The origins of Palermo lie in Greek and Roman settlements, and remnants of the Arab and Norman city survive, though it is the Baroque, Rococo and Neo-Classical architecture of the 17th and 18th centuries which make the city so memorable. But even the city's most precious buildings, including those in public or ecclesiastical ownership, are far from safe.
One of Palermo's most extraordinary buildings is the Palazzina Cinese - a miniature, Chinese-style palace created in 1799 by the eminent Palermitan architect Venanzio Marvuglia for King Ferdinand and Queen Maria Carolina of Naples. This royal couple took refuge from the French in Sicily in 1798 and the new palace was home to their minuscule court, which included Admiral Nelson. Nelson had orchestrated the royal escape from Naples and lived in Palermo, with Lady Hamilton, in 1799. This pair of unlikely couples enjoyed a strange and intimate relationship, with Maria Carolina asking Emma for her views on matters of state and Nelson presenting the king and queen with a set of English prints including, it is alleged, views of Lady Hamilton striking a number of her famous "attitudes".
The palazzina was furnished with a breathtaking interior which for its quality, if not its size, puts Brighton Pavilion in the shade. The first floor is decorated in an eccentric version of Chinese taste and includes a dining table furnished with plate hoists, which permitted food to be delivered from below and used cutlery to be removed without the interruption of servants. The king was a secretive man.
The ground and upper floors are decorated in Neo-Classical style with much reference to the Roman interiors then being discovered in Pompeii; the queen's apartment on the floor above includes Gothic and Turkish rooms.
The palazzina is in public ownership, but has been closed to the public for 10 years. It is meant to be under repair, but a recent visit (achieved with much difficulty) during the production of a programme for BBC2's One Foot in the Past revealed little activity and confirmed that all the original furniture and fittings are missing (including the Nelson prints, removed from the walls of the ballroom); original silk hangings are in tatters; several of the painted ceilings are badly damaged by damp; and the queen's apartment is cracked and shored up against structural movement. How can this tragedy have come about? The answers are hard to find, and it is difficult to believe assurances that all the furniture is safely in store and that the palazzina will open again in three years' time.
The process of the palazzina's decline reveals a lot about conservation in Sicily. The building is owned by the commune but its restoration is in the hands of the sopraintendenza - a central government body. But since Sicily is an autonomous region, central agencies are really only Sicilian agencies. And in Sicily a certain - famous - sense of languor presides. Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa reveals the national malaise in his novel The Leopard - the quintessential text on Sicilian attitudes. In Sicily, wrote Lampedusa, ideas and ideals, soon become "mere driftwood in the meandering stream of Sicilian pragmatism". In David Gilmore's biography of Lampedusa, the author of The Leopard is more explicit: Sicily "is the most destructive of countries", overburdened by a past for which it has little respect. This jaded view may have been partly a result of the fact that the Villa Lampedusa, a stone's throw from the Palazzina Cinese in the once salubrious Palermo suburb of San Lorenzo, and the model for the Villa Salina in The Leopard, has also been left to rot. The villa, long lost to the Lampedusa family and now owned by a religious order, is decaying, with its gardens abandoned or transformed by lax planning control (and some say Mafia influence) into building plots on which rise tall, ugly apartment blocks.
The tragedy of the palazzina and villa Lampedusa is repeated, in various shades of intensity, all over Palermo. The Via Allora, once a street of Baroque palaces, now stands forlorn, with most of the once splendid structures abandoned, tottering facades or holes in the ground. The mighty Palazzo Palagonia, where Nelson lived with Lady Hamilton, is now no more than a smudge of Tarmac, while the Palazzo Bonagia, which had what Anthony Blunt described as the best of Palermitan staircases, survives as a single- storey facade; the staircase is the subject of an uncertain, and limited, recent reconstruction.
These palazzi are said to be the victims of wartime bombing - indeed, their appearance of ancient abandonment, and the luxuriant growth of exotic plants, suggest that this may be true. But they are also the result of deliberate abandonment. After the Second World War, all who could afford to moved from the ruined and cramped historic core of Palermo, and palazzi were left empty since no one had the money or desire to buy them or to live in them. A few were converted into tenements, others into more spacious apartments. But many stood until they fell and many still stand - just - awaiting their end. The Palazzo Santa Croce-Sant'Elia presents a huge, black and brooding facade to the Via Maqueda, with all its windows stopped up and its courtyard door filthy and sealed, while the 18th-century Palazzo Merindino-Costantino offers a scene from an architectural hell: its great courtyard door wedged open, its columned and leprous courtyard packed with cars, its magnificent vaulted staircase littered with syringes and excrement and its huge apartments a pyromaniac's delight, as the various blackened comers reveal. One shopkeeper, beleaguered in a ground-floor room of the palazzo and delighted by my interest in the building, rushed from her fortified premises to assure me that this could not go on much longer. She is right, but it probably will - or at least until someone eventually succeeds in burning the palazzo down.
The fate of the Oratorio di San Lorenzo is equally bizarre. With an interior decorated in 1700 by Giacomo Serpotta, an outstanding worker in stucco, the building is one of the definitive creations of the Italian Baroque: the putti plunge from the walls in amazing abandon while St Lawrence and other saints and emblematic figures crowd the walls in a series of astonishingly lifelike attitudes. But this building, owned by the Franciscans, has been closed for years, looks like a demolition site inside and has suffered a spate of recent break-ins during which Serpotta figures have been stolen or vandalised. Why is nothing done to restore the building and open it? No one can answer. Perhaps it is because, as one official let slip, no one in Palermo really cares.
This cynical answer is not absolutely true - many people do care, but action is difficult, perhaps even dangerous. In Palermo conservation can be the death of you, since real estate is big business and criminal families find that acquiring city centre sites and constructing apartment blocks is a convenient way of laundering illegally earned money. Anyone who fights to save an old building could find himself up against unpleasant adversaries. But potential problems of this sort have not prevented the formation and achievements of Salvare Palermo, a volunteer pressure group dedicated to saving historic Palermo, and currently fighting to save Serpotta figures in the church of San Francesca. Salvare Palermo receives only sporadic financial support from the municipality or province, but it can provide a focus for an international effort to save Palermo, which, despite everything, remains one of the most fascinating and architecturally exciting of Italian cities.
Salvare Palermo can be contacted at Via Michele Amari 22, Palermo, Sicily.
The writer is the presenter of a feature about Palermo, to be broadcast in BBC2's 'One Foot in the Past' series on 15 August.Reuse content