Villa Niscemi, Palermo – the most lavish palace in all Sicily

One day strolling through Palermo – OK, staggering in the heat – I chanced to notice a pair of gates which felt very familiar.

I had never seen them before, yet I knew them so well. I knew there was going to be a false river inside them inhabited by expensive imported ducks.

So we went inside, and Quack, there they were.

Next we went to the Mayor of Palermo’s office, which I also knew every detail of though I had never set foot in it before.

Isn’t it wonderful? I don’t blame the mayor of Palermo for his shortcomings. I, too, would do no work if this were my office.

How did I know this place so well?

It is Villa Niscemi, once home to a young aristocrat named Fulco Di Verdura who published his memories of growing up here in the early 20th century in an utterly charming book called “The Happy summer days: A Sicilian Childhood” under the name Fulco. Part of the noble Sicilian Valguarnera family, he was the last resident there. The villa was sold to the Italian state in the 1980s, which is why the mayor and council occupy it, and why it is not usually open to the public.

Fulco moved to New York where he became a very famous jeweller, notably designing jewellery for Coco Chanel.

He describes rampaging around the garden with his sister in a miniature cart pulled by a goat, which they used to terrorise all the gardeners. He describes the artificial duck pond made to look like a river, which was the envy even of the Sicilian royal family who lived next door, in a palace smaller than his. He describes each and every bedroom, allocated to family members in chronological order of appearance in the family. This meant that his poor mother, the mistress of the house, had a mean and cramped bedroom while a few distant aunts and hangers on had simply marvellous ones.

He describes the wonderful scent of the oleanders in the garden. He describes the rare occasions when he was allowed outside the grounds of the villa, a treat he found fascinating as he was surrounded by working class Sicilians shouting their heads off and having a whale of a time, in a way he loved to do himself but was often told off for! The watermelon sellers, he was told, would make their cut watermelons look redder and more tasty by rubbing them with tomato juice. He was fascinated by their shouted sales slogans but was told, much to his disappointment, he was not allowed to eat their wares as it was only for low class children.

He describes every twist and turn of the villa, and the scenes that played out in each room, in such evocative and enchanting detail that I felt as if I were revisiting the home of an old dear friend. I dashed from room to room in breathless excitement, telling my husband all the anecdotes that I knew about each room.

My stories included the terrifying and tragic day that the villa caught fire. Every eccentric member of the household had to gather outside during the night, dressed in their nightgowns and staring up in fear and worry at the acrid black smoke. Yet one member of the family refused to leave the building. This was an aunt whom, little Fulco had been told in secret, had had so many children she would actually roll her breasts up before she could shove them into her whalebone corset. This procedure took more than half an hour and she refused to be seen by anyone without her corset on.

Fulco described her as a formidable woman who fiercely ordered everyone to go away, and declared that she would rather die than be seen by anyone but her husband incompletely dressed. So they left her.

By a miracle she survived the fire, and so did most of the villa. I was so relived as I walked around, imagining this loud, happy and typically Sicilian family living out their lives here, observed in minute detail by the little boy Fulco.

Meanwhile Hubby was falling in love with the villa for the first time, and did not actually want to leave, ever.

If you want to read The Happy Summer Days by Fulco, keep your eye out in second hand bookshops. It is out of print and rarely found on Amazon for less than US $100.

NEWS FLASH!

My newest book THE GODMOTHER is out now on Amazon worldwide.

Find out more or buy it now on Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk

The journal of an English woman handling parenthood, the Mafia and a Sicilian mother-in-law, all at once.

‘The Godmother’, the first book in the series, introduces the formidable mother-in-law and godmother to seven children who dominates family life.

To understand Sicily’s present you need to understand her past. The author discusses, amongst other things, the Sicilian language, the role of women in Sicily and their portrayal in modern Italian media, the immigration crisis which began in Sicily in 2012, the fact Italians sell pasta for dogs, and some of the UNESCO world heritage sites that embellish the magnificent island of Sicily.

A passionate love of all things Sicilian combines with irreverent humour and a dangerously truthful way with words in this cultural and personal exploration of Sicily, past and present.

This anthology of articles was originally published online in 2012 but is now only available in print from all Amazon websites worldwide, and as an e-book (Kindle and other formats).


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