Saturday, December 27, 2014

On Sicily -- a Concert at the Pallazzo Federico



Rain fell in Palermo, a sticky syrup spat from the sky and the fluid sloshed against gutters and eroded curbs like hot broth. The tour guide was marching us to the palace of a Sicilian countess. We walked single-file in narrow alleyways, passages like grottos, pressed against the slimy ancient walls so that cars could creep by. In some places, the alleys were blocked with rubble or clogged with garbage, pallets slumped against walls and barricading the lane next to over-turned bushel-baskets full of rotting produce, bloody mattresses that looked as if pigs had been slaughtered on them, a strange hush in the maze of narrow bricked-in passages – the traffic noise was muffled and, from adjacent openings in the walls, we heard domestic sighs and moans, a disheveled cat on the prowl among flowerpots, the respiration of the city deep and stentorous, a sort of snoring sound as the warm rain fell, pelting us as we hiked through the puddles.

In this quarter of Palermo, the streets are not merely medieval. Rather, they are ancient, a tangle of cobblestone lanes once adjacent to the ancient Carthaginian port, now receded to the docks and piers a mile away. These alleys were old when the Greeks captured the city and renamed it Panormus, ancient when this city was the capital of a Roman province, more than ancient when the Normans came here to build their fortified churches with dark interiors sheathed with gold and azure mosaics. Walking these stony alleys in the rain takes vigilance: you must use more than simple care or the wet, irregular cobbles underfoot will pitch you forward and knock you into a puddle of filthy water sloshing obscenely in a pothole or a crater left-over from the War. Berbers in frocks like butchers watched us from within cavernous, half-ruined buildings, dark eyes peering out of the gloom. Julie was muttering under her breath: "You’ve got to be fucking kidding! You’ve got to be kidding!" – a complaint about the rain, the uneven streets treacherously slicked with dog shit, the ancient ghetto pressing around us on all sides, cars and Vespas sluicing through the wet tunnels and casting water knee-high against our trousers and slacks.

We stopped in a narrow pit in front of big barn-like structure, a long, high windowless wall rising overhead to a tiled roof from which rain slid, splashing onto our heads. Around us, the neighborhood was ruinous: collapsing structures dissolving into piles of gravel and pits lined with fallen walls, half-ruined tenements like ancient quarries, full of big, incommunicative rocks, and windows like the openings into caves, sheds built in the wreckage of other sheds, an onion-dome of a church hovering over the chaos where we could hear women shouting at their children, music playing, voices coming from nests of broken tile and timber.  An abandoned, porcelain toilet stood against the wall, the rain sullenly pissing into its pot. "This is the Pallazzo Federico," the tour-guide announced. She rang a door bell and we waited in the rain for a long time for a reply. A buzzer sounded and the tour-guide leaned against the massive wooden door to admit us to the palace.

The big door tilted us inward to a courtyard where some expensive cars were parked in the gloom. On a balcony overlooking the courtyard, we saw a slender, blonde woman, haloed by the amber light behind her, waving and wearing a sort of sarong. The woman was far above us, posing in the frame of the arched opening into the palace. She gestured to us casually, lifting a delicate hand from the marble balustrade against which she was lounging and, then, said something to the tour-guide in Italian. It was a curiously breathtaking spectacle: the svelte blonde model, supernaturally youthful in appearance, standing like an idol in a shrine forty-feet above the dark and moldering courtyard.

To reach the woman, we climbed a long flight of marble stairs, really more of a ramp since the steps were very shallow, rising to landings where there were battered statues and bas-relief carvings in the high, damp-looking walls. The palace was stifling, ghastly with humidity, a series of long rooms that somehow managed to seem narrow, although each of the halls were probably wider than the house in which I live, an effect, I suppose, of the proportions within the palace – the spaces all ceremonial and open at their sides to the crumbling tenements around the palace, a sort of terrace hanging over the badly damaged neighborhood. The woman who had greeted us seemed cool enough, her slender shoulders bare and her neatly manicured feet displayed like precious jewelry in her open sandals. This was her home. She was the Contessa Alwine Federico, the wife of Count Federico, an heir to the Hohenstauffen dynasty that had ruled Sicily from this palace in the 13th century.

The Palazzo Federico is a bed and breakfast. Nobility doesn’t pay well anymore and royalty in Sicily lives from the produce of their estates, harvesting olives and grapes for wine, hosting banquets for tourists at their farms, and renting out rooms in their castles and palaces. The cost of maintaining a vast palace of this sort must be astonishing and so brutal economic necessity requires that the remnants of Sicily’s feudal past make their homes available for a fee to the public. The aspect of this arrangement that makes everyone uncomfortable, or, that, at least, bothered me, was the fact that the Palazzo Federico is not a museum – it is, in fact, very much a home and, indeed, a home in the most prosaic way. I am always irritated when I go to a historic site in Minnesota and am met by some fool in period costume, a ham-actor aggressively imitating the long dead occupants of the place – a charade that is all the more annoying because completely inauthentic and insincere. (In such places, I generally feel it would be better to be left alone with the fading traces of the past, a sense of the inevitable distance between today and yesteryear, than to be hectored by someone impersonating a 19th century maid or butler or, worse, the sutler at a frontier army post, smarmy with jests about rum and whiskey and trading with the Indians, or a famous personage mimicked by some fat youth who looks as if he spends his weekends playing Dungeons and Dragons.) At the Palazzo Federico, everything is authentic enough, but in a way that feels invasive, improper, overly intimate – the past and present is all intertwined in an unseemly way and Contessa is actual nobility who is, nonetheless, acting the part of what nobility should be like in the modern world and the whole thing is just a tiny bit unseemly. Alwine Federico is a real countess and, I suppose, enjoys certain privileges, but the economies of the situation also require that she teach German in the schools (she was born in Salzburg, Austria) and open her home so that people can gawk at her appliances, the books on the night-stand next to her bed, family photos of her children arrayed on the wall underneath grimacing, gargoyle faces in sickly green-tinted sepia of the old Count and Countess, Federico’s parents. Everything in the palace looks uncomfortable and the proportions, as I have earlier suggested, are all wrong – the rooms vast as neighborhoods, somehow, seem cramped and narrow and they are dark notwithstanding the enormous chandeliers poised overhead and, of course, decay and ruin are ubiquitous, the inevitable assault of time on walls and ceilings that were built eight-hundred or more years ago. Modern furniture, even cumbrous Victorian couches and chairs, seems too small and inconsequential for the vast spaces and the ceilings frescoed with plump and naked gods and goddesses, allegorical figures surfacing and diving through roseate clouds like so many pink dolphins. In one corner of a vast hall lined with wooden chairs, I see a small love-seat, a coffee-table strewn with magazines, periodicals devoted to fashion and motor-sports, some opera programs, and a Bose wave-machine CD-player, a couple of stacks of discs pushed against the stucco and timber wall. The countess gestures in that direction. She tells us that she is an opera singer and says that this is her music hall, but also a medieval ballroom, and that in that corner of the room, she sits to listen to CDs and, of course, I wonder what the sound is like, echoing through this huge space the size of a bowling alley.

Countess Alwine briskly leads us through the principal rooms of her castle, takes us upstairs to see her bedroom and a medieval kitchen full of burnished pots big enough to boil a saint in, and, all the while, she keeps up a brittle, merry patter, her schtick mostly about the miseries of living in an early medieval palace – one of the towers looming dark and inaccessible over the palace was built in the tenth-century and the castle’s foundations go down to cyclopean stone blocks pounded into the muck at the harbor’s edge by the Phoenicians four-thousand years ago. In one chamber, Countess Alwine’s computer is pushed against a wall (the screensaver shows a late-model Ferrari) and there are stacks of German books on a table– here is where she grades her students’ papers and, since the palace is steamy hot for six months and terribly cold for the other half of the year, she has mittens and gloves next to her computer keyboard: "I wear those in the winter to keep my hands warm,"she says, noting in the next breath that the structure is too vast to air-condition. She waves her hand at an open window and a vista of ruinous slums nearby: "Mafiosi," she says, "on house arrest. Terrible people." Children are crying outside and chorus of dogs barks, an irritating sound like a hacking cough.

We climb more stairs, passing trophies of various kinds, suits of armor, and pikes and halberds stapled into the stone walls. The place is enormous and reminds me a of a line from Lampedusa’s The Leopard – the old count said: "What is the good of a palace with so few rooms that you can enter into all of them in a lifetime?" In one bedroom, the ceiling is coffered, an ornate wooden assembly like storm clouds over the bed that is dwarfed by the huge chamber. Recent restoration has uncovered a fresco, painted like a frieze under the gloomy, oppressive ceiling: Judith and Holofernes, the plucky maid holding the King’s severed head like a bucket in her strong grasp and, across the room, more paintings – an assassination scene showing men plunging daggers into another man at the center of their dark-clad assembly, an image from Plutarch, I suppose, but grim, macabre, violent in an involuted sort of way. What would it be like to sleep in this room, under a leprous-looking fresco of a headless torso oozing blood and an assassination in the Roman forum? Of course, there is a ghost, a man in green tights who was interred alive in one of the walls, and the Countess says that he comes to visit her sometimes in bed and is, perhaps, more affectionate than her husband. Other rooms are equally bizarre: the Count is a professional race-car driver and, in his trophy room, he keeps the tires from formula-one racers that he has driven successfully to win races at the Grand Prix. The tires stand in columns in each of the rooms four corners, sullen and brooding towers of battered rubber, and the walls are spiky with scimitars, fencing swords, sabers, and arrays of daggers. Someone asks the Countess if her two sons drive race-cars: "No. I won’t allow it," she says, bristling, it seems, at the suggestion. One of her sons has a Brazilian girlfriend and she lives in an upper story in the palace, a place to which we don’t have access, and the Countess says that the girl is pampered because there are window air-conditioners inserted into the wall in those rooms – we can see them across the courtyard – and the young woman has brightened the grim, medieval windowsills with trays of bright, blooming flowers.

In another room, the Count himself stands, avuncular behind a table on which there is perched a creamy-looking, sleek cat. The Count pets the cat and the cat purrs and, on a silver tray, on another table, I can see the family’s bills, envelopes from the utilities or for garbage removal or for magazine subscriptions and car payments, a still life of invoices in half-opened envelopes next to spray of coins on the counter, car keys, business cards. We nod to the count and he nods to us and, despite his nobility, he is a rather unsightly man, a strongly built fellow with a knobby face and flaring eyebrows, a bit overweight, particularly in comparison to his wife who has the physique of a fashion model – she was a world-champion swimmer in her youth. Earlier, the Contessa gestured to the grimacing pictures of the Count’s parents, dour and menacing high on the wall, and, then, pointed to her blonde and handsome children – "you can see," she said, "that I have improved this family’s genes. Look at how beautiful my boys are." And, indeed, they are beautiful, Teutonic, blonde and bright as freshly minted gold coins, smiling cheerfully down from the ancient mortar and brick walls.

Later, in our hotel room, the entire experience seems surreal to me, like entering into the dream of a stranger and walking the corridors of someone else’s imagination. My memories feel remote and baffling, as if surgically inserted into my brain – someone else walked in those great halls and hot, suffocating chambers. The Countess is welcoming and kind, casual and hospitable, and the other tourists are impressed by how natural she was and how unassuming, but there was, I think, also an undercurrent of resentment, the faintest scarlet thread in the tapestry of hospitality, perhaps, in the encounter, and my wife, who is sensitive to such things, detected animosity in the countess toward her husband, a kind of sour and unresolved anger, something menacing, perhaps, in this display of friendly graciousness – after all, being royal means, on some level, being better than others and three-hundred years of egalitarian ideology can’t displace that notion entirely, and so, why should such an accomplished woman and a man who is heir to Frederick Barbarossa himself, the redbearded demi-god waiting under the mountain of Kyffhauser to redeem the German people, why should such people consort with American tourists and, indeed, pose for cell-phone pictures with them and serve them wine and cheese, both from the family estates it is said, in a six-hundred year old room filled with antique weapons? Writing these words seems to me, somehow, ungracious, like an act of lese-majesty, and these feelings seem also strange to me: after all, the Contessa is a public figure, not a private person, more of an idea than a real flesh-and-blood human being, and she has voluntarily opened her house to the likes of me, and, I presume, that I am entitled to my ideas about her, however, inaccurate and ungrateful they might be. But it’s all eerie and I will tell you one thing with complete conviction: internet pictures of the Pallazzo Federio show it to be bright and airy, shimmering with white walls and lovely frescos that seem to have been transplanted from the enlightened rococo corridors of Versailles, but, in fact, the palace is nothing like those picture – it is dark and gloomy and wet and dank, the interior of someone’s fantasy that should not be shown to anyone else at all.

These feelings are all encapsulated in a moment that occurred in the Contessa’s music room. The place has a high ceiling lunging up into the darkness and blue walls that seem to be made of velvet. In a glass case, there is a garment that Verdi once wore, a kind of plush jacket. The countess tells us that on one night in the second half of the 19th century Verdi visited the palace. The very next night, Wagner came. (Verdi was shy and felt inferior to Wagner and so contrived to attend upon the nobility in the palace the day before the German visited.) Countess Alwine Federico shows us a big, black Pleyel piano, dark as a sarcophagus, and says that Wagner sat at that keyboard and played on that piano. In our tour, there are three Korean doctors, all of them distinguished gentlemen, cosmopolitan, and well-educated. The Korean doctors are accompanied by their wives who are gracious and kindly women. The Korean doctors have practiced medicine in the United States for all of their professional careers and they are, in fact, a kind of royalty themselves, impressive men who live in beautiful places with beautiful wives, exquisitely refined in their own way, but, also, self-confident, because, after all, they are self-made counts and countesses themselves, peers of the realm in which they live. One of the doctors gestures to the Countess and she bows slightly and the man seats himself at the famous piano on the very piano stool once impressed by Wagner’s buttocks, and, then, after a moment of silence, the Korean gentleman, from Southern California or Manhattan (I’m not sure which place) begins to play the piano, striking hard at the keyboard from which thunderous notes emerge and echo – I don’t know what the man is playing, perhaps, a Mazurka by Chopin, but the music that he makes is competent enough, the notes hammered from the big, black piano and, at the threshold of the room, the Countess leans forward toward the renowned instrument that Wagner once played, and shakes her head in time to the music, and the grimace on her face is supposed to mean that she approves of the performance, and, perhaps, indeed, she does, in fact, approve because a piano is made to played, and music is composed to be performed, and she has been an opera singer herself and there is nothing sadder than a famous instrument on which no one is allowed to play...

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