Palermo is the capital of cosmopolitan scars. Its exuberant history has seen a lot, wealth and luxury, blended with death, violence as well as scents of foreign civilisations.
Aspiring to become a modern city with a strong emphasis on culture, Italy’s Minister for Cultural Heritage and Art, Dario Franceschini proclaimed the city as the Italian Capital of Culture for the year 2018, with the leading event of Manifesta, the famous biennale of contemporary art occurring next year. The Biennale will focus on climate change and migration, two concepts well known to the city.
Mayor of Palermo, Leoluca Orlando, has been trying for the last 17 years to revitalise this infamous capital. He retained the position and long-term support of the citizens with several practical methods, as it’s using seized financial means, confiscated from the mafia, for the town renovation. It was the residents of the city who gathered the courage to support the major in a majority and voted for the changes, clearly showing they’ve had enough. Today, the urban life is quite different than twenty years ago; streets are much safer, the business environment is slowly evolving, the past is getting more and more distant.
A traveller senses something poetical in Palermo, in a way that life is rising and decreasing, in a variable rhythm and pauses in between. One can stroll through the street bustling with life in one moment, finding himself in an empty stone passage, spotted with broken windows and spaces, unsettled for a long time, in another. People are gone, a place catches its breath there, the fast pace is still too much of an effort for it. Young people state they don’t yearn for anything particular, but they do wish they would live somewhere else from time to time. Why exactly, nobody tells me, I speculate the reason is maybe the low salaries and the lack of work on the island. The most content ones are mostly working for the international companies in the major cities as Palermo and Catania, but the jobs are limited.
Nobody speaks about the mafia, my question about how much of the truth is in the rumours is left unanswered by saying that was in the past. A few days after my return home, in May 2017, a former member of one of the mafia families, Giuseppe Dainotti, is shot while cycling on the streets of Palermo. The memories of the bloody past abruptly come alive, the police state the murder is a warning from Cosa Nostra, one of the most prominent mafia families. The fact is the mob is a consistent force in Italy, no matter how clean the streets are, there is still enough filth in the political and financial background. The mafia families are spreading their business to legal activities, as building business and even out of the country, to Spain for instance.
Lounging in one of the city cathedrals, Chiesa Santa Maria della Pieta, I observe the wedding guests preparing for the grand wedding. The visibly nervous groom, standing in front of the altar, is welcoming guests of different ages, everyone in the demeanour of exceptional taste and elegance. While bourgeois beauty kisses each other cheeks, I can not help but think about the similar scenes from the classics of mafia filmography. There was a peculiar veil of affiliation, power and mystery, hanging above them, being oblivious to the tourist intruders and knowing they hold power.
A walk along Via Vittorio Emanuele, one of the main avenues in the city, reveals significant architectural sights. Palazzo dei Normanni, a palace full of mosaics, is home to the regional government; Quattro Canti, a baroque intersection with the official name of Piazza Vigliena and statues of four seasons, kings and patrons; leading to the sea on one side, to the famous cathedral of Palermo on the other.
Various façades in Arabic, Norman and Byzantine style, churches and markets meddle the main points of interest, Via Manqueda leads to Teatro Massimo and Castello della Zisa, an Arab-Norman mansion under UNESCO protection. There is more, the Baroque Fontana Pretoria, San Cataldo Church, a fantastic example of Arab-Norman architecture from the 12th century, markets, parks and botanical garden. The latter thrives in a typically Italian style, which is much different from English one since the garden is slightly neglected and, in particular, not enough watered.
The old town centre is closed to traffic, which allows tourists and locals to walk spontaneously around the streets late into the night. Among the multitude of faces, there are local boys, aged no more than 13 years, walking around with raised heads, a transistor, and a posture that no Don Juan would be ashamed of. They may not have much, but they won’t let the infamous machismo be taken away from them as well!
Music is an inseparable part of the city: talented street musicians (as are the guys from 09unostop – I Manicomio!), karaoke bars and clubs from which one can hear the music. The arrival of the dawn is announced by the Italian chansons, which are compulsorily accompanied by a slightly tipsy live vocal, sang with such pathos, it outweighs the missed notes. Ah, la dolce vita!