Sicily, Through the Eyes of the Leopard
Chris Warde-Jones for The New York Times
ASK a roomful of readers about Lampedusa’s “Leopard” and more often than not you’ll find a few who will put hand to heart and say it’s their favorite book, and a few others who will simply shrug — never heard of it — or ask if it has anything to do with the Visconti movie starring Burt Lancaster (yes, it does). I suppose it’s a coincidence that a roomful of travelers will poll in a similar fashion if you ask them about Sicily, the marvelous, maddening island disparaged and adored in “The Leopard”: it’s either a favorite place, or they haven’t even thought of going there.
Is the coincidence significant? I believe that if you love the novel (or the movie), you should start planning your trip right away, not because you’ll find Lampedusa’s Sicily waiting for you when you touch down (you won’t, believe me), but because the bitter, resigned romantic nostalgia that pervades “The Leopard” is also the sensibility that savors the decaying grandeur of an island burdened with layer upon layer of tragic history — and blessed also with startling beauty, much of it perpetually waning.
The test comes when you’re a little lost, nervously peering down a deserted backstreet in Palermo that’s crooked and gloomy, with litter strewn on the dusty pavement and a narrow slice of blue sky overhead. Right in front of you is the smudged and crumbling facade of a derelict Baroque palazzo, unheralded, or perhaps marked with only a tiny plaque bearing a forgotten name and a date (late 17th century, usually, or early 18th). The sight of this noble structure is dizzying, even if the ornate balconies are wrapped in netting to keep chunks of masonry from raining down, and there’s a scraggly shrub sprouting on the rooftop. You dream of what it once was and what it might be again, but mostly you like it just as it is, a glorious residence ravished by time and neglect, and probably still inhabited. Just imagine its fabulously tattered apartments, still clinging to the memory of vanished splendor! (Sicily does this, it inspires wildly impractical reveries.)
Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1896-1957) inherited a palace in Palermo (he was an aristocrat — a prince, no less), and had it not been demolished by an Allied bomb on April 5, 1943, the Palazzo Lampedusa would probably be scrubbed clean today, assiduously restored in honor of an author whose only novel, published posthumously in 1958, is one of Italy’s best-loved books.
“The Leopard” is about the decline of a noble Sicilian family. The patriarch, proud Fabrizio, Prince of Salina (based on Lampedusa’s great-grandfather, Prince Giulio), is acutely aware of this decline and seems almost to embrace it. Set in Palermo and deep in the interior in the early 1860s, during the tumultuous years of Garibaldi’s Risorgimento when Sicily was annexed to a united Italy, the novel could fuel a seminar’s worth of meditations on political and social transformation. (The famous line, which becomes a mantra of sorts for Don Fabrizio, is this: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”) But though it has sparked heated debates about Sicilian history, most readers respond to the book’s shimmering beauty, and to the towering figure of the Prince himself.
Wise and perplexed, stern and indulgent, loyal and essentially solitary, even in the midst of his crowded household, Don Fabrizio is the indispensable companion for traveling around Sicily. He’s one of those unforgettable literary characters who seem more real than people you’ve actually met (and easily more important than the neighbor who moved away or the great-aunt you last laid eyes on a dozen years ago). The trait that defines the Prince is his dignity, which stems in part from his clear-eyed sense of himself; he claims to be “without illusions” — he lacks, he says, “the faculty of self-deception.” He surveys himself, and Sicily, with unflinching honesty.
IT’S not in fact possible to maintain an unruffled dignity as a tourist in Sicily, not unless you’re willing to spend a small fortune and steer clear of all but the most manicured resorts. (You could fly into Catania, say, have a chauffeur pick you up at the airport, ride in luxury to a five-star hotel high up in gorgeous, swanky Taormina, lounge by the side of a dramatic infinity pool with views of Mount Etna and the bay of Naxos, wander in the ruins of the ancient theater, then go home, again. But that’s bubble tourism.) The rest of us have to put up with haphazard service, accommodation that somehow just misses the mark, pungent urban odors and the horrors of Mafia-financed postwar construction. The island’s dependable delights — brash summer sunshine; seafood fresh off the boat, simply, sometimes exquisitely prepared; excellent, inexpensive wine; churches galore, in every shape and size; and the best Greek ruins anywhere — fit comfortably in any travel budget.
To see Sicily honestly, the way the Prince of Salina would have you see it, you must start with the chaos of Palermo (or “the sloth of Palermo,” as he would put it) — the lawless traffic, the grime, the overflowing garbage, the noise, the hint of menace. Don’t be put off: it’s a beautiful city, crammed with architectural and artistic monuments from every century, squeezed between dramatic mountains and the Tyrrhenian Sea. (Lampedusa writes of “the scorched slopes of Monte Pellegrino, scarred like the face of misery by eternal ravines.”) However chaotic, Palermo is manageably small. In the heart of the city, on the cacophonous Via Roma, you can look north and see at the end of the avenue the silent “scorched slopes” that mark the edge of town. Turn and look south and you’ll see more of the same.
When Luchino Visconti wanted to film the magnificent ball at the end of “The Leopard,” he chose the Baroque Palazzo Valguarnera-Gangi in the Piazza Croce dei Vespri, just two minutes’ walk from the Via Roma. Behind the monumental, almost sullen facade is the glittering ballroom where Burt Lancaster, magnificent as the Prince, waltzed with the radiant Claudia Cardinale while her fiancé, an impossibly young Alain Delon, looked on indulgently.
The Palazzo Valguarnera-Gangi is not open to the public, alas (it remains a private residence), but to get a good idea of how the 19th-century Palermitan aristocracy lived, stroll through the backstreets toward the port to the Palazzo Mirto, just off the Piazza Marina. If you stop a moment and stand before the gates, you’ll see around you all the charm and frustration of Palermo, starting with the crest of the Princes of Mirto, a bold double-headed eagle carved in honey-colored stone above massive doors: a tangle of weeds is growing out of cracks in the mortar. (Were it the Prince of Salina’s crest, you would see the leopard, il gattopardo, rampant.) To the left of the doors, a high-tech security camera scans the scene; next to it, a line is draped with laundry drying in the brilliant Sicilian sun (some things never change). To the right stretches a typical, balcony-lined, stone-paved Palermo street, unusually clean, brightly festooned with laundry, with a refreshing clump of trees at the far end. Behind you, in the Piazza Marina, a shambolic Sunday flea market offers every unwanted knickknack and oddment you ever yearned to throw away, plus, of course, a few priceless treasures.
Inside the Palazzo Mirto — bequeathed to the state in 1982 by the family’s last heir — is a succession of sumptuously decorated rooms, at once lovely and ever so faintly ridiculous, like the grand ballroom Lampedusa describes with such a tender eye in “The Leopard”:
“The ballroom was all golden; smoothed on cornices, stippled on door-frames, damascened pale, almost silvery, over darker gold on door panels and on the shutters which covered and annulled the windows, conferring on the room the look of some superb jewel-case shut off from an unworthy world. It was not the flashy gilding which decorators slap on nowadays, but a faded gold, pale as the hair of certain Nordic children, determinedly hiding its value under a muted use of precious material intended to let beauty be seen and cost forgotten. Here and there on the panels were knots of rococo flowers in a color so faint as to seem just an ephemeral pink reflected from the chandeliers.”
It’s easy to imagine that even 145 years ago, the apartments of the Palazzo Mirto reeked of the “slightly shabby grandeur” Lampedusa ascribes to the Prince of Salina’s household, and to Sicilian aristocracy in general, circa 1860. Today the rooms are preserved, yes, but dusty and dilapidated at the edges, unloved, as though the effort of caring for so much decorative fabulousness was too much for our modern age. I watched one museum guide helpfully point out to an Italian tourist the sepia photo of a whiskered gentleman: “il ultimo Principe” — the last Prince.
THE palace that features most prominently in “The Leopard” is not in Palermo but 45 miles or so southwest, in a town Lampedusa calls Donnafugata. He based the town on Santa Margherita di Belice, where as a boy he spent his idyllic summer holidays in the Palazzo Filangeri-Cutò, a splendid 18th-century building that belonged to his mother’s family. The palazzo, a self-contained compound with three courtyards, seemed to him “a kind of Vatican,” and he remembered the garden as “a paradise of parched scents.”
In the first decade of the 20th century, when Lampedusa was a child, the journey from Palermo to Santa Margherita took 12 hours, half of it by train, the other half by horse-drawn carriage. In “The Leopard,” when the Prince and his family make the same trip in late August 1860, it’s an arduous three-day expedition in a convoy of five carriages over dismal roads no better than tracks. (The Prince travels in his top hat, of course.) “They had passed through crazed looking villages washed in palest blue; crossed dry beds of torrents over fantastic bridges; skirted sheer precipices which no sage and broom could temper. Never a tree, never a drop of water; just sun and dust.”
The Wild West of the interior is more comfortably contemplated through the window of an air-conditioned 21st-century automobile. An outing to Santa Margherita now takes no more than an hour; the roads are good, nearly empty, and the views spectacular: a daunting, jagged landscape, desiccated and profoundly lonely. When the Prince looks out at what he considers “the real Sicily” — the landscape around Donnafugata — he sees it “aridly undulating to the horizon in hillock after hillock, comfortless and irrational, with no lines that the mind could grasp, conceived apparently in a delirious moment of creation; a sea suddenly petrified at the instant when a change of wind had flung the waves into a frenzy.”
Lampedusa’s description is exaggerated for effect — poetic license — but it’s accurate in ways the author would have been horrified to discover. In 1968, a decade after his death, that petrified sea convulsed again: Santa Margherita was flattened by an earthquake.
When Lampedusa’s biographer, David Gilmour, visited the rebuilt town in the late 1980s — 20 years after the quake — the palace was still a scene of devastation: “Its wreckage remains undisturbed, the courtyards filled with beams and ruined masonry. ... The front slumps down one side of the town’s piazza, displaying broken balustrades and twisted balconies.” Today, nearly 40 years on, the facade has been righted and restored, after a fashion. No longer a ruin, the palazzo is no longer lovely: the supremely elegant edifice we can admire in old photos is gone for good. The piazza is still under reconstruction, a bleached expanse of unfinished concrete.
Inside the restored portion of the palace is a small museum, the Parco del Gattopardo, devoted to Lampedusa, a room upstairs with manuscripts of “The Leopard” on display in tidy glass cases, along with foreign editions of the novel, family portraits, photographs of Santa Margherita before the cataclysm. Downstairs is a coffee shop — Il Caffé del Principe — perhaps the most drably ordinary coffee shop in all of Sicily, with freezers selling pre-packaged ice-cream cones and napkin dispensers primly arranged on the half-dozen empty tables. Don Fabrizio might weep.
It’s while walking through the streets of Donnafugata early in the morning, taking note of the squalid poverty of the town’s residents, that the Prince, depressed, comes to a sour conclusion: “All this shouldn’t last; but it will, always; the human ‘always’ of course, a century, two centuries ... and after that it will be different, but worse. We were the Leopards and Lions; those who’ll take our place will be little jackals, hyenas; and the whole lot of us, Leopards, jackals and sheep, we’ll all go on thinking ourselves the salt of the earth.”
You might think that standing in the dazzling late-morning sun, gazing at what’s left of the Palazzo Filangeri-Cutò, would be a dispiriting experience. The “human ‘always’ ” has proved more fragile than even the pessimistic Prince dared imagine. But Santa Margherita, assisted by what Lampedusa calls “the languid meandering stream of Sicilian pragmatism,” is clearly on the mend, a hill town refreshed by a cooling breeze even in the brutal summer months, a town where the view from almost any street is of crisp blue sky. And beyond that, as the cherished novelist assures us, “the immemorial silence of pastoral Sicily.”
BAROQUE PALACES, FADING IN THE SUN
There are no direct flights from New York to Palermo. Alitalia, among others in a recent online search, offers daily flights with a connection in Rome for about $1,500. If you choose to rent a car, be aware that driving around Palermo is a challenge, not just because internationally recognized rules of the road are apparently optional, but also because the signage is haphazard, making map reading a matter of hope and intuition. Elsewhere on the island, getting around by car is the best solution. Sicilian drivers are generally less whacky than their mainland counterparts, and the traffic, outside of urban areas, is light.
WHERE TO STAY
If you want to be pampered in Palermo, take a room at the Centrale Palace Hotel (www.angalahotels.it; 39-091-336-666), smack in the center of town on the Corso Vittorio Emanuele. It’s an 18th-century palazzo restored in 2003, and a double room will cost you nearly 190 euros ($302 at $1.59 to the euro).
Smaller, less snooty and not quite so splendidly located, the Hotel Ucciardhome (www.hotelucciardhome.com; 39-091-348-426) is functional and attractive. And cheaper, at about 120 euros for a double room.
If you’re looking for sleek and modern, try the Vecchio Borgo (www.classicahotels.com; 39-091-611-1446), where a double room is about 100 euros.
WHERE TO EAT
Good food is easy to find in Palermo. A three-course meal for two at a fine restaurant, washed down with a bottle of wine, usually costs about 100 euros.
Right under the walls of the Palazzo Valguarnera-Gangi in the Piazza Croce dei Vespri is the delightful Osteria dei Vespri (www.osteriadeivespri.it; 39-091-617-1631). A little more expensive than most, but absolutely worth it.
Bellotero (39-091-582-158) is a small, formal restaurant, pleasantly devoid of tourists, with immaculate service and traditional Sicilian dishes.
Cheaper, wildly popular, and brilliantly located opposite the gorgeous façade of San Francesco, a 13th-century church that’s been lovingly restored, the Antica Focacceria San Francesco (Via A. Paternostro, 58; 39-091-320-264) serves everything from stuffed focaccia to grilled swordfish.
WHAT TO READ
“The Last Leopard” by David Gilmour (Pantheon) is an excellent biography of Lampedusa. In the Dec. 13, 1991, issue of The New Yorker, Fernanda Eberstadt wrote a long, rambling, perfectly charming piece about Palermo and Lampedusa’s adopted son, Gioacchino Lanza Tomasi.