G0 SICILY:Palermo is city of heady contradictions, writes
DEIRDRE McQUILLAN,who explored the old and the grand, along with the seamy side and vibrant new areas, and found herself in the company of a Duchess
FOR ANYONE going to Palermo for the first time, required reading is Guiseppe di Lampedusa’s masterpiece The Leopard describing a vanishing Sicilian culture, later immortalised on screen by Visconti in his 1963 movie with Claudia Cardinale and Burt Lancaster. In Peter Robb’s compelling Midnight in Sicily, the Australian writer describes it as less of a novel than “a great Baroque meditation on death”. Little did I realise that within hours of arriving in Palermo I would end up in the great writer’s 18th century palazzo meeting his adopted son Gioacchino Lanza Tomasi and his wife Nicoletta Polo, the Duchess of Palma.
Their address on Via Butera, where the old aristocracy had their vast mansions overlooking the bay of Palermo, is one of the best in the old city. Lampedusa spent his last years here after the family estate (on which Donnafugata in the novel is based) had been bombed by the Americans. Gioacchino, who served as the model for Tancredi, the dashing young hero of the book, had a successful career managing opera houses and was director of the Italian Cultural Institute in New York for five years. Now retired, he and his wife have restored the whole palazzo, part of which houses a dozen apartments which can be rented.
The duchess, a lively and dynamic Venetian, is an accomplished cook and runs private classes, ( cookingwiththeduchess.com). Having insisted that I try her gelo di melone (a delicious jelly made from watermelon and decorated with jasmine flowers and chocolate chips), she showed me around the vast rooms of the palazzo whose furnishings, pictures and extensive library were rescued from the destroyed Lampedusa palace. As an introduction to Palermo, such an encounter could hardly have been bettered.
Ringed by mountains that encircle it like fangs, Palermo is a city of heady contradictions: terribly old, terribly grand and terribly disorderly.
“Nothing is normal here. Normality is an exception,” a local businessman told me. Squalor and magnificence exist side by side. There is rubbish everywhere, piled high, seeping and stinking, alongside some of the most astonishing and beautiful buildings imaginable.
There is a kind of unpredictability to this city, formerly one of the greatest in Europe, which was racked by Mafia wars and assassinations in the 1990s, but is now undergoing something of a renaissance, largely due to the heroic efforts of Leoluca Orlando, mayor of the city in 2009 and re-elected in July.
If political achievement can be expressed visually, one of the city’s proudest renovations and a symbol of the fight back, is that of Lo Spasimo in former Mafia run territory near the port. Built as a church in 1506 by the Olivetan monks, it became in turn a theatre, a poorhouse, and was eventually left to rack and ruin. Work on its restoration began in 1988 and was completed in 1995. It is now a vibrant arts centre.
The Foro Italico, an area along the sea front, is another success story. Once rife with prostitution and drug dealing, it has been cleared and landscaped, and is now a lovely promenade and garden, a place of art and sea views, popular by day and night.