Palermo's Belle Epoque
Saturday, June 14, 2014
Not many hotels inspire. In fact many of them are sad, grimy establishments. Not so theGrand Hotel et des Palmes. You only have to walk through the main foyer doors here to breathe the atmosphere of history and intrigue.
British Marsala wine merchants Ingham and Whitaker, who came from West Yorkshire originally, rebuilt it as a lavish private residence in 1874. In those days the gardens, full of palm trees, reached right down to the seafront.
The British community then was well represented in Palermo and Ingham and Whitaker, who were related, decided that they needed a place of worship. They financed the building of the Anglican Church opposite their palazzo, also making a secret underground passage from the house to the church, satisfying their insular paranoia. The church is still open and active today for the British and American communities.
The entry door from the hotel to the secret passage behind the mirror.
The Anglican Church across the road from the hotel.
This was the period shortly after the Risorgimento when 90% of the island’s population was shoeless, and peasants believed that Italia was the name of the wife of King Vittorio Emanuele II, not the name of their recently united country.
In 1907 architect Ernesto Basile, who also designed Teatro Massimo opera house, transformed the hotel in art nouveau style and it became a favourite Belle Epoquestopover on the Grand Tour itinerary.
Many of the hotel guests, however, were not just transitory.
Before the makover, in 1882 Wagner, the German composer, came to the hotel looking for inspiration to finish his final opera, Parsifal. Palermo’s sultry climate obviously enriched his thundery music. A few days after the completion Renoir, the French impressionist, popped in to paint Wagner’s portrait in celebration.
In 1885, the French writer Guy de Maupassant arrived. Thrilled at the thought of Wagner’s recent sojourn, he demanded to be shown Wagner’s suite so as to ‘smell’ his presence.
Another illustrious guest, Raymond Roussell, novelist and playwright, checked in in the early 1930s and checked out a few years later… in a wooden box. The room maid’s absolute nightmare where every attempt was made to hide his wild use of drugs and his homosexuality, they even managed to thwart his first attempt at overdosing, until he eventually slashed his wrists in 1933.
But who was the longest staying guest? Baron Giuseppe di Stefano. He stayed 50 years in suite 24. Said to have killed a lad for stealing almonds in his property in Castelvetrano, subsequent death threats drove him to take up residence in the hotel where he lived a semi-reclusive life. Although he rarely went out he did enjoy entertaining in his suite: Renato Guttuso, the Sicilian painter; Carla Fracci, the famous ballerina when she was performing at Teatro Massimo and Burt Lancaster when he was filming the Gattopardo (The Leopard) in Palermo. On his death, in his will, he left instructions to cover his face with a leather mask so his enemies would not be able to look him in the face.
Other famous guests include American playwright Arthur Miller and American Colonel Charles Poletti who made it his headquarters after the Operation Husky allied landings in Sicily in 1943.
The last infamous gathering in the hotel lounge was the alleged 1957 mafia summit organized by Lucky Luciano who also played an important part as coordinator during the allied landings. Nobody is 100% sure if it actually took place probably due to the local habit of turning a blind eye, but it has become a legendary landmark in the international heroin trade between American and Sicilian mobsters of that time.
Cranky composers, romantic painters, desperate writers and Mafia gangsters all left their mark in many ways in this historic hotel. It is worth the visit just to browse through the guest book.
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