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Built in the 1490s
in the Catalonian Gothic style, Palazzo Abatellis is an interesting structure
of sweeping arches, featuring an embattled tower and details such as a few rare Sicilian examples of medieval-style
gargoyles. From the outside, it looks like a castle. In fact, it is one
of the last semi-fortified aristocratic dwellings built in western Sicily, in turn the residence
of the Abatellis and Branciforte families.
Located on Via Alloro in Palermo's Kalsa district (a seaside park is visible
at the end of the street), the building seems slightly more Romanesque than
Gothic, and certain parts of it have been "restored" beyond recognition,
with ugly stucco walls concealing natural stone. It's still impressive.
What is more important is its art collection, considered one of Sicily's
better ones. But would visitors be disappointed?
Outside the world's largest cities, it is usually presumed that smaller
art galleries base their claim to fame on a few masterpieces. Palazzo Abatellis
has its share of these, but the general collection may be a little overrated,
at least to those of us familiar with art collections elsewhere. Most of
the Abatellis collection is Late Medieval and Baroque. Here's what you can expect to see.
Several gems of the art world are kept here. Antonello
da Messina's Annunciation (shown here), painted in a mixed oil and egg
tempera technique, is, even by Renaissance standards, a unique work, and
perhaps the most important painting in Sicily. This alone is worth the price
of admission. Like the Mona Lisa, it is a small painting on a
wood panel. Three of da Messina's lesser works are also housed at Palazzo Abatellis.
Francesco Laurana was an important sculptor
of the same period, and two of his distinctive busts are displayed here.
The head of Eleonora of Aragon is the better known, and perhaps the more
beautiful. When I visited, it was displayed "in the open," without
a protective glass case, and while the building's modern security system
is efficient, one might question the wisdom in this. However, it does offer
visitors a direct, close-up view of a magnificent work of art, affording
the chance to actually walk around it and see it from just inches away.
This is one of the more remarkable things about Sicily's museums (and something
rarely seen in Paris, London or New York), where precious art is truly presented
directly to the people to appreciate. It helps to make art part of life.
Another important factor is the presence of Norman,
Arab and Byzantine art and architecture in its original (and natural)
context, such as churches, palaces and outdoor sculpture.
Appreciating the works in their possession, the curators have placed
the masterpieces of da Messina and Laurana each at the center of small chambers
in the museum. On a Baroque note, an interesting piece is a painting by
Anthony van Dyck (though this is not always on display). This is not his only work in Palermo, where the small church
in Via Bambinai behind the apse of the San Domenico Basilica exhibits one of his larger paintings.
The regional art galleries are a network of galleries and museums represented in various
provinces of Sicily. That's why there's a "regional" gallery and museum in Siracusa
and Catania as well as Palermo - each one housed in a historic building. Palermo's "modern"
art museum in the Saint Ann convent (in Piazza Sant'Anna near Piazza dei Vespri and Palazzo Gangi)
displays works created after 1800
The Arab and Norman periods are not overlooked, but don't expect to see
too much actual art. In a corner gallery up a short flight of steps off
the main courtyard is a chamber housing a number of columns and tablets
bearing Arabic inscriptions, and, in Greek, the eleventh-century dedication
of a Palermo church (shown here) by the Norman conqueror of Sicily Robert "Guiscard" Hauteville
and his wife. In the general collection, several Byzantine icons are preserved,
including the fragment of a beautiful mosaic of the Theotokos. A few pieces
of fresco are preserved as well, and some painted wood panels from the Middle Ages.
The remainder of the collection is dedicated to large paintings by Gagini
and other competent artists not very well known outside Sicily. Many pieces were salvaged from
churches and monasteries. While some are beautiful, others are simply overbearing
in style, composition and execution. This is the framework of the museum's
collection, and many visitors - even seasoned art historians - are likely
to find it rather redundant, even boring. If you visit Palazzo Abatellis but
no other Sicilian museum, you may be left with the impression of Sicilian art
as primarily a sixteenth-century development, as though virtually nothing
else existed before 1500.
Fortunately, this flawed impression is easily remedied by a visit to
Palermo's medieval churches and palaces - the Zisa, Palatine Chapel, Martorana
and others. The regional archeology museums of Palermo and Catania display
a great number of classical works, such as the recently-discovered Imperial heads. Palazzo Abatellis should be considered,
if at all, as complementing these other sites. In art, it's important to
see the whole picture.
The Steri Castle is in Piazza Marina nearby,
down Via Quattro Aprile, where Lorenzo's "chocolate bar" at number 7 serves coffee, desserts and much more than chocolate.
About the Author: Antonella Gallo, who teaches art in Rome, has written numerous
articles on arts and artists for Best of Sicily.