Hidden Palaces of Palermo


Towards the end of Lampedusa’s classic Italian novel, The Leopard, a Sicilian Prince and his family squeeze into a carriage in their swathes of satin and silk to travel to a grand ball through the dark, narrow streets of Palermo. The year is 1862. Two years earlier, the people of Sicily had voted yes to the unification of Italy, following the arrival of Garibaldi’s troops on the island. The young Princesses are delighted at the prospect of a ball. Their world-weary father, Prince Fabrizio - the leopard of the title, named after a coat of arms still to be found all over southern Europe, approaches the evening with little pleasure. Garibaldi’s arrival has heralded the end of the leisurely, sensuous world of gilded palaces, fragrant gardens and country villas that the Prince has always known. The rigid social structures have crumbled. Within the Prince’s own family his beloved nephew, Tancredi, has fallen in love with the beautiful daughter of the newly rich local grocer.
In what E.M Forster called “a great lonely book”, Lampedusa, himself a twentieth century Prince, writing the story of his nineteenth century counterpart, looks through the eyes of Prince Fabrizio as his world gradually collapses around him. When Visconti made his sumptuous, opulent film of the book he cast Burt Lancaster as the Prince, Alain Delon as the nephew and Claudia Cardinale as the grocer’s stunning daughter, Angelica.
In the book, the ball is held at Palazzo Ponteleone in a ballroom of “a faded gold, pale as the hair of certain nordic children” where “From the ceiling the gods, reclining on gilded couches gazed down .” Into this not quite faded grandeur, the author’s voice suddenly interrupts to tell us that those gods may have “thought themselves eternal but a bomb manufactured in Pittsburgh, Penn., was to prove the contrary in 1943.”
And so it will be with almost every one of the novel’s locations. As I make my way around Palermo, Lampedusa’s world proves as stealthy and elusive as the great cat of the title.
A 1968 earthquake destroyed Lampedusa’s country home at Santa Margherita Belice - the fictional Donnafugata of the novel. Back in Palermo where the dark, huddled old town hides from the sun and turns its back on the royal blue sea, Lampedusa’s family palace was also bombed by the allies. I wander towards the sea for a glimpse of the Hotel Trinacria on Via Butera where Prince Fabrizio will die twenty years after the ball. A guide published in 1996 says that it is being renovated but I will learn that in slippery Sicily, your guidebook must be up to date for I find only a boarded-up facade and a plaque marking its former glory.

I am about to give up in despair when I remember that just before I left London, the woman at the Italia nel Mondo travel agency had handed me a piece of paper with the address of a Countess. Another agency faxed me the phone number of a Princess. Like their British contemporaries, the Palermo nobility needs money to keep up palaces that can date as far back as the 12th century. And so they have decided to hold dinner parties in their palatial homes. Perhaps I will find the lost world of the leopard here. I make two phone calls and find myself invited to a Saturday night dinner party with an American study group at the Princess’s palace and a Monday night dinner with the Countess and a group of Germans.
On the Saturday, I ring the bell of the Pietratagliata Palace beside an immense wooden door on a shadowy, cobbled street. A market is closing up; this is not a place to linger. A small door opens within the large one and I find myself in a great courtyard at the bottom of a marble staircase. The Principessa Signoretta is waiting at the top. No faded glory is she but a slim, beautiful, vivacious brunette. She leads me through baronial halls into the ballroom where, with the Americans, we dine on Sicilian specialities beneath the largest 18th century chandelier in the world.
Two days later, the blonde and stunningly lovely Countess Alwine Federico, originally from Salzburg and a trained soprano, guides the German group up to the twelfth century tower of the vast and opulent Palazzo Conte Federico. Before we sit down to dinner and a song recital by the Countess herself, she shows us the Pleyel piano on which Wagner once played.
Wagner would have been a contemporary of the fictional Prince Fabrizio. So the world of the Leopard is still here in Palermo, hiding behind the high, dark doors. “But I don’t want to be a leopard,” had sighed the Princess two days earlier, “just watching it all go away. I want to be a tiger and fight for a renewed Palermo!”
She may not entirely approve of him but I think Prince Fabrizio , a man who even in the deepest of melancholies, never failed to notice a beautiful woman, would have applauded these clever, beautiful 21st century nobles who are building their own version of the leopard’s world.
Flights to Sicily, hotels, countesses and palaces can all be arranged by Sicilian specialists: Italia nel Mondo : 0207 828 9171, www.thesicilianexperience.com.

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