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Monday, April 30, 2018

palermo...sicily's golden child and the birthplace of cosa nostra

Perched on the northwest corner of what looks like the giant rock Italy's boot is trying to kick away Palermo is the Island of Sicily's beautiful capital.

I didn't know much, or anything for that matter, about Sicily before I visited recently, but its rich blend of Arabic, Spanish, French and, of course, Italian influences became very clear to me as we walked towards Piazza Castelnuovo on our way to the Ballarò Market. I'm a lover of all things market related and reading about this one was shamefully the extent of my research.

But, long before we arrived at the Ballarò we encountered a host of wonderful sights and sounds as this fascinating and somewhat mysterious city opened itself (only partially) to greet us.

Aspects of Palermo reminded me of the grand, somewhat neglected mainland cities of Spain, such as Cadiz on the Atlantic coast (also one of my favourite historic centres). The streets of Palermo reek of story. There is a sense of daunting, a mix of beauty and foreboding, which could in all fairness have something to do with realisation that this is the birthplace of the mafia. The horse head in the bed. The Don. The Pizza Connection.

Of course Palermo is much more than its 200-year-old mafia story. It is one of the oldest cities I've been fortunate enough to visit, and its confluence of architectural styles, dating back to 734 BC, impressed me enough that I quickly realized I missed most of the important details as a result of my market obsession (thus I have borrowed some photos from someone who knew better).

Palermo Cathedral

Honestly, Palermo's history is confusing and so I won't begin to try and explain the numerous sources of design and cultural significance, except to say that if you were a church builder back in the 12th century then you would've had a boom in business to rival most other centuries. The youngest of four of the most incredible churches built in Palermo between 1132 and 1185 is the Palermo Cathedral, which is impressive enough just from the outside.

Quatto Canti

Before I get into the nuts and bolts of the three churches I want to focus on, let me just say that if you make it to Palermo you must take five minutes and see Quattro Canti - the most impressive four corners of an intersection you will ever see. The piazza splits two main streets with four Baroque buildings, almost identical, taking over each of the corners. 

The four fountains at ground level represent the four seasons, then come each of the four Spanish kings of Sicily, topped off by Christina, Olivia, Agata and Ninfa, Palermo's four patronesses. I stood as close to the centre of the intersection as I dared in order not to get run over by a fiat or vespa, and began slowly rotating, taking few photos but many deep breaths, trying to absorb the 4 most beautiful corners of two streets I had ever seen.

Cappella Palatina

The Cappella Palatina is a highlight on any Palermo tour, and the panormiti (as the locals are known) would surely echo this statement. It's a fairly small chapel with much gold, built by the Norman kings as part of the palace grounds, but incorporating a mixture of fascinating styles. A Byzantine dome, Arabic arches, Norman architecture, Christian artwork and Greek inscriptions create a true 'east meets west' creation. 

The chapel is a mosaic masterpiece, with such intricate detail on every surface that one can really spend an inordinate amount of time in this humbly-sized church. But, if you look up you will also experience something remarkable. An Islamic style of design which is sometimes called a 'honeycomb vault', used in ceilings throughout Persian architecture and called 'Muqarnas', the Palatine Chapel showcases this feature beautifully. The vaulting is solely ornamental but unique in adorning special interiors throughout arab-influenced areas, such as Morocco, Spain, Iraq and Egypt.

Scenes of Christ's life, along with prophets and saints adorn the dome's ceiling in glorious visions of embellished gold.

We made our way through narrow lanes to the Ballarò, one of Palermo's bright markets, which wasn't as easy to find as I thought. There wasn't a trail of tourists filing in and out of the side streets making their way to this 'attraction' which was, of course, in the end a great thing.

Under the tarp and awning-covered stands we found mostly locals buying colourful vegetables, fruit and much fish, like Sicilian favourites, swordfish or octopus.

The narrow streets are almost as colourful as the oranges, tomatoes and artichokes in the Ballarò. Laundry (which I love) hangs cavalierly over balconies and on washing lines from most apartments, alongside potted plants and neglected window shutters. Scan downwards towards street level and more colour greets you with bold graffiti adorning most surfaces.

That there is a host of activity taking place away from the naive eyes of tourists, akin to a seedy underbelly of the normal day-to-day life here in Sicily, is not difficult to imagine.

Located also in the heart of Palermo, just around the corner from the Quattro Canti, in Piazza Bellini lies the Church of San Cataldo. Also built in the 1100's under Norman rule, San Cataldo is a bit different than your typical European churches.

Church of San Cataldo
It is a pure homage to Norman-Arab architecture, without many of the opulent trimmings used to embellish places of worship at the time.

The San Cataldo invites you in and holds you once inside, with its naked walls, high arches and bulging domes. One can focus on the minutiae of life's circumstance (if one chooses to do so) without getting sidetracked by lavish gold altars or traumatic frescoes. Spending time in here feels like you've walked into a more primitive, feudal era...much more dangerous than just the Sicilian mafia.

Onwards to one of the oldest and most interesting of Palermo's churches, due to its host of various influences over the centuries, the Martorana.

Where the San Cataldo was naked, the Martorana is draped in gold and dressed in a wonderful blend of 12th century Byzantine mosaics and 18th century Baroque frescoes. Across the piazza from the San Cataldo (why each city needs so many churches is beyond me!) and built about 20 years earlier, the Martorana will steal a good bit of your time if you pay it a visit.

Between the 14th and 16 centuries, the Martorana was run by Benedictine nuns who took great care in modifying and enhancing large portions of the interiour. Rumours say that the church was then abandoned for a couple of hundred years, reopened and then adorned with sweeping pastel frescoes by Guglielmo Borremans.

The Greek cross design of the church highlights the Byzantine mozaics, along the likes of  Jesus bestowing the crown of Sicily upon the head of King Roger II or George of Antioch lying at the feet of the Virgin Mary.

While the later frescoes are said to have little artistic value, the Islamic influences on the culture of Norman Sicily, are impressively noticeable from the Martorana's early years. One such imposing element is the Christ Pantokrator, a traditional Greek image, which holds court in the Martorana's dome ceiling. Make sure to look up.

While meandering through the narrow side streets and across the palm-tree-lined piazzas, we stopped often to snap pics of dramatic doorways and fountains; harkening back to a time when a different type of godfather ruled Sicily, when the capo di tutti capi was named Roger or George, not Toto or Salvatore, but where allegiance was every bit as important. A lot has happened on these streets.

Palermo's fascinating history, its interesting blend of architectural influences, its many world heritage sites honouring the cultural impact these ruling factions had on Sicily, and its abundant culinary offerings, ensure that I will be back again. A road trip across this island is on my (now very long) list of things to do. I hope it's on yours won't disappoint, capiche?


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