today there are only 11, with 4 in Palermo -- read this Visit Sicily page for details on each theater as well as the difference between the school of Catania puppets versus the school of Palermo puppets.  In 2001, The Opera dei Pupi was added to UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list, and while it will likely never return to its heyday, it does not fail to delight audiences, of both locals and tourists.  The shows are performed in Sicilian dialect and can be hard to follow, but it really doesn't matter as the general theme is easily understood.  There is no script per se, so the action is mostly improvised while the 20+ characters are played by only two puppeteers against beautiful, hand-painted backdrops.  Every November, over two weekends, the Antonio Pasqualino International Museum of Puppets hosts the Festival di Morgana in Palermo.  The festival brings together puppeteers from all over the world to celebrate the art, and performances are free until seats last.  In the 1990s, a reader of The New York Times travel section wrote a letter about a show she saw at the Museo Internazionale delle  Marionette in Palermo.  When she and her fellow travelers arrived they were told that "it was not uncommon for the men to become so involved in the heat of battle that they would shout and throw things.  We felt mildly superior.  Then the show began and we were lost in the 11th century in 'Chanson de Roland.'  When at last two giant figures loomed over the little stage, we gasped.  What did giants have to do with the story?  Then we realized that these were the puppeteers who had made us believe the illusion."                  

Oratorio del Rosario di Santa Cita.  There are a number of oratories -- similar in size to small chapels -- in the historic part of Palermo, and these feature the best of the city's Baroque decoration.  Typically, each oratory was paid for and maintained by a confraternity, which was made up of members of the nobility and those of high society.  On the surface, the confraternities did this out of religious piety (they paid for social services not covered by the government) but the Palermitan oratories provided them with a place to gather to strengthen their political, social, and business bonds.  A new type of building thus emerged for these confraternities: it was annexed to a prestigious church and had no exterior indication of its internal use or beauty.  The surprise generated by the oratories' decor was reserved only for the members, who competed among themselves for social prestige and public recognition, and each oratory had to be the most beautiful in order to express the power and wealth of the group.  The name of Giacomo Serpotta (1656-1732) is most associated with the oratories in Palermo, and he is the acknowledged master of the art of stucco sculpture.  He created a technique called allustratura for covering stuccoes with a thin layer of wax and marble powder, which had the affect of making the stucco shine.  Art historian Rudolf Wittkower referred to Serpotta as "Sicily's one great boast" during the late Baroque and Rococo period, and said he was "a meteor in the Sicilian sky."   I was especially interested in seeing the Santa Cita oratorio because I have a particular interest in the Battle of Lepanto (1571), which is featured here, so our guide, Cetty, was happy to include it in our day's itinerary.  Serpotta's work is like nothing I've ever seen.  The walls at Santa Cita are filled with cupids, angels, and putti, which Wittkower noted was Serpotta's specialty: "playing, hugging, weeping, flying, and tumbling, they accompany every one of his decorations, spreading a cheerful and festive atmosphere."  A few photos I took are below:

Note that serpotta means serpent or lizard, and Serpotta often punned on his name and included snakes in his work, as in the photo to the right here.

The Battle of Lepanto is depicted in the photo below, and it's here because the oratorio is dedicated to the Virgin of the Rosary -- the battle, fought in the Gulf of Lepanto in Greece, was between the Ottoman Turks and the Holy League fleet (mostly Spanish but generally a coalition of European Catholic states organized by Pope Pius V).  The Holy League won, and in the photo the Virgin is seated on clouds with an entourage of angels and she gives the rosary to St. Dominic, who kneels before her.  (Meanwhile, the battle scene is reduced to a much smaller number of galleys than actually participated in the battle.)  The victory of Catholicism over the Turks is attributed to the miraculous intervention of the Virgin of the Rosary. 

As an aside, the Christian victory reasserted Spanish supremacy in the Mediterranean and was celebrated with much fanfare in Europe.  However, Sir Charles Petrie, in Philip II of Spain (1963) noted that "The battle of Lepanto did not break the back of the Ottoman naval power...but morally it was decisive, for by lifting the pall of terror which had shrouded eastern and central Europe since 1453, it blazoned throughout Christendom the startling fact that the Turk was no longer invincible."  More recently (2000), historian Bernard Lewis, in A Middle East Mosaic, notes that Lepanto made very little difference to the real balance of power in southeastern Europe and the Mediterranean.  "The Turkish armies remained dominant on land; the Turkish fleets were swiftly rebuilt;  When the sultan expressed concern about the cost, his grand vizier replied: "The might of our empire is such that if we wished to equip the entire fleet with silver anchors, silken rigging and satin sails, we could do it."  The photo to the right is of the Santa Cita confraternity members, painted just outside the oratory.  Serpotta devoted his entire life to decorating oratories, and the tradition of creating these white masterpieces was continued by his son, Procopio (whose work may be seen in the Oratorio di Santa Caterina d'Alessandria).

Ortigia.  The small island of Ortigia, designated a UNESCO landmark for its "remarkable testimony of the Mediterranean cultures over the centuries," is at the edge of Siracusa, on the eastern coast of Sicily.  It's also the name of a fine line of natural soaps, scents, candles, and lotions created by Sue Townsend, a British woman who was also a founder of Crabtree & Evelyn.  Townsend started Ortigia in 2006 and the perfumes are distilled from flowers of Sicily by noted perfumer Lorenzo Villoresi, based in Florence.  I was unfamiliar with Ortigia before going to Sicily, but now I'm a big fan.  The shop in Palermo is on via Principe di Belmonte, 100/b, and there is another one in the Villa Igiea hotel (other Sicilian locations are in Cefalu, Noto, Sciacca, Siracusa, and Taormina, while elsewhere in Italy there are stores in Florence and Rome; there are no boutiques in the U.S. though some Ortigia products may be found some stores; these appear on the Ortigia website).  Townsend designs the packaging for all the items, and most of it has an appealing Art Deco look; I'm especially fond of the items that borrow motifs from Roger's Hall (Sala di Re Ruggero)in the Palazzo dei Normanni:

Palazzi (Palaces).  There are so many former (and current) palaces in Palermo that it's impossible to see more than a few in a single visit.  In the 1670s, Palermo became the sole capital city in Sicily (up until this time Messina shared the role of capital city), and by the early 18th century there were a lot of aristocrats in Palermo -- something like 142 princes, more than 750 marquises, and around 1,500 dukes and barons -- so palazzi were in demand.  In his book In Sicily, travel writer Norman Lewis wrote that it was estimated at the time of his last visit in the late 1990s that "three hundred of Palermo's splendid palaces -- among them superb examples of baroque architecture -- were in desperate need of repair."  Since that time, a number of the splendid palaces he saw have indeed been at least partially renovated.  Some descendants of the families who owned the palaces still live in their ancestral homes; others donated the buildings to the state.  In either case, some palazzi have regular visiting hours and others require an appointment to visit.  The best known palazzo is the Valguarnera-Gangi, which is where director Luchino Visconti filmed parts of 'The Leopard' (the wonderful ballroom scene was shot in the spectacular Galleria degli Specchi, which has been compared to the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles).  An appointment is required and requests may be made by e-mail to:  Palazzo Mirto, in the Kalsa neighborhood, belonged to the Filangeri  and the Lanza Filangeri dynasty (princes of Mirto, from the name of their feudal property near Messina) for over 400 years (Vittoria Filangeri married Ignazio Lanza in 1830).  The palazzo has regular opening hours but I recommend sending an e-mail to confirm:  Palazzo Alliata di Villafranca, the home of the princes of Alliata, has a noteworthy art collection including a Crucifixion by Anthony Van Dyck.  The Sala dello Stemma is named after the family's coat of arms, which is depicted in a huge, Neapolitan majolica pattern (it was originally on the floor but now hangs on a wall).  There are regular visiting hours but reservations are required:  Palazzo Asmundo was once home to the Marquis of Sessa: Giuseppe Asmundo Paterno, who hosted European royalty at the palazzo on what was then called Cassaro Road, Palermo's oldest and most desirable street (it was later renamed via Vittorio Emanuele II after Italian unification).  The frescoes here, by Gioacchino Martorana, are especially nice.  There are regular visiting hours but I recommend sending an e-mail to confirm:  Palazzo Alliata di Pietratagliata, on via Bandiera, is a gem of the Sicilian rococo style.  The owners, Prince Biagio Licata Baucina and Princess Signoretta Alliata di Pietratagliata, are each direct descendants of the two families who originally owned the palazzo, so it has remained in the same family for six centuries; this continuity is very unusual in the owning of a private historic residence.  One of the most memorable features of the palazzo is its 18th century Murano glass chandelier.  With 100 lights and 9 feet in size, it's considered the largest of its kind.  Visits are by reservation:  Palazzo Chiaramonte, also known as the Steri, is one of Palermo's most iconic palazzi.  It was built in 1320 by Manfredi I Chiaramonte, from Modica, and during the years of Spanish rule it was the infamous seat of the Spanish Inquisition.  Graffiti from victims of the Inquisition may be seen here.  Today the palazzo is owned by the University of Palermo.  Palazzo Sant'Elia (full name Palazzo del Marchese di Santa Croce di Trigona di Sant'Elia) dates from the 1600s.  During the Spanish period, a project was begun to widen via Maqueda (Strada Nuova), and the palazzo was modified to fit the new layout of the city.  Sant'Elia is gorgeous, and today it's the home of Palermo's contemporary art scene, with a full schedule of exhibitions (by Sicilian artists) year round.  Palazzo Branciforte di Butera reopened to the public in 2012 after a major restoration by renowned architect and designer Gae Aulenti.  It also houses the offices of Fondazione Sicilia, and there are collections of archeology, majolica, stamps, coins, and sculpture; an historical library; a gallery for contemporary art exhibitions; the Città
del Gusto, a cooking school run by Italian food authority Gambero Rosso; Ristorante Branciforte; and Emporio Branciforte, with books, art objects, food, and drink.  The beautiful restoration of Palazzo Butera has been personally financed by Francesca Frua de Angeli and Massimo Valsecchi, who acquired it in 2016.  The Valsecchi Collection of art was to be installed here in 2020 but I'm not sure if Covid-19 has delayed those plans (the collection has been on loan in England).  In the June 2016 issue of the prestigious art magazine Apollo, writer Susan Moore wrote, "Until now, these works of art constituted what was probably the least known private holding of great art in London--an unusually rich and complex assemblage that almost no one had ever seen."  To the Valsecchis, the "fundamental idea behind the collection is the proposition that placing outstanding artworks from different worlds side by side, is a way to understand the ties that lie beneath apparent cultural differences."  Staying in a palazzo: a few palazzi are available for accommodations, like the Palazzo Alliata di Pietratagliata (above).  A beautiful apartment for 4 is available by the week or a 3-night minimum.  Palazzo Ajutamicristo, which dates from the late 1400s, has two double rooms with private bathrooms and breakfast.  Contact:  Palazzo Conte Federico has seven light and airy apartments for rent and also offers guided tours in English of the palazzo and the Arab-Norman tower.  For the apartments, contact; for tours, contact  (Note: this palazzo is not to be confused with Torre dei Federico!).

Perna.  If you are crazy for stationery shops, like me, you will be right at home at Cartoleria Perna (via Roma 68/70).  Founded in 1937, Perna sells all the things you'd expect to find (notebooks, pens, pencils, folders, organizers) and some things you wouldn't (key rings, mouse pads, backpacks, leather bags).  Among the many brands offered are Lamy, Caran d'Ache, Delta, Fedo, Monteverde, Pelikan, Pineider, and Waterman.  Another shop is near Teatro Massimo at via Sperlinga, 14.

Piazza Bellini.  Three of Palermo's major sites are situated on this large plaza:  the Church of Santa Maria Dell'Amiraglio (also known as La Martorana), the Church of San Cataldo (both of these churches are part of the UNESCO-designated 'Arab-Norman Palermo,' and the Monastery and Church of Santa Caterina d'Alessandria (not to be confused with the Oratorio di Santa Caterina d'Alessandria).  There is plenty to read elsewhere about these buildings, which are fascinating in their historic details as well as architecturally.  La Martorana is the gem among them and should absolutely not be missed: the interior is stunning and leaves one gob-smacked.  There are so many interesting features, but perhaps the most noteworthy is the mosaic showing Roger II, wearing what looks like Byzantine robes, being symbolically crowned by Christ.  This is not surprising, based on what's been written about Roger's life.  He had long been attracted to the Byzantine concept of monarchy, "a mystically tinged absolutism," according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, "in which the sovereign, as God's viceroy, lived remote and elevated from his subjects in a magnificence that reflected his intermediate position between earth and heaven."  The nuns here at La Martorana became quite famous for their marzipan confections in the shapes and colors of fruit.  Known elsewhere as pasta reale, in Palermo it is more often referred to as frutta martorana.  Nuns at Santa Caterina also had a history of making marzipan treats, but until 2014, when the last sister left the premises, the bakery had been closed to the public for about 700 years.  Now there is a shop where visitors may buy a full range of I Segreti del chiostro (the secrets of the cloister) baked goods and marzipan.  The frutta martorana is available in pre-packaged assortments and individual pieces, or travelers may choose to customize their assortments; there is also a choice of packaging, from basic cardboard to handmade ceramic containers.  Either way, it's a good gift as with care, it will hold up even in hot weather.  There is no fee to enter the bakery, but there is to enter the church and an additional one to walk up to the rooftop, which I recommend.  Photos of the interior and from the roof below:


Quattro CantiLocated at the intersection of via Maqueda and corso Vittorio Emanuele, the Quattro Canti (Four Corners) is an octagon-shaped crossroads dating back to the 1600s during Spanish rule.  Its official name is piazza Vigliena because it was built to honor the Spanish viceroy who commissioned its construction in 1609.  I think it's a beautiful intersection, and the four decorative corners feature the four seasons at the top, the four Spanish kings (Charles V, Philip II, Philip III, and Phllip IV) in the middle, and the four patron saints of Palermo before Rosalia (Cristina, Ninfa, Olivia, and Agata) who were the protectors of the four old districts of the city: La Kalso, Il Capo, La Loggia, and L'Albergheria, which all converged here.  The engraving just below is by Antonio Bova and dates from 1761.  You can see two of the city's medieval gates at the end of each street, and while I believe one of them is the Porta Nuova, I'm not certain if the other one is Porta Felice or Porta Carini.   

To best capture the Quattro Canti in a photo, you would have to lie down in the middle of the intersection and aim your camera at the sky.  I've seen this image on a postcard and it's magnificent, but I didn't have the nerve to ask the policemen I saw there if they would divert traffic for me for a few minutes while I took pictures, so the photos below are all I have.

RistorantiAs I mentioned in my first post about Sicily, I always check Faith Willinger's website for her recommendations for places to eat in Italy.  In addition to the Palermo suggestions on her site (Corona Trattoria, Buatta Cucina Popolana, and Fud), right before I left she also shared that I Cucci Bistrorante was a "don't miss."  I'm sorry to say I was unable to try any of them (sometimes things just don't go as planned, especially when there are other people involved), though perhaps you will be fortunate to do so, assuming they can make it through the pandemic.  But I did get to a few other places that I very much recommend:  A'nica Ristorante & Pizza Gourmet (via Alloro, 135) is a casual, trendy place with both indoor and outdoor seating.  The pizza choices here are a little more creative than other places, but we stuck with margherita (which was admirable), all the other dishes we ordered were good, the service was friendly, the prices moderate, and the vibe was fun.  Ristoranti Palazzo Sambuca (via Alloro, 26) is just steps away from Palazzo Abatellis (same side of via Alloro) and is excellent.  It's a small place -- there are only a few tables -- and the owners (who I believe are husband and wife) are exceptionally friendly and speak some English.  Handwritten menus are in little notebooks, and every dish we ordered -- fennel salad with olives, anchovy, and orange slices; caponata; grilled squid; and pasta with tiny clams and tiny tomatoes -- was superb.  As an aside, the proprietress makes necklaces using beads and charms that are displayed in a small vitrine by the front door and they're moderately priced and attractive.  Sardina Pasta Bar (via Cassari 41-43) has indoor and outdoor seating, a small but select menu, and affordable prices.  There is great people-watching from the outdoor tables as it's in a busy area and the atmosphere is very lively.  Osteria Pantelleria (in a part of the original building that now also houses BB22, via Pantelleria at the angle with Cavalieri di Malta) is run by the husband and wife team of Anna and Filippo, who renovated this space in 2016.  The menu features some innovative dishes as well as standards, and I had a dish of fettucine with sardines, anchovies, tomato sauce, and breadcrumbs that was quite delicious.   Bar Santoro (piazza Indipendenza) is a good place to know about if you are taking the bus to Monreale.  It's not a destination place but has a range of room temperature dishes and hot choices like arancine, as well as sweets, coffee, and a full bar.  There are some tables inside but most of the seating is outdoors, and while some areas are designated for waitress service, there are a number of tables set aside for self-service, which are best if you're catching the bus.  I mentioned Caffe Stagnitta in a previous post, and I love it, but another very good coffee place that's been around since 1860 is Antica Caffe Spinnato (piazza Castelnuovo 16).  Cioccolateria Lorenzo (via Quattro Aprile, 7/7a) is a good place for breakfast and brunch.  I actually didn't have anything chocolate, but I can vouch for the cappucino and a good quality cornetto (the Italian version of a croissant), and there is a pretty little garden to sit in.  MadoniEAT (via Butera 20, steps away from Palazzo Butera and Butera 28) is a self-described 'Sicilian deli and bistro' but I think a more accurate description is 'wine bar with great panini and salads.'   It's a small place - there are only a few tables - but it's a pleasant place to sit for a quick meal or a drink (and it's great for take-out).  There are a few more substantial dishes on the menu if you're in the mood, and there are a lot of packaged culinary specialties to buy as souvenirs (though most are too large for carry-on bags).  The name is a nod to the Parco Naturale Regionale delle Madonie, a beautiful area 70 kilometers east of Palermo that also incorporates 15 historic towns and villages, including Gangi, named Borgo Più Bello d'Italia (most beautiful village in Italy) in 2014.  Nearly all the products, fresh and packaged, are from this natural area. The staff at MadoniEAT are super friendly and they are happy to accommodate if you're staying nearby and need a bottle of wine and have, um, forgotten a corkscrew.

Sicilian World Heritage.  UNESCO has designated 9 World Heritage sites in Sicily.  Six are of cultural importance and three are of importance from the point of view of nature and wildlife.  The six sites include Arab-Norman Palermo (which includes Palermo Cathedral, Royal Palace and Palatine Chapel, Zisa Palace, Church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti, Admiral's Bridge, and the Church of Santa Maria Dell'Ammiraglio) and the cathedral churches of Cefalù and Monreale; Syracusa and the Pantalica rock necropolis; the late Baroque towns of the Val di Noto (which include Catania, Caltagirone, Militello Val di Catania, Ragusa Ibla, Modica, Scicli, Palazzolo Acreide, and Noto); L'opera dei Pupi (puppet theatre); La Villa Romana del Casale); and Agrigento and the Valley of the Temples. The three other sites include and Mount Etna; Le Isole Eolie (the Aeolian Islands; the island of Salina is where 'Il Postino' was filmed and of course the island of Stromboli is where the film of the same name was made with Roberto Rossellini and Ingrid Bergman ; and the island of Pantelleria and its vine cultivation (an upcoming post will be devoted to Pantelleria). UNESCO has published a great walking tour map taking in all the sites in Arab-Norman Palermo (plus Cefalù and Monreale) and it's also available online: visit, click on 'Downloads,' and select 'Mappa ENG.'  The walk can be done in a day, though it would be a very full day if time is allotted for also visiting most of the sites.  I recommend doing the walk in full without going inside anywhere, and then going back to the sites you want to see separately.

Street Food.  Much has been written about the variety and joys of Palermo's street food.  As it's been comprehensively presented elsewhere I won't provide a list of what you can expect to find here, except to say that some of the specialties -- pani ca' meusa (boiled spleen, lung, and other veal organ meat) and frittola (fried leftover cow parts, like cartilage and bone) -- may appeal only to adventurous eaters.  I became a huge fan of the deep-fried rice balls known as arancine (singular, arancina) in Palermo and the western part of Sicily, where they originated in the 10th century, and as arancini (singular, arancino) in Catania and the western side of the island.  Besides the slight difference in spelling, the western arancine are round and don't have tomatoes while the eastern arancini have a  pointed shape (supposedly resembling Mount Etna) and the hot ragù inside represents the volcano's hot lava.  Sarah Murdoch, in the Rick Steves Guide to Sicily, adds that "no matter which one you pick, watch your language: Never call it arancino in the west, or arancina in the east.  Just...don't."  One of the best known Sicilian confections, available as street food and also in bakeries, is cannoli (singular is cannolo).  Supposedly the best time of year to enjoy it is in the spring, when the sheep ricotta is tastiest, but whenever it's eaten, make sure the filling is added to the shell on the spot (pre-filled shells will be soggy and are the sign of an inferior product).  While most of these street specialties have been around for a long time, there are some that are gone, or at least aren't sold in the same way.  Author Mary Taylor Simeti wrote a piece for the travel section of The New York Times ('Totally Authentic Flavors of Sicily,' 17 September, 1995) and it's a reminiscence, even by that time, of the favorite specialties of Gaetano, her hairdresser.  It's fascinating to read, and frittola is described in more detail: the scraps from the butcher are boiled and drained of fat and sent off to make bouillon cubes, while the little pieces of meat that remain are fried (I still have no desire to eat it).  She also mentions that sellers would walk around with clay pots like amphoras tied over their shoulders with a cord and inside the pots was boiled octopus or anise water.  Another uniquely Sicilian specialty that isn't entirely relegated to street food is gelato stuffed into a brioscia (brioche), which is often eaten for breakfast (!).  Chef Giuliano Bugialli says that Sicilians "absolutely refuse to eat gelato in a cone," and Matt Goulding, author of Pasta Pane Vino, says that eating ice cream for breakfast is "what the locals do, and if you don't do the same you'll stick out like an idiot tourist.  But seriously, you'll never find yourself in another place where it is socially acceptable to consume 800-calories worth of sugar and fat before noon."  (Don't postpone joy - go for it).  Theresa Maggio, author of Mattanza: Love & Death in the Sea of Sicily, observed that "In Sicily, where food is love and the street is a stage, street food is more than a cheap meal, it's communion." Three-hour gastronomic walking tours are offered by Palermo Street Food, 7 days a week for from 2 to 12 people, 30 euros per person (there's a good video to watch on the website).  Regularly scheduled tours are at 10:30 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. but customized itineraries may also be arranged as well as wine tastings and cooking classes. 

Teatro Massimo.  Palermo's beautiful opera house is Italy's largest and is the third largest in Europe.  The Neoclassical building is on piazza Verdi and opened in 1897, after thirty-three years of planning and construction.  The inaugural performance was Verdi's 'Falstaff,' but after only two seasons the theater closed, reopening again in 1901.  In 1974, at the height of the Mafia's power, the theater closed again for renovations, and it remained closed for 23 years while also becoming a negative symbol of Palermo.  Since its reopening in 1997, Teatro Massimo hasn't looked back, and today there is a full, year-round schedule of ballet, opera, and classical music.  Ticket prices are very much lower than at opera house venues elsewhere -- nearly three decades of closure raised generations of people unfamiliar with going to the opera -- and the Teatro also started the Opera Camion project, a truck that carries a stage into Palermo's poorest neighborhoods for free performances.  Additionally, the Teatro started a Rainbow Choir, made up entirely of children of immigrants, for most of whom Sicily is their first landing place in Europe.  Superintendent Francesco Giambrone said in 2018 that, "In our community, migrants are an important part."  Fans of 'The Godfather' might recognize the front staircase as the one in the final scene of the third film.  While I was unable to attend a performance at the Teatro, I did go on an excellent, 30-minute tour of the building, which was begun by Giovan Battiste Basile.  He was unable to complete it in his lifetime so it was finished by his son, Ernesto Basile.  Unlike the exterior, the interior of the building is in the Liberty style, and the tour includes the Auditorium (known for its outstanding acoustics), the Royal Box, the Royal Sitting Room, the Pompeian Hall, and the Choir Room.  My guide said while seats in the Royal Box are reserved for the Mayor and members of the Regional Parliament, it's often possible for these premium seats to be made available to the general public, usually on the same day.  Two photos of the front columns are below, and one is a view of the neighborhood taken from the same spot.

Tipping.  This is probably the topic I am most asked about, and I've never been entirely sure why it seems like a difficult concept, except I think Americans are so used to tipping 15-20% that they can't conceive of doing differently.  Tipping in Sicily, and elsewhere in Italy and in Europe, is discretionary but customary.  However, it's done much more modestly than in the States, and is considered in poor taste to over-tip; it's seen that you're showing off how much money you have.  Here's a brief guide: in bars and cafes where you consume your drinks at the bar (remember that the price charged at the bar is cheaper than at tables) you need only round up the tab -- if the bill is 2.50 euros, leave 3 euros for the barista or bartender.  If you're sitting at a table and have had a good meal, also round up the tab.  If you really enjoyed the meal and the service, feel free to leave an additional euro.  Unique to Italy is the coperto, a cover charge ostensibly to offset the cost for bread, olive oil, or table linens.  Some years ago there was a movement to do away with the coperto, but some places still use it and it's usually written on menus.  If there is a coperto (which is about 1 to 3 euros per person), there will be no charge for bread (without the coperto, bread is usually 1 -1.50 euros per person).  If there is a coperto and you don't want the basket of bread, you could refuse it, but the coperto is compulsory regardless and at a few euros you'd be creating a fuss for nothing.  If the menu displays servizio incluso (service included), this means a tip is already included but is typically for groups of 8 people or more, and there is no need for or expectation of an additional tip.  [Additional asides about eating out: leave the tip in cash even if you're paying the bill with a credit card; if you're with a group and not everyone wants an antipasto, don't be surprised if the waiter is puzzled - it's somewhat foreign to Italians that diners order so individually, and waiters don't want anyone at the table to be left out of a course, so sometimes waiters will bring diners who didn't order an antipasto their main course at the same time as the antipasti for the other diners so everyone will be eating at the same time; and don't think a waiter is being rude for not bringing you the bill when you're finished with the meal: it's considered rude to bring the bill before the customer asks for it.  I was once in Umbria with friends who lived there and though we asked for the bill, it wasn't until we actually stood up as if to leave that the bill was brought.]  For porters at a hotel, 1 euro per bag is sufficient.  As I have a bad back and arthritic knees, I am extremely grateful for the effort, so I give 5 euros, but I only give this tip at arrival as I bring my own bags to reception when I check out.  It's my understanding that giving this 5 euro tip is best appreciated as a paper note rather than coins.  For a concierge, a few euros is customary, but I recommend giving more (20 euros) if you've received a particularly hard-to-get restaurant reservation or tickets to a special event.  For the hotel employees who hover near the main entrance, giving a tip is not necessary but if you are helped with your bags it's kind to give a few euros.  For housekeeping staff -- typically the most overlooked in the entire hospitality business -- one or more euros per night is much appreciated, though at a very expensive inn I recommend leaving 5 euros per night (and it's advised that you leave the tip on a daily basis or the people you intend it for may not receive it).  At a spa, 10 euros is appreciated but not expected.  For tour guides, 5 euros for a half day tour and 10 euros for a full day is average.  For hair stylists, rounding up to the nearest 10 euros is sufficient, but if you want to give the person who washed your hair 3 euros and the total is 57 euros, give the hair stylist more than 60 euros (62 or more).  For airport shuttles, only tip if the driver helps with your bags, one euro per bag.  In all cases, if you've had poor service don't leave a tip, and don't tip the owners of any establishment (though admittedly it may not always be clear who the owners are, but they will likely refuse a tip if offered).  Finally, for taxi drivers, round up the fare to the next euro.  Note that there may be a surcharge added to the fare for each piece of luggage and this is completely legal, and note that at the end of a ride the driver may adjust the fare upwards to the next euro (say, from 9.10 euros to 10 euros), and this, too, is completely legal.  It's because the driver doesn't have change.  As Kate Simon wrote in her wonderful book, Italy: The Places in Between (Harper & Row, 1970), "Remember that no one ever has any change.  When you pay a gas attendant, he will ask you for spiccioli (coins).  The girl in the small chain department store will leave her register and a group of customers to run from one co-worker to another for change from one hundred lire you have give her for a seventy-five lire purchase.  She returns with ten-lire pieces -- no fives -- after a long absence, and one or the other of you has to be sporting about the difference between twenty and thirty lire."  Though this is over 30 years later and it's euros now and not lire, it is absolutely still true.  Also, be prepared to tip: get the equivalent of $100 in euros before you arrive and make sure some of that is in small bills and coins.  This way you can leave the airport quickly and not run the risk of long lines at the cash machines (or machines that are broken or out of money) and make your way to wherever you're staying, and you'll have the cash on hand to tip appropriately and start making an impression of a seasoned traveler.                     

Visit Sicily.  This Regione Siciliana website is quite good, especially for its series of "Treasure Maps: Twenty Itineraries Designed to Help You Explore the Cultural Heritage of Palermo and its Province." Themed brochures are available for complimentary download in pdf format.  These brochures are quite substantive and are filled with illustrations.  Among the themes are Markets and Street Food; Botanical Wonders; The Conca d'Oro: Images, History, Memories; Villas and Palaces in the 18th Century; The Lustre of Majolica: Vases and Tiles; The Voice of Angels: Ancient Organs; Archaeology; From Gothic to Renaissance: The Seasons of Art; and Norman Monuments: Churches and Palaces.  The author of this last one notes that "The Sicilian buildings of the Norman era, with their mix of European, Byzantine and Islamic architecture and their arabesque forms and rich mosaic decorations generate, in those who see them for the first time, an impression of something singular and unique.  Actually, it could be said that the entire history of the Norman occupation of Sicily should be classified as being singular and left a very particular imprint that makes Norman Sicily one of the most "exotic" and surprising lands in Western Europe during the Middle Ages."  Words that are very much worth keeping in mind!  It's unusual for a tourist office to provide such good quality publications, and Regione Siciliana deserves recognition for doing so. 

We Are Palermo.  There are a few sections of this website that may be a bit corny, but the site is actually filled with some good, practical information and helpful themes, such as '20 Facts Every Traveler Should Know About Palermo' which includes the tip, "If you find yourself in need of a doctor, it may be easier to shell out the €50 or €100 for a house visit. This will be much more efficient than spending your entire day waiting around a packed hospital with wailing people.  Your hotel will be able to call a doctor on your behalf, though you can also call Dr. Mario Belvedere +39 328 5351761. He speaks Italian, English and Spanish."  Thirteen audio guides are also available on the site (for a small fee) as well as seven free itineraries.  

La Zisa.  I often have to leave 'Z' out of alphabetical miscellanies because there are few entries that begin with the letter, but happily there is a very worthwhile example for Palermo: the Castello della Zisa.  William II took over the building of the palace from his father, William I, and it was finished in 1189.  The palace takes its name from aziz, Arabic for "splendid" or "dear," and historian Louis Mendola says this word survives in the Sicilian language as azzizare, "to make attractive."  The Zisa is rectangular in shape, and is located in what once was the Genoard, the royal park south of the Norman Palace.  It's one of the nine UNESCO World Heritage Sites that make up the designated Arab-Norman Palermo (along with the Cathedral Churches of Cefalù and Monreale), and the interior features some North African Fatimid design details, especially the muqarnas, a form of ornamented vaulting and a common element of Islamic architecture.  It's also known as a honeycomb vault and is found in Morocco and at the Alhambra in Granada, Spain.  In The Normans in Sicily, John Julius Norwich wrote, "But step now into the hall of the palace.  At once you are in a different world.  Nowhere does Norman Sicily speak more persuasively of the Orient; nowhere else on all the island is that specifically Islamic talent for creating quiet havens of shade and coolness in the summer heat so dazzlingly displayed."  As impressive as all this is, a tombstone dating from 1148 in one of the rooms may be the most significant and meaningful item in the museum.  It was made for Anne, the mother of Grisanthe, who was the clerk to Roger II, and it was inscribed in Latin, Hebrew, Greek, and Arabic.  Pictured below, the tombstone represents what historians Louis Mendola and Jacqueline Alio refer to as "more than a rainbow:" the Kingdom of Sicily at that time included the island itself and most of the Italian peninsula south of Rome, as well as Malta and some of Africa.  To again quote John Julius Norwich:  "Norman Sicily stood forth in Europe -- and indeed in the whole bigoted medieval world -- as an example of tolerance and enlightenment, a lesson in the respect that every man should feel for those whose blood and beliefs happen to differ from his own."  A more contemporary voice, that of Francesca and Massimo Valsecchi of Palazzo Butera, reminds us that for 3,000 years, migration has shaped Sicilian culture.  "In this historical moment, with its extensive migration and globalization, the continent of Europe appears to be in the grip of an identity crisis.  What may rescue Europe from its crisis is a re-invigoration of its deep rooted traditions of openness and hospitality.  Sicily, with its history of millennial migrations, offers a rich and seasoned point of departure to re-imagine European identity...Sicily has become a cultural crucible of diversity."

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

While I'm just about finished with my Palermo post, I'm taking a detour first to the Augustus Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in Cornish, New Hampshire.  I was familiar with the sculpture of Saint-Gaudens (pronounced to rhyme with the name of the poet, W. H. Auden) but had never visited his home (and studio) until a few summers ago.   The beautiful site celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2015 and it has the distinction of being the least visited park in the country.  

Saint-Gaudens began his life as an artist working for a cameo cutter in New York at the time of the Civil War.  He witnessed regiments of men marching off to war, he saw Ulysses Grant and Abraham Lincoln,  he saw wounded soldiers returning home from the war, and he saw President Lincoln lying in state at New York City's City Hall.  All of these images remained with him for his entire life and he would go on to create seven sculptures that memorialized the War.  He also became a pacifist.    

Like other artists of his day, Saint Gaudens went to Paris in 1867 and was the first American ever to enroll at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts.  His work was exhibited at the Paris Exposition of 1900, and reportedly Auguste Rodin doffed his hat in homage to the artist.  When he came back to New York he was married, to a painter named Augusta Homer (they became known as Gus and Gussie), and a lawyer friend proposed that they come up to New Hampshire for the summer.  Saint-Gaudens had just been commissioned for a Lincoln sculpture for the City of Chicago, and he converted an old hay barn on the property into a studio.  He ended up buying the house and its 80 acres and named it Aspet, after his French father's birthplace in France.  As Saint-Gaudens became more well known, other artists, such as Isadora Duncan and Maxfield Parrish, came to live in the area and their residences were known as the Cornish Colony.  Trails connecting their houses to each other still exist, and they wind through more than 100 acres of the park.  

Among the truly great works of Saint-Gaudens, one stands out: the Shaw Memorial, which is my favorite and is the real reason for this post.  It has been referred to as the greatest American sculpture of the 19th century, and it memorializes the 1st African American volunteer infantry unit of the Civil War, the 54th Massachusetts Regiment.  Saint-Gaudens was commissioned to create it for the city of Boston -- it stands at the corner of Beacon and Park Streets -- but there is another (slightly different) version of it in Cornish.  

Saint-Gaudens once remarked, "It's the way a thing is done that makes it right or wrong.  That's the only creed I have in art."  It took him 14 years to finish the Shaw Memorial, and curator Henry Duffy said, "It haunted him.  I think he just couldn't get it out of his mind."  From the day it was unveiled in Boston in 1897, the Memorial has moved people, including the writer Henry James, poet Robert Lowell, and composer Charles Ives.  Historian and author David McCullough noted in an interview with NPR that "The Shaw Memorial is the first time black Americans were ever portrayed in a work of sculpture as heroic, otherwise they were background.  But here they are the heroes who would, many of them, pay the ultimate price."                      
Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, who was white, chose to fight with his men, instead of command from the sidelines.  In 1863, Shaw led the attack on Fort Wagner, in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina, and it was doomed before it began as the Union troops were overwhelmingly outnumbered by Confederate forces.  Shaw's soldiers fought fiercely and valiantly, but out of the 600 men, close to 300 were killed, including Shaw, who was the first to be shot.  After the battle was over, commanding Confederate General Johnson Hagood returned the bodies of Union officers who had died, with the exception of Shaw's.  Hagood explained that had Shaw been in command of white troops, he would have returned his body, as was customary for officers.  Instead, Shaw's body was stripped and thrown into a mass grave with his fallen black soldiers.    

The 1989 film 'Glory' brought the history of the Massachusetts 54th Regiment to national prominence. 

The Shaw Memorial was one of 16 public artworks damaged when protesters stormed through Boston Common on the 31st of May, exactly 123 years to the day it was dedicated to the city.  A three million dollar restoration project for the Memorial, delayed because of the Covid-19, had just been granted clearance the previous week.


Monday, May 18, 2020

As I mentioned previously, I'll be writing in more detail about the cooking class I took in Palermo, which was the main reason I planned a Sicily itinerary, a little later on.  You might remember that the class is taught by Nicoletta Polo, who is married to Gioacchino Lanza Tomasi, the adopted son of Giuseppe di Lampedusa, author of The Leopard.  Lampedusa, who passed away in 1957, was the great-grandson of Prince Giulio Fabrizio Tomasi di Lampedusa, among whose titles were Prince of Lampedusa (an island between Malta and Tunisia that is part of the autonomous region of Sicily) and Duke of Palma di Montechiaro (a town on the southern coast of Sicily near Agrigento).  Not long before Lampedusa's death, Gioacchino's birth father went to King Umberto II, who was then living in exile in Cascais, Portugal, to ask his permission for Gioacchino to be adopted by Lampedusa and to carry on the title of Duke of Palma.  Permission was granted, so years later, when Gioacchino married Nicoletta, she became a Duchess, and so the name of her class is officially called 'A Day Cooking With the Duchess.'

Until I get to this upcoming post, I'm sharing here a note from Nicoletta about what she's doing to keep her class going during these strange days of Covid-19.  I admit it's not the same as being there in that wonderful palazzo, in the kitchen with the floor-to-ceiling windows that open out onto an interior courtyard, but it's close, and it's a great distraction for our times.  More importantly, it's also a generous gesture that will help to insure this historic legacy continues.

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Hello from sunny Sicily,

I hope you’re doing well and that you and your family are all healthy.
We are all well here, but obviously things at Butera 28 Apartments have had to change with the current COVID-19 Crisis, especially with Italy having been so badly affected at the beginning. Although we have had very few cases here on our paradise island in Sicily, we have been included in all of the government’s plans to overcome the situation. Alas, it means that for the time being we have no tourists here - and thus, I’m not able to be hosting my beloved cooking classes, A Day Cooking with the Duchess.
As this is my passion, I have been missing these cherished moments dearly; being able to meet all of you, share my culinary knowledge and delight in the fruits of our labour together. So, instead of dwelling on what cannot be, I decided to get busy creating something to keep up with the times, while waiting for the world to become a friendlier and safer place.
Over the last few weeks, I have been working devotedly with mi.o Modern Italian Network, a wonderful community of people passionate about Italy and Italian culture. Together we have lovingly crafted something rather special. I have shifted my Sicilian cooking classes (as seen on Rick Stein’s Long Weekend Palermo Edition) to the world wide web. This way I can teach live, private classes from my 18th century Palazzo kitchen in Palermo, all the way to you, in the comfort - and safety! - of your own home.
These 2-hour long classes are currently exclusive here, so get in touch to reserve your space.  You will need to sign up for free on the site to gain access to the course information including my truly Sicilian menus that I have created for you, the dates and the price. Choose between a menu selection of Sicilian Springtime 2020, one for Citrus Lovers, or request my totally Vegan 3-Course Delight (very soon online, stay tuned). After you sign up, I will contact you so that we can discuss all of the details.
Of course you can buy this for yourself, but also as a gift for a loved one who may still be stuck in 'lockdown' and needing a bit of a ‘pick me up’. Food is love after all, because we create it to share with others. I am encouraging families, who may not even be in the same household to get involved as a wonderful family activity.
It goes without saying, this would also be a much-appreciated opportunity to help us cope financially through these terribly hard times, when our business, that I have worked so hard to build up, has been completely destroyed by the pandemic.
Please feel free to reach out to me for more information. I cannot wait to get back to sharing my culinary love with you all, even from afar.
All my warmest wishes and positive energy,
Nicoletta x