1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Palermo

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PALERMO (Greek, Πάνορμος; Latin, Panhormus, Panormus), a city of Sicily, capital of a province of the same name, in the kingdom of Italy, and the see of an archbishop. Pop. (1906), town 264,036, commune 323,747. The city stands in the N.W. of the island, on a small bay looking E., the coast forming the chord of a semicircle of mountains which hem in the campagna of Palermo, called the Conca d’Oro. The most striking point is the mountain of Hiercte, now called Pellegrino (from the grotto of Santa Rosalia, a favourite place of pilgrimage) at the N. of this semicircle; at the S.E. is the promontory of Zaffarano, on which stood Soluntum (q.v.).

A neolithic settlement and necropolis were discovered in 1897 at the foot of Monte Pellegrino, on the N.E. side (E. Salinas in Notizie degli Scavi, 1907, 307). Palermo has been commonly thought to be an original Phoenician settlement of unknown date (though its true Phoenician name is unknown), but Holm (Archivio storio siciliano, 1880, iv. 421) has suggested that the settlement was originally Greek.[1] There is no record of any Greek colonies in that part of Sicily, and Panormus certainly was Phoenician as far back as history can carry us. According to Thucydides (vi. 2), as the Greeks colonized the E. of the island, the Phoenicians withdrew to the N.W., and concentrated themselves at Panormus, Motye, and Soluntum. Like the other Phoenician colonies in the west, Panormus came under the power of Carthage, and became the head of the Carthaginian dominion in Sicily. As such it became the centre of that strife between Europe and Africa, between Aryan and Semitic man, in its later stages between Christendom and Islam, which forms the great interest of Sicilian history. As the Semitic head of Sicily, it stands opposed to Syracuse, the Greek head. Under the Carthaginian it was the head of the Semitic part of Sicily; when, under the Saracen all Sicily came under Semitic rule, it was the chief seat of that rule. It was thrice won for Europe, by Greek, Roman and Norman conquerors— in 276 B.C. by the Epirot king Pyrrhus, in 254 B.C. by the Roman consuls Aulus Atilius and Gnaeus Cornelius Scipio, and in A.D. 107 by Robert Guiscard and his brother Roger, the first count of Sicily. After the conquest by Pyrrhus the city was soon recovered by Carthage, but this first Greek occupation was the beginning of a connexion with western Greece and its islands which was revived under various forms in later times. After the Roman conquest an attempt to recover the city for Carthage was made in 250 B.C., which led only to a great Roman victory (see Punic Wars). Later, in the First Punic War, Hamilcar Barca was encamped for three years on Hiercte or Pellegrino, but the Roman possession of the city was not disturbed. Panormus received the privileges of autonomy and immunity from taxation. It seems probable that at the end of the republic the coinage for the west of Sicily was struck here (Mommsen, Röm. Münzwesen, 665). A colony was sent here by Augustus, and the place remained of considerable importance, though inferior to Catana. A fortunate chance has preserved to us a large number of the inscriptions set up in the Forum (Mommsen, Corpus inscr. lat. x. 752). The town was taken by the Vandal Genseric in A.D. 440. It afterwards became a part of the East-Gothic dominion, and was recovered for the empire by Belisarius in 535. It again remained a Roman possession for exactly three hundred years, till it was taken by the Saracens in 835. Panormus now became the Moslem capital. In 1062 the Pisan fleet broke through the chain of the harbour and carried ofl much spoil, which was spent on the building of the great church of Pisa. After the Norman conquest the city remained for a short time in the hands of the dukes of Apuha. But in 1093 half the city was ceded to Count Roger, and in 1122 the rest was ceded to the second Roger. When he took the kingly title in 1130 it became “Prima sedes, corona regis, et regni caput.” During the Norman reigns Palermo was the main centre of Sicilian history, especially during the disturbances in the reign of William the Bad (1154–1166). The emperor Henry VI. entered Palermo in 1194, and it was the chief scene of his cruelties. In 1198 his son Frederick, afterwards emperor, was crowned there. After his death Palermo was for a moment a commonwealth. It passed under the dominion of Charles of Anjou in 1266. In the next year, when the greater part of Sicily revolted on behalf of Conradin, Palermo was one of the few towns which was held for Charles; but the famous Vespers of 1282 put an end to the Angevin dominion.


From that time Palermo shared in the many changes of the Sicilian kingdom. In 1535 Charles V. landed there on his return from Tunis. The last kings crowned at Palermo were Victor Amadeus of Savoy, in 1713, and Charles III. of Bourbon, in 1735. The loss of Naples by the Bourbons in 1798, and again in 1806, made Palermo once more the seat of a separate Sicilian kingdom. The city rose against Bourbon rule in 1820 and in 1848. In 1860 came the final deliverance, at the hands of Garibaldi; but with it came also the yet fuller loss of the position of Palermo as the capital of a kingdom of Sicily.

Site.—The original city was built on a tongue of land between two inlets of the sea. There is no doubt that the present main street, the Cassaro (Roman castrum, Arabic Kasr), Via Marmorea or Via Toledo (Via Vittorio Emmanuele), represents the line of the ancient town, with water on each side of it. Another peninsula with one side to the open sea, meeting as it were the main city at right angles, formed in Polybius’s time the Neapolis, or new town, in Saracen times Khalesa, a name which still survives in that of Calsa. But the two ancient harbours have been dried up; the two peninsulas have met; the long street has been extended to the present coast-line; a small inlet, called the Cala, alone represents the old haven. The city kept its ancient shape till after the time of the Norman kings. The old state of things fully explains the name Πάνορμος.

There are not many early remains in Palermo. The Phoenician and Greek antiquities in the museum do not belong to the city itself. The earliest existing buildings date from the time of the Norman kings, whose palaces and churches were built in the Saracenic and Byzantine styles prevalent in the island. Of Saracen works actually belonging to the time of Saracen occupation there are no whole buildings remaining, but many inscriptions and a good many columns, often inscribed with passages from the Koran, which have been used up again in later buildings, specially in the porch of the metropolitan church. This last was built by Archbishop Walter (fl. 1170)—an Englishman sent by Henry II. of England as tutor to William II. of Sicily—and consecrated in 1185, on the site of an ancient basilica, which on the Saracen conquest became a mosque, and on the Norman conquest became a church again, first of the Greek and then of the Latin rite. What remains of Walter’s building is a rich example of the Christian-Saracen style, disfigured, unfortunately, by the addition of a totally unsuitable dome by Ferinando Fuga in 1781–1801. This church contains the tombs of the emperor Frederick II. and his parents—massive sarcophagi of red porphyry with canopies above them—and also the royal throne, higher than that of the archbishop: for the king of Sicily, as hereditary legate of the see of Rome, was the higher ecclesiastical officer of the two. But far the best example of the style is the chapel of the king’s palace (cappella palatina), at the west end of the city. This is earlier than Walter’s church, being the work of King Roger in 1143. The wonderful mosaics, the wooden roof, elaborately fretted and painted, and the marble incrustation of the lower part of the walls and the floor are very fine. Of the palace itself the greater part was rebuilt and added in Spanish times, but there are some other parts of Roger’s work left, specially the hall called Sala Normanna.

Alongside of the churches of this Christian-Saracen type, there is another class which follows the Byzantine type. Of these the most perfect is the very small church of San Cataldo. But the best, much altered, but now largely restored to its former state, is the adjoining church of La Martorana, the work of George of Antioch, King Roger’s admiral. This is rich with mosaics, among them the portraits of the king and the founder. Both these and the royal chapel have several small cupolas, and there is a still greater display in that way in the church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti, which it is hard to believe never was a mosque. It is the only church in Palermo with a bell-tower, itself crowned with a cupola.

Most of these buildings are witnesses in different ways to the peculiar position of Palermo in the 12th century as the “city of the threefold tongue,” Greek, Arabic, and Latin. King Roger’s sun dial in the palace is commemorated in all three, and it is to be noticed that the three inscriptions do not translate one another. In private inscriptions a fourth tongue, the Hebrew, is also often found. For in Palermo under the Norman kings Christians of both rites, Mahommedans and Jews were all allowed to flourish after their several fashions. In Saracen times there was a Slavonic quarter on the southern side of the city, and there is still a colony of United Greeks, or more strictly Albanians.

The series of Christian-Saracen buildings is continued in the country houses of the kings which surround the city, La Favara and Mimnerno, the works of Roger, and the better known Ziza and Cuba, the works severally of William the Bad and William the Good. The Saracenic architecture and Arabic inscriptions of these buildings have often caused them to be taken for works of the ancient ameers; but the inscriptions of themselves prove their date. All these buildings are the genuine work of Sicilian art, the art which had grown up in the island through the presence of the two most civilized races of the age, the Greek and the Saracen. Later in the 12th century the Cistercians brought in a type of church which, without any great change of mere style, has a very different effect, a high choir taking in some sort the place of the cupola. The greatest example of this is the neighbouring metropolitan church of Monreale (q.v.); more closely connected with Palermo is the church of San Spirito, outside the city on the south side, the scene of the Vespers.

Domestic and civil buildings from the 12th century to the 15th abound in Palermo, and they present several types of genuine national art, quite unlike anything in Italy. Of palaces the finest is perhaps the massive Palazzo Chiaramonte, now used as the courts of justice, erected subsequently to 1307. One of the halls has interesting paintings of 1377–1380 on its wooden ceiling; and in the upper storey of the court is a splendid three-light Gothic window. The later houses employ a very flat arch, the use of which goes on in some of the houses and smaller churches of the Renaissance. S. Maria della Catena may be taken as an especially good example. But the general aspect of the streets is later still, dating from mere Spanish times. Still many of the houses are stately in their way, with remarkable heavy balconies. The most striking point in the city is the central space at the crossing of the main streets, called the Quattro Cantoni. Two of the four are formed by the ancient Via Marmorea, but the Via Macqueda, which supplies the other two, was cut through a mass of small streets in Spanish times.

The city walls are now to a great extent removed. Of the gates only two remain, the Porta Nuova and the Porta Felice; both are fine examples of the baroque style, the former was erected in 1584 to commemorate the return of Charles V. fifty years earlier, the latter in 1582. Outside the walls new quarters have sprung up of recent years, and the Teatro Massimo and the Politeama Garibaldi; the former (begun by G. B. Basile and completed by his son in 1897) has room for 3200 spectators and is the largest in Italy.

The museum of Palermo, the richest in the island, has been transferred from the university to the former monastery of the Filippini. Among the most important are the objects from prehistoric tombs and the architectural fragments from Selinus, including several metopes with reliefs, which are of great importance as illustrating the development of Greek sculpture. None of the numerous Greek vases and terra-cottas is quite of the first class, though the collection is important. The bronzes are few, but include the famous ram from Syracuse. There is also the Casuccini collections of Etruscan sarcophagi, sepulchral urns and pottery. Almost the only classical antiquities from Palermo itself are Latin inscriptions of the imperial period, and two large coloured mosaics with figures found in the Piazza Vittoria in front of the royal palace in 1869: in 1906 excavations in the same square led to the discovery of a large private house, apparently of the 2nd or 3rd century A.D., to which these mosaics no doubt belonged. Of greater local interest are the medieval and Renaissance sculptures from Palermo itself, a large picture gallery, and an extensive collection of Sicilian majolica, &c.

The university, founded in 1779, rose to importance in recent years (from 300 students in 1872 to 1495 in 1897), but has slightly lost in numbers since. The city wears a prosperous and busy appearance. The Marina, or esplanade at the south of the town, affords a fine sea front with a view of the bay; near it are beautiful public gardens. In the immediate neighbourhood of the city are the oldest church in or near Palermo, the Lepers' church, founded by the first conqueror or deliverer, Count Roger, and the bridge over the forsaken stream of the Oreto, built in King Roger's day by the admiral George. There are also some later medieval houses and towers of some importance. These all lie on to the south of the city, towards the hill called Monte Griffone (Griffon-Greek), and the Giant's Cave, which has furnished rich stores for the palaeontologist. On the other side, towards Pellegrino, is the new harbour of Palermo, round which a new quarter has sprung up, including a yard capable of building ships up to 475 ft. in length, and a dry dock for vessels up to 563 ft.

The steamship traffic at Palermo in 1906 amounted to 2035 vessels, with a total tonnage of 2,403,851 tons. Palermo is one of the two headquarters (the other being Genoa) of the Navigazione Generale Italiana, the chief Italian steamship company. The principal imports were 36,567 tons of timber (a large increase on the normal figures), 21,401[2] tons of wheat and 151,360 tons of coal; while the chief exports were 116,400 gallons of wine, 37,835 tons of sumach and 122,023 tons of oranges and lemons. Finding most of its valuable rates hypothecated to the meeting of old debts, the municipality of Palermo has embarked upon municipal ownership and trading in various directions.

The plain of Palermo is very fertile, and well watered by springs and streams, of the latter of which the Oreto is the chief. It is planted with orange and lemon groves, the products of which are largely exported, and with many palm-trees, the fruit of which, however, does not attain maturity. It also contains many villas of the wealthy inhabitants of Palermo, among the most beautiful of which is La Favorita, at the foot of Monte Pellegrino on the west, belonging to the Crown.

Authorities—Besides works dealing with Sicily generally, the established local work on Palermo is Descrizione di Palermo antico, by Salvatore Morso (2nd ed., Palermo, 1827). Modern research and criticism have been applied in Die mittelälterliche Kunst in Palermo, by Anton Springer (Bonn, 1869); Historische Topographie von Panormus, by Julius Schubring (Lübeck, 1870); Studii di storia palermitana, by Adolf Holm (Palermo, 1880). See also “The Normans in Palermo,” in the third series of Historical Essays, by E. A. Freeman (London, 1879). The description of Palermo in the second volume of Gselfel's guide-book, Unter-Italien und Sicilien (Leipzig), leaves nothing to wish for. Various articles in the Archivio storico siciliano and the series of Documenti per servire alla storia della Sicilia, both published by the Società siciliana per la storia patria, may also be consulted.  (E. A. F.; T. As.) 

  1. The coins bearing the name of םחנח are no longer assigned to Panormus; but certain coins with the name ציין (Zîz; about 410 B.C.) belong to it.
  2. The figures for 1905 (40,005 tons, almost entirely from Russia) were abnormally high, while those for 1906 are correspondingly below the average.