Palermo – Eclectic architecture – Palazzina Cinese

Eclecticism was an architectural style that flourished from the 19th until the early 20th century, overlapping with Neoclassical and Stile Liberty in Italy. The term refers to any design that incorporates elements from other cultures or architectural periods. Eclectic architects often chose to focus on one particular style, which historically gave rise to a number of revivalist movements (eg Gothic revival and Italian renaissance revival). However, the main driving force behind eclecticism was the use of historic styles to create something original and new, rather than just reviving older styles.

In Palermo a remarkable example of early Eclecticism is Palazzina Cinese (literally the ‘little Chinese Palace’), a Bourbon royal residence, located on the edge of Favorita Park, near the Monte Pellegrino Reserve. My map here. It was contracted by Ferdinand III of Sicily, King of the Two Sicilies, and designed by the architect Giuseppe Venanzio Marvuglia in 1799.

The architectural design is most precisely described as Chinoiserie, a European interpretation and imitation of Chinese and other East Asian artistic traditions, which began in the 17th century and became popular in the 18th century as trade with China and the rest of East Asia increased. It is related to Rococo which also employed exuberant decoration and had a focus on leisure and pleasure.

The pagoda-inspired pavilion is decorated with Chinese, Egyptian, Islamic and Neoclassical Pompeiian motifs. Features that caught my eye included the tiny cymbals on the railings by the entrance gate, which are designed to jingle in the wind. Also, on the exterior at ground level, there are striking arcades of pointed Arabic arches and, on the sides of the building, there are two open turrets with helical staircases.

Click on the gallery photos for the best view.

The apartments are spread over three floors. On the ground floor, acessed by the external staircase at the front, there is a Chinese-style reception hall with fabric panels by Vincenzo Riolo. Video here.

The Chinese theme continues on the walls and celings of the anterooms. The frescoes are the work of Giuseppe Velasquez. Video here.

Also on this floor is the king’s bedroom.

And the dining room. Dinner guests were served via the ingenious “tavola matematica”, a kind of early dumbwaiter that served the food via a trapdoor in the centre of the table.

The mechanism for the “mathematical table”, also designed by the architect Marvuglia, can be seen in the basement.

Also in the basement is the rather austere bathroom!

And a vault decorated in Neoclassical style.

On the second floor you can see Queen Maria Carolina’s rooms. Video here.

The ceiling here is decorated with Egyptian motifs.

While other rooms have an Islamic theme.

Behind the palace there is an Italian garden designed by Giuseppe Patricolo.

The hedges form a maze, although it can’t be accessed now.

In 1860, as a result of the Unification of Italy, the residence passed from the Bourbons to the House of Savoy. Later it became the property of the Comune of Palermo and the side buildings were converted into a folkart museum (the Pitré Museum, closed when I went during the pandemic).

Stile Liberty architecture next!

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