At a first glance, Villa Palagonia in Bagheria, to the east of Palermo, could be a villa like any other. But walk further into its gardens, and you will enter into the strange and mysterious world of Francesco Ferdinando Gravina II, the eccentric 18th century Prince of Palagonia.
The villa was constructed on behalf of his grandfather in 1715. But then Ferdinando Gravina II, the seventh prince of Palagonia, introduced the unusual element into its grounds. Beyond these trees, you can discover monsters, goblins, ghouls and other strange figures dwelling on the surrounding walls. They include all sorts of characters, including humans with animal heads, hunchbacks, bandits, dancing noble men and women, musicians and mythological figures.
According to some local legends, the prince had these statues made up either to ridicule his many acquaintances who regularly attended his parties, or because he wanted to embarrass his apparently unfaithful wife by making caricatures of her lovers. Whatever the reason, these strange figures and the disharmonious elements within the interiors of the villa have attracted several writers and artists to this enchanted place, including Henry Swinburne and Johan Wolfgang von Goethe.
“Our entire day has been taken up with the madness of the Prince of Palagonia. His follies turned out to be quite different from anything I had imagined after hearing and reading about them…
The following list may give you a better idea of what Prince Palagonia has perpetrated in his madness:
Human beings. Beggars of both sexes, men and women of Spain, Moors, Turks, hunchbacks, deformed persons of every kind, dwarfs, musicians, Pulcinellas, soldiers in antique uniforms, gods and goddesses, persons dressed in French fashions of long ago, soldiers with ammunition pouches and leggings, mythological figures with grotesque accessories; for instance: Achilles and Chiron with Pulcinella.
Animals. Only parts of them; a horse with human hands, the head of a horse on a human body, deformed monkeys, many dragons and snakes, every kind of paw attached to every kind of body, double heads and exchanged heads…
Now imagine similar figures multiplied ad infinitum, designed without rhyme or reason, combined without discrimination or point, pedestals and monstrosities in one unending row, and the painful feelings they must inspire, and you will symphatise with anyone who has to run the gauntlet of this lunacy.”
I visited Villa Palagonia during a stay in Palermo in July. I took a 10 minute train from Palermo’s main station along the coast to Bagheria, and walked across the town to find the villa. Inside, I had the gardens all to myself in the first part of the morning. I was able to carefully explore the walls and spot the most unusual characters. I saw a very strange looking hunchback, and some rather scary winged creatures. I also liked this group, especially the figure with the rabbit ears sitting on the smiling horse:
I was also fond of this jolly group of musicians below. As you can see, outside some sections of the villa modern buildings have cropped up which change the atmosphere slightly, though in some ways the sharp contrast suits the disharmony the prince was aiming for.
The other side of the villa has a double staircase leading up to the entrance. On either side of this you can take a rest on benches decorated with noble busts, facing a pretty shaded garden in which you can find more unusual statues.
The mystery of the place is not restricted to the exterior. Once you enter into the villa, there are also many unusual aspects to note. In the splendid “Hall of Mirrors” for example, broken mirrors are mounted on the roof so that when visitors look up they can see several distorted images of themselves. The following inscription can be seen before entering:
“Specchiati in quei cristalli e nell’istessa magnificenza singolar contempla di fralezza mortal l’immago espressa”
Which translates roughly as: “Look at yourself in these mirrors and in that same unique magnificence, contemplate the evident image of mortal fragility.”
Other rooms to visit inside the villa include the small chapel, the billiard room and a vestibule decorated with frescoes portraying the labours of Hercules. The private apartments on the upper floor are currently not open to the public.
Villa Palagonia is one of the best options for a day trip from Palermo, destined to be a memorable outing. After exploring its grounds you can head back into Bagheria for a delicious meal at Don Ciccio. Here you can choose from a range of Sicilian specialities, and I remember especially enjoying the banana and strawberry Marsala dessert. If you have extra time, you can visit other villas in the town, including Villa Valguarnera and Villa Cattolica, which houses a museum dedicated to the Sicilian painter Renato Guttuso.
For more information on the Villa, and opening hours, see here.