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In an old quarter of the city, a few steps from the central train station and a busy street named for Abraham Lincoln, stands the Basilica of the Holy Trinity, usually called "the Magione." Construction of this splendid church was begun around 1190 under the direction of Matthew Aiello, a chancellor of the King. It initially served as a monastery of the Cistercians, whose cloister still stands next to the church. As King of Sicily, Henry VI von Hohenstaufen (ruled 1194-1197) confiscated the complex and erected a commandery of the Teutonic Order, which established it as their conventual seat for western Sicily. The presence of the Teutonic Knights reflected Henry's attempt to bring a German influence to the Sicilian court. His premature death changed this, but the Teutonic knights remained until the fifteenth century. In 1787, King Ferdinando of I of the Two Sicilies made the church part of the royal demesne as a commandery of the Constantinian Order of Saint George, whose cross appears over the portal at the entrance to the courtyard. The Constantinian Order still uses the Magione for some of its services .
The church's style contrasts somewhat with that of the other Norman-Arab churches in Palermo. With its sweeping arches, the Magione embodies a more typically Northern European style clearly influenced by the early Gothic. It has a pointed roof, with no tower or cupolas. The Magione was built before the vogue for rose windows (such as those in the "Romanesque Gothic" churches of Saint Francis and Saint Agostino), while the exterior design of the church's apse is similar to that of the cathedrals of Palermo and Monreale.
Baroque elements added over the centuries were removed during an extensive restoration following the damage inflicted during the Allied bombardment of 1943. Restoration of the cloister continue. The Magione one sees today is very similar to the the church as it appeared when it was built. The Magione is open most weekdays. Read more about the Magione...
Piazza Marina's main sight is the Palazzo Chiaramonte, or "Steri," actually a fourteenth century castle. It was erected in 1307 by the powerful Sicilian baronial family from whom it takes its name. The Chiaramonte family took part in the wars waged by the Sicilian nobility against the Angevin French. These wars were the continuation of the famous popular uprising against the French known as "Sicilian Vespers" that broke out in Palermo in 1282. This extended conflict was finally resolved by the Peace of Caltabellotta in 1302, whereby the barons renewed their loyalty to the King of Aragon. But the Aragonese kings lived in Spain, and the Chiaramonte and other families gradually began to usurp the prerogatives of their absentee monarchs. In 1397, Andrea Chiaramonte was beheaded on the orders of King Martin of Aragon. In a cruel and ironic gesture, the King had the rebellious baron beheaded right in front of his own palace here in Piazza Marina. The Chiaramonte built a number of fine castles in Sicily, including the one at Mussomeli.
These castles, along with all the Chiaramonte's other assets, were confiscated by the Crown. The Steri then became the residence of the Viceroy. In 1601, Palazzo Chiaramonte became the Sicilian headquarters of the Inquisition, sometimes known as the "Spanish Inquisition." Here prisoners were interrogated, tortured, and sometimes burned at the stake for heresies both real and imagined. The executions were often held in what is now the park (Garibaldi Garden) in Piazza Marina. The Steri currently houses some administrative offices of the University of Palermo and an exhibit area.
The Steri is a high square building with an interior courtyard. Though extensively modified over the centuries, both its interior and exterior retain much of its medieval heritage. Palazzo Chiaramonte is open to visitors during morning business hours. The visitors' entrance is on the side of the castle past a gate leading to a parking lot. Read more about the Steri...
The Church of Santa Maria della Catena (St. Mary's of the Chain) takes its name from the huge chain that was strung across the water here to bar entrance to the "Cala," the interior part of Palermo's harbor. This practice originated during the Middle Ages, when raids by Turkish corsairs and other assorted pirates were not uncommon.
The Church was erected in the late 1400s, designed by Matteo Carnelivari in what is best described as a mixture of late Gothic and early Renaissance styles. The church's main entrance, reached by a flight of wide steps, has a triple arched portico built in the Renaissance style. Inside, there are sculptures both from the 1400s and the Renaissance periods. The Church is only open on Sundays for services.
St. John of the Lepers is probably the earliest example of Norman-Arab architecture in Palermo. Because of the church's out-of-the-way location in the Corso dei Mille area, it is generally unknown to tourists. However, the church, as well as nearby Admiral's Bridge, another fine example of l2th century Norman-Arab construction, is worth a look if your schedule allows.
St.John of the Lepers was apparently either a mosque or a fortified outpost when Count Roger de Hauteville and his Normans wrested Palermo from Muslim control in 1071. In the 11th century, the site marked the Eastern approach to Palermo and controlled the ford of the Oreto river; the Oreto was then much wider than today. The area between St. John's and the Admiral's Bridge was the sight of a skirmish between the Normans and a detachment of Arab defenders who sallied forth from the gates of Palermo to test the strength of the invaders. The Arabs lost the skirmish, the outpost and control of the strategic river-crossing, being forced to beat a hasty retreat to the safety of Palermo's walls. These events would confirm the theory that St. John's was originally a "kas'r" (Arabic "castle") and not a mosque.
Count Roger or his brother Robert Guiscard ordered the rebuilding of the structure and had it consecrated as a Christian Church. Thus, St. John's became the first Christian Church in Palermo to be erected since the beginning of Arab rule in 831.
It became known as St. John "of the Lepers" during the twelfth century, when it became a conventual church of the Order of Saint Lazarus, which built a leper hospital here. A hospital stood near the site until the middle of the twentieth century.
While St. John's of the Lepers is not a particularly large or ornate church, it retains most of its medieval appearance, its Arabic domes lending the church a Saracen character. Its floorplan and tower distinguish it from San Cataldo and the Magione. Though the three churches are each Norman-Arab in design, each differs considerably from the other two in its style; the Magione has majestic arches and a pointed roof, whereas San Cataldo is squarish with several cupolas. Though devoid of mosaics, St. John's resembles the Martorana in layout.
St. John's of the Lepers is not normally open to the public as a tourist sight. The best way to see the interior is to visit is when Mass is celebrated, usually Sunday mornings at 8:00, 10:00, and 11:30, and weekdays at 5:30 in the afternoon.
Located off Piazza Marina, this is one of the few aristocratic homes of Palermo open to the general public. Most recently, it was the residence of the Lanza Filangeri family, Princes of Mirto (a town in northeastern Sicily), whose last heir willed it to the Ministry of Cultural Assets, which assumed it in 1982. Built upon the foundations of thirteenth and fourteenth century structures, the palace was completed in the last years of the eighteenth century. Most of its salons, furnished with original items owned by the family, are Baroque in style. The Chinese Salon is quite similar to the rooms of the Chinese Villa built for King Ferdinando of Naples just a few years later, and may have been an influence. Palazzo Mirto is remarkable in that it offers the visitor a unique glimpse into the lifestyle of Sicily's aristocratic families during the nineteenth century.
Located at Via Butera 1, near the water at the end of Corso Vittorio Emanuele, the International Marionette Museum (Museo Internazionale delle Marionette), boasts an extensive collection of Sicilian puppets, the type you will see sold at souvenir shops. The puppets on display here, however, are antiques, some of them being centuries old. The puppets displayed here were originally designed for use in the Sicilian "opera di pupi" or "puppet opera", a local tradition which is, alas, dying out.
The Marionette Museum displays puppets from other parts of Italy as well, all handmade and painstakingly crafted down to the smallest details. Puppets from other parts of the world are also on exhibit, mostly from Indonesia, India and other Far-Eastern countries, and the museum hosts occasional showings of marionettes from other regions.
The Museum is open Monday through Fridays from 9 to 1 and from 4 to 7, Saturdays 9 to 1. You may wish to call ahead (091-328060) to see if there are any special exhibitions or puppet shows scheduled to coincide with your visit.
Dating from 1488, Palazzo Abbatellis (near Piazza Marina) was designed by the architect Matteo Carnilivari and built in the Catalan Gothic Style. With its battlements, it resembles a Neo Gothic castle. It houses the Regional Gallery of Sicily. The Gallery (Galleria Regionale della Sicilia) is the largest museum in Palermo exclusively devoted to art. The majority of the work displayed dates from the medieval and Renaissance periods through the eighteenth century.
The gallery is known for several particularly interesting works. The "Bust of Eleanor of Aragon" by Francesco Laurana dates from around 1471 and is located in Gallery 2. This work is considered to be the epitome of renaissance-era Sicilian sculpture. The image of this work is often reproduced in catalogs and Sicilian tourism brochures to typify the island's cultural and artistic image.
The painting known as "Our Lady of the Annunciation" is displayed in Gallery 4. This beautiful portrait renders a stark and haunting image of the Virgin without any haloes, cherubim and other traditional devices employed by Renaissance artists. This painting is considered to be Antonello da Messina's masterpiece. Painted using the Flemish mixed oil-tempera technique, the portrait is believed to have been executed between 1473-1476 upon the artist's return to his native Messina after a sojourn abroad.
The well-known "Triumph of Death" fresco is located in Room II on the ground floor. This work dates from the fifteenth century but the artist is unknown.
The museum is a fairly large building and houses an extensive collection containing many noted works by other well-known Renaissance masters. The gallery is open most weekday mornings and some afternoons. Nearby is the Church of the Gancia, whose exterior still reflects some beautiful medieval features.
Located a few blocks from Saint John of the Lepers, between the church and the central train station, the Admiral's Bridge was erected between 1130 and 1140 during the reign of the second Norman monarch of Sicily, Roger II. The man actually responsible for its construction was George of Antioch, King Roger's famous admiral, who was also responsible for the building of the church of "La Martorana" in Palermo, known also as St. Mary of the Admiral in honor of its founder. Due to the Oreto River's changing course over the centuries, the Admiral's Bridge spans a grassy park.
The bridge is a fine example of 12th century utilitarian construction and is one of the few relics from that epoch that has come down to us virtually intact. It is about 75 meters long andabout 18 feet wide. The bridge is supported by 7 large arches that alternate with five smaller ones. The structure is all of stone, and reflects the high level of the stonemason's art in Norman Sicily.
Near the coast, on Via Lincoln, you will find the Orto Botanico (botanical Garden) and Villa Giulia, the latter a relaxing park with interesting statues under its shady trees. Villa Giulia is located right next to the Orto Botanico. The Villa was designed by Nicola Palma, laid out in 1777 and named after the wife of the Spanish viceroy. It is a fairly extensive garden. The "Orto Botanico," or Botanical Garden, is located next to the Villa Giulia. This is the oldest public botanical garden in this part of Europe, having been planned in l785 during the reign of King Ferdinando I of the Two Sicilies. The French architect Leon Defourny was responsible for its design and construction.
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