Sleep­ing beau­ties

An open door to the palaces of Palermo

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - STAN­LEY STE­WART

“The Principessa will be here in a mo­ment,” the but­ler says. He hands me a glass of min­eral wa­ter on a sil­ver salver. I sip. I wait. A streak of Si­cil­ian sun, break­ing through closed shut­ters, cuts across a floor the size of a ten­nis court. Two suits of ar­mour, flank­ing the vast fire­place, eye me sus­pi­ciously. Some­where a clock ticks, echo­ing through the cav­ernous rooms of Palazzo Al­li­ata di Pi­etratagli­ata.

Palermo has palaces the way Venice has canals. Around ev­ery cor­ner, loom­ing over ev­ery street, perched in ev­ery pi­azza, th­ese grandiose ghosts haunt the city. Some have be­come shabby ten­e­ments, their court­yards crammed with old cars, their bal­conies draped with laun­dry. Some are ru­ins, their pala­tial ball­rooms open to Mediter­ranean skies. But many are in­tact, still ir­re­sistibly grand, wildly baroque, out­ra­geously ex­trav­a­gant, and home to fam­i­lies that make the Wind­sors seem like rogue up­starts. This is the world of Giuseppe To­masi di Lampe­dusa’s The Leop­ard, the great Si­cil­ian novel that fea­tures a fad­ing, ti­tle-laden aris­toc­racy. In an at­tempt to cope with the mod­ern age, many of Palermo’s aris­to­crats have opened their palaces to visi­tors and guests. I de­cide to ex­plore this world of op­u­lence and fogged mir­rors. The Principessa Sig­noretta Al­li­ata Li­cata di Baucina is my first call.

Palaces, of course, are not most peo­ple’s idea of Palermo. Many as­so­ciate the cap­i­tal of Si­cily with grime and crime, a charm­ing ruf­fian with a ten­dency to bag-snatch­ing. The Mafia casts a shadow over Palermo, though it is not a shadow you will en­counter as a vis­i­tor, un­less you are plan­ning to off­load a cou­ple of tonnes of co­caine. And as crime bosses frown on street crime, peo­ple say you are more likely to have your bag snatched in Florence than in Palermo.

As for the grime, it is the kind that peo­ple pay to see. Like every­thing else in Palermo, the grime is baroque, ex­trav­a­gant, a thing of pic­turesque mag­nif­i­cence. But the truth is Palermo’s grime is in de­cline, to the dis­may of long-time visi­tors who love the city as their bit of rough. Like any­where else with gor­geous build­ings and low rents, Palermo is in the throes of gen­tri­fi­ca­tion. Stylish new restau­rants and ren­o­vated belle-epoque cafes are chan­nelling the glo­ries of Si­cil­ian cui­sine; con­tem­po­rary art gal­leries and ate­liers are show­ing lo­cal and in­ter­na­tional work; and spare palaces are find­ing a new life as mu­se­ums and five-star ho­tels.

At Palazzo Al­li­ata di Pi­etratagli­ata, the princess’s ar­rival is her­alded by a sausage dog. The princess, a woman in her 50s, claps her hands girl­ishly. “Wel­come, wel­come,” she cries. “I want to tell you every­thing. Let me show you the palace.” There fol­lows a whirl of 18th-cen­tury fres­coes, din­ing ta­bles that could seat 60, in­laid cab­i­nets with doors that fold back to cre­ate small chapels, mu­seum-qual­ity paint­ings, chan­de­liers the size of small yachts, and a framed fam­ily tree that traces counts and dukes, popes and princes back to the decades be­fore Colum­bus got lost on his way to China.

Later, over tea, the princess laughs about the way the se­crets of Palermo’s palaces be­come so quickly the gos­sip of the street. “My fa­ther used to say a palace has walls as thin as wet pa­per.” Then she con­fides the Si­cil­ian dilemma. “Re­ally, we Si­cil­ians are Mid­dle Eastern.” She shrugs. “We only try to be Ital­ians.”

Luigi Barzini, one of the great Ital­ian jour­nal­ists and com­men­ta­tors, was fond of say­ing Si­cily was Italy for be­gin­ners, “with ev­ery Ital­ian qual­ity and de­fect mag­ni­fied … and brightly coloured”. But there is an­other, more per­sis­tent idea, that Si­cily is not Ital­ian at all, that its his­tory of conquest at the cross­roads of the Mediter­ranean ex­plains its char­ac­ter. Every­one who was any­one in the Mediter­ranean world — Greeks, Ro­mans, Phoeni­cians, Byzan­tines, Arabs, Spa­niards — have had a go at rul­ing Si­cily. All have left their im­print here, from the mod­est to the spec­tac­u­lar, from the lit­tle shop off the Vuc­ciria mar­ket serv­ing pan­elle (de­li­cious fried rec­tan­gles of chick­pea dough, an echo of the ninth-cen­tury Arabs), to the sheer size and ex­trav­a­gance of its palaces, an at­tempt to keep up with the elab­o­rate rit­ual and style of the 14th-cen­tury Span­ish vice-re­gal court.

But the most un­likely of its con­querors came from the north: the Nor­mans, who popped up in Palermo a few years be­fore the Bat­tle of Hastings. They en­liven Si­cil­ian his­tory with un­ex­pected names such as Wil­liam the Good, Wil­liam the Bad and King Roger. Palermo owes the Nor­mans al­most as much as Bri­tain does, though you may no­tice a few aes­thetic dif­fer­ences. In Si­cily, the sun, the food, the wine, that blue sea, the whole sen­sual Mediter­ranean thing went to their heads. They seized upon the tra­di­tion of golden Byzan­tine mo­saics, and made those shim­mer­ing sur­faces their own.

Up at Mon­reale, the nave of the great cathe­dral seems to swim with golden light, while down in town the as­ton­ish­ing mo­saics of the Cap­pella Palatina are among the mas­ter­pieces of Euro­pean art.

But not all ar­chi­tec­tural sen­su­al­ity is about sur­faces. My favourite Nor­man build­ing is San Cataldo, perched atop a bit of Ro­man wall a few steps from the Quat­tro Canti, the Four Cor­ners. Un­der­rated, in a city that prefers ex­cess, this in­ti­mate, triple-domed church (bizarrely it served as the city post of­fice through much of the 19th cen­tury) is al­most de­void of dec­o­ra­tion. Its ge­nius is form, the ge­om­e­try of in­ter­lock­ing shapes. Its vaults, domes and arches melt into one an­other, at once so sim­ple and so com­plex, an ar­chi­tec­tural no­tion that the Si­cil­ian Nor­mans in­her­ited from the Arabs.

At Villa Tasca, where I am stay­ing, the mod­ern world has turned every­thing up­side down. While I swan around the palace, which I have to my­self, the owner, Giuseppe, and his wife live, al­beit com­fort­ably and stylishly, in the con­verted sta­bles. On the ter­race I take break­fast, served by a white-gloved but­ler. In the mu­sic room, I noo­dle on the piano on which Wag­ner com­posed Par­si­fal. In the re­cep­tion room, I ad­mire the 18th-cen­tury fres­coes of buxom peas­ant girls wan­der­ing about clas­si­cal ru­ins. In the evenings, I wan­der the gar­dens by moon­light.

The de­light­ful Bianca, Tasca’s ma­jor-domo, helps to di­rect my ex­plo­rations around the city, making ap­point­ments in the tight-knit world of Palermo’s aris­to­crats. At Palazzo Gangi, I just miss a visit by ac­tor Alain Delon. Play­ing heart-throb Tan­credi Fal­coneri, Delon filmed the fa­mous ball­room scene in Vis­conti’s adap­ta­tion of The Leop­ard here in the early 60s. “He was charm­ing, of course,” re­ports Principessa Carine Vanni Calvello Mantegna di Gangi when she meets me at the top of the grand dou­ble stair­case. “But a lit­tle tear­ful. He is not young any more — it does not suit him. Nostal­gie got the bet­ter of him.”

When Carine mar­ried her prince, about 40 years her se­nior, she was mar­ry­ing Palazzo Gangi as well, and its care has largely de­volved upon her. It has not been easy, she con­fides, with aris­to­cratic un­der­state­ment. “The ex­penses are colos­sal,” she says. “It is one of the great houses of Europe and yet there is no help from the gov­ern­ment. Only tax in­creases … eight in the past six years.”

Carine leads me through the Fenc­ing Room, the Mu­sic Room, the Red Room, the Green Room and the Sui­cide Room (so named for a paint­ing of Cleopa­tra clutch­ing her asp) to the Ball­room, the Gal­le­ria degli Spec­chi, made fa­mous in Vis­conti’s film. A dou­ble ceil­ing swarms with al­le­gor­i­cal fres­coes, while the walls, caked in gilded ro­coco pan­elling, rip­ple up­wards in a flurry of putti, swags and clouds. When a vis­it­ing French au­thor was ush­ered into this room, his only com­ment was, Ver­sailles n’a rien de plus (Ver­sailles has noth­ing more). It is like stand­ing in­side a spec­tac­u­larly ex­u­ber­ant Faberge egg. As I leave, I ask how many rooms there are. “If you can count the rooms,” the princess smiles, quot­ing The Leop­ard, “it is not re­ally a palace.”

The next day, in Capo mar­ket, I meet Ni­co­letta Polo Lanza To­masi, Duchess of Palma di Mon­techiaro. Palermo’s mar­kets are great lev­ellers; dis­tinc­tion here is de­ter­mined by passion and knowl­edge of food. Over aro­matic herbs, plump Si­cil­ian sausages and sil­ver tides of sar­dines, the duchess and the stall­hold­ers ban­ter like old friends. The re­la­tion­ship has a pro­pri­eto­rial air. In th­ese mar­kets, stall­hold­ers are said to “own” their cus­tomers — they look out for them, keep their best aside for them, and will al­ways treat them fairly. To move to an­other stall would be the gravest in­sult, una tagli­ata di fac­cia, lit­er­ally a slash across the face. At the fish stalls, dark chunks of fresh tuna nes­tle next to the stiff­ened me­tal­lic arc of a whole sword­fish. Fat sar­dines and striped mack­erel glis­ten amid squid and prawns and oc­to­pus. Piles of glossy aubergines top­ple on to egg-shaped San Marzano toma­toes, figs blush­ing pur­ple, and pa­pery ropes of gar­lic. Piles of grapes — green, black, pur­ple and yel­low — are draped around mounds of fat Si­cil­ian lemons.

Villa Tasca, top; op­u­lent guest suite, above; the mu­sic room, below

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