Insight Pocket Guide: Sicily

Travel Books: Italy

Sicily is an intoxicating island, from its classical temples and volcanic eruptions to its pagan festivals, princely food and decadent palaces in Palermo.


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Aristocratic Lives

Under Spanish rule, the aristocracy acquired a taste for spagnolismo, pomp and circumstance "Spanish-style." Prince Lampedusa’s vision of this splendour was one Sicilians would die for: “The ballroom was all golden; smoothed on cornices, stippled on door-frames, damascened pale, almost silvery, over darker gold on door panels and on the shutters which covered and annulled the windows, conferring on the room the look of some superb jewel-case shut off from the unworthy world.”

The grandeur intensified under the Bourbons when status-seeking required the purchase of illustrious titles, no matter how undeserved. The puritanical House of Savoy had little effect on patrician tastes in 18th-century Sicily. A palace in Palermo and a villa in Bagheria were the minimum required to keep up appearances. Lampedusa described his villa at Santa Margherita as “an eighteenth-century Pompeii.” Palermo’s Gangi palace and Villa Palagonia at Bagheria are equally lavish. Palazzo Gangi-Valguernera’s sumptuous interior caused a contemporary English visitor to remark of the Palermitan aristocracy: “Their time is wasted in balls, masquerades and dissipation.”

So competitive was the race for status that the nobility pleaded with the King to outlaw the extravagance. They complained that the lower classes were aping them in dowries, funerals and retinues. The government dutifully put a ceiling on such expenditure, but all that achieved was social kudos for those who could afford to buy exemptions. Victor Amadeus’s attempt to limit carriage ownership was no more successful, and Palermo had bad traffic jams. Nobles were urged to come into town by horse instead of carriage. The afternoon carriage drive remained de rigueur. However, the Bourbons banned Prince Lampedusa’s grandfather from the seafront after he drove his carriage stark naked. On asking why dung was never swept up, Goethe was told that the gentry preferred the soft ride for their carriages.

Extract from The Pocket Guide to Sicily by Lisa Gerard-Sharp (copyright © APA Publications (UK) Ltd)
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