An Introduction to the City
There is no better place in the world to experience as a summer destination in July and August of this year. Selected as the Italian Capital of Culture 2018, Palermo is living a bona fide renaissance in every aspect of its city life. It will captivate your heart, eyes, palate, and imagination.
Read on and get ready for your trip: Palermo Ballet Summer Intensive staff will recommend essential books to read, relevant movies to watch, magical places to see, and exotic foods to try.
Recommended reading: Palermo by Roberto Alajmo
Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Purchase on Amazon.com
Written by a life-long resident of the city, this captivating and lovingly ironic book (in its original Italian titled Palermo è una cipolla / Palermo Is an Onion) offers much more than the usual run-of-the-mill recommendations. The author peels away Palermo’s many layers to reveal a multitude of the city’s faces and its ever-surprising character traits. Explaining how the city works and how its inhabitants reason, Alajmo shares stories of local saints and noblemen, their palaces and gardens, city piazzas and bottlenecks, and intriguing street foods, beloved by locals and visitors alike. A perfect pre- or post-visit read.
Palermo’s magnificent Cathedral astonishes visitors with a unique mixture of diverse architectural styles: Arab, Norman, Bizantyne, Swabian, Catalonian Gothic, Romanesque, Renaissance, Baroque. It is considered the world’s most eclectic sample of ecclesiastical architecture.
First, get your morning croissant at Antico Caffè Spinnato, around the corner from the Politeama Theater. Don’t forget to ask for their extra-special marmellata di mandarino tardivo. It comes in small jars and medium-size jars, is sold at the store next to the caffè, and makes an excellent souvenir for your foodie friends back at home.
Then, join us on a private tour of Cappella Palatina with the most exclusive and knowledgeable city guide. PBSI staff will be making the arrangements closer to our July departure for Sicily. Let us know if you’re interested: these very special private tours will be available for a small number of people only.
Located at the intersection of the Cassaro (officially Corso Vittorio Emanuele) and the high shopping street Via Maqueda, the Quattro Canti (officially Piazza Vigliena) is the traditional center of Palermo, the crossroad marking the heart of Palermo's old historic district. Each of the square’s four buildings has three of its façade levels decorated with Baroque sculptures. The fountains illustrate the Four Seasons, the four Spanish kings reside in the middle section, while the patron saints of Palermo's four old quarters—Santa Oliva, Santa Agata, Santa Cristina, and Santa Ninfa—keep an eye on the city from the top tier. (The Quattro Canti was built before Santa Rosalia, today the main patron of the city, affectionately named La Santuzza, has performed a miracle thus saving Palermo and its inhabitants from the devastating Black Plague.) At the time of its construction the Quattro Canti square was considered one of the most spectacular examples of city planning in Europe.
Many of Palermo's famous monuments and architectural gems, like the Martorana and San Cataldo (both World Heritage Sites), as well as Piazza and Fontana Pretoria, are located within a short walk of Quattro Canti.
The Arab-Norman Palermo itinerary includes a series of eight civil and religious structures dating from the era of the Norman kingdom of Sicily (1130–1194): two palaces, three churches, a cathedral, a bridge, as well as the Cathedral of Monreale. Collectively, they represent an example of a social-cultural syncretism between Western, Islamic, and Byzantine cultures on the island of Sicily, which gave rise to the new concepts of space, structure, and decoration. They also bear testimony to the fruitful coexistence of people of different origins and religions: Muslim, Byzantine, Latin, Jewish, Lombard, and French.
Right across the square from la Martorana and San Cataldo is situated a church dedicated to the Santa Caterina of Alessandria, which presents the Sicilian Baroque at its most exuberant.
Behind a somber façade hides the interior of rare, extravagant beauty, with its twisted Rococo columns of strawberry-and-cream-colored marble at the entrance, chiseled polychrome marble inlays, impressive silver angels at the altar, and an elegant statue of Saint Catherine placed in a magnificent side altar.
In February 2017, after the last few nuns left, the convent opened its doors for visitors to come in and see what it was like, living as a nun. The convent and its enormous cupola were built between 1310 and 1329. One can now stroll along the dark, silent corridors, visit the nuns’ cells, see their beds and the tiny opening that served for receiving provisions from the outside world as well as sending out into the world whatever was produced inside the convent. (The nuns never left the premises and were never seen by anyone visiting the convent.)
Thanks to the many political and social intrigues it was implicated in throughout the centuries the convent prospered financially. In addition, the nuns used to producing and selling medicine, cosmetics prepared with roses from the convent’s garden, and to the vigorous production of dessert delicacies immortalized in Sicilian literature as “virgins’ breasts” and “the triumphs of taste.”
A famous local chef Peppe Giuffré and his son Luigi plan on reproducing the nuns’ famed desserts according to the antique recipes received from the nuns. We are told the desserts should be sold in a simple cafeteria-like space to be open inside the walls of this ex-convent.
Another spectacular Baroque church the locals call la Casa Professa is located a short walk away.
The construction of the Jesuit Casa Professa began in 1590 and wasn’t finished until 1636. Its extensive restauration was completed in 2009.
As he was driving away, tall metal gates closing behind him, the local Jesuit priest recommended us to come back the following day: the best time to visit the church interior, he explained, would be from 11 am to 1 pm, when the elaborate stone inlays bask in the glorious late morning sun.
Don’t miss the must-see contemporary art exhibition of the Palermitan season: Manifesta 12
Learn more about Manifesta, the traveling European Biennial of Contemporary Art
Book recommendation: Anthology, the photos of Letizia Battaglia
Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Available on Amazon.com
Letizia Battaglia is a Sicilian photographer and photojournalist. Although her photos document a wide spectrum of Sicilian life, she is best known for her work on the Mafia. Born in Palermo in 1935 and married at 16, Battaglia took up photojournalism after her divorce in 1971 while raising three daughters. The Anthology, curated by the visionary Paolo Falcone of Fondazione Sambuca, celebrates Battaglia’s extraordinary photographic work, from 1971 to 2016. Letizia Battaglia has produced many of the iconic images that have come to represent Sicily and the Mafia throughout the world.
Some say that La Kalsa is Palermo’s most bohemian and most genuine neighborhood. Its feel is somewhat similar to New York’s East Village: some of La Kalsa’s narrow streets have been recently restored and gentrified, others definitely take you back to the East Village of the 1970s. In warmer weather the nicer, cleaner corners of La Kalsa fill up with street cafes, the local bars buzz with life and laughter. It is definitely a place to hang out after dinner, possibly taking a stroll down to the marina, to check out a massive ancient ficus tree: the locals insist on it being the tallest and the most impressive of all Europe.
Since most of us be staying in Via Butera, La Marina neighborhood, and La Kalsa, PBSI plans to dedicate a separate newsletter to the two neighborhoods’ fascinating history and architecture. That of La Kalsa is routed in Arab’s invasion. Centuries later, in 1944, it was heavily bombarded by the Allies (to this day La Kalsa hasn’t quite recovered from that devastating operation). There is so much to see in these neighborhoods: Lo Spasimo, Palazzo Abatellis, the Sicilian Marionette Museum (particularly fascinating for children), Foro Italico, Villa Giulia, and many other neighborhood landmarks.
Recommended coffee-table photography book: Sua altezza Palermo (Palermo, Your Highness) by Pucci Scaffidi
Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Available on Italian bookstore websites like IBS.it
A play on words for the title of this beautiful book by the renown Palermitan photographer Pucci Scaffidi. All photographs in it were shot from above and show the city’s walls, squares, gardens and seaside promenades in all their of regal beauty and fascinating air of mystery, at times exacerbated by the obvious state of ruin. With its 240 pages and 115 images, both in color and in black-and-white, this is a perfect book to remember the city by.
No visit to Palermo is complete without experiencing at least one of its picturesque outdoor markets. Il Capo and the Ballarò are the two food markets still packed with exotic produce and people knee-deep in fish heads and squashed vegetables. These markets don’t just sell fish, meat, and types of fruit and vegetables you have never seen before, but also spices and herbs, Sicilian chocolate from Modica, jars of fancy pasta sauces, and other wonders for the palate. The stalls with local delicacies at Il Capo are concentrated in the section on Via Volturno. You’ll need to go in the morning, as Il Capo is closed and packed up by half past noon.
La Vucciria is the oldest of the city markets. Founded over 1,000 years ago by the invaders from North Africa, is has become legendary. Vucciria translates from Sicilian as a madhouse or bedlam. Sicilians also say “when the cobblestones of the Vucciria will dry up,” meaning, not in this lifetime or in the unforeseeable future. In the olden days La Vucciria ran day and night, with its pavement full of squishy garbage, buckets of water being thrown down by stallholders to clean it up a bit. Today’s Vucciria is not the same, notes a touching study in The NY Times, well worth reading in full. “After 700 years, it is fading.” And yet it is still “a place where old men selling olives suddenly start singing their favorite arias.” And the street lights painted by Guttuso still hang above the narrow passages.
The painting is an explosion of colors and an assault on the senses: large crates of produce contain fennel, celery, Guttoso’s beloved red peppers (he once painted some live on a popular Italian TV program), eggs, red wild Sicilian prawns. There’s a cheese stall with a large mortadella cold cut next to it. To paint the typical foods of the city, Guttuso had crates of it flown to him from Palermo. (And he asked a local butcher in Norther Italy, where he lived and worked at the time, to loan him a beef carcass to paint.)
And if we look closer, we notice a deeper storyline: Guttuso explained that the vertical line occupied by the market shoppers represent the line of life, of vitality. The horizontal line is more difficult to identify — notice the menacing stance of the fishmonger, whose grip on the pointy swordfish is matched by the butcher’s equally intense glare across the market’s passage. The butcher’s knife is not visible, leaving only his threatening glare intact. This line represents death. In February 2015, Teatro Massimo opened its symphony season with a unique production called Il quadro nero (A Black Painting). Directed by Roberto Andò, it was a multimedia work of film and symphonic scored composed by Marco Betta and incorporated a short story written by the reknown Sicilian writer Andrea Camilleri.
To the Italian speakers we highly recommend a beautiful book of Andrea Camilleri’s short story La Vucciria, in a special edition tied to Renato Guttuso’s painting
Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Sold on Amazon.it
Or you could explore many of Andrea Camilleri’s books in English translation, including The Revolution of the Moon, set in 17th century Sicily. It is an account of an “exceptional woman who rises to power and brings about sweeping changes that threaten the iron-fisted patriarchy, before being cast out in a coup after only 27 days.”
Donated by Renato Guttuso to the University of Palermo, the Vucciria hangs in Sala dei Baroni of the Palazzo Chiaramonte-Steri, which at various times in history served as the residence of the Spanish Viceroy, a storage wearhouse, a state office. At other times it housed a pottery factory ran by the Moors and, centuries later, the headquarters of the Spanish Inquisition. Today it houses the Rectorate of the University of Palermo as well as the Inquisition Museum. Make sure you think your itenerary through: the Spanish Inquisition prison cells first, followed by a good look at Guttuso’s painting; it’s more life-affirming in that order.
Arancine, one of Palermo’s favorite street foods, were invented in the 10th century, under the Kalbid (Arab) rule of Sicily and are similar to the Middle-Eastern foods of the same period. Their Italian name comes from the word arancia (orange), since they somewhat resemble oranges in color. Inside, the arancina rice is flavored and colored with saffron. Interestingly, both rice and the oranges were introduced to Sicily during the Arab rule.
Palermo is Sicily’s gutsy street-food capital. You will see truck drivers breakfasting on panini (sliders) with fried spleen (yes, really) topped with some grated local caciocavallo cheese, you’ll see deep-fried rice balls with so many kinds of stuffing you won’t know which one to order, and just when you think you are done, you’ll stumble upon artisanal ice-cream bulging out of the side of an enourmous brioche bun. The good news is, La Brioscià offers a gluten-free option as well.
In this newsletter we tried to cover arancine, cannoli, cassata, and mandarino tardivo. The next one will be attempting to explaine pannelle, sfincione (pronounced sphin-cho-nay), caponata, and granita. But if you’re still wondering about the spleen sliders (pani cà meusa, in local dialect), you should know that they are definitely on the list of Palermo’s comfort foods. If you dare to try it (it’s actually delicious, if you’re a game meat aficionado), we suggest the appropriately-named Pani cà Meusa Porta Carbone in Via Calo 62. It is a local institution and pane con la milza (spleen sliders, in Italian) is their speciality.
Mondello is more or less the suburb of the city. This long curved beach of soft pale sand is ideal for family time with small toddlers and teenagers. It boasts a generally a busy, lively atmosphere, civilized and good-spirited (alcohol doesn't play much part in beach society here). There are pedal-boats for hire, life-guards keeping an eye on the water, pedlars weaving up and down the beach with jewellery, sarongs, foods, and cold drinks.
The stalls along the street — from permanent kitchens to old men frying food on the back of little ape (bee) trucks — are good for cheap snacks on the go, selling seafood and local street food: arancini, panelle (chick-pea fritters), deep fried vegetables, and pastries. It's worth wandering up as far as the harbour, where small fishing boats bob up and down and old men fish from the jetty.
The majestic Palazzo Butera was the first to be announced as a venue of Manifesta 12, the contemporary art happening of the season we have already recommended. (The details of the biennial program featured in the palace should be revealed by the organizers soon and we will keep you posted.)
From the 19th century onward, the palace had undergone various internal and external transformations and extensions initiated by various principles. In the 20th century, it has lost its private residence status and went through profound changes, especially on the second floor. In 2015, Palazzo Butera was purchased by contemporary art dealers Massimo and Francesca Valsecchi, who began a complete restoration of the site.
Recommended reading: The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa
Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Purchase on Amazon.com
You should read The Leopard before going to Sicily. But then again, you will have to revisit the book immediately upon your return: after experiencing Palermo and Sicilians first hand, much of Prince of Salina’s quiet philosophizing will start making sense in a much deeper way, and the book open up to you in all of its clever, dignified, aristocratic glory. Comparable to Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Tomasi di Lampedusa’s novel doesn’t just capture the essence of the place in a special time in history; more importantly, it captures a number of profound truths much of which have remained unchanged, making the novel even more relevant today than when it was first published.
PBSI will be arranging a private tour of the Palazzo Lanza Tomasi, and you will get a unique chance to meet the author’s adoptive son Gioacchino Lanza Tomasi, the author of many fascinating books and scholarly publications, the former Artistic Director of Palermo’s Teatro Massimo, Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, Teatro Comunale di Bologna, and a former Director of Istituto Italiano di Cultura in NYC. His gracious wife Nicoletta Polo Lanza Tomasi, the Duchess of Palma and a Venetian transplant to Palermo, will be our host at Via Butera 28.
Recommended viewing: The Leopard (1963), directed by Luchino Visconti and starring Burt Lancaster, Claudia Cardinale, and Alain Delon
Watch the masterpiece of Italian literature come to life on screen. Treat yourself to the new Criterion Collection release and enjoy the 3-hour long [English-subtitled] original Italian version, plus a treasure trove of interviews with Claudia Cardinale, filmmaker Sydney Pollack, and many others in an hour-long documentary A Dying Breed: The Making of The Leopard. A fun fact: much of the expensive 35 mm restoration of this 1963 Cannes Palme d’Or winner was sponsored by Gucci.
The remarkable ball scene, which takes up about one-third of the film's length and involves some 200 extras in 14 interconnected rooms, was filmed at the lavish Palazzo Valguarnera Gangi. The beauty of the halls and the ballroom is simply dazzling. This is Sicilian Baroque at its most resplendent and the movie scene was called “one of the most famous set pieces in cinema history.” PBSI staff will be arranging a private visit to Palazzo Gangi. Let us know if you’d like to join us.
“The Hall of Mirrors is a vast room in an enchanting, yet slightly bizarre Rococo style: a masterpiece of Baroque design with golden fittings and doors entirely painted, like Pompadour skirts and bodices, with fresh flowers. The vaulted ceiling, decorated with rocailles and mythological frescoes, continues the themes of the tiled flooring — pictorial allegories which recount the toils and the apotheosis of Hercules — in the warm colours of an Oriental rug. The ceiling is hung, like a forest of stalactites, with splendid Murano chandeliers, the like of which I have never seen before,” wrote French author and historian Louis Bertrand.
The foundations of Palazzo Gangi date back to the mid 15th century, however the "grande maison" was transformed into a Palace only between 1749 and 1759 when the Prince and Princess of Gangi, Pietro e Marianna Valguarnera, commissioned the most famous artists of the day to create an atmosphere of great splendour and elegance.
Here, in 1882, guest Richard Wagner composed the first bars of Parsifal and wrote in his farewell letter to his hosts, “I shall not think of leaving Sicily, dear Prince, until I have thanked and ensured you that I shall take with me the most precious memory of your kindness and of Palazzo Gangi”.
Historian Clifford Wright describes cassata as “a lavish cake from Sicily… a liqueur-soaked sponge cake [pan di Spagna in Italian] interspersed with sweetened ricotta cheese.” Making cassata is a multi-day affair, and between the labor-intensive ricotta, almonds for the marzipan, fondant, and candied fruit, it’s a rather expensive and a very sweet cake.
Some say the cake’s name comes from the Arabic word for a wide circular pan with sloping sides, qas’at — the type of dish this dessert is traditionally made in. Others disagree, insisting the word cassata has its roots in the Latin word for cheese, caseus. The quality of ricotta cheese is, of course, paramount for your cassata’s success.
One thing everyone does agree on is that Easter is cassata’s grand moment. Documents show the cake was made by both nuns for Easter and Sicilian Jews for Purim; they called it cassati. When the Arabs occupied Sicily (in the 9th and 10th century) they brought their sugar-making traditions and merged them with the pastry-making that was happening in convents. According to Wright, “cassata was so delicious and seductive that as late as 1574, the Diocese of Mazara del Vallo had to prohibit its making at the monastery during the Holy Week because the nuns preferred to bake and eat it than pray.”
Other historians are convinced that Cassata Siciliana is an invention of a pastry chef in Palermo in the 1870s who had made an excessive amount of candied fruit and used it to decorate a ricotta cake. Whatever you choose to believe in the end, it’s best not call cassata a cake: cassata is in the category of its own, a truly unique Sicilian dessert.
As the local, rather dark legend goes, there was a beautiful young maiden with silky black hair and eyes the color of the sea of Palermo. She lived in La Kalsa, which at the time of the Arab rule of Sicily was a separate small citadel. The maiden spent her days cultivating and caring for the plants of her balcony, which served as a glimpse of freedom young women couldn’t go out alone. One day, a wealthy young Moor merchant noticed the girl and immediately declared his love for her. She fell for him too, and a secret affair ensued. Dishonored and stripped of her virtue, the young maiden soon learned il moro (the Moor) was about to return to his country where his wife and children waited for him. Blinded by rage and heartache, the girl waited until nightfall for him to fall asleep. Then she decapitated her beloved with a kitchen knife, so he could never leave her again. The morning after, trying to hide the head, she turned it into a flower pot, filling it with basil plants, and displayed it on her balcony. The “pot” grew lush, so as to arouse the envy of the local residents who went to the potters and immediately ordered similar ornamental vessels.
And so, in addition to their architecture, sugar, rice, and oranges, the Arabs also brought to Sicily the secrets of pottery.
Browse Italian Vogue’s slide show of Dolce & Gabbana’s Alta Moda fashion show at Fontana Pretoria
“The French, Spanish, and Arabic decorative legacy of this much conquered island was reflected in prints on silk crepe and embroidered twists on heavier gazars. A full red silk skirt came patterned with embroidered Sicilian hotel stickers that early 20th century socialites might have affixed to their trunks, and embroidered paper labels from which they might have unwrapped their breakfast fruit. […] Some looks were accessorized with jewel-encrusted shopping baskets full of bread, herbs, and oranges,” wrote Luke Leitch of the American Vogue.
“The closing four looks were hugely head-pieced ultra-skirted ensembles inspired by the painted wagons, carretto, that are at the center of Sicilian municipal celebrations.”
The Carretto Siciliano (in Sicilian carrettu sicilianu) is a colorful and lavishly decorated horse-drawn cart. These light, two-wheeled carts are covered in elaborate carvings and hand-painted in bright colors, with scenes representing Sicilian folklore and diverse history. You’ll be able to see some of these carts in Palermo.
At the beginning of this newsletter we spoke about the city’s current renaissance. This is the year of many new cultural initiatives in the city and Palermo Ballet Summer Intensive is proud to be one of them.
Palermo, we are here to stay!
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In the next year’s newsletter we are hoping to cover Palermo’s theaters, Teatro Massimo and Politeama Garibaldi, the Cassaro, La Kalsa, La Zisa, La Cuba, the Cathedral of Monreale and the villas of Bagheria (Baarìa).
all photos property of PBSI or used by permission