In Sicilia: Street Scenes, New Year’s Eve

20img_0270_edited-1New Year’s Eve was a day like any other, with one exception: we were in Palermo. We needed to get shopping in, so we walked to the Mercato Vucciria and bought chicken, vegetables, olives, salami, cheese, and wild strawberries. The market isn’t what it once was—affected, apparently, by the presence of a Carrefour Supermarket nearby—but we didn’t feel the lack. As our intention was utilitarian, I didn’t bring along my camera, so a link to Renato Guttuso’s “most famous palermitano painting” will have to do for now, along with this bit of back story:

In order to paint the food from life, it seems Guttuso had some ingredients shipped to him by air from Palermo and that he asked a local butcher to loan him a side of beef to be able to draw it and include it in the painting.

After lunch in our quarters at via Butera 28, we ventured out again. We had a goal in mind—more to come on that—though the streets themselves offered yet more proof, as Ashbery once wrote, “that the longest way is the most efficient way.”

02img_0123_edited-1Though the restoration and reconstruction of La Kalsa in Palermo is remarkable, given the damage it sustained in World War II, effects of the Allied bombing are still visible on the streets.

04img_0126_edited-1I wondered, too, about the Hotel Patria. Its crumbling edifice suggested grander times, and so it proved. As gleaned from reading through the veil of Google translate, the building, originally owned by Federico Abatellis, dates back to the 15th C. From 1891, until the building was partially destroyed by Allied bombing in WWII, it housed a well-known hotel. In 2000, the University of Palermo, its then-owner, began reconstruction of the building for use as a university residence. [citation]

According to a blog-news report in the fall of 2015, again through the veil of Google translate:

This morning, the students of the University Autonomous Collective held a meeting with the President of the Regional Entity for the Right to Education [ERSU] of Palermo, Alberto Firenzi, to return the keys of the Hotel Patria Occupado building in via Alloro 104, occupied and self-managed by the students in April 2013.

The Hotel Patria, owned by the University of Palermo . . . was renovated to become a university hostel, but as the result of structural problems and a series of legal disputes, the work had been blocked. The space was abandoned for about four years before the occupation of the students.

13img_0253_edited-1We had on our to-see list the 16th C Fontana Pretoria, which we figured we’d get to at some point, but then happened on by chance. All the guidebooks are happy to tell you that, because of its nude statues, it’s known as “the fountain of shame.” More to the point, I’m curious to know how the sculptor chose which among the statues to clothe.

Don Luigi de Toledo commissioned the fountain for his garden in Florence. In 1573, debts forced him (or it may have been his son) to sell, and the city of Palermo was the buyer. Transporting the fountain, with its 48 statues, was no easy matter. It had to be disassembled into 644 pieces, and several buildings were demolished to make room for it. The fountain depicts the “Twelve Olympians, other mythological figures, animals and the rivers of Palermo.” [citation]

11img_0250_edited-1Giorgio Vasari anointed the fountain “fonte stupendissima che non ha pari in Fiorenza nè forse in Italia.” In the 18th and 19th C, however, the fountain became a symbol of corruption in Palermo, and the square on which it stood was christened the “Piazza della Vergogna” (Square of Shame). [citation; more information is available in Italian here]

Chiesa di San Cataldo

Chiesa di San Cataldo

In our wanderings, we also (inevitably) passed churches, one of which, the 12th C Chiesa di San Cataldo, “provides a typical example of the Arab-Norman architecture, which is unique to Sicily.”

[T]he building shows how international the language of Norman architecture was at the time, as the vocabulary which marks parts of the church, like the bell tower, can be tracked down in coeval buildings like the cathedral of Laon and the Abbaye aux Dames in Caen, both in Northern France, or the cathedral of Durham in England. At the same time, the church shows features shared by Islamic and Byzantine architecture, such as the preference for cubic forms, the blind arches which articulate the external walls of the church and the typical spherical red domes on the roof. [citation]

During the period of Norman rule, Palermo is said to have flourished as “one of the great capitals of Europe and the Mediterranean.”  Sociologist Craig Considine recently wrote, “The tolerance that Norman Christians showed towards other faiths was unusual for the 12th century.”

One of the great stories coming out of Norman Sicily occurred under the rule of William II, Roger II’s grandson. Ibn Jubair, the geographer, traveler and poet from al-Andalus, visited the coast of Sicily after embarking on a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1184. Shipwrecked in the Straits of Messina off the Sicilian coast, Jubair and other Muslims were in danger of losing their lives to the wild sea. Local inhabitants of Messina heard their call of distress and immediately launched their boats to save them, however, as businessmen, they hoped to profit from the shipwreck by charging large fees to rescue the Muslim pilgrims. Faced with paying high fees, the Muslims could not afford the rescue effort and were ultimately faced with the possibility of dying at sea.

At this moment, Ibn Jubair reports, a man rode down to the shore on horseback and delivered an order to the Messinans – the Muslim pilgrims were to be saved and taken safely to land. Astonished by the turn of events, Ibn Jubair went to thank the man who rode on horseback and discovered that he was King William II. The Norman Christian king welcomed Ibn Jubair and his fellow Muslims and promised them protection in Sicily.

Jason Goodwin, however, in his review of Barry Unsworth’s book, The Ruby in Her Navelsounded a cautionary note:

For a time, at least, Sicily was the place where Christians from East and West could exist peaceably beside Jews and Muslims, despite inhabiting a world buffeted by religious schism and the martial spirit of the Crusades. Muslims, who were good at mathematics, did sums for the Sicilian treasury, and Greeks, who were born sailors, provided the kingdom with admirals. Byzantine artists decorated churches with iridescent mosaics while Norman knights learned to enjoy hot baths between battles.

It goes without saying that this experiment didn’t work out — and some of the reasons are explored in Barry Unsworth’s latest book . . . .

So now, of course, I want to read, on top of all else, everything there is to know about this period in Sicily. Perhaps I’ll start with Unsworth, then move on to this  as a “corrective”  to this.

23img_0285_edited-1On our walk home, we strolled to the harbor just as a huge flock of birds took flight. At a nearby church, a wedding was just letting out, and the paparazzi (including us) were there in force to snap photos of the bride and groom.

This is what happens when you wander the streets of Palermo. There’s simply no end to it—and, actually, no beginning, either. I knew nothing upon arrival; now I know too little and want to know more. As John Ashbery wrote in Just Walking Around, “The segments of the trip swing open like an orange./There is light in there and mystery and food.”

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Listening List

Ottorino Respighi, Ancient Airs and Dances No. 3

On Spotify, Ancient Airs and Dances, Nos. 1-3


1. Italiana
2. Arie di corte
3. Siciliana
4. Passacaglia

Ancient Airs and Dances is an orchestral transcription of music for the lute – an intimate guitar-like instrument with a gently whispering sound. Respighi recasts the tunes upon a
bold and vivid orchestral fabric. Rarely does he call for the entire orchestra to play
together, therefore maintaining much of the original setting’s intimacy.

“This work’s four movements are drawn from the works of four composers –Santino Garsi
da Parma (1542-1604), Jean-Baptiste Besard (ca.1567-after 1617), Count Ludovico
Roncalli (1654-1713), and an unknown fourth composer.”


Credits: The sources for quotations may be found at the links in the text. As always on the blog, the photographs, unless otherwise indicated, are mine.

10 thoughts on “In Sicilia: Street Scenes, New Year’s Eve

  1. George Mattingly

    Great! Thanks for this wonderful account, Sue.

    I don’t know where I’m going to file the several dozen things I learned from reading this (and following the citations!) but . . . somewhere.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      George: Rest assured you’re not the only one with that conundrum! I’ve just, finally, ordered up a couple things from the library. Time to bury my head in a novel or two for awhile, I think!

  2. shoreacres

    The Respighi is wonderful — quite nice morning music, I must say. And I chuckled at your reference to Ashbery’s orange. The three red domes atop the church could be replaced with three oranges in a collage, I think. But that’s not the only possibility. At first glance, they reminded me of nuclear reactors.

    All of the references to Messina brought Texas’s Messina Hof winery to mind. Could there be a connection? Yes, there could:

    “Founders of Messina Hof, Paul & Merrill Bonarrigo, married and settled in Bryan, Texas and together would re-introduce the concept of winemaking in Texas. The Bonarrigo family began making wine in the 1800s in Sicily. Paul & Merrill planted their first vineyard in 1977 and named it Messina Hof, after their family origins of Messina, Sicily and Hof, Germany. The Bonarrigos became pioneers of the Texas wine industry having established Messina Hof as the 4th winery in the state.”

    I’m rather fond of the fellow with his arms crossed, in front of the dome. But, as always, each of your photos is delightful.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      shoreacres: LOVE the Messina connection. I’m rather fond of that fellow, too, BTW. I haven’t been able to figure out who he is supposed to be, but I’m guessing on the 12 Olympians, though I’m at a loss as to which.

  3. hilarymb

    Hi Susan – wonderful read … and I’ve put the Unsworth book into my list … love the idea of setting out into an unknown of a town – the basic structure is there, but no knowledge of how it is filled … fascinating thought for a visit to a place of history … thanks and I loved the photos – cheers Hilary

  4. David N

    So familiar, and yet – because of the cloudscapes and the decorations – so other. My whole soul yearns for Palermo’s streets again. You’re right about there being no end to the wonders you see walking around – I remember a walk back to Via Butera where we also came across a wedding, a man with greens either side of his motorbike, someone singing a Sicilian song, kids playing a baffling game…

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: And yet, indeed. I seem to recall your own photos of a bride striding down the street somewhere–whether it was on your trip to Sicily, or somewhere else, I don’t recall. I love your recounting of all you saw on the streets. I can well imagine it. I look forward to a breathing space to get back to revisiting this trip. At the rate I’m going, however, I won’t finish revisiting Sicily before it’s time for another sojourn!

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