Towards the end of the 19th century, a new artistic and architectural movement took Europe (and parts of America) by storm. Art Nouveau, as it soon became known, cast off the shackles of restrictive traditions and allowed its practitioners to (re)discover the joys of curvaceous form, non-representative design, floral motifs and cutting edge techniques. Its influences were not restricted merely to “art” but to all spheres of creativity: fashion, furniture, jewellery, lighting, wallpaper, textiles, interior design, decoration and architecture all fell under the spell of the new aesthetic.
As Art Nouveau spread, so it diversified, and soon each country had developed its own stylistic variant. Italian, and in particular Sicilian architects were amongst the most enthusiastic proponents of the new movement and their version became known as Liberty Style, in homage to the designs of Liberty & Co, London’s renowned department store.
The fin de siècle was one of Palermo’s golden ages. The huge wealth and high-powered connections of families such as the Florios and the Whitakers had turned the city into something of a playground for Europe’s elite. Money flowed freely and architects were in great demand as the city’s wealthier inhabitants vied to outdo each other with ever more prestigious palazzi and villas. Fortunately, this building boom coincided with the emergence of a group of inspired architects.
The name most commonly associated with the Liberty Style in Palermo is Ernesto Basile, who, along with his father Giovan Battista, was responsible for Palermo’s magnificent opera house, the Teatro Massimo. Giovan Battista had laid the stylistic foundations for Palermo’s Liberty movement with his seminal design for Villa Favaloro (situated on the corner of Piazza Virgilio and Via Dante) and soon Ernesto was developing his father’s architectural ideals and working on a series of iconic buildings which still adorn Palermo's streets today. These include:
Chiosco Ribaudo (1894): situated in Piazza Verdi in front of the Teatro Massimo, Chiosco Ribaudo originally sold cold drinks, newspapers and tickets for the opera. Today it sells cigarettes, stamps and tickets for Palermo’s football matches.
Villa Igiea (1899): Basile was commissioned by Vincenzo Florio to carry out a complete redesign of an existing building, now a 5-star hotel located in a superb panoramic position above the harbour of Acquasanta
Villino Florio (1902): a strikingly original villa in Viale Regina Margherita (just off Via Dante) commissioned by the heir to the Florio fortune
Villino Ida (1904) – Ernesto Basile’s own family home in Via Siracusa, just off Via Liberta
Like many Art Nouveau architects, Ernesto Basile was involved in all aspects of his projects, from the original drawings to the last lick of paint. He oversaw every detail, ensuring that all the constituent parts (flooring, ceilings, roofs, frescoes, windows, furnishings, fixtures, fittings, railings and grounds) were in-keeping with his master plan. He was fortunate to be able to call on the superior talents of artists of the calibre of Ettore De Maria Bergler (responsible for the florid frescoes that adorn the interiors of Teatro Massimo, Villa Igiea and Villa Whitaker), and master craftsmen such as Vittorio Ducrot (whose workshop designed and produced furniture, fittings and decorative pieces for Villino Florio, Villa Igiea and other projects).
Palermo’s flourishing Liberty Style was not a monopoly of the Basile family, however, and there were other talented architects working in the city, including Vincenzo Alagna (whose most famous work is Palazzo Dato - 1906 - in Via XX Settembre), Filippo La Porta (designer of Villino Caruso - 1908 - in Via Dante) and Ernesto Armò (responsible for the palatial Villa Pottino - 1915 – Via Notarbartolo).
Palermo’s Liberty Style, like all forms of Art Nouveau, had its own distinctive characteristics. While drawing on common elements such as floral motifs, reiterated patterns, organic lines, fluid shapes and curvaceous forms, Basile and his contemporaries also looked to Sicily's architectural history to inform their own particular style: crenellations, turrets and grand wooden doors hint at Sicily’s myriad mediaeval castles; arches (both rounded and pointed), double lancet windows, slender marble columns, mosaics, non-representative Islamic art and intricate mouldings echo the island’s Arab-Norman past; dynamic late Sicilian baroque flourishes add a touch of Spanish flamboyancy to the mix.
Liberty Style buildings can be found throughout Palermo but most are concentrated in three main areas: the streets running parallel to Via Libertà between Piazza Politeama and Giardino Inglese (sadly, many Liberty Style villas that once lined Via Libertà itself were demolished to make way for apartment blocks during the Mafia’s “Sack of Palermo” in the 1950s and 1960s); in Via Dante and its surrounding streets; and in Mondello, Palermo’s seaside resort. Mondello, once a tiny fishing village, became popular with Palermo’s elite at the end of the 19th century and soon Liberty Style summer villas were springing up at every corner. To serve these holidaymakers, a bathing station (stabilimento balneare) was built in splendid Liberty Style by the architect Rudolf Stualker.
While Palermo is the Liberty Style capital of Sicily, the movement spread across the island, and buildings inspired (and sometimes designed) by Ernesto Basile can be found in most towns and cites. Notable examples include the train station of Giardini Naxos (once an aristocratic palazzo), Palazzo Florio on Favignana, Palazzo Bruno di Belmonte in Ispica, Teatro Sangiorgi and Palazzo Rosa in Catania, and Villino Greco in Milazzo.
In October 2016 The Thinking Traveller and Liberty London celebrated their shared connection to Liberty Style with a window in the iconic central London department store. Read more here >>
Read more about Palermo and see our suggested itineraries >>