Palermo – the capital of Sicily – is a destination with a difference. The city is a treasure trove of ancient monuments and works of art, combined with architecture of grand proportions. Yet it also has a grittier side, exemplified by its mafia connections. Jeremy Dummett here provides the first concise history of Palermo, together with a survey of its most important monuments and sites.
Palermo became the capital of Sicily under the Arabs in the ninth century. Until this time Syracuse had been the leading city of Sicily. Palermo blossomed under the Arabs and the Normans and the influence of both can be seen in the city today. Later it became the scene of the Sicilian Vespers when the island rose against the French. In 1860 Sicily was freed from the rule of the Spanish Bourbons by Garibaldi and went on to join the newly formed Kingdom of Italy. Many prominent writers have fallen for the city and those that left accounts of their travels include Goethe, Henry Swinburne and Maupassant.
Palermo’s monuments are striking and unusual, from the Byzantine mosaic of Christ Pantocrator in the Palatine chapel located in the Norman palace, to the sculptures by Giacomo Serpotta in the oratories, the decorative piazzas Pretoria and Quattro Canti, the Arab-Norman style Cathedral and the Norman complex of buildings at Monreale. Palermo has also produced world class writers and artists, including, in modern times the writer Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa and painter Renato Guttuso.
In addition to being as an essential companion for visitors to Palermo, this book can be equally enjoyed as a standalone history of the city and its place at the heart of Sicily.
Palermo: city of jasmine and dark secrets
"Two new books on Sicily celebrate the island’s rich history: John Julius Norwich’s Sicily, A Short History from the Ancient Greeks to Cosa Nostra and Jeremy Dummett’s Palermo, City of Kings."
"Dummett’s is an excellent guide to a city of bewildering mixed bloods and ethnicities, mixed architectures and mixed reputations. Palermo’s turban-wearing ancestors would have been astonished by today’s dirt and traffic; amid the beep and brake of cars, however, jasmine sherberts are on sale in the cafes where Palermitans sip coffee like pashas of yesterday. Some things don’t change that much."
Extract of Spectator review by Ian Thomson, 6 June 2015
“Described as “the essential guide to Palermo’s history, monuments and architecture”, this new release from the author of Syracuse, City of Legends is a remarkably detailed undertaking. It not only explores the art and artistic history of the capital of Sicily, it also examines the grittier side of this metropolis, daring to venture into its mafia underworld and the effect that it has had on Palermo. At its heart, though, this is a book about art and architecture, casting its eye back throughout the city’s rich and ancient history, tracing back through its various rulers, including the Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs and Normans. If you intend to visit the city then many an insight can be found, and it can be used as a travel guide. And even if you’re not going to Palermo any time soon, you could consider this a worthy read. Well written and entertaining – as well as illuminating – it should find its way onto the shelves of anyone with an interest in the history of art, Sicily and – of course – Palermo itself.”
Italia! Magazine, 1st July 2015
“Invasion, more or less violent, has been a frequent visitor to Sicily. The Greeks came to settle, the Romans to control, the Arabs and Normans to squabble, then the French, Spanish, fellow Italians and, more recently, tourists. Palermo has been in the eye of the storm but, ironically, has emerged more beautiful for all the centuries of divisive incomers. Each wave has sought to impose its own style, making the city a profoundly interesting place.
Dummett explores the history, setting out the social and political factors that shaped the city and life in the city. He then guides us through the varied districts of Palermo, and some outlying areas, providing an elegant and civilised guide to the monuments, artefacts and places of note. There are medieval relics, Renaissance palaces, baroque churches and plaques to policemen gunned down by the Mafia, and the author makes a thoughtful, articulate and entertaining companion.”
The Good Book Guide, June 2015
A review by Clive Aslet of John Julius Norwich’s Sicily and Jeremy Dummett’s Palermo, City of Kings was published in Country Life, 10th June 2015, page 132.
Palermo, City of Kings was reviewed, along with John Julius Norwich’s book on Sicily, by the Times Literary Supplement on 8 August 2015. The part about Palermo, City of Kings is replicated below:
“Palermo gives us a sense of Sicily’s hubris and nemesis in microcosm. Jeremy Dummett, as candid and eloquent a guide to the city as we could wish for, calls it “a gritty place, not yet sanitised by global influences”, still guardian of those secrets for the pursuit of which the anti-Mafia judges Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino paid with their lives in 1992. Palermo, City of Kings is as preoccupied with the physical shifts in the nature of the townscape over 3,000 years as it is with the events that have taken place inside it. A sequence of maps at the start of the book uncovers the development of Greek Panormus, located on an isthmus between converging river mouths; the Arab and Norman city expanding around it; the creation, under the Spaniards, of a naval harbour to the west; and, behind this, the rich, citrus-growing Conca d’Oro, a focus for Mafia exploitation after 1860.
Dummett’s survey includes both a concise historical sketch and an appreciation of individual monuments, from Spanish viceregal gateways and the lavishly Baroque San Giuseppe dei Teatini to the Filangieri family’s Palazzo Mirto (with its extravagant Chinese Salon) and Damiani Almeyda’s Teatro Politeama, a fine example of historicist overstatement.
Like Norwich, Dummett admires the masterly inventiveness in stucco of Giacomo Serpotta at San Lorenzo and the Gesù, but also finds room for Villa Malfitano, the Victorian pleasure dome raised by Pip and Tina Whitaker on the proceeds of their Marsala wine business.
On Sicily’s future both writers are a good deal less glum than we might expect. Norwich has an abiding faith in Sicilian toughness and resilience, tested to its limits by Greek tyrants, Angevin pretenders, Aragonese barons and Cosa Nostra bosses. Palermo, for Dummett, “has been through the fire and is ready to come out the other side”. Perhaps Lampedusa’s fatalism may now be losing a little of its credibility.”
Times Literary Supplement, August 2015
Palermo, City of Kings is recommended, along with Syracuse, City of Legends, by historian, archaeologist and tour guide Dr Michael Metcalfe of Peter Sommer Travel. You can read his review here: Christmas Gifts for History Lovers, Travellers and Gourmets, 2015