Villa Palagonia: the Villa of Monsters
I have got sweet memories about Bagheria: childhood years at the nursery school, the wandering strolls in Corso Umberto I, the granita/"frutta martorana" (depending on the season) stops at the bakery shops "Il Bacio Bar" and "Anni 20", the grandiose weddings at Villa Ramacca, a young musicians competition I won at Palazzo Villarosa playing "Souvenir de la Savoie" (Jean-Baptiste Singelee).
Bagheria is a charming town in the province of Palermo; quite famous for its XVIII century historic villas, it was the summer retreat of Palermo nobility.
There is a particular aesthetic of the Sicilian baroque architecture that I appreciate: sultry and humid summer nights, buildings' yellow tuff brightened by warm yellow light, thicker outlines, enlarged shadows, warm color saturation contrasting with the darkness of the night.
Corona-time disrupted my 2020 although I would have never allowed to ruin my Sicilian holiday.
When Papi informed me of a special evening opening of Villa Palagonia, I could not avoid paying an aesthetic visit to the "villa of monsters".
Indulgent brioche with gelato at "Bar Ester", face masks on and we moved towards the villa entrance for the evening visit.
Villa Palagonia is an aristocratic villa located in Bagheria, built from 1715 by the architects Tommaso Napoli and Agatino Daidone.
Although the villa was commissioned by Ferdinando Francesco I Gravina Cruyllas, it was his homonym grandson, Ferdinando Francesco II, Prince of Palagonia, who inititated the realisation of the extensive collection of monstrous sculptures, which made the villa an idiosyncratic site of Sicilian romantic grotesque.
The Necromancer Prince
Ancient Sicilian legends narrate of the curse of Francesco Ferdinando II, who, allegedly, had the ugliest and most repugnant physical appearance; his psychosis led him to exorcise his ugliness complex commissioning the realisation of monstrous statues.
This interest for figurative turpitude gave him the wicked nickname of "Il Negromante" (The Necromancer).
He may have been not the most handsome, surely the envy for his riches and political power may animated most of the spiteful rumors against the Prince.
Historical archives, sure enough, tell of a solemn and elegant sir who held public office for the King of Naples and was involved in charitable work.
About Francesco Ferdinando II, Goethe wrote:
"Pettinato e intalcato, il cappello sottobraccio, vestito di seta, la spada al fianco, calzato elegantemente con scarpine ornate da borchie e pietre preziose. Così il vecchio incedeva con passo solenne e tranquillo; tutti gli occhi erano appuntati su di lui."
("Well groomed and all powdered, a hat under his arm, a silk suit, a sword on the side, elegantly shod with shoes adorned with studs and precious stones. The old man walked solemnly and calmly; all eyes on him.")
Recent studies hypothesize that the monsters may reflect the Prince's interest for alchemy, quite popular topic of study and discussion within European literary salons during XVIII century.
The professor Rosanna Balistreri, referring to the link between alchemy and architecture said:
"Nella piana bagherese si assiste ad una svolta nel momento in cui l' architettura diventa il sentiero entro cui strutturare il pensiero filosofico, impregnando di significati simbolici gli apparati decorativi delle ville."
(During XVIII century, in Bagheria - the architecture becomes the path through which the philosophical meditation can be visibly structured, impregnating the villas' ornamentation with symbolical meanings).
The monsters are allocated in the two lateral sectors of the Villa Palagonia: musicians in one side, grotesque creatures on the other, watching over the lush gardens.
(Apologies, it was quite dark outside and my photography skills are just bad.
Some of the photos below are not mine - link to the source added.)
The monsters' allocation and the constant presence of Mercury, alchemical god who represents the transmutation of the matter, may be interpreted as the Prince's search for harmony from music (Nigredo) to matter (Rubedo).
On 09/04/1787, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wondered around Villa Palagonia and described the exteriors oddness in his travelling memoirs "Italian Journey":
"Our entire day has been taken up with the madness of the Prince of Palagonia. His follies turned out to be quite different from anything I had imagined after hearing and reading about them.
The following list may give you a better idea of what Prince Palagonia has perpetrated in his madness:
Human beings. Beggars of both sexes, men and women of Spain, Moors, Turks, hunchbacks, deformed persons of every kind, dwarfs, musicians, Pulcinellas, soldiers in antique uniforms, gods and goddesses, persons dressed in French fashions of long ago, soldiers with ammunition pouches and leggings, mythological figures with grotesque accessories; for instance: Achilles and Chiron with Pulcinella.
Animals. Only parts of them; a horse with human hands, the head of a horse on a human body, deformed monkeys, many dragons and snakes, every kind of paw attached to every kind of body, double heads and exchanged heads.
Now imagine similar figures multiplied ad infinitum, designed without rhyme or reason, combined without discrimination or point, pedestals and monstrosities in one unending row, and the painful feelings they must inspire, and you will symphatise with anyone who has to run the gauntlet of this lunacy.”
In Faust's Walpurgis Night, time of the annual gathering of witches and spirits, Goethe depicted the monstrous creatures lost in the lust of the satanic orgy using the statues of Villa Palagonia as visual point of reference.
The romantic chaos of Walpurgis Nights was given by Goethe the ad hoc adjective of "Palagonico" ("Palagonic").
Henry Swinburne, XVIII century travel writer, wrote:
"I was in a hurry to leave this world of monsters, which almost made me giddy."
Even today, it is said, no pregnant woman should look at the "monsters" or this will cause her to suffer a miscarriage or giving birth to a deformed baby.
In 1948 the carabinieri were chasing men associated with the bandit Salvatore Giuliano, hiding the dark gardens of the villa; the morning after, the corpse of a policemen was found under the disturbing glaze of a five-eyed goblin.
Among the garden's shadows, the silent chapel (not open to visitors), it is said to hide two further oddities:
A crucifix, a chain pending from his navel interconnected with the statue of a man kneeling down, prostrating at the feet of the Divine;
The statue of a woman, the face of a fascinating muse, the horrible body eaten by worms, tremendous memento mori and reflective piece on human transience, common theme which can be observed elsewhere in the Villa.
Villa Palagonia's internal façade is magnificent, excellent example of the nigh time baroque aesthetic I mentioned in the introduction.
In the About section, I mention "Beauty" among the purposes of this blog.
The contemplation, at the garden level, of the entrance to mysterious rooms, the ubiquitous creatures' glaze, invite the visitor to move slowly and feverishly, animated by excitement for the grandiose, fear of the cursed shadows and a final sense of langueur, which can be satiated laying in the external stone benches, proudly facing the monsters.
This is "Beauty" to me, nothing else to add.
Villa Palagonia's piano nobile is accessible through a monumental external marble staircase.
Inside the Villa
The visitor is welcomed in the elliptical vestibule decorated with a mythological-based trompe-l'œil depicting four of the Twelve Labours of Heracles (Hercules in Roman):
- The slaying of the Nemean lion
- The capture of the wild boar of Mount Erymanthus
- The slaying of the nine-headed Hydra of Lerna
- The capture of the elusive hind of Arcadia
The most extraordinary and enigmatic room among all is the "La Sala degli Specchi" (The Hall of Mirrors).
Still in the vestibule, the entrance to the hall of mirrors is anticipated by the following hendecasyllables:
«Specchiati in quei cristalli e nell'istessa
magnificenza singolar contempla
di fralezza mortal l'immago espressa.»
(Look at yourself in the crystals and within their same magnificence contemplate the reflection of your ephemeral mortal image).
The mirrors, located in the roof and walls, deformed and duplicated the visitor's mirrored image, creating a unique kaleidoscopic and asphyxial visual effect: the Necromancer Prince said this had the thought-provoking purpose of inviting each visitor to reflect about the egotistical vanity and feeble fragility of humanity.
Today, the mirrors are completely mottled.
The hall of mirrors was also used as the location for political receptions, hence the busts representing French and Italian nobility.
The rooms are completely empty, no furniture in sight.
Few descriptions narrate of the Prince's eccentricity extended to the furniture.
Goethe described covered chairs with hidden spikes to "surprise" the
the unaware visitor.
The grotesque Beauty of Villa Palagonia has been partially destroyed by the pitiless urbanisation of Bagheria; the Castronovo family saved the Villa from oblivion buying it in 1872, opening it to tourism and events (although some areas remain, as of today, still private).
I have been to Villa Palagonia multiple times; my fascination for the Necromancer, the "palagonic" monsters, the Sicilian baroque degenerated by grotesque idiosyncrasies never ceased.
For the Beauty-seeking traveler, if in the Palermo area, Villa Palagonia is an inevitable place to visit.
Three years ago, I took part to a Duca di Salaparuta wine tasting event; I quite like these photos took by the Sorella so, although old, why not, let me show them off.