You may wish to read an introduction to this section first.
Villa Palagonia: statues on the wall surrounding the main building
We are this instant returned from La Bagaria, and I hasten to give you an account of the ridiculous things we have seen, though perhaps you will not thank me for it. The palace of the Prince of Valguarnera is, I think, by much the finest and most beautiful of all the houses of the Bagaria; but it is far from being the most extraordinary. Were I to describe it, I should only tell you of things you have often seen and heard of in other countries, so I shall only speak of one, which, for its singularity, certainly is not to be paralleled on the face of the earth; it belongs to the prince of P-, a man of immense fortune, who has devoted his whole life to the study of monsters and chimeras, greater and more ridiculous than ever entered into the imagination of the wildest writers of romance or knight-errantry.
Patrick Brydone - A Tour through Sicily and Malta in 1770.
We drove to Bagharia, a kind of Frascati to Palermo, where most of the nobility have erected villas. The palace of the Principe di Palagonia still exists as when it excited the exaggerated ridicule of Brydone.
William John Monson - Extracts from a Journal - 1820
Brydone's book met with great success. Because of its detailed description of Villa Palagonia in the following fifty years all accounts of travels in Sicily had many paragraphs or entire pages debating whether Brydone's assessment of "Palagonia's folly" was right or wrong.
Palazzo Galletti Inguaggiato (1770) and details of its decoration
I rode about ten miles by the edge of the bay, between
hedges of aloe and Indian fig. On the waste, asparagus,
oleander, palma christi, and palmetto, or dwarf palm,
overrun the surface of the ground. The road rises gradually to La Bagaria, a hill covered with villas belonging to
the nobility; its soil is red and rocky. Some of these houses, being situated on the brow that separates the bays of Palermo and Termini, command a view of both; they are built with a coarse porous breccia of a dusky yellow
cast, which is extremely unfit for the purposes of ornamental architecture, as it moulders away by being exposed to wind and rain. The first villa I saw belongs to a prelate of the name of Galletti; he has lately built it in a most agreeable taste. The centre of the rustic story is occupied by an arched gateway, having on each side an open niche, in which is placed a vase of antique form; above rises an order of Corinthian pilasters, crowned by a well-proportioned pediment and balustrade; the ornaments, though numerous, are chaste and light. The sight of a house erected upon such reasonable principles of architecture was but a bad preparation for a visit
to the villa of Palagonia, its neighbour.
Henry Swinburne - Travels in the Two Sicilies. 1777-1780
Today Bagheria is a town of more than 50,000 inhabitants and most of the villas have lost their countryside surroundings. The building mentioned by Swinburne is now right on the side of a busy street which crosses the town from the railway station to the Town Hall (Villa Butera) and is thus called palazzo rather than villa.
Villa Butera: eastern front
I drove out to the Bagaria about seven Irish miles east of Palermo a village in a most enchanting situation except the total want of wood for the few olive trees cannot be looked on even as a shrubbery. All round the Villa Botera the nobility have country houses. As a general description of all I must say their chief pride is the situation, the prospect is indeed as fine as any can be that is entirely divested of wood.
Sir George Cockburn - A Voyage to Cadiz and Gibraltar: up the Mediterranean to Sicily and Malta in 1810/11.
Cockburn's description helps in trying to imagine the past aspect of the villas which are now inside an urban area. Definitely Bagheria did not have the tree-lined avenues of Genzano.
Villa Butera: detail of the eastern front
The villa was built in 1658 for Giuseppe Branciforte, Prince of Butera. In 1681 he was appointed Knight of the Golden Fleece, the highest chivalry order of the Spanish House of Habsburg. He expected to be appointed Viceroy of Sicily and when he realized this would not occur he left Palermo and retired to Bagheria. He expressed his sadness by quoting four lines from Galatea, a poem by Miguel de Cervantes:
Ya la esperanza es perdida, y un solo bien me consuela: que el tiempo, que pasa y vuela, llevarß presto la vida. (All hope is already gone, and to console me but this I find: time being fleeting and kind, will soon with my life have flown).
Travellers seeking for something odd visited a detached 1797 building which was eventually assigned to a charity: At the end of a fine wide gravel walk is a handsome building of good architecture, the greater part of which is taken up with the representation of a convent in which there are about a dozen cells with all the necessary apparatus and kept clean also a wax work figure in each as large as life and dressed representing a Monk, one reading, another praying and so on; the figures are very well executed. In another apartment near the gallery of these waxen Monks to harmonize with and enliven the scene there is a wax work Venus as large as life lying naked on a bed. Cockburn
Villa Valguarnera (still a private property) seen from Solunto
May 1790. The interval between my first and second tour of Sicily was spent in villeggiatura, at the Bagaria. This
place is much frequented by the nobility of Palermo, during the month of May, from the goodness of the air, its
amusements, particularly quail shooting, its pleasing situation, and commodious distance from the capital. But after that period the rays of the sun, reflected from the sandy soil, become troublesome and oppressive. (..) The villa Valguarnera is built on the highest
part of the Bagaria, an eminence commanding, on one side, the extensive view of the sea coast towards Termine, Cefalu, the Lipari islands &c. ;
and, on the other, a prospect equally beautiful, of
the bay and city of Palermo, Monte Pelegrino, &c.
No dwelling was ever more happily placed, and I believe no other in Europe commands a view
equivalent in beauty and effect. The gardens are extensive; the villa is in a tolerably good style of
architecture; and the whole is maintained in the most perfect repair and order, by the old Princess
Sir Richard Colt Hoare - A Classical Tour through Italy and Sicily - published in 1819.
The Valguarnera had palaces in Palermo and so did the Alliata di Villafranca who inherited the villa.
Villa Palagonia: (left) former entrance to the estate; (right) coat of arms of the Gravina, Princes of Palagonia in the right upper corner together with other coats of arms, including that of the Aragonese Kings of Sicily
Palermo, Monday, April 9, 1787.
When in these parts a country seat is built, it is usually
placed in the middle of a whole property, and therefore, in
order to reach the princely mansion you have to pass through
cultivated fields, kitchen gardens, and similar rural conveniences, for these southerns show far more of economy than we
northmen, who often waste a good strip of rich land on a park, which, with its barren shrubs, can only charm the eye. But
here it is the fashion to build two walls, between which you pass to the castle, without knowing in the least what is happening
on your right and left. This passage begins generally with a grand portico, and sometimes with a vaulted hall, and ends
with the mansion itself. But, in order that the eye may not be entirely without relief between these bye walls, they are
generally arched over, and ornamented with scrolls, and also with pedestals, on which, here and there, a vase is placed.
(..) This is the sort of building which is here traditionally
adopted, and which probably was the old form, when the (grand)father of the present prince rebuilt the castle, not in the best,
but still in tolerable taste. But the present possessor, without abandoning the general features of this style, gave free course
to his humour and passion for the most ill-shapen and tasteless of erections. One would do him too much honour by
giving him credit for even one spark of taste.
We entered, therefore, the great hall, which stands at the
beginning of the property, and found ourselves in an octagonal
room, of a breadth altogether disproportioned to its height. Four
vast giants with modern spatterdashes, which had just been
buttoned on, support the cornice.
J. W. Goethe - Italian Journey - Translation by Charles Nisbet
Villa Palagonia: (left) two statues of the entrance to the estate; (right) rear/southern entrance
To this extraordinary place the traveller is admitted through a huge gate, on
the plintii of which are fixed six colossal white-washed
statues of hussars or halberdiers, to dispute the entrance
of an avenue three hundred yards long, not of cypresses,
elms, or orange trees, but of monsters. On each hand is a parapet wall loaded with more horrible figures than were ever raised by Armida and all the
enchanters of Ariosto. Swinburne
The avenue described by Goethe and Swinburne does not exist any longer because the farmed land at its sides was developed. Only the entrance hall at the northern end of the estate was spared. Also the area to the south of the main building was developed, so that Villa Palagonia is surrounded by a dull urban landscape.
Villa Palagonia: (left) rear fašade; (right) main fašade
The author and owner of this singular collection is a poor miserable lean figure, shivering at a breeze, and seems to be afraid of every body he speaks to; but (what surprised me) I have heard him talk speciously enough on several occasions. He is one of the richest subjects in the island, and it is thought he has not laid out less than 20,000 pounds in the creation of this world of monsters and chimeras. He certainly might have fallen upon some way to prove himself a fool at a cheaper rate. However it gives bread to a number of poor people, to whom he is an excellent master. Brydone in 1770
We now approach the castle, and are received into a semicircular forecourt. The chief wall before us, through which is the entrance-door, is in the castle style. (..) One hopes to escape from all this by entering the castle, which, having been built by the (grand)father, presents relatively a more rational appearance when viewed from the exterior. Goethe in 1787
The predecessor of the present owner, on being questioned concerning the original ideas of such monsters, replied, "Do you not know, that when the waters of the Nile, in Egypt, subside, they leave abundance of eggs, which, regenerated and animated by the power of the sun, produce those very animals that you see represented here?" Colt Hoare in 1790
The construction of the villa began in 1715 at the initiative of Ferdinando Francesco Gravina e Bonanni, Principe di Palagonia (1677-1736). The decoration with stone monsters was added in 1746-1770 by his grandson Ferdinando Francesco II. In 1788 the property was inherited by Salvatore half-brother of F.F.II.
Villa Palagonia: Louis XV stone bench with a member of the Gravina family ready to engage in conversation
This whole day has been taken up with the stupidities of the Prince Pallagonia, whose follies are thoroughly different from what one would form an idea of either by reading or hearing of them. For, with the slightest love of truth, he who wishes to furnish an account of the absurd, gets into a dilemma; he is anxious to give an idea of it, and so makes it something, whereas, in reality, it is a nothing which seeks to pass for something. Goethe
Villa Palagonia: other portraits of the Gravina
Brydone is certainly incorrect in stating that Prince Palagonia had figures of his relations as large as life; their shoes in black marble stockings, in white coats, in red waistcoats, in green or yellow white marble wigs and alabaster ruffled shirts. I am assured this is all invention. Cockburn
Villa Palagonia: first circular hall of the apartments with frescoes depicting the Labours of Hercules
Now, in the castle itself, of which the exterior gives hope
of, at least, a tolerable interior, the madness of the Prince
begins again to rave. Many of the seats have lost their legs,
so that no one can sit upon them; and if some appear to promise a resting-place, the Chamberlain warns you against them
as having sharp prickles beneath their satin-covered cushions. Goethe
The unflattering descriptions of Villa Palagonia by the first foreign travellers led Prince Salvatore Gravina to make some changes. The circular first hall of the apartments was redesigned in line with il moderno gusto dell'architettura, as stated above one of the doors. Cockburn and other travellers who visited the villa after its partial refurbishment were critical of Brydone's very negative assessments.
Villa Palagonia: Hall of the Glasses
The inside of this inchanted castle corresponds exactly with the out; it is in every respect as whimsical and fantastical, and you cannot turn yourself to any side, where you are not stated in the face by some hideous figure or other. Some of the apartments are spacious and magnificent, with high arched roofs; which instead of plaster or stucco, are composed entirely of large mirrors, nicely joined together. The effect that these produce (as each of them make a small angle with the other) is exactly that of a multiplying glass; so that when three or four people are walking below, there is always the appearance of three or four hundred walking above. Brydone
The inside is certainly singular. The ceilings are all or rather once were covered with looking glass plates, but the quick silver is nearly gone and therefore the effect once produced remains no longer; formerly the different plates reflecting to each other multiplied two or three persons in the room to two hundred. Cockburn
Villa Palagonia: Hall of the Glasses: detail of the decoration
The interior of the Mansion contains one Room now gone fast to decay with a Looking Glass ceiling and alls inlaid with Porcelain and Coloured Glass the effect of which when lighted up must have been dazzling.
Mariana Starke - Travels in Europe for the Use of Travellers on the Continent and likewise in the Island of Sicily - 1838 Edition - based on a travel to Sicily made in 1834.
A recent careful restoration has brought back this hall to some of its past splendour.
It would require a volume to describe the whole, and a sad volume indeed it would make. He has put the heads of men to the bodies of every sort of animal, and the heads of every other animal to the bodies of men. Sometimes he makes a compound of five or six animals that have no sort of resemblance in nature. He puts the head of a lion to the neck of a goose, the body of a lizard, the legs of a goat, the tail of a fox. On the back of this monster, he puts another if possible still more hideous, with five or six heads, and a bush of horns, that beats the beast in the Revelations all to nothing. There is no kind of horn in the world that he has not collected; and his pleasure is, to see them all flourishing upon the same head. This is a strange species of madness. Brydone
That we may not omit any of the elements of Prince Pallagonia's folly, we give you the accompanying catalogue.
Men: Beggars, male and female, Spanish men and women. Moors, Turks, hunchbacks, cripples of all sorts, strolling musicians, pulcinellos, soldiers in ancient uniforms, gods, goddesses, gentlemen in old French costumes, soldiers with cartouche boxes and gaiters, mythological personages (with most ridiculous companions, Achilles and Charon, for instance, with Punch).
Animals (merely parts of them): Heads of horses on human bodies, mis-shapen apes, lots of dragons and serpents, all sorts of feet under figures of all kinds, double-headed monsters, and creatures with heads that do not belong to them.
Vases: All sorts of monsters and scrolls, which below end in the hollows and bases of vases. Goethe
Villa Palagonia: statues on the circular wall surrounding the casino; another musician can be seen in the image used as background for this page
The amazing crowd of statues that surround his house, appear at a distance like a little army drawn up for its defence. Brydone
This Palace is surrounded by a sort of circular building for offices and on the top there is a collection of all sorts of odd figures such beasts as are described in pictures of Hell and intermixed with them figures of musicians with extraordinary wigs and long noses and here ends this world of Monsters. Cockburn
The ugliness of these unshapely figures, (the bungling work of the most ordinary mason) is increased by their having been cut out of a very crumbly shell tufa, although, perhaps, a better material would have made the badness of like forms still more striking to the eye. Goethe
Unlike the environs of Bagheria the south-eastern part of Sicily had quarries from which a fine and durable sandstone was extracted. It was widely used in the reconstruction of Noto and other towns which were razed to the ground by an earthquake in 1693.
(left) Villa Branciforte dei Principi di Trabia; (right) Villa S. Marco dei Filangieri Principi di Mirto
Few of the villas evince any taste in architecture; being overloaded with ornaments, in the Sicilian style. Colt Hoare
Few of these villas exhibit good architectural taste, and none contain treasures of pictorial or sculptural art to attract the traveller, yet all offer points of view of a scenic magnificence rarely to be surpassed.
A Handbook for Travellers in Sicily - Murray - 1864
You may wish to read Brydone's understanding of the Sicilian noble titles.
Villa Filangieri dei Principi di Mirto now the Town Hall of S. Flavia, a seaside resort near Bagheria
The villas and many palaces at Palermo were named after a fiefdom; usually these were rather small (Mirto near Messina, Butera near Agrigento, Palagonia near Catania, Trabia near Cefal¨), but in some instances they had a historical importance. The Filangieri palace at Palermo is usually known as Palazzo Mirto.
Villa Cattolica in the ceramic tile floor of the ballroom of Palazzo Conte Federico in Palermo
Because in Italian cattolico is an adjective meaning "typical of the Roman Church" the name of the villa suggests that its landlord was a pious name or had some ancestors who had catholic in their appellation, similar to Ferdinand II, King of Aragon and of Sicily. As a matter of fact Cattolica is the name of a fiefdom, a small town in the interior of Sicily (today Cattolica Eraclea). In 1820 the villa belonged to Giuseppe Bonanno Branciforte, Principe di Cattolica. Caterina, his only heir, married Nicol˛ Conte Federico.
Villa Cattolica in the northern outskirts of Bagheria as it is today: it houses a museum dedicated to Renato Guttuso (1911-1987), a painter born at Bagheria
The glory of eighteenth-century Palermitan architecture are the villas in the vicinity,
particularly at Bagheria. Some of them have extravagant plans and form part of large
and complex layouts, such as the villa built by Tommaso Maria Napoli (1655-1725) for
Francesco Ferdinando Gravina, Principe di Palagonia (1715); the Villa Valguarnera,
begun by the same architect in 1714; or the villa of the Principe di Cattolica (1737). All the large villas can boast extravagant staircase designs.
Rudolf Wittkower - Art and Architecture in Italy 1600-1750 - Penguin Books 1958
Plan of this section:
Agrigento - The Main Temples
Agrigento - Other Monuments
Catania - Ancient Monuments
Catania - Around Piazza del Duomo
Catania - Via dei Crociferi
Catania - S. Niccol˛ l'Arena
Palermo - Gates and City Layout
Palermo - Norman-Arab Monuments
Palermo - Martorana and Cappella Palatina
Palermo - Medieval Palaces
Palermo - Cathedral
Palermo - Churches of the Main Religious Orders
Palermo - Other Churches
Palermo - Oratories
Palermo - Palaces of the Noble Families
Palermo - Public Buildings and Fountains
Palermo - Museums
Piazza Armerina and Castelvetrano
Reggio Calabria - Archaeological Museum
Selinunte - The Acropolis
Selinunte - The Eastern Hill
Syracuse - Main Archaeological Area
Syracuse - Other Archaeological Sites
Syracuse - Castello Eurialo
Syracuse - Ancient Ortigia
Syracuse - Medieval Monuments
Syracuse - Renaissance Monuments
Syracuse - Baroque and Modern Monuments
Taormina - Ancient Monuments
Taormina - Medieval Monuments
Villa del Casale