Today we’re armchair travelling to Sicily, for a tour of Italy’s strangest treasure, a crumbling baroque palace buried deep in the backstreets of Bagheria, a town 12km from Palermo. It’s also almost as puzzling to find as it is to realise its bizarre history, especially if you don’t know Palermo well or speak Italian. It’s also often randomly closed. Somehow, though, after a lot of searching and conversations in broken Italian, we found it – and it was open!
Looking at these photos, I know you might already be thinking, Villa Palagonia doesn’t look all that strange. In fact, it actually looks quite romantic in its faded Baroque glory, doesn’t it? This is true. That faded pastel-yellow facade, that beautiful sweeping staircase, the palm-filled garden… it’s something out of a nostalgic Italian film, until you look more closely.
Villa Palagonia stands out from other Italian palaces, its garden walls and entrances crawl with bizarre figurines – dragons, serpents, gargoyles, contorted human figures – which for decades have had people puzzling over the reclusive prince who designed them. Take these statues by the entrance above. Not the most inviting, are they? Especially the one on the left with its deformed face, goat head and body of a… soldier? I can’t quite make it out. It looks like something out of a horror movie. It’s the story behind these mysterious figurines which adds to the atmosphere of the place.
The palace was built for the 5th Prince of Palagonia, but the tale starts with his successor, the supposedly mad, reclusive, 7th Prince of Palagonia. He was born in Palermo in 1722, into huge wealth and entitlement, yet lived in reclusive misery, an outcast of society, often described as the ugliest man who ever lived in Sicily. One day, though, he surprised everyone and married Maria, the beautiful and sociable daughter of nobility, and lived a popular and joyful life, albeit for a short time until he discovered her cheating.
It’s at this point some say he went mad. To vent his feelings of resentment, he hatched a plan to punish Maria and stop her leaving by surrounding the palace with grotesque features, including caricatures of her lovers. He hired an imaginative architect called Tommasso di Napoli to carry out his dirty work. The result are these 200 bizarre figurines set atop the palace’s outside wall that took five years to carve. Apparently, the mad ugly prince’s plan worked, because no one saw the couple after that.
The palace and its fantasy decorations became well-known during The Grand Tour era, which attracted literary visitors such as Germany’s greatest literary figure, Goethe, French novelist Alexander Dumas and later, surrealist artists such as Andre Breton. No doubt their accounts have embellished the story of the prince. For example, in 1787, Goethe described the bizarre exterior:
To convey all the elements of the madness of the Prince of Palagonia, here’s the list. Men: beggars of the two sexes, Spaniards and Spaniards, Moors, Turks, Humpbacks, Deformed of all kinds, Dwarves, Musicians, Pulcinella, Soldiers dressed in the old fashion, Gods and Goddesses, Ancient French costumes, Soldiers with pouches and men, beings mythological with comic additions (…) Beasts: isolated parts of the same, horses with human hands, human bodies with equine heads, deformed monkeys, numerous dragons and snakes, extremely varied legs and figures of all kinds, splits and exchanges of heads.
On first look, it’s easy to be taken in by the palace’s charms, until the story of the doomed couple and the mysterious statues send a shiver down the spine. Just what kind of a prince was he? We’ll never know… Around one corner we find a clue it’s still lived in today, a cacti-covered garden table in a perfect shady spot I can imagine sitting at for an early evening Aperol spritz.
I wonder not for long as I cannot resist making my way up the steps, onto the balcony and through the grand entrance where we emerge into a large, quiet and cool hallway. Inside where you find a few rooms are open, all empty without furniture. Small windows and vaulted ceilings protect the place from the hot summer sun, while every inch of the interior wall surfaces are encrusted with classical motifs, pediments, entablatures, niches, pilasters, busts and domes that offer clues to the villa’s past glory. It’s a feast for the eyes and senses.
It’s the main room known as the Gallery of Mirrors, which is arguably the most mind-blowing. With its incredible ceiling of antique mirrors, which have been painted over in the corners with majestic birds and coats of arms.
When the prince died, he left all his money to the poor, and Maria died shortly afterwards. It’s hard to find out much more history about Europe’s strangest palace. According to one account, in the 19th century, the locals tried without luck to have the statues legally removed and in the 1950s, it was used as an apartment building. Today, it’s has a private owner who has opened it to the public.
Find Villa Palagonia at Piazza Garibaldi, 3, Bagria, Palermo, 90011