An open door to the palaces of Palermo
“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