Majolica, The Leopard, fallen women & Caravaggio: The private museums of Palermo and Naples

One of the great benefits of making an extended stay in a city is that you don’t just visit the ‘must-see’ sites that every tourist knows about. Europe’s capitals are brimming with fascinating small museums, many of them privately owned and operated. Robert Veel, who leads our Palermo and Naples tour in January 2020, introduces four of them.

The rooms of genius – a majolica tile museum

There are many ways of telling the story of Palermo and Naples through art. One collector has chosen to do so through majolica tiles. Majolica is a distinctly southern Italian art form, arising from the interaction of Spanish influences (from Majorca, hence the name majolica) and the ceramic skills bought into Sicily by Arabs in the 9th century. The owner of this private museum, now in his 50s, began collecting tiles as an 11-year old, when they were being thrown into dumps around Palermo. Since then the collection has expanded, covering the walls of every room in this elegant private apartment, named after the statue of genius in the adjacent piazza – Stanze al Genio. The owner still lives in the apartment, but opens it to visitors for several afternoons a week.

Rooms are organised to systematically display the range of majolica tiles created in both Sicily and Naples, covering different geographical regions and different time periods. The oldest tiles are nearly 500 years old and come from inland villages in south-east Sicily where the Arab influence persisted well into the modern age. Colours are the same as those used in earlier Arab pottery.

In other rooms, the arrival of Spanish influence is easy to pick, with complex geometric patterns, similar to the much-loved azuejos of the Iberian peninsula, and some tiles of high artistic value to cater to aristocratic tastes of Spanish colonists.

The Neapolitan part of the collection shows different, but equally complex, influences. During the reign of the Bourbon monarchs in the 18th and 19th centuries, the Roman towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum were rediscovered and excavated, and so some tiles make direct reference to the mosaics discovered here – such as the famous ‘Cave Canem’ floor mosaic at the entrance to the so-called House of the Tragic Poet in Pompeii. Large pictorial panels composed of many tiles also appear, similar to the elaborate nativity scene images of rustic life so favoured by King Ferdinand of Naples, the ‘peasant king’.

The pleasure of this private museum is twofold. Not only is the tile collection itself of considerable artistic and historical interest, but the elegant arrangement of the tiles in the apartment is a triumph of interior decoration.

Palazzo Lansa Tomasi, Palermo

When Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard was published posthumously in 1958 it was a sensation. The novel is set in 1860, just after Garibaldi had landed in Marsala in western Sicily, drawing the timeless island of Sicily, with millennia of foreign rule, into the unification process. The Leopard presented a complex description of Sicilian society, attitudes and traditions, and helped explain the island to Italian and international readers, as well as arguably to the Sicilians themselves.

Just consider the following speech, given by the main character, Prince Fabrizio, to a visiting parliamentarian from the north:

“This violence of landscape, this cruelty of climate, this continual tension in everything, and even these monuments of the past, magnificent yet incomprehensible because not built by us and yet standing around us like lovely mute ghosts; all those rulers who landed by main force from all directions, who were at once obeyed, soon detested and always misunderstood; their sole means of expression works of art we found enigmatic and taxes we found only too intelligible, and which they spent elsewhere. All these events have formed our character, which is thus conditioned by events outside our control as well as a terrifying insularity of mind.” [1]

The Palazzo Lanza Tomasi was the last residence of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, and provides a direct connection to The Leopard. The palace was purchased in 1849 by Prince Giulio Fabrizio, great-grandfather of the novelist, who based the indomitable main character, Don Fabrizio, on this great-grandfather.

The palace itself is described clearly in the novel as the Palermo residence of the prince, as indeed it was in real life. Family portraits fill the staircases and salons, there is a great collection of literary memorabilia relating to the The Leopard as well as significant painting and objects d’arte.

Academy Travel’s visit to the Palazzo Lanza Tomasi comprises a guided tour of the historic rooms plus an aperitif, hosted by none other than Duke Gioacchino Lanza Tomasi and his wife. Gioacchino is reputed to be the model for the rambunctious character of Tancredi in The Leopard.

Farmacia degli incurabili, Naples

This remarkable site brings together science, history, art and the demi-monde of Naples. The pharmacy, a magnificent 18th-century creation in walnut and stucco is part of a bigger complex, comprising a hospital, the convent ‘of the thirty-three’ and a more recent ‘museum of the sanitary arts.’

Naples has always been a port city, subject to exotic influences and habituated to the presence of foreigners who were passing through the city or who had settled as merchants or diplomats. In contrast to modern stereotypes of decadence and corruption, medieval Naples had a reputation for medical excellence. The nearby city of Salerno was home to an important medical school, which famously employed an Arab, a Jewish, a Greek and a Latin professor, so as to draw on the very best accumulated medical knowledge of the medieval world. The great medieval emperor Frederick II established a university in Naples and made sure that Salerno’s medical expertise was available to the city.

A less salubrious aspect of medieval Naples’ maritime character was the presence of a thriving sex industry, comprising both consumers (often the visiting sailors) and service providers, the women of Naples. Unsurprisingly this meant that sexually transmitted diseases were rife in Naples, a serious state of affairs in the age before antibiotics. Sex and medicine come together at the incurabili.

Spanish noblewoman Maria Longo established the hospital of the incurabili in 1522. Naples was at that time a colony of Spain. After her husband returned from a pilgrimage to Loreto cured of the paralysis that had afflicted him, Maria decided to dedicate her life, and her wealth, to providing medical treatment to the poor. A particular object of her charity was the sex workers of Naples. The convent of the thirty-three adjacent to the hospital was established to house thirty-three fallen women, who received spiritual guidance as well as medical treatment.

For centuries the hospital and pharmacy were at the forefront in the development of medicines to treat sexually transmitted diseases. Modern medical research was in its infancy and looking after the needs of sex workers was not a high priority for many, so the compassion and scientific rigour shown at the incurabili was all the more remarkable.

The pharmacy room contains ancient medicine jars, displaying an incredible broad provenance of ingredients and an impressive depth of knowledge. Even more memorable are the baroque stucco decorations which embellish the pharmacy. They depict female anatomy in remarkable scientific detail but also with artistic sensitivity, all within a grandiose architectural surrounding.

Caravaggio in private collections

Naples is home to three fine paintings by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, two of which are in private hands.

The Pio Monte della Misericordia was founded in 1601 by seven nobleman, who would meet at the abovementioned Ospedale degli incurabili on Fridays and minister to the sick. A separate church, in the middle of the city, was consecrated in 1606. Caravaggio was commissioned to depict the Seven acts of mercy for the church in 1607, when he was at the height of his fame and powers. The complex and powerful painting stands nearly four metres tall and two-and-a-half metres wide, simultaneously depicting the seven works of charity in the one setting.

As well as viewing the Caravaggio itself, it’s worth touring the offices of the still-functioning brotherhood which surround the church to gain more of the context for Caravaggio’s masterpiece.

Walking down the Via Toledo towards the San Carlo Opera House, one passes the Palazzo Zevallos. This fine art nouveau building (or ‘liberty style’, as the Italians call it) houses the Neapolitan collection of the Intesa Sanpaolo bank, one of Italy’s largest financial institutions. Most of the works in the collection are from the 18th and 19th century, and very interesting, but most visitors head straight for the room containing Caravaggio’s Martyrdom of St Ursula, painted in 1610 and thought to be the artist’s last work.

Caravaggio was on the run from the Knights of Malta, from whose prison he had escaped, and he died shortly afterwards. Typically dramatic, Caravaggio’s canvass captures the exact moment when Ursula’s killer’s arrow has pierced her flesh. It’s not to be missed.

These four private sites feature on Academy Travel’s tour to Palermo and Naples in January 2020. Limited places remain. Click here to for full details >

[1] Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa The Leopard (trans. Archibald Colquhoun) London: Vintage, 2007, p.138

Robert Veel

Robert Veel is a cultural historian with over 20 years’ experience leading tours to Italy, the USA, Scandinavia and Turkey. He has a strong personal interest in the visual arts, architecture and music, and is a founding director of Academy Travel. Robert holds a BA, Dip. Ed and M.Ed, all from the University of Sydney. He worked as a lecturer at the University of Sydney before a long stint at the University’s Centre for Continuing Education, lecturing in Italian history and culture and working as Assistant Director.


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