In the middle of Palermo, the crossroads known as Quattro Canti divides this magnificent city into four historic quarters and, as I didn’t have long here, just one day, I used these four streets to walk around the major attractions which, luckily, cluster in this the oldest part of the city. At Quattro Canti, all the people of Palermo seem to be walking by so I almost decided just to stay there and let Palermo come to me whether by car, scooter, bicycle or horse.
I really fancied trying one of those Vespas – the bright red one, I think.
I have spent my Summer holidays on the wonderfully diverse island of Sicily this year mostly staying in the lovely little town of Cefalù on the North coast (see Monday’s blog) and I was in many ways happy just to remain there and, as they say, chill out. There is too much going on in Sicily though for me to have done that and, eventually I felt the urge to pay fleeting visits to Sicily’s two principal cities, Palermo, the capital and Catania, the second city. Palermo, once the most important city in Europe, is now a bustling mix of all the cultures that make up Sicily’s rich heritage.
Nowadays we find the Baroque churches more shocking than the naked figures – well at least I do. Just look at the sensational Spanish Baroque decorations inside San Giovanni degli Eremiti. Amazing and voluptuous beyond anything you would see in London’s Soho…..
…but then even Palermo’s Christian statue shops have an over-the-top quality unknown in Cheltenham High Street so I shouldn’t be too surprized.
It was worth the visit though to see that at least in some countries, Opera still manages to remain centre stage.
I loved the poster for Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor which could have been an advert for the local cinema. I suspect this early 19th. Century Romantic opera with its gory excesses of passion is a good fit here in Palermo.
As a longterm lover of Italian opera, I often find it difficult whenever I am in Italy not to think that I was on the set of one or other opera.
Impressive too were the pleasantly decaying Spanish era palaces that line the main streets. Not difficult here to imagine some dark or melodramatic crimes of passion.
Famously, during the 1960s, Palermo, with European money sifted through the canny hands of the local Mafia, built miles of modern blocks of flats around the outskirts of town whilst allowing much of the centre to fall into seedy, and to my eyes, beautiful decline. there were signs now though that these evocative buildings are being given a bit of tender loving care.
As for me though, I was more than happy to walk down streets that have had centuries of drama both to celebrate, regret and to mourn. In the Sicilian sunshine, it was impossible not to remember all those stories from books, from the movies and of course, from the opera house.
Palermo wears its decaying bits with real style….
…. and it wasn’t long before I was drawn into its web especially when visiting the street markets and then taking some side street which could have been a set for a film by Rossellini or Fellini.
I wondered about my safety before coming to Palermo or at the very least whether my camera would survive the journey through some of its back streets. Maybe it was my naivity but whereever I went, I never felt any danger and, in fact, as far as I could see, Palermo is a very orderly place. Well, let’s be honest, I am talking about the Mafia here. Once no one would even say the word but now Sicilians go out of their way to say that the bad old days are over. Well, over might be an exaggeration. Things have changed but I couldn’t help wondering if a velvet Mafia glove hid behind that sense of politeness and order that I experienced all round town. Tourists, after-all, are the new gold here in Southern Europe and businessmen know that you shouldn’t damage your merchandise. Somebody told me that the “Black Mafia” is history and now was the time for the “White Mafia” – we, in Britain, just know it as corporate corruption.
Palermo has certainly done its best to put its Mafia past behind it and to say so in as public a way as it can.
This massive and somehow appropriately rusting sculpture towers over the seafront – it is the memorial to all those who died at the hands of the Sicilian Mafia…..I suspect we will never know the final total. All I can do is hope that all those remaining Mafiosi kept, securely I trust, behind lock and key, here in Palermo, will never again bring such suffering to so many people.
Whoever I spoke to here in Sicily, eventually got round to mentioning those two heroic Sicilian magistrates, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino who, in two separate incidents, were assassinated by the Mafia in 1992.
They died because they spoke out and used their authority to try and bring Mafia control of Sicily to an end. In many ways they succeeded – it was a crime that Sicilians haven’t forgiven and it led to all those Mafia trials that seem to have ended Sicily’s darkest era.
The police seemed relaxed enough these days so I was too as I continued my journey hoping that the bad old days were truly over.
So I went to look at Palermo’s second theatre, the Teatro Bellini, named after Sicily’s greatest musician, and one of my favourites, the early 19th. Century opera composer, Vincenzo Bellini (1801 – 1835). I have been a fan since my teens. It was always a minority interest here in England so I felt an extra warmth seeing Bellini’s name not just on theatres but on restaurants, pizzerias and bed and breakfast establishments too. It gave me a strange sense of belonging.
How appropriate, I thought, that the man who wrote about the beauty and power of love should have this beautiful place as his memorial.
Appropriate too that the Villa Bellini has remained the ideal place for romantic liaisons.
…. but it was great to see this gigantic statue in his honour right in the middle of town. Bellini sits on his pedestal with some of his best known operatic characters at his feet – Arturo from I Puritani is on the left and, in the centre, in a suitably dramatic pose, is his greatest creation, the tragic, love-lorn Druid priestess, Norma presiding over this exciting city.
So let Arturo come down from his statue in the guise of the sensational young tenor Juan Diego Flores singing Bellini’s great aria, Credeasi Misera from his last opera I Puritani with its perfect balance of words and musical phrase and including a thrilling top F – something no other tenor can achieve these days. As you will guess, things are going through a rough patch for Arturo and his love Elvira. The opera was a great success but its composer was taken ill during rehearsals and died, aged only 34, becoming himself one of opera’s own personal tragedies. This aria was arranged as a quartet for Europe’s current four greatest singers who sang it as a Lachrymosa from the Requiem Mass at his Paris funeral. Listening to it again, I do really believe that you can hear Sicily in these passionate and gloriously lyrical phrases. Come back tomorrow when I round up my experiences in Sicily.