In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Palermo became a fashionable resort for European royalty and other celebrities. The city received a make-over to take its place among the cultural capitals of Europe, which included the building of two large theatres, an opera house and one for popular entertainment. Among the other buildings of the period is one which became a world-class hotel, the Grand Hotel et des Palmes, known in English as the Palms. The story is told by Andrew and Suzanne Edwards in their book, Ghosts of the Belle Époque, which provides a fascinating insight into the lives of the elite in Sicily.
The Palms was originally built in the 1850s as the townhouse of Benjamin Ingham, a British entrepreneur who made his fortune in the Marsala wine trade. To accommodate the substantial British community, Ingham built an Anglican church opposite his house, situated in Via Roma. Early in the twentieth century, the building was redesigned as a hotel by the leading architect of the time, Ernesto Basile, who had previously completed the opera house. An icon of the Belle Époque, the hotel was richly decorated, containing a grand foyer, marble staircases, an ornate bar, a room of mirrors and exotic plants at the entrance which included the palm tree from which it took its name.
The Palms, with its central location and plush surroundings, attracted the rich and famous, among them politicians, merchants and literary figures. It became a favourite meeting-place in the city. Guests included Richard Wagner, whose bust adorns the foyer, Maupassant and Oscar Wilde. Francesco Crispi, who landed with Garibaldi and went on the become Italy’s first prime minister from the south, was a frequent visitor. In the 1950s, an infamous mafia conference took place here when Americans and Sicilians met to organise the international drug trade. Later visitors included Maria Callas, Arthur Miller, Giulio Andreotti and the cast of The Leopard which was partly filmed in Palermo. Today the Palms remains a top hotel in a time of transition and economic uncertainty whose fascination lies in the ghosts of the past from the Belle Époque.
The Edwards’ other contributions to the literature on Sicily include Sicily, A Literary Guide for Travellers, an introduction to the many writers, ancient and modern, Sicilian and foreign, who described the island, while Andrew translated Borges in Sicily by Alejandro Luque, a penetrating account of a tour of Sicily.