Palermo does not readily enchant its visitors. The chaotic capital of Sicily is noisy and traffic filled, riddled with decay in parts, overbuilt with concrete in others. But take your time and walk the narrow streets and alleys of the old city. You’ll discover Norman palaces, Baroque churches, chapels shimmering in mosaics, outdoor markets overflowing with olives and blood oranges, quaint puppet theatres and grandiose oratories and, smoothing out the rough edges, a great deal of warm hearted street life. Moreover the city is being revitalized, with the restoration of some of the major churches and museums and the opening of new contemporary galleries.
The Quattro Canti
The Quattro Canti, or Four Corners, is the hectic crossroads at the centre of the old city that divides it into four quarters (quartiere). Most of Palermo’s siths are an easy walk from this busy junction, the intersection of the Via Maqueda and the Corso Vittorio Emanuele. The facades of the buildings on each corner here, three Baroque palazzo and the church of San Giuseppe dei Teatini, are ornamented with fountains, and each is also embellished in turn with statuary that represents a season, one of four Spanish kings of Sicily and the patron saint of one of the four quarters that surround the Quattro Canti. If the church is open, step inside for a look at the angels, stuccoes, frescoes and other ornamentation that are typical of the Sicilian Baroque.
Piazza Pretoria is just few steps south along Via Maqueda. The Fontana Pretoria takes up most of the square and in more puritan times was nicknamed the Square of Shame (Piazza della Vergogna), this being a reference to the seeming licentiousness of the naked figures who frolic in the spray. More than 30 naked or near-naked nymphs, tritons, gods and youths of varying sizes and quality surround the fountain’s vast circular basin. Garibaldi is said to have sat on the edge of the fountain during the fierce battles of 1870, instilling the citizenry with the courage to fight on for independence. Flanking one side of the square is the Palazzo delle Aquile, the town hall, named for the stone eagles that decorate its façade. The other massive presence is the church of Santa Caterina, behind its austere façade is another Baroque interior, covered with brightly coloured frescoes and plasterwork angels that tumble from every surface.
The Piazza Bellini, just a few steps to the east, is graced with the three small red domes of the chapel of San Cataldo and the 12th campanile of La Martorana. San Cataldo is squat and plain, and aside from its mosaic flooring, was left undecorated when its founder, a chancellor of William I, died in 1160. La Martorana is more elaborate, and was founded by George of Antioch, Roger II’s chief minister, in 1146 as a seat of the Greek Orthodox church. Despite a Baroque restoration that added the cupids around the entryway, much of the Norman mosaic work remains intact. The gold, green and azure tiles of the dome depict Christ flanked by saints and prophets, and nearby mosaic of Christ crowning Roger II is said to be reliable likeness of the Norman king.
The streets and alleys of the Alberghiera quarter, once the home of Norman court officials and rich merchants from Pisa and Amalfi, stretch south and west of Piazza Bellini. Via Maqueda and Via Bosco lead into the centre of the quarter, the Piazza Carmine, passing stately palaces, centuries old buildings that show their age and the occasional rubble filled site left by World War II bombings. The stalls of the Mercato Ballarò, Palermo’s liveliest daily market, fill Piazza Carmine, the adjacent Piazza Ballarò and the surrounding streets. It is raucous, sprawling and exotic, with mountains of lemons and oranges, slabs of tuna and swordfish, pigs’ trotters and intestines. Above this busy scene rises the green and white dome of Chiesa del Gesù, founded in the late 16th century as the first Jesuit church in Sicily., and that of the church of the Carmine. While the interior of Il Gesù is another swirl of Baroque excess, that of the Carmine is vast and far more sedate.
The Cattedrale and Palazzo dei Normanni
From Quattro Canti, Corso Vittorio Emanuele leads west past shops and Baroque palaces to several of Palermo’s most important monuments. The first is the Cattedrale that was begun in 1185 but not completed, with the addition of the dome, until 1801. As a result, the buildings is an incongruous mixture of styles: the 12th century towers are Norman, the façade and south porch are Gothic and the interior is coldly Neoclassical.
The church is a pantheon of the Normans, who came to Sicily in 1061, routed the Arabs and ruled the island ably for a century. Roger II, the Norman king who made the island the centre of the Mediterranean World, was interred here among his royal relations against his will: he wanted to be buried in the cathedral he built in Cefalù. In the adjacent Treasury, Constance of Aragon’s bejeweled crown is on display alongside rings and other articrafcts removed from royal tombs during a 19th century rearrangement. Of a more macabre nature are the relics of several saints, including a whitered extremity said to be the foot of Mary Magdalen.
A short distance away is the Palazzo dei Normanni, or Palazzo Reale, that actually, was built by Sicily’s Arab rulers in the ninth century. Under both the Arabs and the Normans, Palermo was one of the largest and most civilized cities in the world and the palace was a centre of the arts and learning.
Little of the Arabs and Norman palace remains: the façade that overlooks the old city is a 17th century addition made by the island’s Spanish rulers, and many of the salons and lesser quarters are now occupied by Sicily’s regional government. One stunning Norman remnant, however, is the Cappella Palatina, the exquisite chapel commissioned by Roger II. Mosaics Testaments in a frank, charming style that infuses the softly lit space with a sense of faith and earnest artistry executed for the love of God and a just ruler. Capping the glittereing profusion of gold and silver tiles is a purely Arab touch: a honeycombed, wooden ceiling.
A marble staircase leads from the chapel to the Royal Apartments. The best room, in a small wing of the original Norman palace, is the Sala di Re Ruggero. The walls are covered in mosaics of hunting scenes and exotic landscapes.
San Giovanni degli Eremiti
Another remnant of Norman Palermo, the now deconsecrated church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti sits just south of the palace on Via dei Benedittini.
While the interior is stark and devoid of elaborate decoration, this five-domed Norman Arab church is beautiful in its simplicity and is surrounded by gardens and cloisters planted with palms, cactus and jasmine. The Parco d’Orleans across the street is named for the one time resident of the palace it surrounds: Louis Philippe d’Orleans, who was exiled here in 1809 in the aftermath of the Paris Commune and later returned to France to become King. The palace is now the residence of the Regional President.
From the Vucciria to Piazza Verdi
Corso Vittorio Emanuele leads northeast from Quattro Canti towards the sea and several other quarters of old Palermo. Just a few blocks from the Quattro Canti, the Corso crosses Via Roma, which slightly north skirts the Vucciria market. Steps descend into a warren of stalls, from which you might emerge with a religious medallion or two and bags filled with capers, olives, lemons and other produce that grows in such abundance across Sicily.
A few blocks north of the market, Via Roma comes to Piazza San Domenico, an airy square dominated by the 18 th century façade of the church of the same name. Behind the church is the remarkable Oratorio del Rosario.
Some of Palermo’s best Baroque artistry decorates small chapels like this one, in which stucco cherubs and other figures cover every inch of the walls. The Rosario is the finest of all, since its exuberance is the work of the master of Baroque decoration Giacomo Serpotta, a native of Palermo. The altarpiece is a rich depiction of the Virgin of the Rosary by Van Dyck; the Dutch painter came to work in Palermo’s churches sometime around 1628, but he left when the plague broke out and completed this painting in Genoa.
More of the friezes that emerged from Serpotta’s fertile imagination and skilled hands also decorate the Oratorio di Santa Cita, a few blocks north on Via Squarcialpo. Stucco angels surround frescoed stories from the New Testament and spectacular scenes depicting the victory of the Christian fleets over the Turks at the Battle of Lepanto.
The Museo Archeologico
The Museo Archeologico is on the other side of Via Roma. In rooms surrounding the two cloisters of a former monastery, some of the most important pieces unearthed in Sicily are displayed alongside finds from elsewhere in the ancient world; paintings fragments from Pompeii, Roman bronzes, Greek vases, a room floored with Roman mosaics uncovered in Palermo and an extensive collection of Etruscan urns and tombs, found in Tuscany.
The prize exhibits, though, are the pieces from Selinunte, the ruined city of Sicily’s southwestern coast. A fames collection of metopes, the stone carvings that adorned the tops of the temples around 470BC, is towards the back of the museum in the Sala di Selinunte. Several figures from Greek mythology appear on the reliefs. In one, Perseus beheads Medusa, and in another, dogs set upon Acateon. On the floor above, more than 12000 tiny figures from Selinunte’s Sanctuary of Demeter are on display in the South Gallery.
The museum is only a block east of the centre of the modern city, the Piazza Verdi. This busy piazza was laid out in the 19 th century and is now surrounded by modern office blocks and designer shops. At the centre of the square is the Teatro Massimo, opened in 1897 and one of the grandest opera houses in Europe. It has an enormous stage and seats 3400 for performances of ballet, concerts and opera. What’s most remarkable about this domed Neoclassical structure is the fact that its massive doors are once again open: the theatre was hidden behind weeds and scaffolding for almost a quarter of a century. It reopened to much fanfare in 1997, exactly a hundred years after the huge stage was inaugurated with a production of Verdi’s Aida.
Palermo’s oldest district extend southeast from the intersection of Via Roma and Corso Vittorio Emanuele. The Arabs settled this seaside quarter in the 10th century, and later, Sicilian aristocrats built fine residences along the narrow streets. Today it is a picturesque but impoverished quarter having suffered during World War II. However regeneration is ongoing, especially around the Piazza Marina area.
San Francesco and San Lorenzo
Via Alessandro Paternostro leads south off the Corso to the Chiesa di San Francesco d’Assisi, a large Gothic structure with a sparse, stone interior that pays just tribute to Italy’s patron saint. When decoration does intrude, it does so gently, most notable in the Cappella Mastrontonio. Here, a sculpted arch by Francesco Laurana frames the entrance and is the earliest known Renaissance work in Sicily. The nearby Oratorio di San Lorenzo is another masterpiece of decoration by Giacomo Serpotta and is also famous for a lost artwork: a Nativity by Caravaggio, stolen in 1969 and never recovered.
The Corso continues north to the seaside and soon skirts La Cala, the restored harbor, now full of swish yachts. On the landward side, Piazza Marina contains the Giardino Garibaldi where locals play dominoes and cards under banyan trees. The regenerated piazza is flanked by open-air bars and restaurants and overlooked by handsome palazzi. The restored Palazzo Steri (also known as Palazzo Chiaramonte) is a Catalan Gothic fortress most famous as the headquarters of the Inquisition from 1685 to 1782. After passing through the Porto Felice, the Corso ends at the new Foro Italico seafront and a vista of the gulf with Monte Pellegrino rising in the background. This was Palermo’s grand seafront in the days of the Belle Époque; the area fell into the decline and stayed there until the creation of the promenade. The waterfront now features gardens and pathways popular with joggers, soccer-players and sunbathers. Via Butera, just inside the walls, is lined with some of the city’s best preserved palaces. One of them houses the Museo Internazionale delle Marionette, with a collection of exotic puppets that provide an introduction to this still popular Sicilian entertainment. Performances normally take place from October to April on Tuesday and Friday at 5.30pm.
Galleria Regionale at Palazzo Abatellis
Around the corner, on Via Alloro, is the Galleria Regionale, where paintings and sculpture fill the rooms of the 15th century Palazzo Abatellis. The first floor is devoted to sculptures. Several works are by Francesco Laurana, whose sculpted archway graces the nearby church of San Francesco, his masterpiece here is a bust of Eleonora of Aragon. Another room is devoted to Antonello Gagini and other members of this family who dominated Sicilian Baroque sculptured for much of the 15th and 16th centuries. The palace chapel is decorated with The Triumph of Death by an unknown mid 15th century artist, the eponymous subject is archer who, from the back of a horse, launches his arrows at the noble and meek alike, sparing no one the inevitable end. Sicilian paintings hang in the upstairs galleries, with among them several fine works by Antonello da Messina.
Via Vetriera leads south from the museum to Piazza Kalsa, and just beyond this rather derelict square are two other leafy retreats. The gardens of the Villa Giulia and the adjoining Orto Botanico were laid out in the late 18th century and are abloom with tropical vegetation that surrounds pools and pavilions.
Around Palermo, on the outskirts of Palermo are a number of palaces, churches and other sights which the city’s public transportation network puts within easy reach of the centre.
When the Norman King William I began to build this retreat in 1160, he fashioned the gardens and palace in the manner of an Arab pleasure pavilion. La Zisa comes from the Arabic el aziz, or magnificient, and the mosaics, arches, fountains, vaulted ceilings and lattice windows of the three floor palace reveal the opulence that once prevailed here. The palace later became a fortress and grand residence before returning to its Moorish roots. Now restored, with the Moorish gardens reinstated, La Zisa is magnificent once more.
Catacombe dei Cappuccini
In the various niches and rooms of the Catacombe dei Cappuccini, beneath a Capuchin monastery, are the clothed corpses of 8000 men, women and children. Many of them look remarkably alive, over the years the monks perfected a technique of injecting corpses with chemicals and dyes. The practice of preserving the dead in this fashion died out in 1920.
Parco della Favorita and Monte Pellegrino
On the northern edge of Palermo, the woods and formal gardens of the Parco della Favorita climb the lower slopes of Monte Pellegrino. Ferdinand III, Bourbon King of the Two Sicilies, chose this hill terrain as his place of exile in 1799, and installed himself in the eccentric Palazzina Cinese. Recently restored, this Oriental folly combines Chinese decorative motifs with both Gothic and Egyptian flourished. Next door, the Museo Etnografico Siciliano Pitrè houses an ethnographic collection illustrating Sicilian life, customs and folklore.
Higher up the mountain in the Sanctuario di Santa Rosalia, a cave turned chapel that is Palermo’s popular pilgrimage site. Allegedly, Palermo was saved from the plague in 1624 when Rosalia, the hermit niece of King William II, appeared to a peasant in a vision and told him to find her remains here and give her a proper burial.