OUT OF THE SHAD­OWS

ONCE A TOURIST NO-GO ZONE THANKS TO MAFIA CROOKERY AND VI­O­LENCE, SI­CILY’S CAP­I­TAL PALERMO IS METAMORPHOSING INTO A CEN­TRE OF ART AND CUL­TURE.

The Australian - Wish Magazine - - MOTORING W - STORY JENI PORTER

The best way to get a sense of the scale of Palazzo Butera, a sprawl­ing Baroque palace built atop Palermo’s an­cient city walls, is to climb up to its tower. From there, be­sides a panoramic view of the gulf of Palermo, you can see the full sweep of the palace’s ter­ra­cotta-tiled roof be­hind an al­most 80m-long façade crowned by huge stone urns. It’s a stir­ring sight that evokes the Si­cil­ian cap­i­tal’s il­lus­tri­ous past when the palace, owned by the pow­er­ful Bran­ci­forte no­ble fam­ily, was the epi­cen­tre of high so­ci­ety with a famed ter­race over­look­ing the grand es­planade be­low.

But it also has a con­tem­po­rary res­o­nance as the palace un­der­goes a mon­u­men­tal restora­tion to turn it into a cen­tre of cul­ture for the 21st cen­tury. It’s a trans­for­ma­tion that is a sig­ni­fier for the city it­self, re­ju­ve­nat­ing af­ter decades of be­ing ground down by poverty, crime and cor­rup­tion. The city has gone from be­ing “the cap­i­tal of the Mafia to the cap­i­tal of cul­ture,” as its leg­endary mayor Le­oluca Or­lando of­ten de­clares, es­pe­cially since it was des­ig­nated Italy’s Cap­i­tal of Cul­ture for 2018. “This is the turn­ing point that opens a sea­son of cul­tural change,” he says.

Noth­ing says more about this re­birth than Palazzo Butera, which is sec­ond only in size to Palermo’s Royal Palace. For the past two years more than 100 builders, stone­ma­sons, cab­i­net­mak­ers and art con­ser­va­tors have been metic­u­lously restor­ing the ne­glected palace, re­in­stat­ing stonework and del­i­cate mar­quetry and re­pair­ing trea­sured ceil­ing fres­coes. On the sec­ond floor, which had been turned into a school, they dis­cov­ered se­cret pas­sage­ways and wall fres­coes from the early 1760s hid­den be­neath two cen­turies of paint en­crus­ta­tions. The 1500sqm ter­race has been re­laid with thou­sands of green and white hand­made ma­jolica tiles.

It would be a re­mark­able project in any con­text, but it’s all the more re­mark­able be­cause two pri­vate cit­i­zens, art col­lec­tors and gal­lerists Francesca and Mas­simo Valsec­chi, are pay­ing for it. The pre­vi­ously Lon­don­based cou­ple had never even been to Palermo un­til about six years ago. Francesca came first, per­suad­ing her hus­band that Palermo should be the site for what he calls their “crazy En­light­en­ment” project. Re­puted to have sold a paint­ing by Ger­hard Richter to help fund the pur­chase and restora­tion, they’ve taken over the pi­ano no­bile, or first floor, as their home and are turn­ing the rest of its 9000sqm into a mu­seum for their dec­o­ra­tive and fine art col­lec­tion as well as a con­tem­po­rary art space and ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tion.

For al­most 500 years there have been only two gates in the fortress wall lead­ing to Palermo’s an­cient Kalsa quar­ter; now Palazzo Butera will have an en­trance from the sea front, mak­ing it a new gate­way from the Mediter­ranean. This is hugely sym­bolic, as is open­ing the palace to the pub­lic. Even in de­cline it was one of the last bas­tions of mon­eyed aris­toc­racy, guarded by a fierce dog and seen only by those who rented out its gilded ball­room for wed­ding re­cep­tions, as Paul Dun­can wrote in his sem­i­nal Si­cily guide. When the Valsec­chis set­tled the re­puted €12 mil­lion pur­chase in 2016, the con­tract was with 27 ben­e­fi­cia­ries, many of them princes and princesses with so many ti­tles it took all day and into the early hours of the next to read out their names, as is the norm in a prop­erty sale in Italy.

But come June any­one will be able to roam around ground-floor gal­leries with vaulted ceil­ings grouped around ver­dant court­yards, and climb the tower to en­joy the splen­did view. “We hope it will be a new gate on the sea for the his­tor­i­cal cen­tre of Palermo and that art, his­tory and cul­ture could be­come a new source of life for the city,” the Valsec­chis say.

When the cou­ple were pre­par­ing to move to Palermo, art mag­a­zine Apollo de­scribed their col­lec­tion

as the “least known pri­vate hold­ing of great art in Lon­don”. Amassed over the past 50 years, it runs the gamut from old mas­ters and gothic re­vival fur­ni­ture to art glass and Andy Warhols. Francesca Valsec­chi is a grand­daugh­ter of the Mi­lan in­dus­tri­al­ist Carlo Frua De An­geli, who had a renowned but since dis­persed mod­ern art col­lec­tion. She and her hus­band started col­lect­ing con­tem­po­rary art in the 60s, open­ing the Gal­le­ria di Mas­simo Valsec­chi in Mi­lan in 1973 show­ing Richter and his con­tem­po­raries. “It was never a com­mer­cial space be­cause we never sold any­thing,” Valsec­chi told Apollo. “In one sense that has been our luck as we still have all the Ger­hard Richters that we bought in the 60s and 70s and the Gil­bert & Georges of the 70s.”

They still have the gallery, which played a defin­ing role in the nascent con­tem­po­rary art world. And although their col­lec­tion may now be worth hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars, the Valsec­chis say they were driven by ideas rather than ego. They of­ten went against the mar­ket, buy­ing Re­nais­sance paint­ings in the early 80s when they were cheaper than medi­ocre con­tem­po­rary art. Their over­all premise was to as­sem­ble art­works rep­re­sent­ing the apex of sev­eral cul­tures and his­tor­i­cal ages. “We be­lieve in the pro­found ed­u­ca­tional value of art and that the jux­ta­po­si­tion of ob­jects from dif­fer­ent worlds is a way to un­der­stand the ties that lie be­neath cul­tural dif­fer­ences,” they say. They hope Palazzo Butera will be­come a lab­o­ra­tory that uses art as a cat­a­lyst to tackle broader so­cial is­sues – they are es­pe­cially in­ter­ested in re­fram­ing at­ti­tudes to­wards mi­gra­tion.

Palermo has been ab­sorb­ing out­siders for 3000 years from the Phoeni­cians, an­cient Greeks, Arabs, Nor­mans and Span­ish to more re­cent ar­rivals from north­ern Africa and the Mid­dle East. The Valsec­chis ar­gue this makes it the per­fect place to re­think Euro­pean iden­tity by learn­ing from the past about how to take the best of dif­fer­ent cul­tures and blend them.

Although the cou­ple have high hopes for their “strong ges­ture of hos­pi­tal­ity”, they pre­fer to keep a low pro­file. When I visit the palace, I meet Francesca Valsec­chi on the huge stone stairs – she likes to walk around and “lis­ten” to the build­ing while Mas­simo Valsec­chi is ab­sorbed in ar­chi­tec­tural draw­ings. He shares an of­fice un­der the rafters with his long­time ar­chi­tect Gio­vanni Cap­pel­letti and the prop­erty de­vel­oper and en­gi­neer Marco Gi­ammona, who is over­see­ing the project with ar­chi­tect To­maso Garigliano. One desk is cov­ered in ma­jolica tiles found on site, some of them dat­ing back to the 17th cen­tury.

Garigliano is the em­bod­i­ment of the mod­ern Paler­mi­tano. An Ital­ian-Aus­tralian whose mother grew up in Nor­man­hurst, on Syd­ney’s up­per north shore, he’s lived in Palermo for 20 years. He has worked on his­tor­i­cal build­ings but noth­ing like Palazzo Butera, ei­ther in scale or in the lengths to which they have gone to pre­serve its patina. “We didn’t want the build­ing to come out pol­ished and erase its past. For in­stance we wanted to keep the old plas­ter on the ex­te­rior be­cause oth­er­wise the build­ing would have looked new, but that meant analysing it me­tre by me­tre which was much more ex­pen­sive.”

Garigliano be­lieves they’re do­ing some­thing “heroic” dur­ing a pe­riod in Palermo and Italy gen­er­ally when get­ting things done is dif­fi­cult. “We are con­sid­ered aliens for what we’re do­ing here. Peo­ple say, ‘why are you do­ing this so well?’ But the Valsec­chis wanted to achieve a level of ex­cel­lence and prove that it’s pos­si­ble to do some­thing with­out beg­ging favours.”

Their largesse will be her­alded on June 15 when Palazzo Butera is in­au­gu­rated dur­ing the vernissage of the no­madic con­tem­po­rary art bi­en­nale Man­i­festa 12. Ti­tled The Plan­e­tary Gar­den, its broader theme of cul­ti­vat­ing co-ex­is­tence aligns with the Valsec­chis’ vi­sion. In­stead of a cu­ra­tor it has four cre­ative me­di­a­tors, led by Ip­polito Pestellini La­par­elli, an ar­chi­tect and part­ner of Rem Kool­haas’ stel­lar OMA. He’s de­signed Prada fash­ion

“We are con­sid­ered aliens for what we’re do­ing here. Peo­ple say, ‘why are you do­ing this so well?’”

shows and ren­o­vated the ac­claimed KaDeWe store in Ber­lin, but this project cuts more deeply. Born in Messina, he says he’s a prod­uct of the Ital­ian di­as­pora, hav­ing lived in the US and now The Nether­lands.

“My re­la­tion­ship with Si­cily is one of an in­sider and of an out­sider,” La­par­elli says. “Work­ing in Italy and in Si­cily, I’m of­ten con­fronted with mixed feel­ings: in­tim­i­da­tion, ex­cite­ment, re­spon­si­bil­ity.”

Be­fore set­ting the cu­ra­to­rial con­cept he led a re­search project, in­ter­view­ing more than 100 lo­cals from for­mer con­victs to uni­ver­sity schol­ars, ar­chi­tects to ur­ban ge­og­ra­phers, to map the city. It re­in­forced his per­cep­tion of Palermo as a kind of “post-city or node” shaped through­out his­tory by trans-ter­ri­to­rial flows of peo­ple that have ac­cel­er­ated and ex­panded in re­cent decades. “As ev­i­dence of this, we dis­cov­ered across the city hid­den net­works of Tamil tem­ples in very generic spa­ces from garages to the backs of house.”

The theme of Palermo as a con­stantly chang­ing “plan­e­tary gar­den” crys­tallised for La­par­elli at a din­ner with Giuseppe Bar­bera, pro­fes­sor of agron­omy at the Uni­ver­sity of Palermo. He pointed out that every plant in a fa­mous late 19th-cen­tury land­scape paint­ing of the city had come from else­where: Ja­pan, Mex­ico, north­ern Africa, Asia Mi­nor, the Mid­dle East, even a eu­ca­lyp­tus from Aus­tralia. “None was au­tochthone, the en­tire land­scape was the re­sult of nat­u­ral move­ments or hu­man im­port of plant species from else­where,” says La­par­elli, who hopes Man­i­festa will seed some­thing that en­dures be­yond its five-month run.

For Mayor Or­lando, Man­i­festa and Palermo Capitale are the end point of a po­lit­i­cal ca­reer that be­gan in 1980 af­ter the as­sas­si­na­tion of Si­cily’s gov­er­nor Pier­santi Mattarella by the Mafia in ca­hoots with bent politi­cians. The for­mer uni­ver­sity pro­fes­sor be­came the face of the anti-Mafia move­ment with body­guards at his side to this day. When he was re-elected mayor for the fifth time last year at age 69, he said, “I was first a son of the city, then a brother and in the end a fa­ther.” He’s an as­sid­u­ous pro­moter of his home­town, plac­ing great stock in tourism as a way out of its eco­nomic woes and also as proof of its path back to (rel­a­tive) nor­mal­ity.

From be­ing shunned by tourists, this year Palermo should rank in the top 10 of Italy’s most vis­ited cities, the mayor says. It’s a trans­for­ma­tion that Francesco Caz­zaniga has lived through as a vis­i­tor ini­tially and now as a player in Palermo’s tourism scene. Caz­zaniga runs La Bella Palermo, rent­ing out his un­cle’s pa­tri­cian palace to wealthy vis­i­tors dur­ing sum­mer months when his un­cle is not us­ing it. “I cre­ated this name La Bella Palermo or the beau­ti­ful Palermo to se­lect some ele­ment that’s maybe not so com­mon to all the lo­cals but is in­ter­est­ing for other peo­ple,” he says.

When his un­cle, a Mi­lanese prop­erty in­vestor, bought Palazzo Pan­tel­le­ria in 2002 as a refuge to es­cape north­ern win­ters and a re­pos­i­tory for his quirky col­lec­tions, pretty much every­body thought he was crazy. “We vis­ited a lot of places, ev­ery­where was dirty, full of trash, with crum­bling façades and many of the palaces were dam­aged or aban­doned,” says Caz­zaniga. Even­tu­ally his un­cle bought and painstak­ingly re­built a wing of a once im­por­tant 17th-cen­tury palace. Although it is vir­tu­ally all recre­ated, its in­te­ri­ors have a sense of his­tory over­laid with the idio­syn­cratic tastes of its owner.

Since Caz­zaniga opened the palace up to pay­ing guests 18 months ago he has hosted peo­ple from all over, in­clud­ing VIP cus­tomers of Dolce & Gab­bana who came for the Alta Moda show last July with four kids, two nan­nies and a body­guard and flew ev­ery­where by he­li­copter. This year’s cul­tural pro­grams, by con­trast, will al­low vis­i­tors to min­gle with com­mon peo­ple, Caz­zaniga says. He’s wor­ried ser­vices will come up short but is op­ti­mistic about the boost to the city and its cit­i­zens.“When I was a kid Palermo was very off-lim­its – there were only bad things like Mafia or shoot­ings. Now we are see­ing it from a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive.”

From be­ing shunned by tourists, this year Palermo should rank in the top 10 of Italy’s most vis­ited cities.

Palazzo Butera’s ex­te­rior, the view from the tower, the Gilded Salon, and a de­tail from a fresco in the Green Room

The fa­mous façade and ter­race of Palazzo Butera; a sec­ond-floor hall that had been used for school­rooms; the en­trance hall on the pi­ano no­bile with baroque fres­coes and 18th-cen­tury benches with wooden mar­quetry

Clock­wise: La Bella Palermo’s Blue Salon, Yel­low Salon, ex­te­rior court­yard and li­brary

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