PALERMO, A CITY WITH A THOUSAND FACES
Crossroads of sailors, melting pot of cultures, styles, languages and religions; city of churches built on ancient mosques, unique mosaics in the world, courtyards, gardens and markets smelling of East, and streets with Italian, Arabic and Hebrew names. Palermo is a city which shows its multi-ethnic past in every corner: here the Byzantine, Arab and Norman preciousness live together with the Baroque and Liberty style.
Nestled between the sea, the promontory of Monte Pellegrino (defined by Goethe "the most beautiful promontory in the world") and the citrus groves of the Conca d'Oro, the city has been inhabited since the Paleolithic period. During the Phoenician domination, in the VIII century B.C., its port became the major stop for trade traffic in the whole Mediterranean; moreover, the name Palermo (from the Greek Panormus) means "all port".
After the Phoenician, Carthaginian and Roman period, under the Arab domination (831-1072) the city experienced a period of great economic, political and demographic growth. It was elected capital of the independent emirate of Sicily, and its cosmopolitan population (including Arabs, Greeks, Latins of various origins and Jews) reached in a short time 300 thousand inhabitants.
With the Normans (1072-1194), the city knew a magnificent period of splendor, wealth and architectural flourishing, whose maximum expression are the monuments of the Norman Arab Itinerary, included in the World Heritage List by UNESCO since 2015. Real masterpieces of art, result of the work of Arab-Muslim, Greek-Byzantine and Norman-Catholic masters, they are: the Royal Palace or the Normans Palace (dating back to 1132, the oldest royal residence in Europe and seat of the historian Sicilian Parliament), the Palatine Chapel (1130-1143), the Cathedral (1184), the church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti (1136), the Church of Santa Maria dell'Ammiraglio or church della Martorana (1143), the church of San Cataldo (between 1154 and 1160), the Castello della Zisa (1165), the Ponte dell'Ammiraglio (between 1154 and 1160).
With Federico II di Svevia, the stupor mundi, Palermo became a great cultural center: from about 1220 until his death, the king promoted the "literature" through the poetry of the Sicilian School, which had a considerable influence on literature and modern Italian language.
Then, Angioini, Aragonesi, Spagnoli and Borbone alternated each other. Valuable architectural evidence of these centuries, in Chiaramonte and Gothic-Catalan style, are: the church of San Francesco d'Assisi, with its original Swabian-Angevin structure (1255) and restorations of fourteenth and fifteenth centuries; the fourteenth-century Palazzo Chiaramonte Steri in Piazza Marina, home of the powerful Chiaramonte family and seat of the Court of the Inquisition between 1601 and 1782; the fifteenth-century Palazzo Pretorio (Town Hall); the Archbishop's Palace, built in the fifteenth century with reconstructions of eighteenth century; the Palazzo Abatellis of the late fifteenth century, seat of the Regional Gallery that houses works of art from the Middle Ages to the eighteenth century (including masterpieces by Antonello da Messina and Francesco Laurana); the church of S. Maria della Catena (between 1490 and 1520) with statues attributed to the school of Gagini; the sixteenth-century church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, called the "Gancia", with stuccos by Serpotta and paintings by Pietro Novelli; the monumental Porta Nuova of 1583, for centuries the most important access to the city by land (Mannerist style).
Also noteworthy are the monuments in Baroque style, such as: the imposing Fontana Pretoria of the sixteenth century, also called Fontana della Vergogna due to the nudity of its statues; the octagonal Piazza Vigliena, better known as "Quattro Canti", at the crossroads of the two main roads of Palermo, the Via Maqueda and the Càssaro (now Via Vittorio Emanuele, an ancient Phoenician road), decorated with statues and fountains dating back to the seventeenth century; the elegant church of S. Giuseppe dei Teatini (seventeenth century); the beautiful church of San Domenico (1640) which overlooks the square of the same name; the church of the Gesù or Casa Professa (1564), with its very rich decorations in marbles, stuccoes, Gagini's sculptures and paintings by Novelli. The stuccos that decorate the Oratories of S. Cita (1686-1718) and of S. Lorenzo (1699), which could be attributed to Giacomo Serpotta, are also wonderful.
A walk to the Botanical Garden (1789), renowned because it preserves specimens coming from all over the world, and among the picturesque historical markets, which are ideal for those who want to make a dive in the gastronomic traditions of Palermo: Vuccirìa, Ballarò, Capo and Borgo Vecchio.
Other attractions of the city are the Palazzina Cinese (1799), with its original mix of styles; the Neoclassical Teatro Massimo (1897), a prestigious temple of opera; the Politeama Garibaldi Theater, built in the mid-nineteenth century in Pompeian style; the Teatro dell'Opera dei Pupi, whose protagonists have always been Charlemagne and his paladins. Along Via Libertà, shaded by trees, the nineteenth-century Art Nouveau architecture triumphs. There are many museums that preserve works of great historical and artistic value: the Antonio Salinas Regional Archaeological Museum, the Pitrè Ethnographic Museum, the Sant'Anna Modern Art Gallery, the Mormino Museum and the Villa Zito Art Gallery, the Museum of Contemporary Art Palazzo Riso, to name but a few.
The surroundings of Palermo are also enchanting: from Mondello, the beach renowned for its crystal clear sea, to the Sanctuary of S. Rosalia on Monte Pellegrino, up to Monreale, with its extraordinary monuments in Arab-Norman style, the Cathedral and the Cloister of the 1174.