«The Principessa will be here in a moment,” the butler said. He handed me a glass of mineral water on a silver salver. I sipped. I waited. A streak of Sicilian sun, breaking through closed shutters, cut across a floor the size of a tennis court. Two suits of armour, flanking the vast fireplace, eyed me suspiciously. Somewhere a clock ticked, echoing through the cavernous rooms of the Palazzo Alliata di Pietratagliata.
Palermo has palaces the way Venice has canals. Round every corner, looming over every street, perched in every piazza, these grandiose ghosts haunt the city. Some have become shabby tenements, their courtyards crammed with old cars, their balconies draped with laundry. Some are ruins, their palatial ballrooms open to Mediterranean skies.
Palazzo Alliata di Pietratagliata
But many are intact, still irresistibly grand, wildly baroque, outrageously extravagant, and home to families that make the Windsors seem like rogue upstarts. This is the world of Lampedusa’s The Leopard, the great Sicilian novel that features a fading, title-laden aristocracy. In an attempt to cope with the modern age, many of Palermo’s aristocrats have opened their palaces to visitors and guests. I decided to explore this world of opulence and fogged mirrors. The Principessa Signoretta Alliata Licata di Baucina was my first call.
Palaces, of course, are not most people’s idea of Palermo. Many associate the city with grime and crime, a charming ruffian with a tendency to bag-snatching. The Mafia, of course, casts a shadow over Palermo, though it is not a shadow you will encounter as a visitor, unless you are planning to offload a couple of tonnes of cocaine. And as crime bosses frown on street crime, people say you are more likely to have your bag snatched in Florence than in Palermo.
As for the grime, it is the kind of grime that people pay to see. Like everything else in Palermo, the grime is baroque, extravagant, a thing of picturesque magnificence. But the truth is Palermo’s grime is in decline, to the dismay of long-time visitors who loved the city as their bit of rough. Like anywhere else with gorgeous buildings and low rents, Palermo is in the throes of gentrification. Stylish new restaurants and renovated Belle Epoque cafés are channelling the glories of Sicilian cuisine; contemporary art galleries and ateliers are showing local and international work; and spare palaces are finding a new life as museums and five-star hotels.
Exploring the streets of Palermo CREDIT: JAMES BEDFORD
At the Palazzo Alliata di Pietratagliata, the princess’s arrival was heralded by a sausage dog. The princess, a woman in her 50s, clapped her hands girlishly. “Welcome, welcome,” she cried. “I want to tell you everything. Let me show you the palace.” There followed a whirl of 18th-century frescoes, dining tables that could seat 60, inlaid cabinets whose doors folded back to create small chapels, museum-quality paintings, chandeliers the size of small yachts, and a framed family tree that traced counts and dukes, popes and princes back to the decades before Columbus got lost on his way to China.
Later, over tea, the princess laughed about the way the secrets of Palermo’s palaces were so quickly the gossip of the street. “My father used to say a palace has walls as thin as wet paper.” Then she confided the Sicilian dilemma. “Really, we Sicilians are Middle Eastern.” She shrugged. “We only try to be Italians.”
Taking in the view at Villa Tasca CREDIT: JAMES BEDFORD
Luigi Barzini, one of the great Italian journalists and commentators, was fond of saying that Sicily was Italy for beginners, “with every Italian quality and defect magnified… and brightly coloured.” But there is another, more persistent idea, that Sicily is not Italian at all, that its history of conquest at the crossroads of the Mediterranean explains its character. Everyone who was anyone in the Mediterranean world – Greeks, Romans, Phoenicians, Byzantines, Arabs, Spaniards – have had a go at ruling Sicily. All have left their imprint here, from the modest to the spectacular, from the little shop off the Vucciria market serving panelle, delicious fried rectangles of chickpea dough, an echo of the ninth-century Arabs, to the sheer size and extravagance of its palaces, an attempt to keep up with the elaborate ritual and style of the 14th-century Spanish viceregal court.
But the most unlikely of its conquerors came from the north – the Normans, who popped up in Palermo a few years before the Battle of Hastings. They enliven Sicilian history with unexpected names like William the Good, William the Bad and King Roger.
Palermo owes the Normans almost as much as Britain does, though you may notice a few aesthetic differences. In Sicily, the sun, the food, the wine, that blue sea, the whole sensual Mediterranean thing went to their heads. They seized upon the tradition of golden Byzantine mosaics, and made those shimmering surfaces their own. Up at Monreale, the nave of the great cathedral seems to swim with golden light, while down in town the astonishing mosaics of the Cappella Palatina are one of the masterpieces of European art.
But not all architectural sensuality is about surfaces. My favourite Norman building is San Cataldo, perched atop a bit of Roman wall a few steps from the Quattro Canti, the Four Corners. Underrated, in a city that prefers excess, this intimate, triple-domed church – bizarrely it served as the city post office through much of the 19th century – is almost devoid of decoration. Its genius is form, the geometry of interlocking shapes: vaults, domes and arches melt into one another, at once so simple and so complex, an architectural notion that the Sicilian Normans inherited from the Arabs.
Villa Tasca CREDIT: THE THINKING TRAVELLER
Up at the Villa Tasca, where I was staying, the modern world had turned everything upside down. While I swanned around the palace, which I had to myself, the owner, Giuseppe, and his wife, lived – albeit comfortably and stylishly – in the converted stables. On the garden terrace I took breakfast, served by a white-gloved butler. In the music room, I noodled on the piano on which Wagner had composed Parsifal. In the reception room, I admired the 18th-century frescoes of buxom peasant girls wandering about classical ruins. In the evenings, I wandered the gardens in the moonlight.
The delightful Bianca, Tasca’s major-domo, helped to direct my explorations around the city, making appointments in the tight-knit world of Palermo’s aristocrats. At the Palazzo Gangi, I just missed a recent visit by Alain Delon. Playing heart-throb Tancredi Falconeri, Delon had filmed the famous ballroom scene in Visconti’s adaptation of The Leopard here in the early 60s. “He was charming, of course,” reported the Principessa Carine Vanni Calvello Mantegna di Gangi when she met me at the top of the grand double staircase. “But a little tearful. He is not young any more – it does not suit him. Nostalgie got the better of him.”
Palazzo Gangi CREDIT: THE THINKING TRAVELLER
When the Carine married her prince, some 40 years her senior, she was marrying the Palazzo Gangi as well, and its care has largely devolved upon her. It has not been easy, she confided, with aristocratic understatement. “The expenses are colossal,” she said. “It is one of the great houses of Europe and yet there is no help from the government. Only tax increases – eight in the last six years.”
Carine led me through the Fencing Room, the Music Room, the Red Room, the Green Room and the Suicide Room – so named for a painting of Cleopatra clutching her asp – to the palace’s ballroom, the Galleria degli Specchi, made famous in Visconti’s film. A double ceiling swarmed with allegorical frescoes, while the walls, caked in gilded rococo panelling, rippled upward in a flurry of putti, swags and clouds. When a visiting French author was ushered into this room, his only comment was, Versailles n’a rien de plus – Versailles has nothing more. It was like standing inside a spectacularly exuberant Fabergé egg. As I was leaving, I asked how many rooms there were. “If you can count the rooms,” the Princess smiled, quoting The Leopard. “It is not really a palace.”
Nicoletta Polo Lanza Tomasi, Duchess of Palma di Montechiaro CREDIT: JAMES BEDFORD
The next day I met Nicoletta Polo Lanza Tomasi, Duchess of Palma di Montechiaro, in Capo market. Palermo’s markets are great levellers; distinction here is determined by passion and knowledge of food. Over aromatic herbs, plump Sicilian sausages and silver tides of sardines, the duchess and the stallholders bantered like old friends. The relationship had a proprietorial air. In these markets, stallholders were said to “own” their customers – they looked out for them, kept their best aside for them, and would always treat them fairly. To move to another stall would be the gravest insult, una tagliata di faccia, literally a slash across the face.
The library of Palazzo Lanza Tomasi CREDIT: JAMES BEDFORD
At the fish stalls, dark chunks of fresh tuna nestled next to the stiffened metallic arc of a whole swordfish. Fat sardines and striped mackerel glistened among squid and prawns and octopus. Piles of glossy aubergines toppled onto egg-shaped San Marzano tomatoes, figs blushing purple, and papery ropes of garlic. Piles of grapes – green, black, purple and yellow – were draped round mounds of fat Sicilian lemons.
Fresh fish for sale at the market CREDIT: JAMES BEDFORD
The market visit was preparation for a morning cooking class, and at lunchtime I arrived at Palazzo Lanza Tomasi to taste the results. A long table of linen and silverware and monogrammed china had been laid. The shutters of the French windows were thrown open to a terrace overlooking what Goethe called Palermo’s “incomparable bay”.
The food was almost as much of a delight as Nicoletta. Over some wonderful ravioli, we discussed Russian literature, Caravaggio and the Scottish Highlands. By the time the involtini di pesce spada arrived we had moved on to opera design and the Battle of Lepanto. Over the chilled watermelon pudding she told me stories about the great chronicler of Palermitan aristocracy, Prince Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. Nicoletta was the wife of Lampedusa’s adopted son.
Sumptuous, secret interiors at the normally inaccessible Villa Tasca CREDIT: JAMES BEDFORD
When the Palazzo Lampedusa, a few streets away, was a victim of World War II bombing, the writer had retreated to this palace in Via Butera to mourn its loss. It wasn’t a bad place to mourn. Overlooking the sea, it would make many National Trust properties seem cramped. After lunch Nicoletta showed me over the palace, its tall rooms flooded with sea light. Lampedusa’s library filled a couple of rooms. Portraits of rather sour-looking ancestors lined the walls, some in armour, some in lace frills, all with long faces. In the best families it is not enough to have princes and popes among the ancestry. A couple of saints are essential. The Lampedusas had San Giuseppe Tomasi and Isabella Tomasi. A painting of the latter didn’t really capture her at her best. Rather unkindly, they had waited until after her death to do her portrait, propping her up in a chair for the sitting.
Who knows what the ancestors would make of their descendants adjusting to the modern age by reinventing themselves as hoteliers, wine makers, cooking teachers, Airbnb hosts? When I put the question to Nicoletta, she chuckled. “Well, you know what Tancredi said in The Leopard. ‘If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.’”
How to visit
Stanley Stewart travelled as a guest of Villa Tasca and Kirker Holidays (020 7593 2283), which offers tailor-made holidays across Sicily. Three nights’ b&b booked with Kirker in Palermo’s five-star Grand Hotel Villa Igiea – MGallery by Sofitel, costs from £548 per person, including flights and transfers in Palermo. Cookery classes with Nicoletta Polo Lanza Tomasi, including a market visit, lunch and a tour of the Palazzo Lanza Tomasi, cost £125 per person.
The Villa Tasca (0039 091 657 4305) offers rooms from £435 per night, with breakfast; the whole four-suite villa can be rented for £2,525 per night. The villa is also available for special events.
Self-catering apartments in the Palazzo Lanza Tomasi (333 316 5432; butera28.it) cost from £60 per night. The Palazzo Alliata di Pietratagliata (347 526 4276) has a self-catering three-bedroom apartment from £200 per night. Light lunches, cocktails and gala dinners can be arranged for groups of 20 or more.
The Palazzo Gangi can be booked for tours, receptions and private dinners through The Thinking Traveller (020 7377 8518).
For details of other private palace rentals in Palermo, contact Bellini Travel (020 7602 7602).