Along the walls of the old district of the courts, in the Kalsa district which extends from the sea to the heart of Palermo, a forgotten story reappears. A story made up of abuses, anonymous denunciations and state murders that went through the city for a good part of the modern age, when from the end of the fifteenth century Sicily ruled by the Spaniards found itself under the yoke of the Inquisition court. Established along the lines of that of Madrid, it had similar characteristics and tasks and formulated equally arbitrary judgments, which led to imprisonment, torture and burning at the stake. Intellectuals, freethinkers, nobles and poor people, sailors and peasants ended up in its grip, often victims of whispered complaints, unverified suspicions or showdowns between families.
This story was closed in 1783 in a last liberating fire of all the documents relating to the trials, to avoid retaliation and to start a new era inspired by the ideals of the Enlightenment. But those events have recently re-emerged thanks to the interest of some scholars and to a work of recovering a past that “also tells us a lot about our present”, as Laura Anello says, president of the Le vie dei Tesori foundation, which has the objective of the rediscovery and return to the public of the stories and places of Palermo’s past.
It is with her that we venture into the most emblematic places of this removed history, from the main headquarters of the Inquisition to the vestiges of the Jewish community, overwhelmed as in Spain by the royal edict which sanctioned its expulsion in 1492.
The tribunal was established in Palermo in 1487 and, like the Spanish one, one of its objectives was to identify the so-called “crypto-Jews”, that is, those who publicly converted but privately continued to profess the Jewish faith. It is no coincidence that its first location was Palazzo Marchesi, a late 15th century building in Ballarò, a stone’s throw from what was once the Jewish quarter. The large courtyard leads to a series of dungeons where prisoners awaiting trial or execution of their sentence were locked up. Paradoxically, in the same courtyard there is one of the few intact reminiscences of the past of a community which before the expulsion numbered thirty thousand people: from a small door one descends a staircase which leads to a miqveh, the ritual bath used by women for purification after pregnancy and menstrual cycle. The object of pilgrimages by Jews from Israel and the United States, today it is only open during specific events.
Leaving Palazzo Marchesi and walking for a few hundred meters you arrive at the Municipal Archives, whose seat in the former convent of San Nicolò da Tolentino oozes with history: here are kept the documents of the city produced between 1275 and the mid-twentieth century . Its central hall is another trace of the Jewish past, as it stands in the exact place where the synagogue once was. The Neapolitan architect Giuseppe Damiani Almeyda, who was entrusted with the project in 1882, ideally wanted to return the hall to its former function. The large room can be considered a “transposed synagogue”, with a square plan, with the same dimensions, the same openings and the same orientation to the east of the entrance as the original one. It is here that, in memory of that painful event, the Sicilian translation of the Edict of Granada, which in 1492 sanctioned the expulsion of the Jews, is exhibited in a display case.
To get to the heart of the itinerary, however, you have to leave the winding alleys of Ballarò and go down via Vittorio Emanuele. In Piazza Marina, in the space now occupied by the Garibaldi garden with its imposing centuries-old ficus, the fires were held, shows which the public watched from stages and stands set up ad hoc. The location is not accidental: it is located right in front of the Chiaramonte palace, also known as Steri. The Inquisition was transferred here in 1601, at the height of its activity, and here it remained until its definitive closure.
After the era of the Jews, the Holy Office dedicated itself to hunting down heretics, blasphemers, thieves and simple free thinkers, creating a network of informers and informers which, according to Leonardo Sciascia, “would have made Ovra’s network pale”. the fascist secret police. The Sicilian writer, together with the historian Maria Sofia Messana, whose book Inquisitors, necromancers and witches in modern Sicily (1500-1782) has just been republished by Sellerio, was one of the most passionate narrators of this forgotten story.
Today seat of the rectorate, Palazzo Steri is at the center of an incredible recovery work. Already at the beginning of the twentieth century, during the expansion works, graffiti on the walls came to light by chance. They were drawings of a religious nature, poems and writings in various languages left by the prisoners locked up in what were once the dungeons of the court. The historian of popular traditions Giuseppe Pitrè was called to study them, who tried to block the work to preserve those finds. He patiently peeled off the plaster, brought out other writings, photographed and cataloged the drawings, which he called “prison palimpsests”. However, he was unable to stop the expansion works. And so that chance discovery fell into oblivion again.
The rooms were then used as court offices, until after the Second World War they suffered an even more indecorous fate: claiming a right of use granted by Charles Poletti, head of the allied military government in Sicily, the second-hand dealer Salvatore Di Falco, known as Don Totò illegally took possession of the building. The man occupied the places until his death in 2002, when they were finally returned to the university, which became the owner of the building. “The building was full of all sorts of junk,” says Anello, who at the time worked at Steri himself. “51 lorries were used to empty it. There was everything: wrecks of cars, chairs, uniforms, furniture”.
Since then, the restoration has started again and extraordinary stories have come to light. The palace – where the famous painting Vucciria by Renato Guttuso is also kept – can be visited every day from Tuesday to Sunday. The fourteen rooms are completely covered with drawings that the prisoners made by scraping the terracotta from the floor and soaking it in saliva. They look like cave paintings, which tell of the terror of the prisoners held in these dungeons.
Among these the most famous is undoubtedly Diego La Matina, the Augustinian friar who was imprisoned here several times until, in 1657, he managed to kill the inquisitor Juan López de Cisneros with his own hands during an interrogation. The story is told by Sciascia in Death of the Inquisitor. The friar was burned alive on the Sant’Erasmo plain, on the seafront, while Cisneros is buried in the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, better known as “la Gancia”, a short distance from the Steri. Today under restoration, the religious building is only open on Sundays for services.
The walls of the Steri tell dramatic stories without speaking. Thousands of people have passed through its dungeons and at least 284 of these were condemned to the stake. But then, Sciascia asks himself in a footnote to his book, “how many were under investigation, those sentenced to lesser sentences? And how many among them are poets, philosophers, artists?”.
It’s an institution: Baldo is the philosopher bartender who doesn’t like to chat and offers an unmissable coffee.
Via Vittorio Emanuele 93
Nni Franco the vastiddaro
Right in front of Baldo, Franco offers the best câ meusa sandwich (with spleen) in Palermo, as well as the classic panelle and crocché. Open until late at night.
Via Vittorio Emanuele 102
Lorenzo chocolate shop
This chocolate bar looks like a meeting place for writers and artists. Coffee and sweets, especially chocolate, to be consumed at the table in an extremely well-kept place.
Via del Quattro Aprile 7
Osteria alla good in Ballarò which serves the main Palermitan dishes of meat and fish. Generous portions and very low prices.
Via San Nicolò all’Albergheria 38