Palermo: The Modern Era

The Spanish ruled Sicily from 1282 to 1713. But with all of their other possessions--Aragon, from the start, then Castile joined to it, then the colonies of the New World, and also later on the Hapsburg lands in the Netherlands, and even Austria and Portugal for a while--Sicily was mostly neglected. By the eighteenth century, Sicily became a pawn in the larger struggles between European powers. In 1749 Sicily was inherited by the King of Naples, who called his new realm the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, but continued to rule from the city of Naples. In 1861 this kingdom became part of the new country of Italy. For much of the modern era, then, Sicily was a distant province of a much larger state.

The Renaissance gave to Palermo one of its genuine marvels: the Pretoria Fountain, constructed in 1555 (and once considered scandalous because of the nudity of its sculptures).

The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries left a number of baroque churches in Palermo--or baroque elements added to older churches, each more elaborate than the last.

They include: Sant'Anna la Misericordia:

San Giuseppe dei Teatini:

Santa Maria della Pietà:

and the Chiesa del Gesù:

The modern era also gave to Palermo numerous large public buildings and squares--many of which are sadly in disrepair or closed completely.

Among the ambitious projects was the Quattro Canti ("Four Corners"), formed in 1620 by cutting two wide boulevards through the narrow and twisting streets of the
old town that intersect at the very center of the city. Four nearly identical facades completed with sculptures in niches surround the square formed by this intersection.

Massive new gates were cut in the city walls at the four ends of these boulevards.
Below is the gate near the harbor, known as the Porta Felice ("Happy Gate").

The Albergo dei Poveri ("Poor House") is a huge complex that was built in 1733 to house the disabled, orphans,
and the homeless, as well as the poor. Today it houses government offices and conference facilities.

The modern era witnessed significant changes to the cathedral of Palermo, built in the twelfth century. In the fifteenth century, tall square towers were added at the four corners
of the buildings, and in the late eighteenth century, the building topped with a large domed tower. In the nineteenth century, the interior was remodeled in a neoclassical style.

Brian and Joe climbed to the top of the cathedral for expansive views over the city.

In the Palazzo Mirto is preserved the home of a wealthy Palermitan family from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Even the stables of this mansion were impressive!

In the former convent of Sant'Anna is housed a gallery of Sicilian art from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

By the nineteenth century Palermo had outgrown its walls and was expanding outward. Among the new features created for the city
was an English garden (so called because its plantings were done more naturally than the formal and regular style of a French garden).
The wealthy built new mansions around the park, away from the busy center of Palermo.

One of the great pastimes of the nineteenth century was opera, and in 1874 the Teatro Politeana Garibaldi was opened--in obvious neoclassical style.

It is one side of the Piazza Castelnuovo and Piazza Ruggero Settimo, two large city squares surrounded by interesting buildings.

Soon even the new opera house was too small to accommodate the Palermitans who wanted to listen to it, and a new space was opened in 1897.
It is called the Teatro Massimo, and it is the largest in Italy and one of the largest in Europe.

Clearly Palermo had wealth in the past, though sadly it was sometimes difficult to see it, and the twentieth century
--with the rise of the Mafia and the Nazi occupation, followed by Allied bombing--was clearly not kind to the city.

Among the recent contributions to the city--though their origins date back to Palermo's earliest history--are the open air markets that fill many streets in the old city,
clustered around the Mercato Vucciria (near the Piazza San Domenico) and the Mercato Ballaro, selling everything from meat and produce to clothes and housewares.

We were in Palermo for the feast of Santa Rita (Saint Rita of Cascia, lived 1381 to 1457, feastday May 22), a popular Italian saint. She was the wife of an abusive husband who became a nun after his death. On her deathbed, she asked to see a rose from her garden, so on her feastday red roses are given to friends and family in her honor. We saw thousands of roses for sale in the markets of Palermo that day, blessed in churches, and carried by the armful by many Palermitans. Many streets around the church of Sant'Agostino (Saint Augustine, also known as the church of Santa Rita) were decorated with banners and strings of lights.

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