Palermo is Sicily’s vibrant capital city. It also happens to be the largest city on the island and, arguably, one of the most cultural. It was named the Italian Capital of Culture in 2018, and collectively its historic Arab-Norman architecture is on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
With such a rich and varied history, Palermo is absolutely filled with sights of special interest to travelers such as churches and palaces featuring different architectural styles, museums, theaters, and more. Over the years the city has also served as inspiration for important works of literature as well as film. In addition to these tangible aspects, the language of the locals is a key part of Palermo’s culture.
In addition to Italian, the Sicilian language is widely spoken on the island of Sicily. Designated as a minority language by UNESCO, Sicilian is recognized as the modern Italian language with the oldest literary tradition. The city of Palermo is home to the Palermitano dialect, with unique words and idioms that differ from standard Sicilian. Both the Palermitano dialect and the Sicilian language have been influenced by other languages such as Greek, Germanic, Arabic, French, and more. Sicilian is not an official language of the island, yet many families use this language to communicate amongst themselves instead of standard Italian, especially the older generations. Today, the written Sicilian language may be featured in local poetry as well as theater, and, to a lesser extent, in film and music.
From enjoying unique puppet theatres to strolling the bustling street markets to sightseeing the various architectural monuments, a visit to Palermo promises travelers fascinating history and rich culture at every turn.
In 2018, Palermo hosted Manifesta, an internationally-acclaimed art festival for contemporary works. The festival is held every two years in a different European city. Palermo was a fitting choice, as the city’s culture has been shaped by centuries of multicultural art. Travelers can experience art throughout the entire city, from the architecture of the buildings to inside the city’s historic churches, expansive museums, and more.
Palermo’s local art movement evolved over many centuries with countless influences. Among Palermo’s most important native artists are two key artistic families. The first family, the Gagini, was instrumental to the creation of sculpture and architecture during the Italian Renaissance. The principal artist of the family was Antonello Gagini, whose works can be admired in Palermo as well as other parts of Sicily and the region of Calabria. Gagini’s sons, Giacomo, Fazio, and Vincenzo, followed in their father’s footsteps, as did the son of Giacomo, Annibale, who was both a sculptor and goldsmith. Collectively, the members of the Gagini family are responsible for a great number of Renaissance Era sculptures and architecture principally in Palermo and the surrounding province, but also in other parts of Sicily as well.
The second key artistic family from Palermo was the Serpotta family. In particular, Giacomo Serpotta is renowned for revolutionizing the stucco method and elevating it from a poor art to a highly sought-after technique. He is considered to be one of the best sculptors of his time. Like the Gagini family, the Serpotta family was greatly intertwined with the local art scene. Serpotta’s brother, Giuseppe was also a sculptor, as was Giacomo’s own son, Procopio, and Procopio’s son, Giovan Maria.
In 1780, the Accademia di Belle Arti di Palermo (the city’s art academy) was founded. Over the years, many of Palermo’s most influential artists have either studied or taught at the academy. One notable example is twentieth century painter Mario Bardi, who was known for his realist works. Past directors of the academy include Salvatore Lo Forte, a painter whose works can be admired in Palermo’s churches and the Galleria Regionale della Sicilia (Regional Art Gallery of Sicily), Eustachio Catalano, a post-impressionist painter, and Pippo Rizzo, a modern painter and sculptor whose works are displayed at the Galleria d’Arte Moderna di Palermo (Modern Art Gallery of Palermo).
As one may imagine, the churches and museums of Palermo are filled with priceless works from the city’s major artistic periods.
Among the city’s most important museums, the Regional Archeological Museum A. Salinas houses a variety of ancient art pieces from the area’s history, including terracotta and bronze sculptures from Punic times, ancient mosaics, and Roman statues. The building that houses the museum has a fascinating history as well. It is a former convent with three courtyards that suffered damage during World War II. Today only the marble columns and arches of the first courtyard remain. While exploring the complex, visitors will find a sixteenth century fountain as well as chapels and a beautiful seventeenth century loggia decorated with maiolica tiles.
The Regional Gallery of Sicily located in Palazzo Abatellis offers a comprehensive look at several of the major artistic periods in the city’s history. The building itself dates back to the late fifteenth century and is an excellent example of Gothic-Catalan architecture. Palazzo Albatellis has hosted the art gallery since 1953 and the museum’s collections include medieval paintings and crosses, Arab artifacts, and seventeenth- and eighteenth-century paintings. Annunziata by Antonello da Messina, a painting highly representative of the Italian Renaissance movement as a whole, is perhaps the most important painting in the museum’s collection.
Picking up where the Regional Gallery leaves off, the Galleria d’Arte Moderna di Palermo (Modern Art Gallery of Palermo) displays Italian art from the eighteenth century to the twentieth century. There are more than 150 paintings and more than 30 sculptures on display, many of which were purchased at the Venice Biennale art exhibitions. The museum is housed in a fifteenth century palace built by a Catalan merchant.
Palermo is also home to the Museo d’Arte Contemporanea della Sicilia (the Contemporary Art Museum of Sicily). Thematically, the Contemporary Art Museum exhibits the work of Sicily’s new generation of artists covering a period of approximately 60 years. The museum features both a permanent collection as well as interesting temporary exhibitions.
Another key art gallery is housed in Villa Zito, an eighteenth-century palace that has been renovated several times. The villa hosts a collection of art spanning from the seventeenth century to the twentieth century with countless Italian greats represented including Salvator Rosa and Renato Guttuso.
Outside of the museums, some of the best places to experience art are the city’s monuments. One example is the bustling Piazza Pretoria, which features a wonderful fountain with sixteen unique statues of people and mythical creatures. It was built during the Spanish Inquisition and caused quite a stir when the nude statues were unveiled for the first time. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the fountain was seen as a representation of the corrupt city government and wasteful spending due to the costs to purchase the fountain and to maintain it. For this reason, many Palermitani at the time nicknamed it “The Fountain of Shame.”
The architecture of Palermo is perhaps the most notable evidence of the city’s cultural heritage. The buildings, churches, and monuments throughout Palermo are known for their architectural variety, which includes Arab and Norman influence, Byzantine features, Gothic details, and more.
The Cathedral of Palermo is one of the city’s most stunning architectural sites. It was built in the early 1000s and has since been rebuilt and remodeled numerous times. It was originally a Byzantine building, but was then transformed into a Mosque. Eventually, it became a Christian cathedral and now includes Gothic features. Additional renovations in the eighteenth century gave the building a Neo-Classical feel.
Other important religious buildings in Palermo include San Giovanni Degli Eremiti – a church dating back to the sixth century, the Cappella Palatina – the royal chapel in the Palazzo dei Normanni renowned for its gold mosaics and blending of the Byzantine, Norman, and Arab styles, and the Church of San Cataldo – a church with a blend of Arab and Norman architecture.
Palaces are also an excellent representation of Palermo’s vast architectural heritage. Originally built by King Ferdinand III of Bourbon, the Palazzina Cinese is one of the most eclectic buildings in Palermo. It is a fusion of Chinese, Gothic, Egyptian, and Arab decorative elements. Another palace, La Cuba, is a spectacular Norman palace that was built in the early 1000s and features Arab influences.
Another remarkable example is Casa Basile, which was designed by Ernesto Basile, one of Palermo’s master architects. What Gagini and Serpotta did for sculpture, Ernesto Basile did a few centuries later for architecture. Basile’s designs heavily featured elements of modernism and he was a strong proponent of the Liberty Style (Art Nouveau). Some of Basile’s most stunning works include the Teatro Massimo, Palermo’s main theater and the largest in Italy, and the aforementioned Casa Basile. Characterized by a simple exterior and a rational interior, Casa Basile is a prime example of Basile’s interpretation of the Liberty style.
The Neo-Gothic Palazzina dei Quattro Pizzi is considered to be one of the most unique buildings in Palermo, an impressive title considering that Palermo is filled with buildings that are distinct and out of the ordinary. The main architectural elements of the building are the four turrets that extend into the sky. Commissioned by the Florio family, the interior is lavish and grand. Among the admirers of the palace was Russian Czar Nicholas I who it is believed was so taken by the Palazzina that he wished to recreate the interior at his imperial residence.
The fifteenth century Ajutamicristo Palace was once the residence of Guglielmo Ajutamicristo, a wealthy merchant turned nobleman originally from Pisa. After it was built, the palace welcomed nearly all of the kings and nobles that visited the city or resided in Palermo. Among its splendid interiors, the ballroom in particular deserves a mention due to the stunning ceiling frescoes by Giuseppe Crestadoro.
In addition to the magnificent noble and royal palaces, even Palermo’s civil buildings can be striking. One such example is the Praetorian Palace, which dates back to 1470. After undergoing many transformations, today the palace’s notable features include a statue of Santa Rosalia on the façade and numerous statues of eagles, a symbol of the city that represents power.
The Greek Gate is a remarkable example of the city’s infrastructure. Originally built in the fourteenth century then rebuilt several times and even moved, the current appearance is in the Mannerist style.
As a whole, Sicily has influenced literature since the twelfth century with the development of the Sicilian School, and the city of Palermo was one of the centers of the movement. Lyrical poetry flourished in the Court of Frederick II and during this time local poets introduced the sonnet. In addition to poetry, Sicilian literature during the Middle Ages focused on a variety of subjects including mathematics, astrology, and Arabic philosophical literature.
Famous writers who hailed from Palermo include Luigi Natoli – a novelist and journalist known for his novel I Beati Paoli, a Sicilian historical novel, and Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa – a writer known for his novel Il Gattopardo, which is considered to be one the most significant works of modern Italian literature and was made into a famous film of the same name in 1963 by Luchino Visconti.
With such a vast history and varied culture, it is fitting that Palermo hosts the Festival of Migrant Literature. This festival, which honors not only literature but also art, music, and theater, is home to nearly 100 artistic events and features nearly 40 authors and their works.
MUSIC & THEATHER
Palermo is an excellent city to enjoy music. It is home to one of Europe’s largest opera houses, the Teatro Massimo. Famous for its stunning architecture, lavish interior, and frescoed ceiling. It hosts concerts, operas, and theatrical performances, as well as summer concerts outside the theater.
Another historic theater to visit is the Teatro Politeama. Prior to Teatro Massimo’s reopening, it was the heart of Palermo’s cultural life, hosting the city’s best theater performances and operas. Today the theater is the home of the Orchestra Sinfonica Siciliana, which features an operatic and orchestral season from October to June.
Several important musicians were Palermo natives including the composer Sigismondo d’India and Baroque composer Alessandro Scarlatti, one of the fathers of the Neapolitan musical school.
If it’s more modern or popular music you’re looking for, the nightlife scene in Palermo is bustling. Music genres of all kinds can be heard in the city’s various night clubs, pubs, bars, and restaurants.
Palermo is also one of the key cities of Sicily’s historic Opera dei Pupi, or Puppet Theater. This Sicilian tradition featuring handcrafted wooden marionettes dates back to the 1800s. The puppet shows recreate important scenes from epic tales of chivalry, romantic poems (such as Orlando Furioso), or important events from Sicily's history (such as battles between the Normans and the Saracens). Often implementing comedy and folklore, these shows are an emblem of Sicily's traditional folk-art. Though the plots tend to follow a traditional storyline, each show is unique since dialogue is improvised by the puppeteers.
For several centuries there were many notable family-run puppet companies throughout Sicily, each with its own style and particular traditions. During the 20th century, puppet shows began to decline as modern forms of entertainment became increasingly popular. Despite this, the Opera dei Pupi remains an important symbol of Sicilian culture and it has been recognized by UNESCO as an example of Intangible Cultural Heritage. Today, a handful of local theaters keep the tradition alive for curious locals and visitors alike.
Among the many films set in Palermo, perhaps the most notable is 1963’s Il Gattopardo directed by Luchino Visconti, which was an adaptation of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s famous novel.
Other classic Italian films that were filmed in Palermo include Cento giorni a Palermo (1983) and Johnny Stecchino (1991).
Several important examples of modern Italian cinema have been filmed in Palermo or the surrounding province as well, including I cento passi (2000), La meglio gioventù (2003), and Baarìa (2009), which was directed by Giuseppe Tornatore.
For film buffs, be sure to visit Palermo’s famed Teatro Massimo. This legendary theater is where the final scene of The Godfather Part III was filmed.
Finally, Palermo is also the home of several important Italian directors including Oscar Nominee Luca Guadagnino, Pierfrancesco Diliberto, and Roberto Andò.
Palermo is a city with centuries of history. The Regional Archeological Museum Antonio Salinas is one of the city’s main museums that showcases this history in detailed and expansive ways. One of Italy’s main museums, the Regional Archeological Museum houses artifacts and remains from Punic and Ancient Greek times to Phoenician times, Roman times, and more.
The museum is divided into sections – one devoted to underwater artifacts, one focusing on Phoenician history, and a Roman collection.
From sculptures to remnants of ancient structures to artifacts from centuries past, the Regional Archeological Museum is an amazing testament to the scientific and historical background of Palermo.
Furthermore, several important Italian scientists over the centuries were sons of Palermo, including the botanist Filippo Parlatore, the chemist Stanislao Cannizzaro, and the mathematician Giovanni Battista Guccia, among many others.
Palermo is a fascinating city with enough cultural attractions to keep travelers occupied for weeks. An essential stop on any vacation to Sicily, Palermo is sure to enchant with its historic charms.
It was wonderful. Definitely one of the best vacations we have ever taken. We spent 5 days in Rome, 5 days in Positano, 8 days in Sicily and
"Hi Tommaso, what a trip! I'm now sitting outside my room looking at the valley of the temples writng the notes "amazing" Mary and myself ha
"Tommaso, we are having a wonderful time on our trip. We just left Sicily and are enjoying our day in Sorrento."