Itinerary 2: the Kalsa district


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La Kalsa is one of Palermo's most ancient quarters. It takes its name from the Arabic Khalisa, meaning pure, and was the main commercial centre when the city was under Arab dominion. The area is bordered to the east by the sea, to the south by the Botanical Gardens, to the west by Via Roma (one of Palermo's main arteries), and to the north by Corso Vittorio Emanuele. 

It's quite easy to spend days discovering La Kalsa, but here below are a few of the highlights, starting in at the Basilica di San Francesco d'Assisi in Piazza San Francesco, just a short stroll up Via Paternostro from Corso Vittorio Emanuele.

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Map of Palermo | Sicily

La Basilica di San Francesco d'Assisi

The wonderful Basilica di San Francesco d'Assisi provides us with a glimpse of how architectural styles evolved in Palermo after the last Arab-Norman churches were built at the end of the 12th century. Begun in 1255, it retains some of the defining aspects of the Arab-Norman style (equilateral arches, for example) but much has changed in just 60 years and the basilica is one of Palermo's first forays into a romanesque Gothic style. 

Its form is not cubic, like its older cousins, but angular, with sloping roofs at the sides and atop the elevated central section. Its portal is a grand affair, arches within arches bordered by a geometric form that echoes the shape of the whole building. Above this is a radiant rose window, completed in the early 1330s. The overall sensation is one of perfect proportion and satisfying symmetry. 

The interiors, as maybe befits a church dedicated to San Francesco, are on the ascetic side. The lofty wooden ceiling is impressive, as are the rib-vaults of the lateral aisles. The columns of the nave seem heavier set and less agile than those found in Arab-Norman churches, and the arches that rise from them, though similar in style, are not as carefree. There is, however, a light, airy atmosphere inside, thanks to the use of pale stone and a series of lofty windows that punctuate the walls. 

Outside, in and around the piazza, there are a few bars and eateries, including the famous Antica Focacceria S. Francesco, which has been serving Palermitan street food since 1834. One of the roads leading off the piazza, Via dell'Immacolatella, takes us to our next port of call, the sublime Oratorio di San Lorenzo.

L'Oratorio di San Lorenzo

In the early months of 1656, a genius was born to Palermo. His name was Giacomo Serpotta and over the nigh 80 years of his life he was to produce some of the most inspiring rococo stuccowork to be found anywhere in Europe. For many, his masterpiece is the Oratorio di San Lorenzo, which he decorated at the end of the 17th and the beginning of the 18th centuries.

On entering the Oratorio, the first thing that strikes one is the soft chalky whiteness: white walls and white ceilings provide a background for myriad, vibrant white statues. The stories of San Lorenzo and San Francesco sit side by side with allegoric representations of the virtues, while all around a hilarious airborne host of jocose, sometimes brattish putti comment on and react to what they see around them. The whole is a feast for the eyes, a breathtaking, virtuoso tour de force that captivates and diverts in equal measure.

The Oratorio di San Lorenzo is also scene of one of Palermo's greatest mysteries. On the night of 17th October 1969, under the impotent gaze of the putti, thieves stole the priceless altarpiece painting, a nativity scene by no other than Caravaggio. Conspiracy theories abound as to who was behind the theft, but no one has ever been able to shed light on the painting's destiny. Today, a copy hangs in place of the original.

A little aside about the fate of San Lorenzo, whose hagiography recounts how he was martyred by being grilled over a fire (a scene which is represented by Serpotta in the oratory). Some theologians believe that the grilling never happened and that the written account of his death contained an unfortunate typo: "assus est" (he was roasted) instead of "passus est" (he died). 

After the delights of the Oratorio di San Lorenzo, head back to Piazza San Francesco and follow the road to the right of the Basilica di San Francesco, which will take you down to Piazza Marina.

Piazza Marina

Most of Piazza Marina is given over to the Giardini Garibaldi, which was laid out after the English style in 1863 by the Palermitan architect G.B.F. Basile (whose greatest work is the Teatro Massimo). Basile planted a series of  ficus macrophylla (more commonly known as Australian Banyans or Moreton Bay Figs), one of which is now reputed to be the largest tree in Europe. Surrounding the garden and looking out onto its luxuriant green foliage is a range of restaurants, pizzerie and bars, and a series of fine buildings, including our next stop, Palazzo Steri.

Palazzo Steri (aka Palazzo Chiaramonte)

Dwarfing Piazza Marina from its northern side, Palazzo Steri is a classic example of a fortified palazzo or hosterium (whence the name Steri) built by powerful mediaeval barons to dominate and to protect themselves from the dog-eat-dog world outside. Completed in 1307 by Count Manfredi Chiaramonte, it has had a long and fascinating history.

From the outside it has a megalithic feel. Its impregnable, windowless lower walls ooze menace and its only when you look up that you will find a little architectural sophistication, evident in the rather fine double and triple-lancet windows decorated with lavastone intarsia. Crenellations run along the top of the tower, emphasising, if it wasn't already clear, that the palazzo's residents did not welcome visitors.

The internal courtyard is extremely impressive and features three elevations of wraparound loggias sprung with dynamic arches. The first floor is home to the Sala Magna, whose late 14th century painted wooden ceiling, depicting scenes from everyday life, is a masterpiece. One flight further up, is the Sala delle Capriate, so-called thanks to its floating wooden trusses.  

Palazzo Steri's inviolability, allied to its architectural splendour, appealed to those in power. After the meddlesome Chiaramonte dynasty lost its influence (and Andrea Chiaramonte his head), it became the official residence of the Spanish Viceroy. Then, from 1601 to 1782, it functioned as the Sicilian headquarters of the dreaded Spanish Inquisition. The cellars were transformed into a prison of torture chambers, and Piazza Marina became the location for brutal public executions and autos-da-fé.

Today, Palazzo Steri is home to the offices of the rector of Palermo University and, of equal importance, to Renato Guttuso’s world-famous painting of the Vucciria market. It is possible to explore the palace by joining one of the regular guided tours.

Porta Felice

Heading out of Piazza Marina from its northeastern corner, one comes to Corso Vittorio Emanuele. Turn right and you will see Porta Felice and the sea.

Work was started on Porta Felice in 1584, at the behest of the Spanish Viceroy (whose wife was Donna Felice Orsini). Formed by two unconnected semi-pyramidal pillars, one on either side of the road, it took nearly 60 years to complete. This lengthy gestation resulted in a Janus-like monument with two distinct aspects: the side facing out to sea would not be out place in renaissance Rome, while the other, looking inland, is baroque in style. This juxtaposition of two styles in one single monument chronologically pinpoints a shift in architectural aesthetics: il rinascimento was dead, long live il barocco.

Standing between the two sections of Porta Felice, one has a fabulous view up the long, straight expanse of Corso Vittorio Emanuele, at the top of which, some 2km away, one can just make out Porta Nuova.

Le Mura delle Cattive

Just before passing through Porta Felice, you will notice a flight of steps on your right. This leads up to the so-called Mura delle Cattive, a panoramic, sea-view promenade created in the 19th century atop the city's 16th century defensive walls. The name cattive does not, as you might imagine if you know some Italian, mean "bad" or "wicked", but rather "prisoners of grief", from the Latin captivae. Indeed, the promenade was originally the preserve of aristocratic widows, who could take the sea air and enjoy a passeggiata without being importuned by unsavoury members of society.

We recommend you walk along the Mura delle Cattive and take in the impressive views: on your right are some impressive noble palaces, including Palazzo Butera, while on your left is the Foro Italico and the sea. At the southern end of the Mura delle Cattive, steps take you back down to street level. Turn right here and head straight on to Via Alloro and Palazzo Abbatellis.

Palazzo Abbatellis (the Regional Art Gallery)

Completed in 1488, Palazzo Abbatellis was built in a pure Catalan Gothic style. Its perfectly proportioned façade features an ornately stone-carved doorway, double and triple-lancet windows, projecting gargoyle waterspouts, and, on either side, castellated towers. Moving inside, one comes to a delightful courtyard with a beautiful loggia. The rooms inside are equally elegant, with lofty rib-vaulted salons and a series of grand halls. 

The gallery houses a wide range of art, including a few notable masterpieces: Francesco Laurana's sculpture of Eleanor of Aragon; Antonello da Messina’s Our Lady of the Annunciation; and a famous fresco entitled The Triumph of Death, by an unnamed artist.

On exiting Palazzo Abbatellis, turn right, back towards the sea, and then right again along Via Torremuzza, an interesting street for its enormous baroque churches and its impressive aristocratic palazzi. Once you arrive at Piazza Kalsa, turn right into Via Santa Teresa and continue straight on for just over 200m, when you will see Santa Maria dello Spasimo on your right.

Santa Maria dello Spasimo

Santa Maria dello Spasimo, or Lo Spasimo as it is referred to locally, is one of Palermo's most evocative sights, an early 16th-century monastic complex with an unfinished church and a lovely raised garden. 

The land and funds for building Lo Spasimo were donated to the Olivetan order by a rich Sicilian gentleman, Jacopo de Basilicò. Work began in 1509 and should have been completed within six years, as per Pope Julius II's orders. Unfortunately, for reasons of spiralling costs and Mediterranean geopolitics, work was brought to a permanent halt in 1537. Funds and manpower were diverted to bolster Palermo's defences against the threat of an Ottoman attack, and the project never recovered. 

Even sadder (for Palermo) was the destiny of the symbol of Lo Spasimo, a painting by Raffaello commissioned by de Basilicò for the altar of the church. Entitled L'Andata al Calvario, but better known as Lo Spasimo Siciliano, it depicts the Virgin Mary's anguish (spasimo) as Jesus falls while carrying his cross up to Golgotha. Towards the end of the 16th century, the Spanish Viceroy whisked it back to Spain, where it remains today in the Museo del Prado.  

One enters Lo Spasimo via the monastery, which huddles around an internal courtyard. At the far end, an opening takes one into the church, which is a mightily impressive sight, despite, or maybe because of the absence of a roof. Looking towards the altar, one can begin to understand why the project had become so expensive: the sheer height and magnificently slender proportions of apse are inspiring, as are the lofty arches that were never to play their supporting roles. To the west end, an incline leads up to the raised gardens, which look down into the church. Mature Mediterranean pines muffle the sound of traffic and create a peaceful shady atmosphere. 

Today, Lo Spasimo is a cultural centre, a venue for jazz concerts, cinema screenings and other events. On leaving Lo Spasimo, we recommend you turn left and head a few metres up the road to Piazza Magione.

Piazza Magione 

The vast expanse of Piazza Magione is a fascinating story of urban non-planning. The area was heavily bombed during the 2nd World War but despite funding from both America and the Italian central government, nothing was done to restore the area. Indeed, the bombed out shells of buildings remained until the 1960s, when the whole area was razed to the ground and became an unofficial car park. Finally, in the 1990s, the local government acquired the land, transformed it into a large grassy quad, and planted a few trees. Today it is a play area for the quarter’s children, an occasional venue concerts during the summer, and the backdrop for one of Palermo's most important churches, La Basilica della Magione.

La Basilica della Magione

Completed in 1191, the Basilica della Magione (or, to give it its formal name, the Basilica della Santissima Trinità) was initially entrusted to Cistercian monks who inhabited the adjoining cloisters. When King Tancredi died a few years later, Henry VI (aka Holy Roman Emperor and father of Frederick II Stupor Mundi) acceded to the throne. He ejected the Cistercians and installed the Teutonic Knights, under whose aegis the church remained until the 15th century. 

The Basilica della Magione is a special piece of architecture, not only because of its unique aesthetic qualities but also because it is the last truly Arab-Norman church to be built in Sicily. It has little in common with King Roger II's great creations (the Duomo di Cefalù and the Cappella Palatina), or those of his successors, William I and William II (the latter of whom was responsible for the Duomo di Monreale). Indeed, compared with these masterpieces, the Basilica della Magione is rather plain. Its beauty lies in its proportions and its geometric harmony: its cubic main body is topped by a smaller, gable-roofed cube, while its façade is a tribute to symmetry and the equilateral arch.

Inside, La Magione is pleasingly devoid of decoration: its creamy stone walls, dancing arches, curvaceous apse and clever perspectives are allowed to speak for themselves. The adjoining cloisters, meanwhile, are imbued with the silence and calm of a millennium.

Good Thinking
If after all this culture you're in need of a drink, head Via Roma and the Hotel Ambasciatori (no. 111). They have a superbly panoramic rooftop bar from where you can both quench your thirst and take in some fabulous views of Palermo.

Itinerary 1: from the Quattro Canti to the Norman Palace
Itinerary 3: from the Capo market to the Cala marina

Museums, art galleries, music, parks and gardens in Palermo

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