Palermo – Neoclassical architecture – theatres & palaces

Neoclassical architecture, which arose in the second half of the 18th century, was a reaction against the flamboyant excessive ornamentation of Late Baroque (see my previous posts on Rococo) and a return to a purer and more symmetrical classical style, better adapted to modern social needs. It was inspired by the archaeological discoveries at Herculanum in 1738 and in particular Pompeii in 1748 where Roman buildings were given close scientific examination, allowing them to be accurately copied.

In Palermo the most famous examples are the Teatro Politeama Garibaldi opera house (designed by Giuseppe Damiani Almeyda and built between 1867 and 1874, based on the influence of buildings at Pompeii) and the Teatro Massimo opera house (designed by Giovanni Battista Basile built between 1874 and 1897, inspired by the Greek temples at Agrigento). My map here.

Sadly Giovanni died during the construction of the Teatro Massimo and it was finished by his son Ernesto Basile, in Liberty style. Ernesto became such an important local architect, that I’ve dedicated the next post wholly to him. Together the father and son personify the shift from Neoclassical to Stile Liberty (Italian Art Nouveau) in Palermo.

The entrance to the Teatro Politeama takes the form of a triumphal arch topped by a bronze quadriga depicting the “Triumph of Apollo and Euterpe” by Mario Rutelli.

The chariot is flanked by two statues of knights on horseback, a representation of the “Olympic Games”, by Benedetto Civiletti. Underneath are bass reliefs depicting little angels by Rutelli and the “Fames” by the painter Giuseppe Pensabene.

Opposite the theatre, in in Piazza Castelnuovo, is the Palchetto della Musica, a bandstand with Neoclassical and Renaissance motifs.

It was built in 1875 by the local Florio family to prevent further construction in the square (their villa was once nearby).

Another famous Neoclassical building in Palermo is the Villa Malfitano Whitaker, commissioned by Giuseppe Whitaker, a descendant of an English merchant family.

It was designed by Ignazio Greco as a synthesis of Neo-Renaissance and Eclecticism (sub-strands of Neoclassicism), and constructed between 1885 to 1889 on the Malfitano plain, in what was then the north-western outskirts of the city.

I understand the villa’s interiors are beautifully decorated and contain a rich art collection, but sadly it was closed when I visited during the pandemic.

However I did manage to have a wander around the gardens which cover seven hectares.

The part of the garden adjacent to the imposing wrought iron gate is laid out in English style.

One day I went for a walk along Via Bonanno Pietro, near the base of Monte Pellegrino. I don’t particularly recommend it, you’ll be the only walker in an insalubrious part of town, but you do get some views of Palermo, including this mysterious belvedere (one of three ‘coffee houses‘ on the estate) which I later found out to be called the Tempietto di Vesta di Villa Belmonte. It lies in the grounds of Villa Belmonte all’Acquasanta (now a hospital) designed by local Neoclassical architect Giuseppe Venanzio Marvuglia.

In Italy, Neo-Renaissance architecture, aka Renaissance Revival, from the last quarter of the 19th century, is called Stile Umbertino (Umbertine Style). This architectural period is named for Umberto I of Savoy, the second king of the newly unified Italy, who was contemporaneous with Queen Victoria of Britain, and is characterised by Eclecticism, drawing inspiration from several periods of the history of art. It was the hegemonic ‘national’ style in the twenty years after 1870 but started to dwindle around 1895 as Stile Liberty started to come in.

However, it remained in use for governmental buildings well into the first and second decades of the 20th century, until Rationalism and Modernism finally took over. In Palermo, a good example of ‘late’ Stile Umbertino, built in the 1930s, is the (ex) Palazzo delle Ferrovie in Via Roma, near the train station.

Other famous examples are Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan (1878) and Galleria Umberto I in Naples (1890), both of which you’ll find in this blog.

Something more Eclectic next…

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