Sailing to Palermo (part 1)

Ancestry Tour in Calabritto tracks the Mattia family roots.
June 13, 2015
Sailing to Palermo (part 2)
October 6, 2015

by Mark Russell

It is eight o’clock in the evening and the nightly ferry from Naples to Palermo is preparing to sail. Vesuvius looms hazily in the fading light across the bay. Soon we will be travelling across the storied waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea. This is an exciting prospect in itself. But for the moment, my eyes are fixed on the view, across the stern, of one of the most historic and densely populated cities in Europe. Assembled on the upper deck, a group of passengers gazes out over a softly-lit panorama dotted with the monumental legacy of Neapolitan history: the Norman Castel dell’Ovo; the so-called Maschio Angioino, built by the Angevins and redesigned for the House of Aragon; the Palazzo Reale, home to Spanish viceroys and symbol of Bourbon rule; the dome of the Galleria Umberto, emblem of unified Italy’s hopes. And perched above it all, the fourteenth-century Castel Sant’Elmo and the Carthusian Monastery of San Martino
A second visit to Naples has only heightened my love of this city’s vitality, dynamism or, I am inclined to say, its enjoyable chaos. The city appears to be in constant and animated conversation; it feels as if every Neapolitan is on the street and in the public squares talking and welcoming anyone to join the conversation. Walking its avenues and narrow lanes, I was again impressed by the city’s enormous and under-appreciated cultural heritage, especially in two places. San Gregorio Armeno is a small but sumptuously-decorated Baroque church frescoed by Luca Giordano. My guidebook, written for the cultural tourist, dryly lists some of its attractions. It deserves better than this, something more in keeping with Carlo Celano’s description of the church as a “piece of Paradise on earth.” The same must be said of San Giovanni a Carbonara with its truly stunning fifteenth-century monuments, especially the imposing tomb of King Ladislas and the vibrant frescoes of the life of the Virgin in the Cappella Caracciolo del Sole. Stendhalismo is as much a danger here as in any of Italy’s more celebrated cities!

I want to go on, but we are casting off. Soon the city, Vesuvius, and the lights of Capri are fading into the darkness; we are sailing into the night. The voyage is smooth; there is little to suggest we are at sea. Instead, the rumble of the vessel’s engines is conducive to sleep in the cabins below deck. Suddenly it is 6:30 am and we are sailing into Palermo’s harbour. The sun is rising behind us in the east. On the starboard side, Vesuvius has been replaced by Mount Pellegrino towering above the city. Across the bow, Palermo’s low-lying profile is emerging in earthy, honey tones against the grey of the arid mountains that frame it to the west. The words of Verdi’s Giovanni da Procida come to mind: “O tu, Palermo, terra adorata.”

Disembarking is a relatively quiet, untroubled affair and this extends to my first impressions of a city I find much less dense, much less hectic, and more organized than Naples. The historic centre, stretching between the Porta Nuova and the Porta Felice, is small enough to be visited on foot for those who like to walk. And one can do so in a relaxed manner. The monumental Baroque crossroads at the intersection of Corso Vittorio Emanuele and Via Maqueda, known as the Quattro Canti, divides the city into four quarters and makes general orientation simple. If one tires of walking, horse-drawn carriages are waiting at the roadside or trundling up and down the avenues. This is one of several ways in which Palermo demonstrates the fact that it, and Sicily in general, is a more established tourist destination than Naples and much of southern Italy.

But, thankfully, Palermo is not tourist-friendly to a fault. As I begin wandering its streets, the city reveals itself as more complex, as a collage of time, space, and the culture of powers that have come and gone from this strategic port: Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantine Greeks, Arabs, Normans, Swabians, French, and Spanish. The old city mixes broad thoroughfares with a labyrinth of lanes, alleyways, and small squares. Splendid structures from the Belle Époque rise alongside those of several centuries past. Just steps from refurbished facades are those that seem to have been neglected for centuries. Grubby markets lie just around the corner from fine shops. The city exudes both an air of sophistication and dilapidation. And, as is often noted, Palermo has an exotic, North-African feel sustained by its architecture, lively street markets, its cuisine, semi-tropical gardens, and the cosmopolitan nature of its population. It is not quite the adventure that is Naples; but it is as rewarding for those with time to explore.
Like its cathedral, Palermo’s historic structures embody the legacy of several centuries and different cultures, often combined in one building. The most prominent mark was left by the Counter Reformation. Numerous Baroque churches, including Santa Caterina, San Giuseppe dei Teatini, and the Chiesa del Gesù, humble and astonish visitors with their deep and lofty spaces, their profusion of sculpture, frescoes, stucco decoration, mosaic inlay, and marble veneering. Much more restrained is the façade of Santa Maria della Catena. Combining a Renaissance and Catalan Gothic aesthetic, it is just one Palermitan example of why Sicily and Southern Italy must not be overlooked in accounts of Italian Renaissance art. It was in this church’s elegant interior that I first discovered the sculpture of the Gagini family. Their works, combining a sinuous, linear Gothic aesthetic with the corporeal and psychological presence of Italian humanism, are found in several of Palermo’s churches. One of these is the simple, but spectacular medieval structure of San Francesco, its beautiful chapels added in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.
(End of part I)< a href=""> Part II is here