We The Italians | Italian culture and history: Palermo

Italian culture and history: Palermo

Italian culture and history: Palermo

  • WTI Magazine #171 Jan 20, 2024
  • 796

First a Greek and Roman city, then a capital of the Arab world, and later conquered by both the Normans and the Swabians – this is Palermo, a place where preciosities left by the Arab and Norman rules coexist along with the Baroque and Art Nouveau styles of the buildings and monuments, the city streets and markets, gardens and theatres.

The influence of Palermo’s enormously multi-ethnic past is visible in its Cathedral, a majestic work begun in the 12th Century and rehashed a number of times. 

Founded on top of a preexisting basilica, the Cathedral was transformed into a mosque by the Moors, and subsequently returned to its Christian designation by the Normans. Now supporting a 17th-Century dome and featuring a Medieval bell tower, it is adorned with Gothic decorations, and holds the relics of Santa Rosalia, the city’s Patron Saint. The tombs of Emperors Roger II and Frederick II are also located here. 

Nearby, the Norman Palace stands: originally an Arab structure, it has always been the seat of power. It contains the Palatine Chapel, rich in Byzantine-inspired mosaics and, together with the Martorana – the Church of Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio – is a true and proper masterpiece.  

The elegant Martorana, with its high, arcaded bell tower, dates back to the Norman epoch; meanwhile, the monumental Pretoria fountain that inhabits the neighboring homonymous piazza is Baroque. 

The road that conducts to the Martorana Cathedral crosses Piazza Vigliena, also called the Quattro Canti or “Four Songs,” an intersection embellished by statues and fountains from the 17th Century.

On Piazza della Pretoria lies the 17th-Century Palace of the Municipio, with its splendid fountain from the 1500s, composed of 644 marble groups. It is in this district that the streets carry Italian, Arabic and Hebrew names. From here, moreover, one can move down toward the sea, passing by the Vuccirìa, the oldest and most-animated market in the entire city; it is located in Piazza San Domenico, home to the same-named Church, among the most interesting Baroque structures in Palermo. 

Another building that dates back to the Norman era is the deconsecrated Church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti, built on the foundations of an old Mosque, and boasting red domes done in the oriental style. 

In the city’s ancient center stands an imposing 14th-Century construction called the Steri (from the Latin hosterium, meaning fortified palace); once a prison and tribunal, today it is the seat of the university rectorate. Nearby are the Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli and Palazzo Abatellis, which houses the Regional Gallery, and its paintings and artworks ranging from the Middle Ages to the 1700s.

The more modern section of the city lies closer to the sea. From the neoclassical Teatro Massimo – a temple for opera-goers – visitors will catch a glimpse of the city’s other important theatre, the Politeama Garibaldi. Erected in the mid-1800s, this Theatre is in the Pompeiian style. Not to be left out, the Teatro dei Pupi (a marionette theatre) is just as characteristic, and puts on performances featuring Charles the Great and his paladins or courtiers. 

The street known as Via Libertà, covered by shady trees, carries into a district where 19th-Century and Art Nouveau architecture reign, with the symbolic and splendid square-grid streets that bustle with activity. The Botanical Garden, founded in 1789, is famous for its exemplary species from all over the world. 

Further away from the center is the Zisa (in, where else, Piazza Zisa) and the Cuba (Corso Calatafimi), both constructions in the oriental style, built during the reign of William II. 

Palermo’s surroundings are just as enchanting as the city itself. To begin with, Mondello Beach is beloved for its crystal-clear sea, but not only – Mondello also features a very particular type of food vendor not found everywhere: octopus vendors or polipar, who sell this delicious seafood to the delight of beach-goers. 

Food in Sicily is definitely done right, and Palermo is no exception; one instance is the markets at Vuccirìa and Ballarò, with panoplies of street food to satisfy the gamut of palates and preferences. Those less interested in gastronomy and more interested in antiquing, for example, should check out Palermo’s Papireto Quarter.