The regional capital and Sicily's largest city
On the north coast of Sicily, Palermo is set in the fertile valley of Conca d’Oro and surrounded by the surrounded by steep limestone mountain of Monte Pellegrino, with houses climbing up the hillsides.
The old city retains its medieval street plan with narrow streets and alley ways with gently mouldering Palazzi. The city was badly bombed in the Second World War and was a hot bed of organised crime (the Mafia) in the C20th. It is slow to recover from lack of investment.
The area has been settled for 3000 years and the different waves of settlers have all left their mark. It started as a Phoenician port coming under the control of Carthage and then the Romans. It was taken by the Arabs in 831AD. The city flourished, becoming a centre for Islamic culture with the Christian basilicas becoming mosques. The red domes now seen on many churches are typical of Arab architecture.
The Normans invaded in 1072 and Palermo became the capital of the Kingdom of Sicily and their seat of power. The Norman rulers encouraged the Arabs and other residents to remain and Sicily rapidly became one of the wealthiest states in Europe. It was famed for the wealth of its court and also its learning. The Palazzo dei Normanni, the Cappella Palatina and the Cathedral date from these times. Norman rule came to an end after the death of William II in 1189 and there was a long period of political struggles with the island passing through a series of different hands, eventually coming under Spanish control. Most of the buildings in the city date from a major rebuilding in the C16th and C17th. It has traditionally been a city of rich churches, endowed by the island’s ruling families and wealthy monastic orders.
The population declined during the C19th and Palermo lost its importance. it eventually became part of Italy in 1861 under Garibaldi. Palermo flourished for a while with the building of Art Nouveau villas round the old city.
Much of the harbour and surrounding area was heavily bombed by the Allies in 1943. Over 70 churches were destroyed and much of the medieval town was left in ruins. Money to rebuild has been slow to arrive and much was siphoned off by the Mafia or dubious business men. After a series of high profile assassinations in the 1990s the city authorities have taken action to ‘clean up’ the city. Many leading members of the Mafia have been arrested and contracts are no longer given to companies with links to organised crime. The city is slowly recovering and old buildings being renovated. Some of the old facades have been kept with modern buildings behind.
Palermo is a city to be explored on foot. Quattro Canti dates from the C17th reconstruction of the city and is the major road junction in the centre of the old city and surrounded by once splendid Baroque buildings. The statues on the buildings were commissioned in 1611 and depict the seasons, patron saints of the old town and Spanish Kings
The four main streets running off divide the city into quarters. Originally there was little contact between the quarters and the inhabitants had their own dialects, trades, and markets. A maze of narrow streets and alleyways run off these to make up the old town.
Close to Quattro Canti is the Piazza Pretoria with its Pretoria fountain. Dating from the C16th, this was originally made for the garden of a Florentine villa before being sold to the city of Palermo. It was reassembled in front of the City Hall. With its sixteen nude statues of nymphs, tritons and river gods, mermaids and satyrs, it has been nicknamed the Fountain of Shame.
We spent a morning in Palermo on an eight day trip to Sicily with Riveira Travel, which hardly gave me time to scratch the surface. Knowing that the Palazzo dei Normanni (now the seat of the Regional Government) and the Cappella Palatina with its beautiful gold mosaics tend to be busy with very long queues, I decided to give these a miss and concentrate of the cathedral
and some of the many churches scattered round the old city.
The CHURCH of LA MARTORANA (Santa Maria dell’ Ammiraglio), on Piazza Bellini is a stunning church and well worth the €3 entry. It was built as a Greek Orthodox church in the early C12th. It is one of the finest surviving medieval buildings in the city with the inside covered with stunning mosaics of the highest quality which glow golden in the light. In the C15th the church passed to an order of Benedictine Nuns who were responsible for adding the C16th Baroque frontage and removed many of the mosaics, replacing them with frescoes. The chancel area is pure Baroque with walls covered with white sculpted plaster. The tabernacle is resplendent with deep blue lapis luzuli inlay.
The CHURCH OF ST MARY OF GESU is one of the most important Baroque churches in Palermo. Tucked away in the network of narrow streets and alleyways between Via Vittorio Emanuele and Via Maqueda, it is well worth finding. It was the first church to be built in Sicily by the Jesuits and dates from the late C16th. The glorious C17th Baroque interior has been magnificently restored after bomb damage in the Second World War, which destroyed the dome, surrounding walls and the paintings in the chancel and transepts. Every surface of the inside is covered with marble, stucco reliefs and paintings.
The ORATORIO DEL ROSARIO DI SAN DOMINICO tucked away behind the larger (and rather uninspiring church of St Domenico) was founded at the end of the C16th by the Knights of Malta and is still maintained by them. The outside is very uninspiring but the inside contains some of the best Baroque work in Palermo. The white and gold painted walls are covered with stucco, paintings and statues of the Christian virtues modelled on fashionable society ladies. Don’t miss the van Dyke painting above the altar.
There are lots more pictures here.
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