Palermo’s Belle Epoque

June 13, 2014 / Local Interest
Palermo, Sicilia

Not many hotels inspire. In fact many of them are sad, grimy establishments. Not so the Grand Hotel et des Palmes. You only have to walk through the main foyer doors here to breathe the atmosphere of history and intrigue.

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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.

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The Anglican Church across the road from the hotel.

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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 Epoque stopover on the Grand Tour itinerary.

Teatro Massimo

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.

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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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by Marian Watson-Virga

Marian has lived in Sicily for longer than she can remember. British by birth, Sicilian by marriage she loves all things Sicilian, even pani ca’ meusa!   For the past few years she has been collaborating with Carmelina Ricciardello of www.sicilianexperience.com, developing responsible tourism and discovering Sicily on walking and car tours. Marian’s blog page is here.

10 Responses to “Palermo’s Belle Epoque”

  1. louise

    how super. one could just walk through nodding at all decor. there’s a whole different impact when you know. thanks. will be on my to-do list when visiting Palermo.

    Reply
  2. Rosemary

    Fascinating! Wish I’d known about this when we lived in Sicily! I found Palermo to be exotic and fascinating, beautiful and crumbling and completely captivating!

    Reply
  3. Bob Paglee

    I went to Palermo maybe in 1952 when I was working in Italy but hadn’t yet learned to speak Italian. I was able to locate and visit with the famous opera singer, Esther Mazzoleni, who was a cousin of my mother Nietta Mazzoleni. Although not being fluent, I enjoyed the visit with that branch of the family and the magnificent palazzo where they lived.

    I went on to enjoy the wonders of Taormina and Syracuse, but I wish I could reestablish contact with that marvelous Palermo branch of my family.

    Reply
  4. Antonio Russo

    Being of Sicilian descent, and a teacher of Italian AND German, I found this to be one of the top posts of the year so far — incredibly interesting and fascinating. For all my studies, Master’s degree and 39years of language teaching, I never knew about this magnificent hotel and theater, let alone the folklore and history behind it! What all of us do NOT know, would fill the universe. This is definitely on my list to see and explore – and sojourn, if I can afford it (!) on my next trip to la patria dei miei parenti! Grazie mille, Marian!

    Reply
  5. David Barneby

    My grandmother was an Ingham . My uncle told me he was received like royalty when he visited Palermo and stayed at the Grand Hotel .

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  6. Thank you for this wonderful post! I stayed in the hotel last spring and loved it. Love it more now that I know some of the history.

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  7. Wonderful post and photographs. Loved the list of all who passed through! What a place. Thank you! best, Jean

    Reply
  8. CeciliaBelenardo

    Great hotel,we saw it in Oct.It has a lot of history.

    Reply

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