Sunday 14 April 2013

Capo, duomo and cappella

It's second quarter time in the ongoing Palermo saga. Day two in the great city, now that I think about it, was one of total cultural overload. We began in the vicinity of our lovely lodgings in Via Butera with the church of San Francesco and the oratory of San Lorenzo just along the street: cue first discovery of the great baroque stucco master Serpotta. But his wonders belong to the eventually forthcoming entry on the Vucciria district. Later, in the mid afternoon, we caught a bus to Monreale. The chronicle here deals with what we saw in between.

We needed to hit the streets of the Capo in good time, as recommended by our masterchef hostess Nicoletta as the best of the three old-town markets. So we had the strongest of coffees - Palermitan espresso seems to me uniquely strong and deliciously bitter - in a fine bar on the Corso Vittorio Emanuele and arrived at the great junction of the Quattro Canti, a colossal homage to the rather more lovable four fountains by Borromini's San Carlo in Rome and built under Spanish occupation at the beginning of the early 17th century. Each 'corner' of the octagon has a Spanish king, a patroness and a seasonal fountain: hence, on this west Capo/Seralcadio side Philip II, Santa Ninfa and summer.

Winding our way without reference to the map through the narrow steets of the Capo felt different to the Kalsa because here it's a matter of climbing and descending various hills. As you hit the Via Sant'Agostino the market zone begins - not food as yet but tat and furnishings. Sant'Agostino turned out to be Serpotta'd too, and again I ought to keep his (or his studio's) contributions to the relevant entry. No harm, though, in taking a look at the depiction of Abraham stalled by the angel as he prepares to sacrifice Isaac.

The 13th century west door and latticed rose window above - not dissimilar to the one for San Francesco which we'd just seen, but less richly ornamented - are the main remainders of the Chiaramonte and Sclafani family's foundation.

Within are various chapels in white and one especially splendid monument of Francesco de Medici sculpted by Ignazio Marabitti in 1771. I think - I should have noted it down - there was reference to a medical connection, hence what I take to be Asclepius's cockerel on top and the volume of Hippocrates.

The cloisters are very lovely and, yes, that inescapable word inscribed in a million church visitors' books, peaceful, though nothing to what we were to see later in the day at Monreale. The arcades are 16th century, attributed to Domenico Gagini, a name we'd come across a fair bit.

The portico to the cloisters from an atmospheric, candlelit chapel, though, seems to be from the time of the church's foundation.

Sant'Agostino was in frequent use by its congregation in Holy Week - much coming and going, and a well-tended shrine to the bound Christ.

All this, of course, was in contrast to the main drag of the market, teeming with fruit and vegetables. Artichokes were very much in season,

and everywhere we saw marketeers stripping them down to the usables, as up top. In the thick of all the marine profusion shaded pinky-red by the awnings,

a fishmonger was chopping up chunks of swordfish.

Later, I was reminded how this is one scene that hasn't changed over millennia. In the Mandralisca Museum in Cefal├╣, there's a fourth century BC crater or drinking bowl showing a seller carving tuna for a customer - not great art, but an invaluable document of everyday life. I believe I'm entitled to reproduce it from's photostream on Flickr.

Bang in the middle of the main market street there's an ideal refuge from the hurly-burly - the Church of the Immaculate Conception. This is another of those Palermitan institutions gone baroque-crazy in its polychrome marble unity. The altarpieces of each chapel, all unified as variations on a theme, seem inspired by the orient in their candied depiction of various fantasy edifices. These, if I understand a rare entry on the web, are 'the Triumph of Religious Orders' executed by Olivio Sozzi around 1740.

We strolled up and down the street several times and bought - as Sebastian had told us to look out from them -  a punnet of remarkably early fragole di bosco, wild strawberries.

As the market fizzled out, the cathedral in all its confused splendour appeared from a less than picturesque car park. I was reminded of a rather overelaborately inscribed postcard from a friend of ours on her first trip to Moscow: 'the Kremlin domes are visible from a Dickensian slum of mindblowing squalor'. I'll just stick to the picture, thanks.

The dome is a very unfortunate 18th century addition to the Norman splendour of the whole, which in any case wasn't finished for centuries. Extravagant towers are multiplied by more on the Bishop's Palace,

connected to the cathedral proper by impressive arches.

Some are sniffy about the jarring note of the Gothic-Catalan portico, erected in 1465 by the Gaginis, but it's a marvel in its own right.

Its first column on the left - the one in the shade - belonged to an original mosque on the site - another of those Arabic inscriptions to be found everywhere in Palermo's old town - and to the Byzantine basilica which was erased in 1172 by the English archbishop, Gualtier Offamiglio (Walter of the Mill). We'll see what happened at Monreale when the jealous Norman King William II tried - and within, at least, managed - to surpass his insolent priest's glory. The most intact part of the archbishop's original design is the east end with its semicircular apses, a little bit in shadow early in the afternoon. You can just about see the very beautiful design on one of them.

As there's a school just opposite, you would expect more trenchant graffiti of the kind I illustrated in Piazza Magione, and sure enough this commentary on regional attitudes to culture does not disappoint. We were to find a striking embodiment of its objection when we learned that the aforementioned Mandralisca Museum has been starved of funds, with the still-devoted staff not having been paid for ten months and closure looming.

Inside, the cathedral is horribly disappointing, victim of a dingy 18th century makeover. It's not without its treasures, and a key curiosity is the bronze meridian line running north-south with signs of the zodiac. We two visitors were happy to find our astrological twins and lion duly paired.

 The official entry explains all this better than I can:

The Cathedral has a heliometer (solar "observatory") of 1690, one of a number built in Italy in the 17th and 18th centuries. The device itself is quite simple: a tiny hole in one of the minor domes acts as a pinhole character, projecting an image of the sun onto the floor at solar noon (12:00 in winter, 13:00 in summer). The...Meridiana[line's]...ends mark the positions as at the summer and winter solstices; signs of the zodiac show the various other dates throughout the year.

The purpose of the instrument was to standardise the measurement of time and the calendar. The convention in Sicily had been that the (24 hour) day was measured from the moment of sun-rise, which of course meant that no two locations had the same time and, more importantly, did not have the same time as in St Peter's Basilica in Rome. It was also important to know when the vernal equinox occurred, to provide the correct date for Easter.

Palermo has quite a link with the astronomical sciences: as we'll see, the princely great-grandfather of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa who's the model for his Leopard was quite a stargazer, and had an observatory in his palace.

Well, we can't go out on a disappointing interior. We didn't make the Cappella Palatina of the Norman Palace further up the hill until our final day in Palermo on returning from the mountains, but despite having already experienced something of the same wonders in the Martorana Church and out at Monreale, I wouldn't have missed it for the world.

Within the walls of this not especially grim edifice, which now houses the parliament, various parts of the palace can be seen according to what's going on in Palermitan politics. I was rather regretful that we weren't going to be admitted to the Sala di Ruggero with its frescoes of animals and mythological creatures. But the small, perfectly formed Palatine chapel of Roger II constructed between 1132 and 1143 is the thing. The loggia overlooking the Fountain Courtyard may only be lined with 19th century mosaics, but it offers a handsome entrance.

Within, which we had almost to ourselves - clearly not often the case to judge from the ropelines - other than a group of Italian officials clearly being deferred to, is Sicily's most remarkable balance of Arab and Norman motifs. Somehow a unity is woven between the painted wooden ceiling of the nave with its exquisite muqarnas of multifaceted niches and the mosaics beneath.

It's difficult without binoculars to see the painted secular scenes of the ceiling, executed it's now thought by Egyptian artists. The artwork of the aisle ceilings comes a little closer to the visitor. Not all the artwork is original - the latest, loving restoration with German funding was completed five years ago - but at least it's consistent with the Egyptian style.

The dome above the presbytery is where you'd expect to find the mosaics, and it's not disappointing, even if the angel wings aren't as wonderful as those of the Martorana

but the real glories are all over the nave and side chapels, as at Monreale. Indeed, many of the same Biblical scenes are common to both, including the Creation in the top level and further Genesis tales including Noah's nakedness and the Tower of Babel below.

The two aisle walls are decorated with the lives of Saints Peter and Paul. The latter takes his name at his baptism after the Damascene conversion in the South Aisle

while on the opposite side Peter and Paul (unseen in this shot) dispute with Nero and Simon Magus before the latter's fall.

I've only touched the tip of the narrative iceberg, happy to have a splendid Miribilia Italiae guide to peruse back home. And as Catriona reminds me below, there is so much more to be said about the Norman court with its seemingly easy co-existence of religions, its co-opting of Arab workmanship (the script appears not just in the roof but also on the garbs and scrolls of the Biblical participants).. Just one more detail, of the Moorish style below the mosaics. Any other chapel which boasted only this and the gorgeous pavement would still be on a list of grand Arab-Norman designs.

Not only that, but the chapel was being prepared for Easter services, with the heady scent of floral arrangements and the sacristan preparing a singular cross. I wish we'd still been in Palermo to witness the finished results.


Willym said...

My heart almost simultaneously rose and fell (if that is possible) when I saw this next instalment on my beloved Palermo. I have no need to tell you how much I love that city - warts (or unsightly garbage bins) and all. Rose because I knew I would be experiencing it anew through your eyes and words - and as always being shown things I had missed; fell because I know it will be a while before I experience it again first hand.

I'm so looking forward to your posts on Serpotta and Montreale. I've never been a fan of the Baroque - and certainly not Roman Baroque - but Sicilian Baroque has a glorious tongue-in-cheek insolence that, to my mind at least, captures the character of the Sicilians perfectly.

David said...

I'm so delighted you love it as I do, Will. Too many people I've spoken to said: 'yes - but it's so dirty', as if that weren't a side of the city too. In the Kalsa especially I warmed to the mix of the tarted-up and newly chic with the characterfully crumbling. May it never become too pretty - not that there's any chance of that with the Sicilians (except in horrid, if beautifully situated, Taormina).

Laurent said...

This is pure torture, you torment us with your stories and pictures as we drift here on the ice flow in our little gulag. Brings back so many memories and we are so happy we went there more than once and drove around the island. I said to Will we have to return again.

David said...

As do we, Laurent, again and again and again. This even though I'm plunging into another book (after Peter Robb) on the Cosa Nostra...

For me, it's not so much torture (nessun maggio dolore etc) as sheer vivid pleasure to relive the experience by 'doing' the walks and checking some incidental facts along the way.

Catriona said...

Apologies if you have already mentioned - and I have missed - two relatively recent novels about the building of the cathderal; Tariq Ali's 'A sultan in Palermo' and Barry Unsworth's 'The Ruby in her Navel'. Both cover more or less the same period of 12th century Palermo, albeit from different angles, and you can throw Szymanowski's opera 'Krol Roger' into the mix as well. It would be interesting (for those of us not yet lucky enough to visit) to know how the fictional compares with reality.

David said...

No, I don't know those two books, Catriona: that makes four, with the two that Sue has mentioned in the comment to the Davis entry, that I have to read. I was thinking of tackling John Julius Norwich and of course I had forgotten Krol Roger had anything to do with the Normans in Sicily.

I suppose you could put it another way: you are lucky not yet to have seen one of the most amazing cities in the world, so that the pleasure of discovery later in life will be all the greater. At any rate that's how I felt. Similarly, on a smaller scale, re Goettingen, where I'm so pleased to say we shall meet again over the last weekend.

Susan Scheid said...

With the artichokes alone, you had me on this one (well, the sunshine helped, too—though at least now we’ve seen some of our own here). But really, I hardly know where to begin with all you’ve described. I may have mentioned that years ago we started on a plan to go to Sicily, but somehow it didn’t reach the stage of action. If we had known what you’re showing here, the story would have been different, I’m sure.

Of course I love the juxtaposition of modern and ancient tuna carving—as you say, perhaps not great art, but these ancient scenes of daily life are priceless in their own right. I was immediately attracted to the east end apses of the cathedral (if I am understanding correctly the building portrayed there), and that balance of Arab and Norman in the Cappella Palatina (again, if I’m following your trail correctly!) is extraordinary.

I don’t know exactly how you both packed all this in in the days you had, but I’m delighted to have this window in to all you saw.

PS: And I, too, now have 4 books added to my "wish list." When and if I get to them is another matter entirely . . . My "assignment" for today was to study two poems (neither long, but Wallace Stevens, so focused thinking is required) for a web-based discussion tomorrow, and I have hardly begun. Ah, well, the only thing to do in such a case is give up on it and rush up to Bard for the final Contemporaneous concert of the year . . . so, off I go!

David said...

I'm afraid you ain't read the half of it yet (literally, because while I've covered two of the four quarters, there's also the Palazzo Lampedusa and its denizens to be considered, and the mountains will need a couple of entries).

Boundless curiosity can sometimes tie one in knots, can't it? I just want to read and read about Palermo, adding to the list the two books Catriona mentioned. But I'm also on a Poulenc binge - want to get the letters as well as hear more of the music. And now that phenomenon Mei Yi has just dazzled us with a stunner of a programme. Far from repeating her 'Musical Toys' CD programme, she launched into Bartok, progressed with works by her friend Dai, gave a Benjamin sequence (at least half of it fabulous) and dazzled with Lachenmann (yes, accessible Lachenmann!)

Looking forward to the next Contemporaneous report...

Susan Scheid said...

Dazzled with Lachenmann, imagine that! And accessible, too! Will you be writing on this at The Arts Desk, I hope?

On the Contemporaneous front, well, they just continue to astonish. This time, a particular treat was a composition from David Bloom. Incredibly moving. I hope we hear more from him on that front--and of course watching him conduct is always great. Dylan had a new piece, too--dark dissonance in this one, then light bubbling through. They closed with Shaker Loops, so great to hear that live at long last! They had an "after party," first time ever, which gave me a rare chance for conversation with a number of the musicians, including the lovely Lucy D. (Tabby and Nagy weren't able to be there, down in NYC for a summer fest-related event.) They're delightful young men and women, every one. Look at me babbling on here . . .

PS: lucked out on the Stevens web class, too--the prof & TAs read out a comment I made by e-mail and erupted into cheers. Al (the prof), knowing I'm a Stevens-lover, thereafter dedicated the webcast to me. I didn't deserve it, but it was fun anyway. Yup, boundless curiosity can keep one bounding without landing quite a bit. Feel like a kangaroo sometimes!

David said...

Yes, I'll write up Mei Yi's recital with a BBC Symphony concert for tomorrow. I had to check with her what were the extraordinary effects in the last Lachenmann piece and she's just obliged with a page of the score. To be fair, these are variations on very simple children's exercises, but of course he makes something original out of them.

Isn't it - again to sound like some pious patrons we both know - wonderful to be in touch with the gifted young? I took a young friend, organ scholar at St John's Cambridge, fabulously talented, to the recital and it was so marvellous to have his fresh responses. We both found ourselves laughing at some of the pieces, which was absolutely intended.

And well done for all your achievements the other day!

Susan Scheid said...

Agreed, absolutely, on the gifted young/fresh responses. Speaking of which, I don't know if you pay attention to the Pulitzer Prize for music, but the winner this year is quite an interesting choice, Caroline Shaw. New Amsterdam Records put out an album last year by Roomful of Teeth, which I mentioned in my year-end round-up, and her piece was on the album. I'll have to confess I didn't spot her piece as a stand-out, though I like what I've heard of the group and liked the album as a whole. Here's an article on the piece, if of interest:

David said...

I'll give it a listen anon, Sue: thanks for the alert.