Palermo’s Centro is not very big, maybe three square kilometers in all. Despite its size, it packs a lot of content. We’ve stayed there for a total of two months now and we feel we still haven’t seen half of what we could. It is, however, a bit embarrassing when you learn that one of the important churches in Palermo is right around the corner from where you’re staying (literally 3 minutes’ walk)… and you didn’t know.
Chiesa di Sant’Agostino. It may be understandable that we have missed this church. Its medieval façade (1275) in yellowish-brown is flush with the other surrounding walls, with only a few stairs to enter. Although its rose window is lovely, it is so high up we’d have had to walk with our eyes to the sky to see it. The inside is not huge, with a single nave that ends in a recessed presbytery with a vaulted ceiling. Its proportions are elegant and restful, and there is an air of contemplation to the silence. What is remarkable are the decorations and stucco allegorical and holy sculptures created by the famous 18th century sculptor, Serpotta, the same artist who adorned the three major Palermo Oratorios, such as the Oratorio of Santa Cita. A door to the left leads to a quiet cloister, built in the Catalan Gothic style and surrounding a fountain. Roses were in bloom and we could not resist taking a turn about the square, where the noise of the city and the market could barely be heard.
Palazzo Abatellis. This Palazzo is located in one of the four old quarters of Palermo, La Kalsa and houses the Galleria Regionale della Sicilia, an incredible museum that gathers artifacts and works of art that trace the history of Sicily, from its Arab roots to its religious history through sculpture and art. The Palazzo was originally the home of Francesco Abatellis, the15th Century port master of the “Kingdom of Sicily.” It was turned into a convent in the mid sixteenth century then, after heavy bombing in WWII, restored and used as a museum. Again, the façade of the building is unprepossessing unless you pay close attention. Made of brick, with heavily grated windows, the only indication it was a palace is its ornate stone arch above the plain main entrance. You enter into an airy courtyard around which the rooms of the museum flow, on two levels. There are many treasures to discover, including the fresco entitled “The Triumph of Death,” an impressive tableau, one of the most representative works of the late Gothic painting in Italy (1445) by an unknown artist. Death, mounted on a horse and holding a bow and arrow, chases down characters to kill them. They come from all walks of life, demonstrating that Death is not selective and will come for everyone, from pauper to pope and king. There is also a wonderful marble bust of Costanza of Aragona, the Queen of Sicily (1212-1220). Walking around the museum isn’t a hardship. It is well lit, the exhibits are well set up, and there are explanatory sheets for each room. One level, with amazing art by painters mimicking the style of Caravaggio, can only be reached by an elevator off the garden courtyard. The paintings are huge, luminous, and well-worth the detour.
Casa Professa, or Chiesa del Gesù. This is another stunning church, one of the best example and most important of the Baroque style churches in Palermo, and possibly Sicily. In answer to the severity of the Protestant Style, this church goes to the other extreme with its decorations, with sculptures and intarsia (colored stone inlay) covering every surface of the church, except for the ceiling, which has lavish paintings set within ornate plaster frames. Casa Professa was owned by the Jesuits and expanded over the years. It was quickly restored after it was damaged during WWII. There is so much decoration that it is almost overwhelming and the eye doesn’t know where to rest. This is a case of either you will love it or hate it. I was personally awed by its grandeur but can’t say that it was my favorite church. There’s an exaggeration to it that prevents me from taking it seriously as a place of worship and contemplation. You can also visit the museum behind the church which has some very nice Renaissance pieces, although it is not very big. Another point of interest is the Oratorio on the second floor of what would be the Jesuits living quarters, decorated by the last surviving Serpotta who followed in his father’s footsteps. He kept the serenity of the style, which makes it a place of rest after the “business” of the main church. Nevertherless, this is one church that needs to be seen and contrasted with the Capella Palatina, for instance, which is covered in mosaic tile and of Byzantine style.
As I mentioned over and over again through my posts, Palermo doesn’t stop surprising, and there is still too much to discover. We may never finish.