Only if someone visit Sicily by car can admire its unique history and today’s everyday life. Each new step, offers new amazement to the traveller.
Bagheria is a small coastal town 15km close to Palermo in Sicily. In the past this place became a fashionable summer resort for Palermo’s noble class and a way to escape from the scorching heat of their own town. The novelist Dacia Maraini, in her memoir recalled “the atmosphere of a summer garden enriched by lemon groves and olive trees, poised between the hills, cooled by the salt winds.”
Nowadays, it is not possible Bagheria to be considered as an attractive destination even if many of its villas in Sicilian baroque style [more about this style here]still exists (not all of the open to the public). Dynasties faded and modern buildings and factories encroached its past beauty.
Villa Cattolica (1736) houses the Town Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art. Paintings by various artists can be found there, including Renato Guttuso, whose monumental tomb is situated in the grounds of the Villa, as Bagheria is the birthplace of the painter. Also other well-known figures of the 20th century were born there: the poet Ignazio Buttita, the photographer Ferdinardo Scianna, the artists Renato Guttuso and Nico Garajo and the film director Giuseppe Tornatore.
Villa Palagonia is another (and probably the last) attraction for today’s visitor. Designed by Tommaso Maria Napoli, its construction began in 1715. The owner was Don Ferdinando Gravina and Crujllas, 5th Prince of Palagonia, Peer of the Realm, Knight of Toson d’Oro, a prestigious honour bestowed by the king of Spain. Another Sicilian architect Agostino Daidone, also engaged as assistant during the work on the villa.
Known as the “Villa dei Mostri” (Villa of the Monsters), Villa Palagonia took this name by the hideous decorations added as desired by the prince’s grandson, Francesco Ferdinando Gravina e Alliata in 1749.
Francesco ordered a series of bizarre statues to be placed atop the wall fencing the villa. Of the original 200 statues, 62 remain today. When Goethe visited the villa appalled by its “bad taste and folly.” He described this parade of figures as “beggars of both sexes, men and women of Spain, Moors, Turks, hunchbacks, deformed persons of every kind, dwarfs, musicians, Pulcinellas.” and also about the animals Goethe said “deformed monkeys, many dragons and snakes, every kind of paw attached to every kind of body, double heads and exchanged heads.”
It is said that apart from his hunched back Francesco had a deformed mind too. As his wife was known to have had a male harem, the 7th prince of Palagonia ordered artists to make caricatures of these men to embarrass her. Of course the interior fallows the eccentric tastes of the prince. Rumours about hidden spikes under the velvet seats, sets of fine Chinese porcelain glued together in a sticky mess and mirrors built into the walls to distort the figures of the visitors. The “Hall of Mirrors” remains until today and also many (ugly) portraits (probably the prince by that way took his revenge) of his heirs, but as the entire villa needs a major restoration.
Some shots of the villa can be found in the film “Il Mafioso” (1962, eight years before “The Goadfather”), directed by Alberto Lattuada and staring the great Italian actor Antonio Alberto Sordi.
Since 1885 the villa is property of the Castronovo family.
(All images by the author)