Palermo and Catania – Sicily’s exciting cities of culture.

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. 

Frederick II (1194-1260)
In my ignorance, I know that Palermo was an interesting place but I hadn’t realized that during the reign of one of Europe’s most brilliant rulers, the Sicilian Holy Roman Emperor, King Frederick II (1194-1260) had centred his brilliantly inventive court here in his home country’s capital.  Frederick was known in his day as Stupor Mundi, the wonder of the World, and he was probably one of the very few European monarchs who actually ever had any brains.  He spoke six languages, including Arabic, the was a scientist, poet and intellectual and, because of his talents, he got up the nose of every other ruler of his day including a succession of Popes who just hated him. He fought quite a few battles too including the Crusades, well no one’s perfect,  and eventually, with some Arab support, was crowned King of Jerusalem.  Palermo in the 13th. Century was a bit like Renaissance Florence or Swinging London as it was the place that most of Europe’s artistic geniuses were drawn – including the Troubador poets from Provence and the great mathematician Leonardo Fibonacci who is one of my special interests as I am quite absorbed in the writing Fibonacci poetry at present. Petrarch and Dante, Italy’s great sonnet writing poets acknowledged Palermo at the time of Frederick as the veritable birth-place of Italian, and therefore in many ways, European poetry.


Four centuries later, Florence returned the favour by sending one of its sculptors,  not from the top drawer admittedly,  to build a fountain with a crowd of provocatively naked figures and putting it smack in the middle of the square in front of the grandly Baroque church of San Caterina, earning the Piazza Pretoria  the nickname  The Square of Shame.

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.

Talking about over-the-top, Palermo also has a fine opera house, my kind of church I guess but sadly I was unable to get a ticket.

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.

Bellini was born in Sicily’s second city, Catania, so as a personal pilgrimage, I was delighted to be able to spend some time there, just an afternoon in fact, mostly spent in the city’s extremely handsome main street under the beady eyes of a policeman.
Catania seems like a lively place – largely destroyed by one of volcano Etna’s most destructive eruptions in the 17th. century, it is now an elegant 18th/19th Century city with a dynamic university which gives the place a sense of being very in touch with the European 21st Century. Unfortunatley I did not have enough time to dig deeper so I concentrated on Signor Bellini.

Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835)

It felt quite strange walking round the city and finding Bellini everywhere – well Opera was born in Italy so I shouldn’t be surprized by its omnipresence here. The main public park, for instance is called the Villa Bellini and it was extensively restored as part of the Bellini bicentenary “celebrations” in 2001 – an anniversary generally ignored in Britain.

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.

Bellini’s birthplace is now a Bellini museum but I didn’t have enough time to go inside… time I hope…..

…. 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.

One comment

  1. Nice photos – shame that the text is in such a God-awful font.

    I love the blue of those blue skies. We rarely manage anything like that sahde here.

    Italian opera in Italy would be great. Lucia is not my favourite, but I'm sure I'd survive. Unlike most of the heroines.

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