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Old July 12th, 2006, 06:02 AM   #1
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Palermo's Art & Architecture Renaissance

In Palermo, a renaissance for art and architecture
Nancy R. Newhouse
International Herald Tribune
11 July 2006

When I first visited Palermo in 1983, the city felt down at the heel, shabby and far from alluring, despite its balmy weather and gorgeous situation along a wide blue bay. When I returned last October, it seemed a different place animated, cleaner, more prosperous, less closed in on itself. And the city is paying more attention to some of its great art and architectural treasures, among them the famous Serpotta putti, or cherubs, I had come to see.

Signs of renovation and restoration are all around, with activity centered in the historic center, including the Kalsa, the area near the waterfront that was badly damaged by Allied bombing in 1943.

Lo Spasimo, a ruined 16th-century church and convent in the Kalsa, has been transformed into a popular space for theater, concerts and exhibitions, romantically open to the sky, with a garden behind it. The convent of Santa Anna, now an exhibition space, will open in the autumn as new quarters for the Galleria d'Arte Moderna. And a full-scale restoration is underway at the municipal library built in 1760, with a cloister from an earlier Jesuit college.

In the Giardino Garibaldi, a charming park in the Piazza Marina shaded by immense banyan trees, visitors can admire its wrought- iron fence, an elegant creation of the Liberty era (as Art Nouveau is called here) on a theme of the hunt. Around the park, handsome old buildings are getting long overdue facelifts, and on its far side one can admire the Palazzo Chiaramonte, a massive 14th-century stone structure with Gothic window detailing that once housed the local office of the Inquisition. Although it was restored some years ago, more work is underway.

In a much larger park just outside the city, the Parco della Favorita, an ambitious restoration has begun on the Palazzina Cinese, an eccentric addition to this city of palazzos. Built for a displaced Bourbon monarch, Ferdinand III, in 1799, in the Chinoiserie style favored by his wife Maria Carolina (Marie Antoinette's sister), the palace will take years to restore.

Inspiring as these improvements are, it was putti that I had come to see a whole angelic host, in fact, created by the sculptor Giacomo Serpotta in the late 17th and early 18th century. His three major oratorios in Palermo are marvels of gaiety and charm, swirling with the artist's remarkably fluid stucco work and his beguiling cherubs.

My timing was good, because the restoration of what many consider Serpotta's finest work, the Oratorio of San Lorenzo, was just being finished. Although it was not yet open, a friend from the city arranged our visit through the Sicilian regional government agency in charge of art, archeological and architectural monuments. The oratorios of Palermo are simple structures not churches built over a period of some 200 years, beginning in the 16th century, as religious and social gathering places for men of the Sicilian nobility. Unremarkable outside, inside they exemplify the extravagance of the aristocrats of the era, whose various confraternities competed with each other for settings of grandeur and over-the-top ornamentation. Serpotta's virtuosity and boundless imagination made him a favorite choice for these commissions. In his hands, religious elements such as an altar and depictions of lives of the saints are combined with utterly worldly decor full figures of lovely women, playful cherubs, swirling rococo drapery, all in pure white stucco.

To go from the narrow, ancient streets of the historic section into one of these baroque spaces is to leave behind the depredations of the 20th century in Sicily and enter the world of the Palermitan nobility at the height of its splendor.

The small courtyard of San Lorenzo does little to prepare you for the sumptuous interior. Stepping into the small, startlingly white space, I was struck by its ornate elegance, the magnificent intarsio marble floor, and the large empty space over the altar, where a celebrated Caravaggio Nativity once hung (stolen in 1969, it has never been recovered).

Graceful allegorical statues of women, the Virtues, alternate with teatrini, tiny three-dimensional tableaus of the lives of St. Francis and St. Lawrence, along the side walls. Higher up are pairs of muscular male nudes, and in the midst of it all, Serpotta's celebrated putti. These mischievous cherubs, as un-religious as they can be, romp at liberty, blowing bubbles, kissing each other, whispering and generally carrying on; one putto's drawers are falling down, revealing his plump derriere. In many years of cherub- watching in art, I've never seen any to equal Serpotta's for witty playfulness and winning airs. Along the walls, the members' original benches, inlaid with mother of pearl and ivory, their pedestals superbly carved in boxwood, were getting their final touches. Somehow, in this small baroque space, all these disparate elements combine into a wondrous and slightly fantastical whole. San Lorenzo is now open for visits.

Serpotta's two other major oratorios, already splendidly restored, are open in summer and various other times (see box) and are within a five-minute walk of each other in the historic section. The Oratorio del Rosario in Santa Cita and the Oratorio del Rosario in San Domenico strike very different notes. Santa Cita is all white exuberance, its 16 graceful allegorical figures seated rather precipitously on wall ledges, their bare feet hanging casually in space; the putti here are especially outrageous and fun. It's worth spending some time absorbing all the action, including on the busy back wall, where the victory of the Battle of Lepanto is memorialized in a delicate naval scene (the galley ships have gilded oars).

Richer and more colorful, San Domenico has all its original paintings and a great Van Dyke altarpiece. Yes, there are cupids up to their old tricks, but they lose out here to some glorious fashion plates full-size statues of pretty, highly feminine, even coquettish women dressed to the nines in draped skirts, ruffled lace sleeves and elaborate coiffures. (The Inquisition must never have come this way.) Between the two, on the via dei Bambinai, look in the window of a small ex-voto shop selling church offerings in silver of whatever body part needs or received help through prayer: eyes, a pair of breasts, a leg, a foot (when I was there, a leg was 26, or about $33, and up; the smallest eyes were 15). It may be the last such shop in the city.

Before leaving the rich embrace of the baroque, I saw one more treasured oratorio, another recent and superb restoration. After our visit to San Lorenzo, the architectural authority took my friend and me to the Oratorio dei Bianchi, once the city's richest. Today this freestanding building, badly damaged in the war and long in a deteriorated state, gleams with perfection, its handsome double staircase leading up to elegant rooms, including a reception room whose original frescoes, in green and coral, have been restored with a subtle hand. Although there is not a putto to be seen the oratorio was not designed by Serpotta on the ground floor are some of his sculptures from a destroyed church that had been in storage for decades. They allow a close look at the sculptor's remarkably free hand with stucco, but the figures feel earthbound outside their usual lively framework.

For now, the Oratorio dei Bianchi is open only for occasional exhibitions. Surprisingly, Palermo isn't dotted with inviting cafes on every corner like other Italian cities. While trekking around the old section, a good place to restore yourself is the picturesque Antica Focacceria S. Francesco, directly across from the church of San Francesco de Assisi. A venerable city favorite, it offers pasta, arancini di riso tasty fried rice balls and memorably, the house specialty, the spleen sandwich. While my Palermitan companion relished hers, I fell back on the tried and true, mozzarella and tomato salad.

And not far from the Teatro Massimo opera house in the fashionable shopping district is the historic Antico Caffe Spinnato, on the via Principe di Belmonte. Dark wood paneling, good pastries and light meals and a pleasant terrace with a newsstand selling English language papers made it my favorite drop-in spot. Another Palermitan classic is Mamma Andrea, a small shop on the via Principe di Scordia, crammed with such delicacies as its own marmalades, chutneys and jams, marzipan and exotically flavored liquors like tangerine, rose and cinnamon. Back home, a little Elisir di Mandorle (elixir of almond) or a few peccatucci (praline candies covered with pistachio or chocolate) would bring back the flavors and tradition of Palermo. ***

Nancy R. Newhouse is the former travel editor of The New York Times.
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