Palermo – the Crossroads of Civilization
The last stop in Sicily for the Publisher’s Tour was the island’s Capital City of Palermo. For millennia, it has sat at the crossroads of civilizations; a city situated at the edge of Europe and at the center of the ancient world. It is a place where Baroque churches sit as a backdrop to vibrant markets and where mosaic art was brought to dizzying heights hundreds of years before the Renaissance arrived. Centuries of monumental highs and crushing lows have formed this complex metropolis.
Palermo is surrounded by the Tyrrhenian Sea to the north and founded more than 2,750 years ago. In 254 BC, Rome took command of the town calling it Panormus. In the ninth and tenth centuries, the city was ruled by the Emirate of Sicily and was made the Island’s capital. The Norman Conquest took place in 1072. It was under Roger II of Sicily that the holdings became the Kingdom of Sicily. The King’s Court was held at Palazzo dei Normanni in Palermo and significant construction was undertaken during this period, such as the building of Palermo Cathedral. The Kingdom of Sicily became one of the wealthiest states in Europe. Sicily fell under the control of the Holy Roman Empire in 1194 and Palermo was the preferred city of the Emperor Frederick II.
Fast forward to the 19th century when Palermo expanded outside its old city walls, primarily to the north along the new. These roads would soon boast a huge number of villas in the Art Nouveau style. The magnificent Teatro Massimo Vittorio Emanuele was designed in the same period by Giovan Battista Filippo Basile and was opened in 1897. Located on the Piazza Verdi (named for the great composer), it is the largest opera house in Italy and is renowned for its perfect acoustics. It reopened after a long period of refurbishment for its centenary anniversary in 1997.
Although only portions of the city’s ancient walls are still visible, much of the extensive history of Palermo from the 12th century onwards can be viewed in the architectural styles found within the city. Romanesque, Gothic, Byzantine and Baroque styles abound, yet Italy’s fifth-largest city has been steadily drawing an increasingly cosmopolitan crowd. It is no wonder that two years ago Palermo was the Italian Capital of Culture.
One of the oldest buildings in Palermo is Palazzo Conte Federico, in fact, its tower, located on the south side of the palace, is one of the few remaining parts of the old city wall, dating back to the pre-Roman period. Count Federico’s family traces its heritage to the time of Emperor Frederick II and has lived in the palazzo for centuries. The palace was constructed during the 12th century, but over the past 850 plus years, it has undergone several reconstructions, each leaving telltale signs of the era of renovation. The original Norman-style is evident in the double-arched windows, above which are the coat of arms of the Emperor and also the City of Palermo. Within the palace are glorious vaulted ceilings. Some decorations date to the 14th century, while later frescoes are by Baroque artists Vito D’Anna and Gaspare Serenario. Various sculptures adorn the palace and its courtyard, including Marabitti’s 17th century lion fountain.
UNESCO lists seven World Heritage Sites within Palermo. These include the Palazzo dei Normanni and its stunning Cappella Palatina; Palazzo della Zisa and Ponte dell’Ammiragli – the Admiral’s Bridge. According to a legend, the bridge is situated in the place where the Archangel Michael appeared to Count Roger I of Sicily, helping him to conquer Palermo. It was completed in 1131, a year after the coronation of Roger II as first King of Sicily.
Palazzo dei Normanni was the royal palace and it was Roger II who commissioned its Cappella Palatina – the Palatine Chapel and its magnificent mosaic tile decoration. Like the Cathedral of Monreale, the chapel glitters with mosaics in 24 caret gold leaf. The Palazzo della Zisa was built in the same era and it is also famous for the stunning mosaics in its central hall.
In addition, the Churches of San Giovanni degli Eremiti, Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio, San Cataldo and the Cathedral of Palermo are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. San Giovanni degli Eremiti is famous for its five red domes, while the majestic and immense Cathedral contains works of art, as well as the Royal and Imperial tombs. The site of many royal coronations, the Cathedral has a long history of additions, alterations and restorations, the last of which was in the Neo-classical style during the 18th century, although five different architectural styles are evident in the grandiose edifice.
San Cataldo and Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio are two churches from the medieval period. The latter is often called La Martorana. This refers to the convent of Eloisa Martorana which absorbed the church centuries after it was built. The nuns were famous for their marzipan and although the convent no longer exists, their legacy lives on – Frutta di Martorana is still the name used for marzipan in the city.
The Publisher’s Tour also traveled to Monte Pellegrino which overlooks the Bay of Palermo. Situated north of the city, the mountain is nearly 2,000 feet in height, providing a spectacular, panoramic view of the city, its surrounding mountains and the Tyrrhenian Sea. In his book “Travels in Italy,” Goethe described Monte Pellegrino as the most beautiful promontory in the world. Beyond the extraordinary views, it is also a very special place for the Palermitani. The mountain is home to the sanctuary of Saint Rosalia, the patron saint of Palermo.
Santa Rosalia is credited with having saved the city from a deadly plague and is referred to as La Santuzza – Little Saint. Born during the 12th century, she lived most of her life in a cave on the mountain praying for the souls of the city. In 1624, her remains were uncovered and are housed in a small chapel built around her cave home. Inside the chapel there is a small statue of Santa Rosalia from the 17th century. If you happen to feel a drip of water while viewing the Saint’s statue, consider yourself blessed. The condensation that collects and falls is considered by many to be holy and those that it falls upon have received an anointment by the Saint.
Just outside Palermo is the small seaside resort of Mondello. The charming coastal town only had its start little more than a century ago, when the marshy land was filled and development began. Wealthy residents of Palermo quickly bought up the elegant Liberty-style villas by the beach, which still remain an appealing feature of the town. For most, it is the allure of the long and curving, soft sandy beach, plus the turquoise waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea that brings them to Mondello. Even though the visit by the Publisher’s Tour occurred after the lengthy prime season had ended, there was still a festive air to the resort town.
As the crossroads of the Mediterranean, Palermo and its surrounding area provides a fascinating array of influences which continually astound visitors. Whether it is the food, people or culture – the bar is set high when one visits Palermo. Yet as lofty as these many expectations were, for those on the Publisher’s Tour, the city managed to exceed them all!