Palermo Day 1

Location: Palermo, Hotel Villa Igeia
Weather: light drizzle

The faces in Palermo are simply amazing. North Africans, Sub-Saharans, Italians, Indians, Sephardic Jews, Ashkenazic Jews. Some of the street signs here are in Italian, Arabic and Hebrew. Italians. Blonds, Brunets, a few redheads. Greek complexions, italian complexions, people that look like me. Nubian complexions. Swarthy folk who could be Gypsies or Copts. Nearly everyone is beautiful. There’s a sense that these folks know what they want in life, and that’s life.

Dad and I took a cab to the Cathedral, and then walked around a bit. We were both tired from the flights to Rome and thence to Palermo, and the 40-minute trip from the airport didn’t help. The airport is named for Falcone and Borsellino, the principal prosecutor and judge in the Mafia maxitrials of the late 80s and early 90s. As you drive into town, you pass a pair of red pylons that mark where Falcone and his bodyguards were blown up on the main highway. There’s a large iron sculpture at the foot of Palermo’s main street, too, where it meets the port, dedicated to the memory of all those who lost their lives fighting the Mafia. We drive past the prison where all the major mafiosi were imprisoned during the trials, too. The Mafia seems to be a persistent theme.

Anyway, the Cathedral. The outside is the work of the Normans, who conquered Sicily about a hundred years before the Conquest of England. There are several belltowers, remodeled during the baroque period, and an elaborately designed porch of three gothic arches. The Cathedral stands beside a broad piazza of marble slabs each the size of a coffee table.

Then walked up the street to the Norman Palace and the Palatine Chapel. The Sicilian Autonomous Parliament meets here now, in the room the Spanish Viceroy of Charles V and other kings used to meet and judge the natives. The walls were adorned in this hall with images of the labors of Hercules, painted by Velasquez.

The Palatine Chapel is totally different. It’s small, maybe the size of a half-basketball court wide, and half again as long. To a height of about six feet, the walls are white marble inlaid with arabesques and rich mosaic patterns. Above this marble, the walls are absolutely covered with mosaics of scenes from the life of Christ and events from the Old Testament, placed on a background of golden tiles. The back wall and the chancel were covered over for restoration work and for Lent, but they were supposedly images of the saints. It was like walking into a jewel box, and being overwhelmed by the dazzle.

Dad and I stopped for tea and cookies around 4pm. We both took naps, and then went down to check out the dining room around 7:30pm. The Italians eat late, and the Sicilians eat later. We wound up having a quick bite in the bar — dad had smoked salmon and I had dry-cured beef. The gassy mineral water is proving helpful both to my cough and dad’s.

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4 comments

  1. Deleted the earlier comment.

    Many churches in Italy are in fact ‘spoiled’ to my taste, because the medieval exterior has been kept, while the interior has been modified. The desires and wishes of bishops and priests in the 1500s and 1600s were to have Baroque and Rococco architecture, but they couldn’t afford to pull down the whole building. So they often modified the interiors, and covered over the medieval walls with tile, stucco, plaster and marble, to make the buildings conform to the new style. Palermo is no exception.

    The cathedral in Monreale, a little south of Palermo and up in the mountains, is different. It’s definitively a medieval cathedral, and it’s even a Byzantine/medieval cathedral, which is even cooler

    • Deleted the earlier comment.

      Many churches in Italy are in fact ‘spoiled’ to my taste, because the medieval exterior has been kept, while the interior has been modified. The desires and wishes of bishops and priests in the 1500s and 1600s were to have Baroque and Rococco architecture, but they couldn’t afford to pull down the whole building. So they often modified the interiors, and covered over the medieval walls with tile, stucco, plaster and marble, to make the buildings conform to the new style. Palermo is no exception.

      The cathedral in Monreale, a little south of Palermo and up in the mountains, is different. It’s definitively a medieval cathedral, and it’s even a Byzantine/medieval cathedral, which is even cooler

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