Site for Sore Eyes (Pt III)

The third and final jaw dropping moment I experienced in Sicilian churches was not in one of the UNESCO World Heritage Site listed buildings; it was the Jesuit Church of the Gesú in Palermo. This is not Arab Norman (hence its exclusion from the list), and being constructed during the 17th and 18th centuries is very much of the baroque, but it is an astonishing building all the same.

But I won’t be sharing it with you.

The church is an extravagance of multi-coloured marble bas-reliefs that demand your attention. Unfortunately the church authorities demand that you take no pictures (and even had a young lady hiding behind pillars to catch any who would transgress) so all I can recommend is that you look here, or better still go and see them for yourself.

I’m assuming the decision to prevent photography is based on revenue.  (There were no worshippers present to disturb, and being flashless and running on silent mode I’m discrete anyway).  By keeping control of imagery the church can presumably sell postcards and other publications, but I do wonder at the logic.  I didn’t buy anything, but if asked to pay a photographer’s fee (as I’ve done in cathedrals such as Ely or Bologna) I’d be happy to do so.

Instead I will share a little about Santa Caterina; a church with some similarities (though built before the Church of Gesú) but which left me feeling a sense of distaste rather than wonderment.  Appropriate that it should therefore form one side of the “Square of Shame” that I wrote about recently.

Before I entered the body of the church to view the multi-coloured marble there I took a short tour of the rest of the complex; a female Dominican monastery where I and another visitor were accompanied by both a tour guide and a security guard!  Perhaps understandable had we been granted private access to the contents of the cathedral treasury, but here we were taken to rooms where the emphasis was on frugality, so what was being guarded, and from whom?  The last sister left about 5 years ago I believe.

At the heart of complex is a cloister with a beautiful fountain, which we were able to view from the balcony of one of the monastic cells and here was quite a contrast.  Plain rooms with a bed, a tiny wardrobe, a desk and a small cross overlooking the majolica and greenery outside…. but only if you were of a wealthier background and could fund the room with a view.  On the opposite side of the corridor the walls adjoined the streets outside and so no balconies here in case there should be any contact with outsiders.  Unsurprisingly the desks bore bibles, but also knotted cords with which the occupant could beat herself.  I’m sure I spotted a cilice in one room.

The indignities that these women faced were made clear one more as our tour took us to the room where they sang as part of the church choir.  Raised high above the nave of the church they were effectively caged; able to look down on the congregation but unable to interact in any way.  The male voices in the choir were at the opposite end of the church so no chance of fraternisation there either.

Many think of baroque magnificence when Santa Catarina is mentioned, but despite the polychromatic decoration it reminded me more of a prison, where there was one remaining piece of inhumanity.   Just to the right of the altar there is an opening in the marble with a rotating wooden platform within.  Here the unmarried mothers of the city would place their child and then see it disappear as the platform turned and the baby was taken into the monastery.  No one was telling what happened next.

A Site for Sore Eyes (Pt II)

The second location from the UNESCO seven that I want to write about didn’t move me to tears, but probably only because it followed so soon after the Cathedral of Monreale.  All the same it is an absolutely astonishing space.  I use the word space because it’s part of a building rather than the structure itself,  and I’ve already introduced you to the Palazzo dei Normanni.  Palermo’s royal palace naturally has a private chapel where the kings, viceroys and their families could worship.

Roger II of Sicily commissioned the construction two years after he became the island’s first king (I know, the name is confusing in that respect).  Eight years later in 1140 the structure was complete, though the mosaics that decorate it weren’t finished for a number of year after that.  Hardly surprising when you see the complexity and beauty of some of  the designs (those completed in the later decades of the project were probably local rather than Byzantine in their construction and are poorer quality).

Here though it wasn’t the mosaic artistry that caused my astonishment.  Like Monreale there are a number of architectural styles at play here; the doorway is typically Norman  and there are other Romanesque features to be seen.  The Byzantine influence is seen not just in the exquisite mosaics and the dominant image of Christ Pantocrator.  

The archways in the aisles are Arabic but rest on classical columns.

The feature that I found so fascinating was purely Arab.  The Muqarnas.

No, I didn’t know either, but it refers to a type of vaulting, though that hardly does justice to a work of wizardry in mathematics, art and architecture.   Known to some as “honeycomb vaulting” or “stalactite vaulting” the muqarnas is a method of transitioning different levels of a building’s ceiling, by encrusting them in a three-dimensional pattern that in some ways works like the jumbled patterns of a “dazzle ship”.   The style originated in the Middle East a couple of centuries before the chapel was built, though sadly one of the earliest and best stone examples is believed to have been destroyed by ISIS.   In an ingenious blending mosaic 8-pointed stars, that are Muslim in design, are grouped in sets of four to create a Christian cross.

Again I was hampered by low light and the difficulties of trying to capture images with a zoom lens but no tripod, but I was determined to see more of the detailed script and illustrations that adorned the ceiling.   Michelangelo is famed for the decoration of a chapel ceiling in Rome.  Sadly the artists responsible for the Palatine Chapel in Palermo did not achieve such fame, though in my book they would have been worthy.

As our world seems to grow ever more intolerant we see that almost 1000 years ago things were very different.  A commemorative plaque just outside the chapel records in Greek, Arabic and Latin the building of a clock in 1142.  Collaboration beats conflict any time.

So look closely at the muqarnas where Christian figures are surrounded by Arabic script, and hope that that spirit can be rediscovered.

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?

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.



Three Out of Four Ain’t Bad

In its original definition the word “quarter” refers to a fourth part of a whole, though I’m not sure of the origins of phrases such as “servants’ quarters” where the term refers to rooms allocated to a specific group.  Surely this was never so rigidly allocated as to refer to 25% of the original property?

When it comes to defining areas of a town I’d always assumed that quarter (as in New Orleans’ French Quarter) did derive from being roughly of that proportion, though this is belied by the fact that Birmingham apparently has seven!  In my Italian lessons, the word is  quartiere and simply means neighbourhood, so Rome has a Jewish quarter, and Naples a Spanish quarter, but in Palermo at least, the term is refreshingly accurate.

The intersection of Via Maqueda and Corso Vittorio Emanuele creates a square in the city, called Piazza Vigliena, though it is more widely known as Quattro Canti (Four Corners).  The streets that create it embody Sicilian history in themselves (Maqueda is a Spanish name, but with Arab origins, and Vittorio Emanuele was of course the first king of a united Italy), but the four buildings between those streets add more.  The largely identical structures feature fountains of the four seasons, statues of the four Spanish Kings of Sicily, and the four patron saints of the city.  Of the latter, two have connections to Tunisia.  Behind each lies a defined “quarter” of the city, and though formally known as Albergheria, Seralcadio, La Loggia and Mandamento Tribunali, many visitors to Palermo know them by different names.  The first three are defined for many by the markets within them; Ballarò, Capo, Vucciria and the last is now called Kalsa, from its original Arab name  Al-Khalesa.

It may seem strange that the Arab quarter lacks a market, and historically it had several, but this was the area of Palermo that suffered most from Allied bombs in WWII.  Left derelict for decades it is only now seeing regeneration.

Of the three markets that remain, La Vucciria (possibly a corruption of butchery or voices; either would work) was once the pearl, and given greater prominence by the famous painting of that name by Renato Guttuso, though most agree that it no longer lives up to that billing.  Here I’d expected to be steeling myself to try a Sicilian street food staple called Pani ca’ Meusa (effectively a spleen sandwich) but disappointingly didn’t find a vendor (not too disappointingly if I’m honest!).

Capo was all that I’d expect from an Italian market; an abundance of the freshest produce with huge variety and colourful presentation.   Whether due to seasonality or local taste I’m not sure, but there was a greater emphasis on artichokes than I’d noticed elsewhere.  All the same it was very the sort of place I’d happily shop.

It’s not a Sicilian market without artichokes

And so to Ballarò.  Here the spirit of Al-Khalesa survives.  Alongside the expected fruit, vegetables, meat and fish you find spice stalls whose aroma signposts their presence before your eyes, freshly boiled potatoes steaming in huge pots, and around the fringes many of the city’s immigrants spread their wares on the pavement reminding me of scenes from my time in Africa.

Welcome to Ballarò, Palermo’s souk.



Putting Down New Roots

Thank Marco Polo for bringing noodles back from China and inspiring all those wonderful pasta variations.

Asian traders in the shadow of Palazzo San Giorgio, where Marco Polo was held prisoner.
Asian traders in the shadow of Palazzo San Giorgio, where Marco Polo was held prisoner.

Or maybe not.

In a recent programme for the BBC, ancient historian Michael Scott suggested that Arabs brought strips of semolina similar to tagliatelle to Sicily a century earlier.

With only a 100 miles or so of the Mediterranean separating Sicily from North Africa it’s not surprising that Italy becomes the route of choice for many wanting to migrate to Europe, and as far back as the 11th century BCE there were Phoenician settlements on the island.  Centuries later, another Phoenician colony, Carthage, was to become the greatest enemy of Ancient Rome.  Cue Hannibal and elephants.  With the fall of the Roman Empire, Germanic tribes moved in from the north, but they were resisted in the south by Islamic armies drawn from southern and eastern Mediterranean states.  In the same decade that England feel to William of Normandy, another Norman invasion took Sicily.  It’s hardly surprising that Italy didn’t really unite as a country until Garibaldi.  Too many historic differences and interests in the mix.

Ghandi was inspired by leaders of the Unification movement and is commemorated in Porto Antico
Ghandi was inspired by leaders of the Unification movement and is commemorated in Porto Antico

For many that eventual unification was a disaster.  (Remember that line in my last post about how Southern Italians distrust their Northern compatriots?)  In the early years of the new nation, resources were allocated to industrial rather than agricultural areas, industry being seen as the key to future prosperity.  Unfortunately this policy favoured the northern cities, and attempts at greater agricultural productivity were thwarted by damage to the soil.  Soon the threat of poverty forced many to see abandoning their new country as a means of survival, and so began what became the largest voluntary migration the world had witnessed.

Genoa of course, being in the prosperous north, wasn’t so badly affected by the social and political unrest, but as Italy’s largest port it had a vital part to play in that mass migration.  Naples and Palermo were the ports of choice, being based in the south, but with 13 million Italians leaving over a 35 year period between 1880 and 1915 it was a case of any port in a storm, and vessels such as Ferruccio, Konig Albert, and St Michele loaded up with passengers in Genoa.  Some went further afield and sailed from France.  Roughly one in three of those who left were headed for America.

Conditions on the transportation ships varied according to the wealth of the passenger, but considering most of this migration was driven by poverty, most faced very cramped accommodation – if you’ve seen the film Titanic you have a reasonable idea.

For most of those leaving it was the right decision – Italians have done well in many of the countries that received them, including the UK.  Given our current phase of xenophobic politics I wonder if we’d be so welcoming now, and now is important because migration is once again a hot topic for Italians.

In Maddalena young African men beg with caps
In Maddalena young African men beg with caps

That narrow gap between Africa and Italy is still there, and the tiny island of Lampedusa, once a popular holiday destination, has seen itself transformed into a holding destination for those seeking a better life in Europe as Italians actively rescue thousands trying to make the crossing in all manner of unsuitable craft.  Sadly many don’t make it to this new Ellis Island.

As European politicians argue over how to handle the challenge (and Britain chooses to close her eyes and ears while shouting “Brexit” above all else) it was gratifying to hear the Mayor of Palermo, who having seen 400,000 migrants arrive in Sicily (which includes Lampedusa) over 2 years, go on to say:

Welcome, is the best guarantee for safety