I spent my last full day in Palermo at Monreale, documenting the state of each pair of columns in the Cloister. I have more photos of columns than I could ever want, I think, and have a lot to report at a slightly later date. In any case, I had a fantastic day at Monreale: mosaics, a lunch of orange, almond cookies and espresso, and a thunderstorm in the Cloister.
It started to sprinkle, like a sun shower, at the tail end of my espresso. I returned to the Cloister and immediately felt the pre-thunderstorm chill. The Cloister was absolutely freezing. Remember, the aisles have not seen the sun since being completed at the end of the 12th century. I wrapped my scarf all around my head and sat alone in the dark and frigid cloister. The sight was actually pretty incredible and it felt like the whole sky was just pouring into this 155×155’ box. I tried to take some photos but I’m not sure they convey the real wrath of the sky. And the echo! The echo of the thunder in the Cloister was insane. It sounded like war and tumbled down the aisles like a horse would.
I must have looked like a Benedict fanatic or something, with my scarf wrapped all around my head and curled up in the corner reading my notes from the Salvini book on the Cloister, because I got a very suspicious look from a woman who works there. She walked by me and looked confused as to why I would still be there and probably wondering what on earth I was doing there for hours. Note: having stayed there for hours, I noticed that everyone, even tour groups with a knowledgeable guide, spend approximately half an hour in the Cloister. This is way too little time and they literally run past some of the more interesting capitals. No one even looks at the mosaics seriously – they are constantly focused up, at the capitals, and never consider the little pieces that make the whole place glitter.
The rain was intense, but it only lasted about 15 minutes. The sun began to defeat the clouds and I felt lucky to have weathered the (literal) storm to see the Cloister sort of wake up and begin to shine again, prettier than before.
Before I left I ended up making friends with the suspicious woman, Francesca, who I learned is the custodian of the Cloister. We took a little walk around the Cloister and I pointed out my favorite capital, as well as some of my observations (coming soon, I promise), which she had never noticed. She told me that the Cloister of Monreale was a candidate for UNESCO protection, which would be a great indication of its importance and hopefully assist in the preservation efforts.
I returned to Palermo with enough time to go to the Galleria Regionale, which is Palermo’s contemporary art museum. Here I saw “Il Triofono delle Morte,” which is a fresco painted in 1446 by an unknown artist. In case you’re wondering, Picasso painted Guernica in 1937. Before being moved to the Galleria this Il Triofono was on a prominent wall in the Hospitale di Palermo. That’s right: a hospital. That is the Sicilian psychology, according to the tour guide I was creeping on.
I had a chance to see Antonello da Messina’s La Annunciata, which is incredible and unlike any other work depicting the annunciation. Unfortunately, my camera died just as I was attempting a photo so here is one from the internet:
The guide in the museum pointed out that unlike other annunciation scenes, Antonello da Messina uses a point of natural light, not divine, which is in the style of Flemish artists, and does not include any hint of an angel. Instead, this Madonna is listening to her own internal voice telling her of her fate. She seems to also be truly considering the news and bearing the weight rather than being shocked or scared or confused like some other Madonnas seem to suggest. This Madonna is mature and thoughtful and a strong woman, which I like. Antonello da Messina, who was one of the first Italian artists to master oil painting (according to the guide) which is in turn remarkable since he was never in the Netherlands, is gifted with the ability to arrest the viewer’s attention with what appear to be simple portraits. His portraits are, in fact, complex and realistic while still conveying ideal concepts – like the human pain of Christ, or the overwhelming responsibility of Mary.
I was happy to have found and visited La Galleria Regionale, but as I left I became even happier: I knew where I was!
Leaving the museum, I realized I was parallel to Via Roma and decided to continue on the north side of the city, near the port. The port is very round and as I approached the top (which is actually the most southern point) of the half-rotary street, I realized exactly where I was: the same place where I felt so lost on Day 1! I continued up the street, towards what I now knew would be Via Roma and ended up at Piazza San Domenico. The glory, pride, pure joy that I felt upon finally understanding Palermo’s streets is indescribable.
I made my way back to my hotel on wings and then got ready for dinner. I decided to go back to Il Culinario (the orange place) to see my new friends. We talked a lot in Italian and I learned that it’s not always the speed of the words, but the speed at which subjects change in Palermo that makes the language so difficult. I would literally be answering one question and already I was behind because the subject had changed from what I want to study to Marcello Mastroianni (not the worst change in subject).
I got a little information from Giuseppe and Giacomo, 23 and 26 respectively, on La Mafia, which was valuable. They were quite open about it being a big problem, especially for the image of Palermo and Sicily, but Giuseppe pointed out that Palermo and Cosa Nostra are inseparable – the history of the city is the history of the mafia. Still, they hate that that is all Americans and the rest of the world know. They, and Silvo – the owner, were thrilled to hear that I am a fan of Sicily, of Palermo, and i Palermitani. Somewhat shocked, but happy. I Palermitani are truly some of, if not the, warmest (after suspicious) people I have ever encountered. Given a chance, they will help you in any way possibe, feed you well, and accompany you home if it’s dark.
True to form, Giacomo and his friend, now mine as well, Christina offered to take me to my hotel. I accepted and on the way we decided to have un po di cafe. After an espresso we went to Mondello, where Giacomo and Christina showed me the prettiest street in Palermo, “La Favorita,” and the grande ville of Mondello. It was a beautiful drive, enhanced by the blasting Italian pop from Giacomo’s new speakers, and we concluded our giro piccolo (little trip) with gelato at Giacomo’s uncle’s place.
In all, my last full day in Palermo was bellissimo. For the first time I am sad to leave and I am already thinking of ways to come back very soon. Palermo is at first glance, a poor city but upon closer inspection it is truly rich in its history, its culture, and in the beautiful and passionate character of its people. Grazie mille a Palermo ed ai miei amici nuovi per 5 giorni perfetti!!