Friday, October 24, 2014

Elegant and Glorious Decay: Palermo, Italy

Palermo, Sicily's capital and main commercial city, is a delicious and haphazard hodgepodge of cathedrals, fountains, 1800s manor houses, palaces, early 20th century apartment blocks, trattorias, and ruins. "Like a smaller version of Rome, Palermo's centre is sprinkled with domes and dotted with pedimented fa├žades of churches rising above the rooftops of surrounding palaces and houses." (Duncan 1994). The palaces and churches have some of the most exquisite stonework, statuary, and mosaics you will see anywhere on earth, a legacy of the talented Moorish artists who worked for the Catholic kings. Palermo is not a sterile archaeological site; it is a vibrant city, just a bit grungy and "earthy." It is off the normal American tourist route (not one of the top five after which the rest of Europe is totally ignored), but the residents are friendly, and it is a short flight from Rome. In my opinion, Palermo is a must-see destination, and I fully agree with Duncan (1994), "This is still one of the most fascinating cities in southern Italy."
We stayed at a bed and breakfast in an old apartment building. They did not heat much, but there was plenty of hot water, and the breakfast had fresh croissants and pastry.
The view from the balcony was pretty interesting. The scaffolding over the church in the distance is typical of Palermo - long-neglected maintenance of an art masterpiece. The narrow lanes likely follow the same paths that have been here since the Roman era.
The merchants below sell odd items from their tiny shops.
I love to check out the market in any city that I visit. The Vucceria Market is at the Via Maccheronai. "Nowhere in Palermo do memories of the old souks survive with such intensity; this was the most disorderly, ramshackle, and chaotic of places even in Arabic days. Merchants, hawkers, bootleggers, and artisans of every description still cluster here." (Duncan, 1994). Well, the day we toured it was rather quiet, but still a great visit. The bootleggers must have been at siesta.
 This is an old apartment block at the Via del Cassari.
Another somewhat rough apartment at the Via dei Candelai.
And some more apartments on the main thoroughfare, the Via Vittoria Emanuele (the name of a former king).
We were warned that these little tourist scooters are a bit dangerous, but probably no worse than a tuk-tuk in Kathmandu.
The side streets are pretty interesting. The gents on the pink Vespa were on the Via Simone di Bologna.
Do you need to move your 4-wheeler somewhere? Put it in your Vespa 3-wheeler.
Earlier, I mentioned the legacy of art to be found throughout Palermo. One example is the Capella Reale, the royal chapel, built by Roger II between 1132 and 1140. Roger and the Pope had some real issues, and Roger wanted to make his capital, Palermo, the equal of Rome in art and culture. The interior of the Capella is one of the most amazing architectural sights in Sicily because it is lavished with brilliant polychromatic mosaic tiles. The ceiling is Islamic-style wood with intricate decoration. Duncan (1994) states the craftsmanship is without parallel in the Islamic world even today. The language of the mosaics is mostly Byzantine, but much of the decoration is Islamic, a legacy of the hybid nature of Sicily's Norman Kingdom in the 1100s.
Next, for a totally different type of art, this is the Fontana Pretoria, designed in 1544 by Francisco Camilliani and and Michelangelo Naccherino. The Piazzo Pretoria is also known as the Piazza della Vergogna (the "Place of Shame") because the forty nude statues (ladies and gents) look at each other most shamelessly. When it opened, the local residents were shocked, mortified. The statues were so realistic. They were anatomically correct. And they had no trousers. Actually, this fountain would still not be tolerated in most American cities, but we are known for hypocritical prudishness. Anyway, 450 years later, the fantastic statues and fountain are part of Palermo's art heritage.
An office building facing the Piazzo Pretoria.
The food is absolutely divine. Find a local place, guess at what is on the menu or the chalkboard, and dig in. This was the Trattoria Ferro Di Cavallo. Locally-sourced ingredients? Ha, Sicilians have always done it.
Ask a Sicilian beauty to share a bottle of grappa.

I took these photographs with a Panasonic G1 digital camera and processed the RAW files with DxO Filmpack 3 to simulate Tri-X film. Next time, I will take real Tri-X. Film is having a revival for its non-digital look.


Duncan, P. 1994. Sicily, A Traveller's Guide. John Murray Publishers, Ltd., 244p.

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