Palermo offers more than just stunning natural beauty and old-world Italian charm. The capital of Sicily has also quietly transformed into an art world must-visit destination.
August 16, 2018
by Liddy Berman
Location, location, location. When it comes to selecting the host city for Manifesta 12, the European Nomadic Biennial, organizers have the unusual luxury (and pressure) of choosing a place that can reflect and advance the theme of their show. For the 2018 edition in Palermo, Italy’s “Capital of Culture” for 2018, the location is so successful that, at times, it can eclipse the art.
Palermo, given the unenviable sobriquet of “most conquered city in the world” by historians, has been a nexus of prominent cultures since its foundation in the 8th century BC by Phoenician traders. Since then, Ancient Greeks, Etruscans, Carthaginians, Romans, Arabs, Normans, Byzantines, the royal houses of Anjou and Aragon, Napoleonic France, and, most recently, the American and British Allies of World War II, have all held and lost it over the millennia. While this history of conquest and loss has certainly taken its toll, it has also given the city an impossibly rich cultural legacy that spans the most significant empires of the past three thousand years.
This is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the careful selection of Manifesta’s venues. Spearheaded by Ippolito Pestellini Laparelli, a Sicilian-born partner of Rem Koolhaas’ architecture firm OMA and one of the four “creative mediators” selected by founding director Hedwig Fijen, an urban research study was carried out to map the cultural, social, religious, ethnic, and geopolitical complexities of the city. The result was a list of venues so rich in historical significance that they occasionally go further than the selected artworks in conveying and embodying Manifesta’s theme: “The Planetary Garden. Cultivating Co-existence.”
Much of the artwork in the “Planetary Garden” focuses on the recent international refugee crisis, with a strong undercurrent encouraging multicultural acceptance and, more pointedly, advocating for political support for beleaguered immigrants. To carry out this message, many artists chose video as their medium. Much of the video work balances a razor’s edge between fine art and documentary filmmaking, with the charmingly rundown and astonishingly beautiful and ornate palazzos, churches, and gardens that house the works highlighting the triumphs of the varied cultures that have shaped the unique history of Palermo and Sicily.
In addition to the Biennial itself, there are a mind-boggling 71 additional “collateral events” and exhibitions organized by separate arts organizations in conjunction with Manifesta. Palermo also offers several significant permanent cultural sites, as well as a host of bars, restaurants, patisseries, and an incredibly vibrant and raucous nightlife scene, that all vie for your attention.
Palermo is, by and large, a walking city, and traversing Manifesta 12’s varied locales will give the viewer a thorough and enjoyable tour of the town. To tackle Manifesta, start at its headquarters at the Teatro Garibaldi for tickets, a map, and a guidebook, strongly recommended for its useful information and easy-to-use format.
From there, it’s a quick walk over to Palazzo Ajutamicristo, a small palace constructed in the fifteenth century, commissioned by the Catalan nobility of the time and enlarged and renovated in the late sixteenth century. See the John Gerrard video simulation and consider using Peng! Collective’s intrigue-inspiring “Call a Spy” phonebooth on the ground floor. Or, catch Trevor Paglen’s fascinating works on the Defense Department’s development of facial recognition technology before turning your steps towards the Orto Botanical (Botanical Garden).
Against the backdrop of stately mangrove trees and rare flora, you’ll find Zheng Bo’s risqué video work Pteridophilia, which, to put it politely, illustrates a passionate and tender relationship between man and fern, carefully installed in a bamboo stand. Also catch Malin Franzen’s pressed flower-inspired works, made using ink with the plants themselves as the brush. Don’t miss Toyin Odutola’s mesmerizing presentation of paintings, hidden away in a small shack with a disused “Vietato Entrare” sign misleadingly placed near the entrance door. From there, head to the nearby Palazzo Forcella de Seta.
Once the seaside villa of the princes of Cattolica, the Palazzo boasts stunning Moorish interiors complete with ornate mosaic floors, frescoed walls, and enviable sea views that are a visual feast quite on their own.
From there, continue to Palazzo Butera, where the weary can grab a restorative bite at the lovely, and adjacent, Ristorante Ottava Nota. The Palazzo, the charming but dilapidated former residence of the princes of Butera, and the soon-to-be-restored home of Francesca and Massimo Valsecchi’s impressive contemporary art collection, is notable for its 18th-century frescoes. Make sure to catch Fallen Fruit’s beautiful “Theatre of the Sun,” with its psychedelically appealing computer-generated floral wallpaper.
Of the remaining official Manifesta 12 locations for 2018, I’d strongly recommend Masbedo’s moving video installation at the State Archives. Part marionette show, part bibliophile’s fantasy, the work connects with the long-held Sicilian puppeteering tradition while also impressing with the sheer volume and age of the records in the Archive, cleverly linking art, history, and tradition.
Having seen the highlights of contemporary art in the city, seek out the glories of Palermo’s past millennia of cultural heritage with visits to the Regional Archaeology Museum, Regional Art Gallery, and the Norman Palace/Palatine Chapel.
Sicily is home to the best-preserved Ancient Greek temples in the world, and, while the ruins themselves are well worth a visit, the majority of movable artwork from nearby sites exist at the Regional Archaeology Museum, where viewers often gasp as they take in the stunning 2500-year-old sculptures that once adorned these impressive structures. It is not only the Greek artwork that dazzles. Phoenician sarcophagi and sophisticated Etruscan terracotta compete with Ancient Egyptian imports and rare Hellenistic bronzes for the viewers’ attention, with the cultures’ effects on each other traceable through the ages.
After taking in the glories of the ancient civilizations, jump forward into the Middle Ages and the Renaissance at the Regional Art Gallery, where the chillingly beautiful 15th-century “Triumph of Death” fresco awaits. A simple but gorgeous contemporaneous portrait bust of Eleanor of Aquitaine shows clean, elegant lines that would come into vogue five centuries later in the hands of Modigliani and Klimt. Other notable works include the Malvagna Triptych by Mabuse, and Antonello da Messina’s “Annunciation.”
Conclude your voracious sightseeing at the spectacular Norman Palace and Palatine Chapel, where stunning, heavily gilded mosaics, a splendid and rare muqarnas ceiling, and the ornate massive Paschal candlestick illustrate 12th-century King Roger II’s admiration for the artistic achievements of the Arabs, who formerly controlled the island.
Finally, treat yourself to a well-deserved break: raise a glass of prosecco at the charming and perpetually buzzy Libreria Dante, devour fried cheese delicacies at PerciaSacchi, or spike a sugar rush with a custom cannolo from Cannoli & Co. You deserve it. (Manifest 12 is on view through November 4; m12.manifesta.org)