Monsters at Home

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Bagheria is just 15km from Palermo and it’s also the birthplace to quite a few famous people like Giuseppe Tornatore, the film director of Nuovo Cinema Paradiso and Baaria, which is also the Sicilian name of the town.   Renato Guttuso, the 20th century painter and Dacia Maraini, a popular contemporary writer were also born here.


But mostly it is renowned for its XVIII century Sicilian Baroque style villas, one of which is Villa Palagonia, home to the monster statues.



Villa Palagonia


This is the area where the aristocracy of Palermo built their summer houses and came for their holidays to avoid the suffocating heat of the city.   But sorry to say town planners do not exist in this part of the world today.    There is a 1950s apartment block built right into the monumental entrance to Villa Palagonia

Ferdinando Francesco Gravina, Prince of Palagonia, lived in the Villa up until the beginning of the 18th century.   He was one of those aristocrats with a lot of time on his hands, probably bored, and was certainly an eccentric of his day.   A stopping off point for many on The Grand Tour, Goethe the giant of German literature, who said:

To have seen Italy without having seen Sicily is not to have seen Italy at all, for Sicily is the clue to everything”

was not particularly impressed with the villa and expressed disgust even, in his travel notes, for the owner and the practical jokes he played on his guests.  Salvador Dalì, however, absolutely adored the place and wanted to buy it and set up his atelier here but the deal never got off the ground.



The Room of Mirrors


The Prince enjoyed entertaining in his Room of Mirrors where the ceiling was covered in  them, multiplying guests’ reflections ad infinitum making them feel extremely dizzy.   To add to their discomfort they had to sit on wonky chairs where one of the legs had been sawn off, or even more sadistically on seats which had upturned nails in them which he usually liked to reserve for the ladies.   He didn’t like his guests to get too comfortable.

It is, however, the statues which adorn the outside of the villa, along the walls and over the entrance that give the visitor some idea of what the owner was like.   They are fantastic sculptures of half human, half animal creatures, the uglier the better.  The Prince commissioned them from local stone masons using the local Aspra yellow stone.   Moors, dwarfs, beggars and animals all with monster features sitting on the walls silently and menacingly guarding the villa.


Monster statues on the entrance archway, Villa Palagonia


Even up to the 19th century pregnant women gave this villa a wide berth as legend had it that if they came too near they would give birth to monster babies.   As a sign of respect upon the death of the Prince in 1736 the whole of the villa, inside and out, was painted black.


Villa Palagonia


Today, the villa has lost a lot of its threatening aura and is falling into decay but is still worth a visit if you are in the area.   Even better, it could be combined with Villa Cattolica, which is definitely worth the visit, where there is a permanent exhibition of Renato Guttuso’s paintings.

Villa Palagonia

Opening times (1 April – 31 October)   Monday-Sunday 9.00-13.00  16.00-19.30

Villa Cattolica

Opening times   Tuesday- Sunday  9.30-14.00  15.00-19.30


Villa Cattolica


Vucciari Street Market - Renato Guttuso


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