The remarkable history of Zu Nillu


What's in a name?

Zu Nillu sits in an impressive panoramic position looking out over the gorgeous aquamarine sea of Cala Rossa to one side and its deep sunken gardens and pool to the other.  Zu Nillu is built above an ancient tufa stone quarry on Favignana dating back to Roman times. Where for millennia men toiled in the blazing sun, now there is an enchanting Mediterranean garden with myriad secret corners and a sparkling, utterly private pool.

On her 18th birthday Petronilla became a man.

The house itself was built in the mid-19th century for the quarry's owner, a hard-working man, who, like most Sicilian men of the time, yearned for a son to one day take over the family business. In 1867 his wife fell pregnant and the next year, to the quarry owner's great chagrin, a baby girl was born. Petronilla, however, would not grow up to disappoint, but to amaze: after 17 years and 364 days as a female, on her 18th birthday Petronilla became a man!

No one knows exactly how or why this happened, but documents in the births and deaths registry attest to the fact that Petronilla was indeed born female and died male. Petronilla, who soon changed his name to Nillo (or Nillu in dialect), eventually replaced his father as head of the quarry, where he remained for the rest of his long life. Indeed, Nillu was still going strong at 99 years of age and destined to complete his own personal century.

100th birthdays were an extremely rare event on Favignana and a cause for institutional celebration. Thus, to mark the occasion of Nillu's milestone, the mayor and the town band marched to Nillu's house to pay their respects with a special performance in his honour. Halfway through their serenade, however, Nillu died.

Nillu's extraordinary life became very much part of the island's folklore and inspired a novel and, Viola di Mare (Purple Sea in English). Shot entirely on Favignana, San Vito lo Capo and Trapani, Viola di Mare won two awards at the New Italian Film Festival in 2009 and received great acclaim at the Nice Film Festival in the same year.
After Nillu’s death in 1968, the house was abandoned until the 1990s, when it was bought and converted into what it is today. Bedrooms and terraces were added and the quarry was transformed into a sunken garden with pool. The present owner, Ricky Tognazzi, a famous actor and director born to a British mother and the renowned Italian film star Ugo Tognazzi, bought the house in the early 21st century and has continued its transformation. Naming it was easy: Zu Nillu!

Find out more about Favignana and the Egadi Islands >>

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