We have a very bizarre tourist attraction in our town.
Villa Palagonia has been nicknamed the Villa of the Monsters locally for centuries. It is absolutely crammed with caricature stone sculptures of bizarre creatures, deformed little men, goblins, and ugly hybrid “manimals”.
It was visited in the 18th century by multi-talented German writer, politician, lawyer and bore, Johann “Sausages” Von Goethe. When Goethe visited the villa, its owner, the inveterate trickster Ferdinando Gravina, gave him a joke chair to sit on. It was invisibly held together with fragile splints of wood. When Herr Goethe lowered his sturdy Teutonic buttocks upon its seat, he crashed to the floor amid a pile of sticks. Apparently he was not amused.
Approaching the villa, you first pass through the gateposts to the original grounds. Several streets festooned with laundry and dented cars have now been built between them and the villa itself. As you draw nearer, you keep spotting stone dogs playing violins and donkeys riding upon women with three tits, glimpsed between fluttering pairs of humungous knickers.
Eventually you reach the second pair of gates, flanked by statues of ugly, goblin-like beings about nine feet tall, tightly wedged between a ticket booth and a ladies clothing shop.
When you walk in through the gates you see the beautiful facade of the villa at the end of a broad, sandy path lined with oleanders, orange trees, cacti, and flowering trees. Don’t go looking off to the right! You’ll be faced with a row of private back gardens full of plastic slides, see-saws, abandoned tricycles, a few parked cars and the ubiquitous Sicilian laundry hung up to dry.
“Che schifo” said my husband the first time we saw this.
This literally means “How disgusting.” Sicilians say it very often. They say it with great passion and feeling, none with more passion and feeling than my Hubby. “Che schifo,” he said again. “Che vergogna. How shameful! Che schifo!”
Trying to put this behind us, we hastened around the other side of the garden and admired the view of the villa from the back – or was if the front? It seemed to have two fronts, each completely different from the other. You can easily get from one side of the villa to the other by walking under an archway that passes through the centre of the buildings. But look out! Don’t get garotted by the washing line! The aristocratic heirs of this villa still live in it, and there’s always a few noble panty-girdles and baronial-looking jeans with balloon seats drying under there.
There’s a slideshow lower down, by the way, so if you’re getting bored you can just scroll down to that, and then click off somewhere else. Don’t forget to click on the “like” button before you go.
Well, construction of the villa began in 1715. Work on the villa proceeded at Sicilian speed, which is just a little slower then geological speed. Whenever you see a Sicilian man working in a hole in the road, there are at least twelve others standing around watching him, and providing constructive criticism to egg him on. Villa Palagonia was constructed in this manner.
A full twenty-two years after it was started, the fifth Prince Don Ferdinand was dead and his son began work on the lower floors which surround the villa. Finally, the grandson of the founder of the villa was ready to get cracking on the interior décor in 1749.
This Seventh Prince of Palagonia was quite a nutter. He was the mastermind behind the hall of mirrors, which local legend has it was designed to torment his young wife and drive her to utterly lose her mind through fear of its spookiness. The Hall of mirrors is the main room of the very small part of the villa actually open to the public.
When the villa was built, mirrors were the most expensive items one could possibly use for interior decor, short of using solid slabs of pure gold. A method of backing a plate of flat glass with a thin sheet of tin and mercury was first developed in Venice during the 16th century. Up until this time, a mirror has simply been a very polished piece of metal.
For a long time the Venetians held a monopoly in the business of mirror production. Apparently the French lured some Venetian mirror makers away to build the legendary hall of mirrors in the Palace of Versailles. The government of the Venetian Republic was so keen to protect their monopoly that they hired professional assassins to track them down and poison them. Or it was it just those frogs’ legs and snails the French kept giving them to eat?
Anyway, the decision to cover the entire ceiling of this hall in Bagheria with mirrors was a deliberate display of vulgar ostentation.
This was a time when the Sicilian Barons were filthy rich. Ships from all the seagoing European countries would stop off in the bay of Palermo and fill their holds with Sicilian oranges and lemons, to stop their smelly sailors from getting scurvy on the high seas. On their way back from trading raids in Asia they’d stop off again. By this time they’d usually been drinking their own piss for months and were so scorbutic they had seeping wounds and wobbly teeth, but their holds were crammed with gold doubloons, pieces of eight and literally thousands of sachets of curry powder, and a few spare parrots. They’d pay whatever price was asked for a tankard of freshly squeezed homemade organic lemonade. The Sicilian barons who owned the citrus orchards became fabulously wealthy. And of course they deserved it, for ensuring that sailors all over the world received a nutritionally balanced diet.
The mirrors cover the ceiling. They are deliberately mounted at subtly varying angles, so that, as you walk around the room, you see yourself reflected dozens of times. Every little movement you make is magnified into the flickering of a crowd. The mirrors are also painted with birds, flowers and branches of red coral which looks disturbingly like blood seeping through the cracks.
The walls are faced with slabs of marble in dark, blood reds and maroons and other exotic colours, gathered from multiple sites around Italy and beyond. Somewhat above eye level, each panel bears a sculpture of an ancestor of the Gravina family. They look like life-size marble men and women trying to clamber out of the stonework, as if frozen in some scene from a horror film where people are entrapped and trying to escape from a virtual world. I found them fascinating and wonderful yet also disturbing.
My husband did not like them at all.
“Che scifo,” he said, in fact. “These are creepy. What kind of lunatics would want to have a room like this in their house?”
The nutty count then proceeded to have the entire perimeter wall topped with gruesome sculptures. Some said they were cruel caricatures of his poor wife’s various lovers, and any other person who had offended him. Others said he was simply a lunatic wasting extraordinary amounts of money on ugly and pointless “art”. Whatever people thought, the locals started calling the place the “The Villa of the Monsters”, and that name is still used today.
The count’s style of interior décor made his demented residence famous throughout Europe. It was visited by anyone who could get themselves an invitation to enter the freaky place on their aristocratic grand tour of Europe.
Visitors included the early travel writer Henry Swinburne; Patrick Brydone, who was in Sicily because of his passionate interest in lava flows which later led him to realize the earth is far older than had hitherto been realised; English architect John Soane, upon whom the villa made a profound impact and who subsequently designed the Bank of England building; the Count de Borde, about whom I can find nothing interesting to say; the artist and travel writer Jean-Pierre Houël; and Alexandre Dumas, whom many people know as the author of the Three Musketeers but whom fewer people know was the grandson of a French nobleman and a Haitian slave, who once remarked to a man who insulted him about his mixed-race background: “My father was a mulatto, my grandfather was a Negro, and my great-grandfather a monkey. You see, Sir, my family starts where yours ends”.
Perhaps the most illustrious of all visitors was the German multi-talented politician and sausage eater Goethe, who went on to write that “To have seen Italy without having seen Sicily is to not have seen Italy at all, for Sicily is the clue to everything”. He didn’t say a word about the trick chair or his jarred backside. He was classy that way.