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Be the guest of a count and countess in the medieval, rustic ambience of
an aristocratic palace in the heart of old
Palermo. Why stay in a chain hotel or generic bed and breakfast? Choose Palazzo Conte Federico!
Sicily is dotted with picturesque
towers built before 1500 as well as a series of coastal sixteenth-century
structures built as a warning system for raids by pirates - the idea being
that each seaside tower was visible to the next one in the network. Castles,
palaces, fortified walls and churches boast sturdy towers. Some aristocratic dwellings, like Taormina's Palazzo Santo Stefano and the tiny,
squarish castles at Brolo and Adrano, are little more than glorified towers,
but while most are readily identified a few escape notice. One of our favorite
"secret medieval towers" is the Scrigno Tower in what is now Palazzo
Federico in central Palermo.
Featuring arched two-light windows and loopholes (slit
windows through which arrows could be launched), the highest part of this
defensive tower was constructed late in the twelfth century, during the
last decades of the Norman era or the first years
of the Swabian period, and the Hohenstaufen coat of arms is sculpted
along what used to be its exterior (on a side not visible in this photograph).
Interesting as this medievalism may be, the origins of the Federicos'
distinctive tower set it apart from most others, for it was built upon one
of the external walls of Punic Palermo bordering
what used to be the banks of the Kemonia River. The map shown here is slightly
anachronistic, as the rivers were filled in by 1300 and the coastline extended
almost to its present location (the confluence of the Papyrus and Kemonia
rivers was near what is now the intersection of Via Roma and Via Vittorio
Emanuele), but the yellow lines indicating the city's earliest walls are
essentially accurate. Of course, the Arabs and
Normans enlarged Palermo and built additional walls and gates, and the city's
area was further extended by the walls ordered by Charles V during the sixteenth
However, the Punic walls, built by the Phoenicians
and Carthaginians between 700 BC (BCE) and 400
BC, supported a number of later (medieval) guard towers - if not the quantity
indicated here - and this is the last one remaining. It is highly probable
that the medieval tower itself was built upon the site of an ancient Punic
tower. In 254 BC a major battle of the First Punic War was fought here, Carthaginian
archers firing flaming arrows at the invading Romans in the river below.
The story of the Federico tower's preservation is closely linked to the
privatization of the Punic walls with the city's rapid expansion during
the thirteenth century, when places previously outside the walls were incorporated
into the city proper.
Almost directly to the east (beyond the Ballarò
Street Market), the wall running parallel to present-day Corso Tukory,
where Saint Agatha's Gate still stands, embraced much of the expanding city
in the latter years of the reign of Frederick II.
The market itself has existed in some form since Arab times, and the tower
of nearby Saint Nicholas Church boasts nearly the same antiquity as the
newer part of the Federico tower. At some point, certainly before 1300,
the tower fell into private hands and buildings were constructed around
it, changing its outward appearance from that of a tower to what looked
like part of a typically Sicilian noble home. This development meant that
the last guard tower surmounting the Punic walls was effectively concealed
The highest part of the Federico tower looks more Swabian than Norman,
and its style is not unlike that of the later (early 14th century) Chiaramontean
Gothic of the Steri Castle. Right down the street,
Palazzo Sclafani was constructed in a slightly
more recent style. Yet there is no doubt that its lower level is indeed
ancient. Nearby, in a wall along Via Protonotaro, can be observed (in a
single building) Punic foundations, two eleventh-century Arabic loopholes,
Norman-era arches and Swabian-era two-light windows.
The Federico family was ennobled formally by feudal purchase of the county
of San Giorgio and other properties in the seventeenth century. Some contemporary
scholars postulated a Longobard lineage and descent from a knight named
Leon of Titignan, chamberlain of George of Antioch, bastard son of Frederick
II - and hence the origin of the surname. Others advanced the idea of a
direct descent from George himself.
One of the best pictorial and historical references on this kind of architecture
and the culture associated with it is Gravett's and Nicolle's book The
Normans - Warrior Knights and their Castles, which describes fortresses
in Normandy, Sicily and England.
About the Author: Carlo Trabia is an architect who
lectures on architectural history.