Palermo – the Stile Liberty architecture of Ernesto Basile

As previously mentioned, at the beginning of the 20th century, Neoclassical architecture began to be replaced by Stile Liberty (Italian Art Nouveau) as the most fashionable European architectural style.

In Palermo, the most important architect in the new style was locally-born Ernesto Basile, the son of Giovan Battista Filippo Basile, who designed the Teatro Massimo (see earlier post). While fully conversant with his father’s Neoclassical tradition (he finished the Teatro Massimo after his father’s death), the younger Basile was known for using curved forms similar to Belgian-French Art Nouveau. Together the two personified the shift from one architectural style to the other in Palermo.

Below are a few of his other works that I’ve seen, in general order of preference. You’ll find them all on my map.

My favourite Ernesto Basile work is the Villino Florio, constructed between 1899-1902.

Built to be the family home for the wealthy Florio family, the villa is one of the first Art Nouveau buildings in Italy, and is generally considered to be one of the finest international examples of the style.

It’s an eclectic mix of revival styles including Romanesque columns, Renaissance ashlar, Nordic roof trusses and cylindrical turrets that are reminiscent of French castles.

The interior was destroyed by fire after a mafia attack in 1962 but has since been restored.

Unfortunately I didn’t get to go interior as I went while Covid restrictions were in place and my app wasn’t functioning correctly. I did get a good look at the outside though.

It’s probably best avoided on weekends and holidays as you’ll probably have to queue to get in.

Another important residential building is the seemingly semi-derelict Villino Favaloro di Stefano in Piazza Virgilio, which can be partially viewed on the Via Dante walk I mention in the next post. It was constructed as a family home for the Favaloro family between 1889 and 1901, according to the design of the elder Giovan Battista Filippo Basile.

The villa was enlarged by Ernesto between 1913 and 1914, after his father’s death, with the addition of an octagonal pinnacle tower, decorated with stylised vine leaves and bunches of grapes. Other changes were made but are impossible to see through the closed gates.

As I understand it, this was the very first Liberty building in Sicily and as a result has been declared of national historic interest. The regional government has purchased so hopefully they’ll renovate it and open it to the public one day.

Back in town, there are two Basile designed kiosks in Piazza Verdi, the square in front of the Teatro Massimo. This is Chiosco Vicari, built in 1897.

The kiosk has a neo-Moorish design, with references to Victorian colonial architecture and local architectural traditions. The base is of Billiemi marble while the rest of the structure is of wrought iron combined with a wooden inlay.

A short distance away in the same square is Chiosco Ribaudo, built in 1894.

When designing the octagonal dome of this kiosk, Basile was apparently inspired by the towers he had seen on a trip to Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. The golden characters of the Ribaudo name on a red background contrast with the greys of the wrought iron “lace” and the Billiemi marble base.

There is a second Moorish Ribaudo kiosk in Piazza Castelnuovo which is decorated with colourful majolica tiles and mosaics, but it was being renovated when I was visiting and I couldn’t get any photos.

Just up the road is the Ex Cine-Teatro Kursaal Biondo in Piazza Ruggero Settimo in Palermo, designed by Ernesto and opened in 1914 (not to be confused with the neoclassical Teatro Biondo on Via Roma). While its primary function was as a cinema-theater, the loggia was made for holding concerts and other outdoor performances and the complex included a garden, a café, a restaurant, a billiard hall and various other pavilions.

Another impressive Basile work is the Grand Hotel Villa Igiea, built between 1899 and 1900, which was, and still is, the best hotel in Palermo (see my post on My Favourite Bars in Palermo). Video here. Of particular intestest are the symbolist murals inside which I must go back and revisit.

Basile was also responsible for the expansion of the Grand Hotel et des Palmes in 1907.

I also saw the rather bland Palazzo delle Assicurazioni Generali Venezia at 405 Via Roma.

These were offices for an insurance company, built in 1912. While not being much of a looker, the building had an important role in the history of building production and the urban dynamics of the city during the late Belle Époque.

The Chiesa di Santa Rosalia was one of Basile’s last works, built between 1924-1933. It follows a more classical theme but the frieze at the top of the façade, supporting a bronze statue of Santa Rosalia by Antonio Ugo, is carved with Liberty-style roses, the symbol of the saint. The dome is octagonal and covered with two-tone majolica but the interior is very plain and simple.

Finally there is Basile’s own understated family home, Villino Ida Basile, at 15 Via Siracusa. Built between 1903-04, it is named after his wife, Ida Negrini.

The building is notable for being an early experiment in construction using reinforced concrete. The decoration of the facade is very restrained with blue and yellow majolica and some wrought iron ornamentation. I tried to get inside but it seems to be a private building and visits are not allowed.

More Stile Liberty in the next post!

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