One of the things that has made generations of English aristocrats fall in Love with Sicily over the centuries is the mutual passion for eccentrics.
I don’t mean subtle characters, like one of my beloved uncles whose favourite food was broad bean and custard sandwiches. I mean flamboyant filthy rich people who could construct a mechanised dining table spanning three storeys of their palace, so that plates of food, ready-filled glasses of wine and – a bit more salt, wench! – could appear on the table apparently by magic.
This madcap dining experience, in Palermo’s Palazzina Cinese or “Little Chinese Palace”, was the delight of King Ferdinand III of Sicily. If you are looking for things to do in Sicily, put this at the top of your list.
I think it was inevitable that he was never going to be a standard sort of bloke, for not only was he King Ferdinand III but was also King Ferdinand I and King Ferdinand IV as well. Allow me to make this even more confusing by explaining that he was the king of not one Sicily, but two.
Fair enough, you deserve a real explanation. The second “Sicily” in those days was Naples and the surrounding area. He was the third Ferdinand there, whereas in the original, real Sicily they had already had more Ferdinands, and he was the fourth one. One fine day he realised this was getting ridiculous and just decided that he was “King of two Sicilies” and since no other Ferdinand had ever been king of this unified geographic region, he was Ferdinand I.
Anyway, now that you have met Ferdinand, let’s join him for dinner.
Here’s the table.
Notice the coloured strings dangling off the edges? He and his queen would yank on those to indicate to the servants below what they wanted. There were various colour-combinations which could indicate anything from “we’re ready for the cannoli now” to “Load me up with some more spaghetti and octopus in red wine sauce if you please.”
The dedicated team of servants down below were in this room here, paying close attention to twitching strings.
From this scary and tall room, one went down an inconveniently narrow and twisty staircase into the kitchen below to request and fetch the required delicacies, place them on the appropriate platform for the appropriate person, and then several strong men would hoist on ropes to make the plate pop up upon the table in front of the relevant royal.
All this, without a word being spoken and with never a serving wench rearing her low-class face in the royal dining hall.
I have mused for probably more time that I should admit upon why this was created. Did the royal couple engage in such fascinating conversations that they could not face interrupting themselves for something as banal as requests for more Parmesan cheese? Perhaps the simple fact was that the German-speaking queen never learned Italian?
Or was it the opposite, that they hated each other so much they refused to speak to each other and even to other people in each other’s presence? This seems a little more plausible, since the Queen, who was Carolina of Austria, had her bedrooms on the third floor of the palace whilst the King slept as far away from her as was physically possible on the ground floor in a bedroom via – this bit is interesting – the Turkish baths where it was obligatory to get naked before entering. One can play this game all day but the fact remains, they were jolly eccentric.
They lived in style, though. Here’s the queen’s bedroom and private chambers.
Did you notice the many portraits she had painted on the walls? They were all her children, of whom she had a small army. They are variously labelled My Love, Beloved Joy, My Salvation, and a portrait of herself labelled, appropriately, Myself.
One of the pictures has the face obliterated in plain white and is poignantly labelled My Hope. This was one of her sons who was horribly injured in a riding accident and later died.
Meanwhile, two storeys away, here we have his majesty’s royal bedchamber on the ground floor:
Evidently designed with seduction in mind, this dreamy gauze paradise adjoins a bath chamber in solid white marble designed for bathing in company.
Not too much company though.
It’s a comfortable size for two people, either or both of whom may wish to swing their limbs around freely.
It’s interesting to look upon this and note that, despite having children with his queen numbering in double digits, King Ferdinand the 1st, 3rd or 4th, whichever you prefer, also kept an uncountable string of mistresses as well as throngs of somewhat more transient lovers. I did wonder at one point if the magical dining table was designed by the queen to keep the serving maids safe. Indeed, so prolific and shameless was Randy King Ferdy that he named the park and garden surrounding the Palazzina Cinese after one of his mistresses, his favourite one in fact, whom he imaginatively nicknamed “The Favourite One” or La Favorita.
When looking at his portrait, I am reminded of the classic phrase,
“So tell me miss, what was it that first attracted you to billionaire King Ferdinand?”
I think it may be safe to say these ladies were more attracted by his money than his appearance. When one sees his palace, it is clear he had plenty of cash. The entire ground floor of the palace is lavishly embellished with al fresco murals, some Chinese, some Turkish inspired, some Arabic including Arabic script… essentially, anything eastern was fair material for this Orientally themed palace.
Meanwhile on the subterranean floor, hidden away near the kitchen, is a mural designed to simulate a damp-ruined grotto with once-glorious murals. The big marks on these walls are not damage at all. A close inspection shows they were painted that way.
The Palazzina Cinese is certainly a must-see in central Palermo.
For donkeys’ years it was closed to the public. Hubby remembers being taken on a school trip to visit the garden of the Favourite Mistress, which was the only part open back then. Here he is setting off through the park, which made extravagant use of land indeed inside a crowded city.
Indeed the palace remained closed to the public while I was living in Sicily, too. Only very recently has it become accessible to the public at all. So if you are in Palermo, take your chance to get the eccentric Sicilian vibe by exploring this truly beautiful monument to extravagance, with a slight hint of nutty!
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