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Constructed beginning in
the last years of the thirteenth century, and essentially completed by 1320,
the Steri was the principal castle of the infamous Chiaramonte
family and, from 1392, served as Sicily's royal (and then vice-regal) palace
until 1517, effectively substituting the Norman Palace
in that regard. In 1530, it was here that Charles V, as King of Sicily -
he was also Holy Roman Emperor - ceded the Maltese islands to the Order
of the Hospital (subsequently known as the "Order
of Malta") as a fief in 1530. More ominously, beginning in 1601,
the Steri was the seat of Sicily's chief tribunal of the Holy
Inquisition, serving in this role until the institution's belated abolition
in 1782. Afterward, it housed the law courts of the Bourbons,
with the cellars used as a jail, and today parts of it are used as the executive
administrative offices of the University of Palermo. Its large medieval
chambers are used for small conferences.
The Steri epitomises the style known as "Chiaramonte Gothic,"
in which the castles of Mussomeli, Naro and Malta
- specifically the old part of the knights' Fort Sant'Angelo in Valletta
- were built. These palatial fortresses were all erected in what were then
fiefs of the Chiaramonte family, and while the
family cannot be credited with inventing this style (sometimes called "Romanesque Gothic"), they did much to perpetuate
it in Sicily. The beautiful stonework of the Steri's interiors is visible
today only as the result of a series of extensive restorations during the
twentieth century; the walls of the courtyard and other areas were covered
in stucco for several centuries.
King Martin lay siege to the Steri in 1392 and following his victory
beheaded Andrew Chiaramonte in front of his own castle, thus sending a message
to potential rebels. As the month-long battle included a naval assault,
it is important to have physical idea of the environs in those times, because
the Steri today is some distance inland.
When it was built, the Steri was almost on the water, with the shore
reaching slightly farther inward from Via Butera to within a hundred metres
of the castle, while the Cala lie where it is today, with Castello
al Mare (Castle by the Sea) actually on the coast. The sea wall (including
the Mura della Cattive) was constructed in the sixteenth century as a bulwark
against the raids of Barbary pirates. The grassy park now bordering the
shore on the opposite side of the coastal road (now Via Crispi, the Foro
Italico and Via Messina Marine) beyond that wall was built of rubble (from
Piazza Magione and other bombed areas) following
the Second World War.
The Steri complex also includes the chapel of Saint Anthony next to the
castle. The immediate area (bordering the Kalsa
district) was part of the most important part of Arab
Palermo, or Bal'harm. It is thought that Via Alloro nearby was the main
street of the Khalesa quarter, and in a number of palaces in the narrow
streets between Piazza Marina and the Spasimo can be seen traces of thirteenth-century
arches and windows similar to those of the Steri and various churches. When
the Steri was built, the basilicas of the Magione (12th century) and Saint
Francis of Assisi (13th century) were already standing, and so was the Castle
by the Sea. Palazzo Abatellis and the churches
of the Catena (just a few steps away) and Saint Mary (near what is now Piazza
San Domenico) followed in the last decade of the fifteenth century. In Punic times this area was under water, as the Cala
bay was farther inland, reaching a point near what is now the intersection
of Via Roma and Via Vittorio Emanuele a few blocks away.
The fortress was not built in architectural isolation. Its ornate, arched two-light windows recall those of similar structures,
particularly in Italy, France and Spain. The highlight of the Steri is the
Great Hall or "Barons' Hall," with its decorated wooden ceiling
featuring biblical, mythological and historic scenes, all depicted in an
imagery and style typical of the period, including the occasional coat of arms. It is somewhat
similar to the contemporary ceilings of Saint Agueda Chapel in Barcelona
and Santo Domingo de Silos (also in Spain), though perhaps influenced to
some degree by the Arab ceiling of Palermo's Palatine
Chapel painted almost two centuries earlier. A few other Sicilian aristocratic
residences in Sicily boast this kind of decoration (though in these other
structures it is only partially preserved), most notably Carini Castle.
To a certain extent the Steri's paintings, and in some ways perhaps
the castle itself, represent an important part of the "age
of chivalry" in Sicily. Today this is preserved in such folk traditions
as marionette shows but, if we scratch away even
a tenuous veneer of the patina of time, Palermo offers the curious visitor
a profound glimpse of the Middle Ages, perhaps deeper than what he'll find
in Canterbury or Cologne - great as the medieval legacy of those cities
is, not to mention their Sicilian connections, through Thomas
Becket and Frederick II respectively.
The Steri, of course, represents much more than a view through the centuries.
It was literally the cornerstone of royal power in Sicily, and therefore
the central Mediterranean, for several centuries when most of the island's
monarchs lived far away, in Aragon and then in
Madrid, as many were also the kings of Spain. It is easy to imagine important
aspects of the sixteenth century campaigns in Lepanto and Tunisia being
planned here. Until almost 1600, when a king or (more often) a viceroy called
a meeting of barons,
it was usually at the Steri. Indeed, a street now called Via Parlamento
recalls a route the barons took to arrive at the imposing Steri, which stood
out as the highest building in this part of Palermo. For a few centuries,
the city was the victor in its longstanding rivalry with Messina and then Catania.
More than the Norman Palace, which remained important for administration,
the Chiaramonte's stronghold could protect the viceroys from any insurrection.
The strategy was not entirely valorous, considering that Castello al Mare
and the Cala were close enough to facilitate a ready escape from Palermo
in the event of a "popular" uprising against an unpopular viceroy.
The Steri is open by appointment. It is usually possible to visit the courtyard.
The Palazzo Abatellis Gallery, which houses a
fine collection, is in Via Alloro nearby.
About the Author: One of Sicily's foremost historians, Luigi Mendola is the author of two books.