Kings, Viceroys… and a Count

I mentioned some of the different ethnicities that have ruled and influenced Sicily through out its history in an earlier post but it’s worth adding a little more as context for this piece, though volumes could be (and have been) written about European royalty during the middle ages.  Suffice to say that borders were fluid, wars were common and religious schism added to the mix.

Inner Courtyard, Palazzo dei Normanni

Palermo’s Royal Palace is more generally known as Palazzo dei Normanni, the Palace of the Normans, and Roger I, Count of Sicily and father of Sicily’s first King Roger II, was a Norman, which nowadays we think of as meaning he was French, though of course of Norse origins (Norman/Norseman).  Let’s not quibble too much though; they were of the house of Hauteville which sounds distinctly French.  Meanwhile the Holy Roman Empire was ruled by a German (House Hofenstaufer), Frederik I, known as Barbarossa.

When Roger’s daughter Constance married Barbarossa’s son Henry VI, their son Frederik II became a German King of Sicily.  His lineage died out, but this was the period when the House of Habsburg (Austrian) was beginning its domination of Europe.  (Is this starting to sound like George RR  Martin yet?)  Over time the Habsburgs coalesced into two branches, Austrian and Spanish, and the successive rulers of Sicily being related to the Spanish branch inevitably lead to a period of Spanish rule via a series of Viceroys.

The Viceroy Room

I’ll save the jewel of the Palace for a post of its own, but even so you can see a whole range of influences beyond the medieval walls.

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When Italian unification took place it was under the House of Savoy, ostensibly Italian, but with origins in Saxony and a base of operations that straddled the Alps in France, Switzerland and Italy.

All of this plays a part if you should happen to visit the palazzo of Conte (Count) Federico in Palermo.  (Yes, despite being a republic, Italy still has nobility).  Your guide for such a visit is Federico himself, who despite the name retains distinctly German genes and is fluent in multiple languages.

That coat of arms could only be Germanic too!

His palace is well hidden at the corner of a typically Sicilian alleyway, but for the car that sits beyond the open gates; a vintage racing car that Federico’s father once raced in (his mother was an international sports star too).

Step past this into the courtyard and the history lesson begins; the Count’s home was once a defensive tower on the perimeter wall defending Palermo, and his ancestors were rewarded for their role in the city’s defence by being granted residence here.  In time the bay that the wall ran alongside was filled in and the city expanded beyond the original boundary so that now the tower is located in the centre of Palermo.

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Federico is a fantastic host pointing out the historic elements of his home and how they tell the story of the city (including a visit by Garibaldi to his kitchen).   Perhaps though the most telling artefact on display here amongst a story full of Europeans is a set of ceramic items that date back to the earliest occupation of Federico’s family’s tower.  In contrast with the rest of the story, these are distinctly Arabic.  It’s worth comparing the decoration to the Bayeux Tapestry since that depicts the same Normans who ousted the Arabs.  Who do you think showed the greater artistry?

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A Palermo Puzzle

Just a short distance from Quattro Canti in the centre of Palermo is Piazza Pretoria, a name that conjures visions of grandeur (the Praetorian Guard were the elite Roman soldiers who were bodyguards to the emperors).  Here the name derives from the 15th century Palazzo Pretoria (also know as the Palace of Eagles) which forms one side of the square.  The building is home to the city’s mayor, and yet despite its importance, is ignored by the majority of visitors to the square.  Piazza Pretoria has another name.  The Square of Shame.

Now there are two reasons for the description.  The first refers to that civic resident and a history of corrupt politics within the city (seemingly predating the mafia), but the second refers to the strange fountain that dominates the square, though this has also been seen as a tangible representation of the other.  This is all the more credible since the Senate of Palermo made the decision to buy and install the fountain here.  And the fountain’s contribution to the city’s shame?  Its nude statuary.

Now this might seem a little odd.  Why should Palermo be any different to the numerous other Italian cities that boast similar artworks and similarly disreputable politics, but here the island’s history of colonisation must be considered too.  Sicily was ruled by Spain for much of its history, and the Spanish Inquisition enforced their laws here.

The strange thing is that the fountain should never have been here (and not all of it is).  It was originally designed by Francesco Camilliani for a garden in Florence, four hundred miles away.  Here, in the 16th century there was already a strong Spanish influence through Don Pedro Álvarez de Toledo, second cousin of Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain Charles V.  Don Pedro’s daughter was the wife of Cosimo de Medici, Duke of Tuscany.  One of his sons commissioned the work by Camilliani, but despite the family connections Don Luigi had a lot of debts, which is how the work originally described by Vasari as unparalleled in Florence, and perhaps in all of Italy came to be sold to Palermo.  The viceroy at the time was one of Don Luigi’s brothers, perhaps the beginning of the associations with corruption.

And so in Tuscany the work was disassembled into over six hundred pieces, though in the transfer some were lost (probably retained by Don Luigi) and others were damaged so Palermo acquired an incomplete jigsaw; embarrassing when they had demolished a number of buildings in the city to make room for it.  The answer was to employ Camilliani’s son to redesign it.

We shall never know what it looked like originally, but now it is a strange mix of deities, grotesques and animals, but one that draws a lot of tourists, and though the politicians of the day seek to discourage people from sitting on the structure and making it into a Sicilian Spanish Steps, it’s a losing battle.

Between 1998 and 2003 the whole fountain was restored.  I wonder how much of the money allocated went astray?  After all, it seems to be a tradition.

 

 

The Substance and the Shell

Since it’s at the top of the Barcelona tourist’s ticklist, most people assume that the Sagrada Familia is the city’s cathedral yet clearly this would be absurd.  Barcelona’s history reaches back for two millennia.  The Sagrada, still unfinished, has been a feature of the city for only a fraction of this.

Local legend tells the tale of a young girl, Eulalia, martyred by the Romans in the early 4th Century for refusing to recant her Christian faith.  Given that her short life seems to have overlapped with the rein of the Emperor Diocletian her fate is quite plausible.  Many external religions were assimilated into the Roman pantheon.  In Bath the goddess of the thermal springs was Sulis, who was upgraded to Sulis Minerva by the Romans, thereby ensuring that any sacrifices and offerings were made to a deity who would favour Rome and prolong the empire’s dominance.  Christians were different and eschewed sacrifice so they were seen as a threat that could dilute the power of the official religions.

Which is why a 13-year-old virgin who stubbornly refused to bend to the edicts of the Tetrarchs was subject to a range of tortures (one for each year of her life) that culminated in her decapitation. That number 13 is commemorated in an unusual way (see below), making the cathedral an unattractive place for triskaedekaphobics!  Her body lies in the crypt beneath the altar of the Cathedral of the Holy Cross and Saint Eulalia, the true seat of Barcelona’s archbishop.  Construction of the church began in the thirteenth century, though most of the work was undertaken in the 14th.

I say most of the work, for although it was built concurrently with the rise of the Gothic style of architecture, the Catalan tradition was for plainer, featureless exteriors.   Internally it works though here you will also find a Gothic masterpiece; the choir stalls.  These intricately carved benches scream for attention with their multicoloured decoration.  They bear the coats of arms of the knights who made up the Catholic order of chivalry known as The Order of the Golden Fleece.

_pw_1404I wish I’d known more about the cathedral prior to my visit, for I would then have allowed more time to explore and include the cloister that is home to a group of 13 white geese, the Chapel of Lepanto (though I was then more ignorant of this historic naval battle), and the fountain where a strange ritual called the “Dancing Egg” takes place each year at the feast of Corpus Christi.  The process, which involves “balancing” an egg atop a jet of water is now undertaken at fountains around the region, but is thought to have begun in the cathedral centuries ago.  There’s a little trickery involved; to give the egg the necessary stability its contents are blown out and the hole plugged with wax thus changing the centre of gravity.

Fittingly the illusion has parallels with the building where it originated.

Barcelona’s cathedral is at the heart of the city’s Gothic Quarter, and it’s quite the centrepiece, for that plain building now wears a different skin.  Just as work was beginning on the construction of the Sagrada in the late 19th century, so a new façade was built over the cathedral exterior, at a time when the Neo-Gothic style had fully matured._pw_1460

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Worth Doing Güell (SOS)

_PW_1830Situated much further out from the city that the other Gaudí sites that I’ve written about, Parc Güell seemed no less popular, based on my inability to get a shot of the famous mosaic salamander without someone draping themselves over it for their holiday album.

To be fair, I like to try to find a different way of shooting iconic locations so I didn’t lose too much sleep over it but perhaps the vandals who damaged it with an iron bar in 2007 didn’t feel the same.

The park was originally intended as a housing development mooted by the entrepreneur Count Eusebio Güell and inspired by the English Garden City Movement.  Perhaps he should have waited to see how the English took to the concept; only two such cities were built (Letchworth & Welwyn).  At Parc Güell only two houses were built, in addition to the existing country house home of the Count, and neither  was designed by Gaudí.  He did move into one of them and that has now become a museum populated with his works and those of his collaborators.  (Entry is not included with the park ticket unfortunately)

Still there is much in the park to enjoy, on a larger scale than the details he has crafted elsewhere, and additionally the garden setting permits the comparison between his work and the natural features that he sought to incorporate.

The main terrace, called The Greek Theatre by some and The Nature Square by others, was intended for public performances and is surrounded by a serpentine bench that provides plenty of seating and yet a modicum of privacy at the same time by creating small booth-like recesses.  Naturally this evolved into a public park when the project failed, though in doing so it became difficult to control the numbers onsite and thereby ensure the protection of the structures.  It was the intervention of the authorities to make the park open only to those willing to pay for entry that led to the act of vandalism.  Whilst the frustration is understandable, this is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and charging the many international visitors for the privilege is a logical way to fund its preservation.

_PW_1550Many of those features have been photographed from every angle, so the challenge of finding something new is considerable.  Visiting early allowed me some different lighting options, but even so the features are immediately recognisable.

So where to find something photogenic but with a hint of originality?  In the place that most of the tourists overlook.  The two lodges that stand on either side of the main entrance function as gift shop and a venue to display photographs and information on the history of the park.  In each case most people are distracted by the contents, or the opportunity to lean out of windows and be photographed by friends or family.  They miss the curving lines of plasterwork and window frame in their rush to see the park, and thus presented me with my opportunity…

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Zzzzz Mr Hemingway. (Habana 58)

One of the less likely destinations for visiting tourists can be found in the Ambos Mundos hotel.  The rooftop bar and perhaps the experience of travelling to it in the original metal cage lift, are the draw for most, and with cold mojitos, smooth salsa and views over the city on offer from the shade of its canopies it’s an understandable choice.

Perhaps when they leave they’re a little too unsteady on their feet to venture down the stairs to the fifth floor and specifically room 511.  There was no trace of other interested parties when I ventured there and no queue was building outside as I left.  Nevertheless the room justifies the constant presence of permanent guardian, a white-uniformed guide who answers to your knock and for a few pesos supervises your stay in the room.

Its attraction lies in its former occupant; for this was Hemingway’s base in Cuba at one point and it is preserved in tribute to him along with various personal ephemera and of course his Remington typewriter on its height-adjustable table.  (Hemingway couldn’t sit for long periods of time as a result of an array of injuries and health problems).  The hotel proudly proclaims that this is where he began For Whom the Bell Tolls, the title being taken from a work by John Donne written while convalescing from serious illness.  Deliberate or ironic?

Whatever the answer it seems fitting place to come to rest after my alphabetical perspective on this city don’t you think?

Havana-4

House of Bones (SOS)

_PW_1317In the same way as Casa Milà is better known as Le Pedrera (The Quarry), so Casa Batlló, another Gaudí masterpiece, has a number of alternative names in the local population.  Some refer to it as the Dragon House, referring to the scaly ceramic roof tiles and suggesting that the Gaudí cross and turret to the left represent the lance of St George.

Others, looking at the rounded shapes of the main windows are reminded of a fully open mouth and have called the building “The House of Yawns”.  Understandable, but entirely inappropriate for such an innovative and exciting structure.

The supporting pillars that are best examined through those yawning apertures have an organic flow similar to a femur expanding at the knee-joint when seen from below.  Closer examination shows that the influence is actually floral, but “House of Bones” is another name that has stuck.

Even the name Batlló creates variations as ignorant visitors like me struggle to imagine how the tongue should tackle it.  In fact the pronunciation is very easy when you know how, but for the non-Catalans you can listen to it here.

Between the bones and dragon scales there is another feature that adorns the exterior.  A band of coloured ceramics in Gaudí’s signature trencadis that create an effect similar to a Monet painting, and there is more of this technique deployed in a multitude of ways to different effect throughout the building.

So striking is the exterior that it overshadows the adjoining Casa Amattler which is
another masterpiece of Catalan modernism, and I wonder how _PW_9987many of the thousands of tourists who gaze upwards in wonderment outside Battló each day ever take time to consider its neighbour.  Instead they throng with selfie sticks and struggle to render the masterpiece as background to their latest timeline addition before moving onto the next photo opportunity.  If they’re really smart though they’ll take the time to venture inside.

When I was young I read Roger Dean’s Views, the book in which the celebrated artist behind so many prog rock album covers explained some of his techniques and inspiration. (One Yes album famously features a series of clouds which were incorporated to camouflage the impact of one of his cats traversing his canvas).  The final chapter of that book fascinated me the most however.  Here Dean explained his plans to create a house for him and his family that was constructed from the same organic shapes that populated his imagery.  It was like nothing I’d ever seen before.  Until I stepped inside Casa Battló.

The tour guides tell you that it’s a house without straight lines, and though this is patently untrue you can understand why they share that view.  Walls bulge, staircases meander, glass bends light to distort the views beyond.  It’s a remarkable feat of design, but one that shows a great deal of insight too.

The central light well is sheathed in blue ceramics, but blues that change in hue to become brighter and more reflective on the lower levels where light is needed, and more absorbent to cut glare nearer the sky.

The loft space, composed of Gaudí’s much-loved catenary arches, was designed to house the laundry facilities for the tenants of the apartments within, and despite it’s functionality has a tranquil beauty derived from the softness of the curves and the diffused light which creeps in through gaps in the walls without ever being harsh and direct.

Similarly a pair of pillars stand by the doorway to the roof terrace whose function is to break up the light rather than support the roof,  a charming fireplace for intimate conversation features a single seat on one side and a double to the other – providing space for a chaperone.  Nothing in a Gaudí building should ever be taken at face value!_PW_1210

Gaudí’s genius shows its different facets in different projects; the Sagrada is audacious, Le Pedrera is practical, Parc Guell is capricious.  The joy of Battló is that here you get it all in single dose.  Even if you’re only in Barcelona briefly its a must.

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