Molten Shadows of Palermo


July 20, 2018

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The quiet and shadowy lanes of Palermo in Sicily are ideal for strolling as every twist and turn offers something new and vivid, which brings out the authentic feeling of a Sicilian way of life.

I am in Palermo, ungraciously biting into some Cannoli. I put my journal down and excitedly asked the American with whom I was sharing my table on this bustling Sicilian morning, “What word connects a longtailed monkey, a frothy beverage and an order of monks?” He was not in the mood for word games. We both stared out over Via Giuseppe Pitrè, a road named after a renowned folkloristphysician. I knew if we had walked on this road, turned left and stopped in front of a yellow building, we would know the answer. It was Capuchin, named after the Franciscan Order of Friars Minor Capuchin – it lent its name to a range of south and central American monkeys and one of the most popular drink in the world, the cappuccino.

The building, where I later went in the afternoon, had catacombs that housed thousands of embalmed figures of humans or mummies. This was both a site of pilgrimage and macabre wonder where fully costumed corpses hang on the wall, some of their faces peeling away and yet some wearing laces and silks across centuries. The astounding gallery were looked after by the Capuchin friars since 16th century and tunnels resembled the cluttered city streets above the ground. That afternoon, I met death in many shapes and skeletons, peering at a void or possibly us. A man moaned, most stopped talking completely, so profound was the effect of such an experience.

Later in the evening I strolled into Pasticceria Capello for a cestino con fragoline – a tart with cream and strawberry and tried a settevelli – a seven layered hazelnut cake. I decided that was dinner. The shop near my hostel was still open with locals sitting on the sidewalk smoking cigarettes and eating arancino. I sat well into the summer night, an arancino filled with ragu sauce, peas and mozzarella clasped in my palms, thanking unseen powers for the simple gift of food.


A Place of Empires

Palermo sits on the north shore of Sicily where many empires rose and fell. Greeks, Carthaginians, Phoenicians, Romans, Normans, Moors, Spaniards, and Italians influenced life, cuisine, architecture and Palermo built more new walls leaving behind ruins. A unique example of Arab and Norman architecture is the tiny church of San Cataldo on Piazza Bellini, from 1160. The bare stone interiors were never decorated because the founder Maio of Bari was assassinated. For many years, the church served as a post office. The three crimson domes on the top are reminiscent of the Arab influence in the region. In contrast, the church of La Martorana next door founded by the Greek admiral George of Antioch was an amalgamation of Baroque, Byzantine and Romanesque traditions; it belongs to a diocese of Albanian communities of Sicily and carries inscriptions in Arabic on the pillars – a cohesion of styles! The interior cupola gleams in gold and colour with frescoes from Christian iconography.

From left to right: Murals at the Cappella Palatina; Picturesque alleys; Vibrant local markets

From left to right: Murals at the Cappella Palatina; Picturesque alleys; Vibrant local markets

Of Puppets and Alleys

The day grew warmer and I walked towards the old port or La Cala. Boats and yachts were parked at the Marina, looking like a painting against an azure sky. A small lane behind the Biblioteca led to one of the most fascinating museums I have ever visited. It was home to many performers from Opera dei Pupi or puppets! I had grown up with puppets in Kolkata where my father and his friends performed with my grandfather’s puppet theatre. As I walked through the corridors of the museum, I could almost touch my childhood.

Sicilian marionettes were popular among the working classes. Stories were based on medieval literature and the singing embedded in French troubadour traditions, which were performed in front of hand-painted, intricate scenes. The research team of the museum have painstakingly put together information and gathered marionettes not only from Palermo, Catania and Napoli but also Vietnamese water puppets, Burmese wire puppets, shadow figures from India, and many others from Congo, Mali, Japan and Java. In one room, two scenes from two operas have been strung up, as if a show could begin any minute. On another floor, rows of string marionettes hang from the ceiling creating a labyrinth of mermaids, monks, and warriors.

Stepping out I concluded I was famished despite my mind being nourished. Next to Villa Garibaldi there were small restaurants where lunch was being prepared. I waited for a sfincione – made from softened pizza dough, topped with caciocavallo cheese, anchovies, chopped tomatoes and a small schiacciata or squashed bread packed with ground meat and flavoured with fennel.

I took a long winding walk through the alleys that went out of Via Vittorio Emanuele. Buildings had a strange symmetry to them crowded with doors and windows. Billowing laundry were hung out to dry, their swooshing adding sound to the otherwise quiet neighbourhoods. Occasionally children ran past, or someone asked for money and retreated. There were signs of isolation and decay – the long shadows reminded me of the grasp the Cosa Nostra or the Sicilian Mafia had on Palermo, and I knew the Mafiosi was not completely gone.

My status as a postgraduate researcher in the arts granted me a free ticket to Cappella Palatina, a chapel in the Norman King Roger’s palace. This was a large hall generously gilded in gold – stones and ceramic stacked to shape mosaics of saints, angels and kings. This is what magnificence meant in art, one whole room that was shaped by Christian patrons and iconography immersed in Fatimid, Mediterranean and Byzantine techniques and chiselled into place by Muslim artisans. It is a three-nave longitudinal room divided by granite columns; the vaulted roof is carved in wood and painted. Each saint on the walls is named and every composition framed in ornamental design. Under my feet colourful mosaic were set in geometrical and floral shapes. The motifs continued from Christ’s life to warrior saints illustrating the various protectors of the island of Sicily.

Through the high Italian arches, people hurry home. My rucksack and I trudge towards the station to board a bus to Catania. Behind me, Palermo readies itself for the evening, embracing its gilded past as well as the shadows.

How to Reach

A connecting flight to Palermo can be taken from international airports in major cities like Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Bengaluru or Ahemdabad.

Where to Stay

Palermo, being the capital of Sicily, has a number of hotels and B&Bs to choose from. On the luxurious side they have palaces turned to hotels and various boutique hotels; for the budget-friendly, they have many B&Bs that do not compromise on style or views.



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