La Bella Palermo

Palermo Italy

ESSE MALO Q. VIDERI are the words inscribed on the stone lintel dominating the entrance to the piano nobile of Palazzo Pantelleria, a palace in the historic centre of Palermo. ‘To be, rather than to seem’, a Greek motto Cicero and Sallust referred to as the distinguishing feature of honest politicians. When these words were engraved on this stone, however, their meaning had been totally reversed by Machiavelli’s The Prince. The facade where the principle of civil and political conduct hides is not conspicuous at all. At least not for an unkeen eye having wandered around Palermo’s labyrinth of tortuous paved alleys. Having got used to the decadent charm of Baroque masterpieces crumbled as tuff in the sun, any beholders tends to pass over this flawless and well-finished restored palace. To reach what people from Palermo recognize as the facade of Palazzo Pantelleria, located in front of a narrow widening, one has to sneak through randomly parked cars to reach a maimed square – Piazza Giovanni Meli. Here, among small silversmiths’ shops, lies the plaque referred to the Requesenzes, the princes of Pantelleria who sponsored the building of this palace starting in 1525. The history of the prestigious Spanish family is indissolubly linked to that of Palermo and the whole Sicily. Five centuries of this family’s vicissitudes determined not only the polymorphous character of the building, but also the bipolar collective perception people from Palermo have of the palace.  The quintessence of Palazzo Pantelleria (later on Pantelleria-Varvaro) is par excellence this facade on piazza Meli, with its heraldic coats of arms and its arch leading to the inner courtyard, the most ancient core of the building which is shaded by a centuries-old Ficus Macrophylla. On the contrary, the opposite side, the one overlooking Largo Cavalieri di Malta, represents in many respects what does not appear. Even though it was initially used as main entrance to the palace, this area was at the centre of a series of parallel dowry-related stories, transfers and sales made to fix financial disarray of the then owners. In Palermo, the palace is known as a former textile warehouse, but some people remember it as the peculiar location for underground parties organized by a lady from Eastern Europe. This – not the other one – is however the entrance that interests us most, the access whose facade appears less thanks to a skilful restoration. The perception one gets from the carousel of other crumbling masterworks bejewelling Sicily’s main city does not befit this place. Undisciplined car drivers constantly encumber the portal, where a grotesque masque acts as warden (not a traffic warden, though). Crossing the portal, one gets to what could be defined as the seed of the restoration, which was conservative only in practice, not in principle.

La Bella Palermo occupies the piano nobile of this side of the palace. Behind a name with an obvious translation, hides something which is very difficult to define. The definition ‘historic home’ would confuse it with the other wing of the piano nobile, which, despite being part of the essence of Palazzo Pantelleria, actually made people forget about the other section. The label ‘house museum’ is instead limited and risks not to do justice to the irreverent genius that gave shape to this place. Massimo Cazzaniga (1940) arrives in Palermo at the beginning of the new millennium with a number of restoration experiences and his fine intuition about the value of tarnished jewellery. As he has been doing since he was sixteen, he feels that also these rooms have a great potential, notwithstanding the fact that they had been bended to the needs of a textile warehouse (and maybe used by squatters as their home). He feels that those rooms are still abiding by the motto of the Requesenzes, even more than they did in the family’s golden age. Although they have been brought back to their original function, these spaces exhale a brand-new breath of life. Francesco welcomes and accompanies us in the exploration of his uncle’s eclectic collections that found a home here. The seductive appearance of this place is thoroughly looked after and can easily fascinate distracted visitors, but its value lies in the substance.  La Bella Palermo could seem the cabinet of wonders of an obsessive collector – one with an undeniable great taste, though – enslaved by his need to be surrounded by objects and knick-knacks. It could make us think of an irredeemable philologist slavishly attempting to duplicate the meaning of something that is lost forever. The suspect of finding ourselves in front of a historical re-enactment or the attempt to monetise a tedious old man’s pastime, however, fades away as soon as Francesco tells us a few well-aimed anecdotes. It is in fact thanks to discreet details, those that appear only after a meticulous study by an expert eye, that the presence of an intelligent and irreverent game is revealed. This original touch is the outcome of the constant work of a regular of markets and small shops, a witted expert that knows how to combine the different languages of design, art and handicraft, niche and consumer goods, aristocratic and working-class elements. The love for restoration activities does not give in to an idle philological exercise made for its own sake. What is accumulated here cannot be simply described as a form of collecting, because it was not the desire to own an object in all its declinations that drove the gathering efforts, but actually the excitement about personally finding something and matching it with other objects so as to generate new meanings. In the new way objects and elements are combined one can recognize the sign of a creative intelligence. Nothing seems to be perceived as static. The impression is to be in front of a whole repertoire of possible interpretations. Door frames are thus a coherent collage of apocryphal elements; Venetian street lights are used as floor lamps; part of a Baroque pulpit is turned into a piece of furniture. Everybody is light-heartedly fooled: those of us that consider as priceless objects that are not that valuable, and those, on the contrary, who cannot perceive the real value of modest artefacts. It can therefore happen that a person spends some nights in this fantastic residence being convinced of living as a prince of Pantelleria, without acknowledging the mocking smile lingering in these rooms. This place is imbued with a much more contemporary spirit that can, with the right mix of passionate care and placid audacity, trigger the regeneration of a precious city asset. These are the reasons why I believe that a definition of La Bella Palermo cannot be restrictive. The epithet of historic home is not appropriate, as it often evokes despicable experiential traps. This place does not have the static nature (nor the tied dynamism) of a museum either. I find it more similar to the house of an artist whose activity is still very well recognizable. Functioning and functional, distant from museum logics, this place offers a new model for the restoration of historic sites, a paradigm where private investments are not always considered as something suspicious. On his part, Francesco is not a simple keeper of his uncle’s estate, nor the curator of his collections. He is a competent host who can describe the inheritance he is managing, as well as offer a different point of view on the city and its nervous tissue. Francesco is precise, and generously care about the many international guests who rent the whole place (they normally opt for this formula) even for a long stay. Maybe they are lured by the misleading guise of this place and they probably leave with the feeling of having being as spoiled as princes (Francesco watches over them for the whole duration of their stay, ready to intervene at any time to satisfy their needs or protect his uncle’s property). Guests, however, also leave with a new perspective that makes them get off the carousel of Palermo’s wonderful decadence. From this initial restoration project stemmed new ones destined to change other annexes of the building in a consistent and thoughtful way. Francesco, though, seems to systematically divert attention from La Bella Palermo to other iconic places in the city which are undergoing similar transformations. He talks about them to underline possible synergies that may offer to both strangers and locals a new point of view. He often mentions bars or shops such as ‘la Ferramenta’, located at 8, Piazza Meli.  This hardware store has recently re-opened the old business from which its name comes from. Even though I think that it would be useful, one day, to find a hardware store where there was once a bar, one has to acknowledge the revitalizing contribution that food can have in architectural contexts too. In the end, it is not possible to talk about hospitality without an all-encompassing approach that includes this extraordinary interpretation key.

Words Lorenzo Barbasetti di Prun, pictures Camilla Glorioso.

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