Hidden away in Palermo’s Vucciria market is a curious statue of the city’s mythical founder, the Genius of Palermo. Created by Pietro de Bonitate in 1483, it features a mature, regal figure, late-Gothic in style, seated upon a rock, wearing a crown and a forked beard, clasping a large serpent to his breast. The background to this intriguing figure is as follows.
The Aragonese, after years of conflict with the French, finally took control of Sicily and in 1460 began the regeneration of the capital, Palermo. The driving force behind the building programme was Pietro Speciale, the city’s mayor, who brought in experienced craftsmen from Naples, among them three sculptors who would make important contributions to Palermo, Domenico Gagini, Pietro de Bonitate and Francesco Laurana.
To mark Palermo’s renewal, Speciale sought an emblem for the city. The sculptors took up the challenge and created the image of the Genius of Palermo, an enigmatic figure representing the spirit of the city and its mythical founder. Also known as Il Vecchio (the Old Man), in 1489 the image received the king’s approval to became an official emblem of Palermo.
For the newly-built Palazzo Pretorio, the senate house, Domenico Gagini created a group of sculptures featuring the Genius sitting in a shell with the inscription: “Panormus conca aurea suos devorat alienos nutrit” (Palermo golden shell devours its own and nourishes foreigners). In the early days of Spanish rule Palermo was thus seen as a place that enriched foreigners at the expense of its own people. The “golden shell” referred to the territory around Palermo renowned for its fertility. The figure of the Genius sits on top of a column, crowned and bearded, holding a serpent to his breast.
In the early 1480s, funds were provided by merchants for the redesign of piazza Garraffo, a small square in the heart of the Vucciria, Palermo’s main street market. A fountain was set in the centre, and a commission to create a statue of the Genius was awarded to the Lombard sculptor, Pietro de Bonitate. Carved in white marble from Carrara, the Genius was flanked on either side by the statue of a Christian saint. This Genius became known, in Sicilian, as Palermu lu Grandi (Big Palermo) in contrast to the one in Palazzo Pretorio, which was called Palermu u Nicu (Little Palermo). In 1663 the fountain was moved to another location and the three statues placed in niches against the wall.
As no explanation of the iconography of the Genius has been found, its origin and meaning remain unknown. There are two clues. The first is the inscription on the Genius in Palazzo Pretorio. According to this interpretation, the serpent may represent the foreigners who exploit the city, which in turn is represented by the regal figure. The second is a reference in Tommaso Fazello’s history of Sicily, published in 1558, in which he claims to have an ancient bronze coin showing a man in a Greek costume and the word Panormitanon. It is known that Speciale was a humanist who studied the ancient writers and who may well have looked to the ancient world for a suitable image for his emblem. Coins from the Greek and Roman eras in Sicily do feature various gods in seated positions, while some also include a serpent, though not appearing together. In creating the figures of the Genius for their statues, the sculptors may have taken such ancient images as their source of inspiration.
Despite its historic importance, de Bonitate’s statue cut a sad figure for a long time, abandoned and vandalised, and surrounded by refuse from the market and the nearby bars. The monument’s embellishments and coats of arms were stripped away, while the statues of the saints were stolen in 1992, and never recovered. When last seen (March 2018), the Genius had been cleaned up and refurbished as part of the recent regeneration of Palermo. Long may this attention last. While other representations of the Genius exist in Palermo, this one by de Bonitate is perhaps the most striking, and is too important to be ignored.