My B&B is along Via Alloro, a narrow street in Palermo’s medieval quarter that winds towards the port. The room is lovely. From my balcony I can almost touch the walls of the palazzo opposite
My welcoming host marks on a map the best places for street food, the gallery of Sicilian medieval art at one end of Via Alloro and the gallery of Sicilian modern art at the other. I start to plan the next few days. Lampedusa is looking increasingly unlikely.
Then I receive an email from Yvonne, an American I met In Milan.
“Francesca, who I introduced you to in Milan, will be in Palermo. She may be able to help.”
Ah! Perhaps this Francesca, who speaks good English, can communicate with Francesca in Lampedusa. I email her.
Within an hour I receive a text message back from Francesca.
“Ring Paola on this number. She can be your interpreter in Lampedusa.”
I feel dizzy. I have just arrived in Palermo and there is so much to see. And what will Lampedusa be like? Am I up to this and how do I get there? Paola is reassuring.
“Don’t take the ferry. It’s unreliable. You can stay at a bungalow on a campsite owned by an English woman. She will pick you up at the airport. We can meet Askuvusa Collettivo on Saturday morning.”
I am overwhelmed by the kindness, the help.
I book the flight. I have 48 hours left to enjoy Palermo.
I head through the narrow streets towards Ballaro, one of the oldest Arabic markets in the city. Fishmongers guard great slabs of tuna fish, arrange collages of squid.
Young couples wash down sliced open sea urchins and fried artichokes with Peroni beer. Old men play Carte Napoletane. Above the market looms a majolica dome of the 17th century church of Santa Maria del Carmine.
I stroll through more back streets, deciphering the graffiti. It seems the anarchist tradition is alive and well.
The cathedral comes into view. Lovely matching Norman towers from the 12th century combined with an 18th century dome.
This mix and match of styles is typical of Palermo’s architecture.
For a more impressive example of the fusion of Arab and Norman architecture I head to the Palazzo Reale or Palazzo dei Normanni. I am directed to the Cappella Palatino, a hidden masterpiece and the highlight of the Palazzo. This private chapel of Roger II, who acceded to the throne of the Norman kingdom in 1130, is ablaze with gold Byzantine mosaics.
Scenes of the Old Testament decorate the walls of the nave, appealing to Christians, Jews and Muslims alike. Scenes on the cupola and apses are of Christ as Pantocrator (ruler of all); Christ blessing his followers; Christ enthroned between Peter and Paul. Every inch is covered in glittering mosaics created by Orthodox monks from Byzantium. It is magnificent.
I look up at the wooden painted, honeycombed Arabic ceiling, newly restored, made by Islamic artists from abroad. A guide points a torch at the intricate carvings and images. She points out the Arabic script, lions, eagles, a game of chess and even dancing – surprising given the Islamic discouragement of artistic human representation of humans in portraiture. But this Islamic work of art reflects the interfaith tolerance of the time.
I stroll down to the Quattro Canti, the Baroque crossroads where four areas of the old town meet. I walk through into the Piazza Pretoria where, as if absorbing the alternative name Piazza del Vergogne (square of shame) a female sculpture holds her hands over her breast as another statue looks on.
I cut through into Piazza Bellini, the ‘three churches’ square, dating back to the 12th century. The same artists who decorated the Royal Palace also decorated the interior of La Martorana. I wait under the shade of the Norman-Arabic bell tower and the adjacent church of San Cataldo with its trio of red domes.
At 3 pm the church reopens. The mosaics of La Martorana have the same mesmerising effect as in the Cappella Palatino, but even more so. Gold stars against a deep blue sky. Angels with a delicate, human quality
I get so transported I nearly miss my appointment with Francesca in Piazza Marina.
“A drink or a tour,” asks Francesca.
“A drink after a tour,” I reply.
I don’t want to miss out on Francesca’s inside knowledge. She grew up in Sicily and has been studying and working on the art of Norman Sicily and the Mediterranean for over 10 years.
We pop into 13th century church of Francisco d’Assisi with its wonderful rose window.
Inside Francesca introduces me to the famous sculptors of Sicily – Laurana, the Gagini clan and Serpotta, known for his Rococo style. We whisper to each other, anxious not to disturb the service, trying to identify each of Serpotta’s Seven Virtues.
We head to the La Khalsa, from the Arabic meaning, ‘pure’. This area, run down in parts, was laid out by the Saracens. The semi-ruined Santa Maria dello Spasimo is now used for concerts. But in its time it has been a theatre, barracks and plague hospital. Raphael painted Lo Spasimo di Sicilia for the church in 1520. The work now hangs in the Prado in Madrid.
We move onto the palm-lined garden leading to La Magione, one more example of this fusion of Arab and Norman architecture. In its beautiful cloister there is a rare Judaic tombstone.
We walk along the port between statues with limbs missing and half dilapidated buildings, some with peeling plaster.
“I suppose the government supports people rather than buildings,” I say.
“Neither,” says Francesca, a note of disillusion in her voice.
Yet part of the destruction is due to the allies bombing Palermo during the war. That, and money allocated by the EU and others being siphoned off by the mafia.
As we enjoy wine and canapés Francesca tells me about the father of her grandmother. He was a loved and respected socialist in Palermo and a talented musician. During the Fascist regime he was warned his life was in danger and had to escape illicitly to America where he played for the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Besides his commitment to his family in Sicily he had to pay money to bail out his brother, an anarchist, also in New York and who was arrested with Sacco and Vanzetti. The stress on her great grandfather caused an early death.
“So your great grandfather and his brother were emigrants too?”
“Oh yes. I still have relatives in United States.”
“Tell me. Why are there so many emigration museums in Italy?”
Francesca, turns to me.
“It is in our…” she struggles for the word.
“DNA?” I suggest.
“Yes, DNA and the sadness of it all.”
“I wish I could come with you to Lampedusa,” she says as we leave each other.
In the morning I go in for a bit of museum mania. I search out the Museo delle Marionette where Sicilian characters are displayed alongside Punch and Judy. Sicily’s famous backstreet puppet theatres are its most vibrant popular entertainment.
In the Galleria Regionale della Sicilia, Sicily’s finest medieval art collection, I am drawn to the 15th century Triumph of Death by an unknown painter. Here Death is a skeletal archer riding a horse, killing people with his arrows and trampling them underfoot. Wealthy citizens seem immune to him whereas the sick and old plead to be released from their human misery.
Other galleries feature the work of artists introduced to me by Francesca. A bust of Eleanora D’ Aragona by Lauran and various Madonnas by the Gagini clan.
Time is running out so I rush to the opposite end of Via Alloro to visit the Galleria d’Arte Moderna showing 19th and 20th century Sicilian art in the restored Convento di Sant’ Anna. I stop in my tracks. I recognise an image of a woman and her children weighed down with luggage. It is the same images as at the entrance to the maritime museum in Genoa and in the Paolo Cresci Museum in Lucca. Here Francisco Simeti, the artist, has integrated the image into a sheet of wallpaper. The work is entitled Gigli, Gladioli, Briganti ed Emigranti – Lilies, Gladioli, Thieves and Emigrants Migration it seems is not only in the Italian DNA but in their wallpaper too.
It’s time to leave Palermo and take the flight to Lampedusa.