Palermo’s Palazzina Cinese: a Bourbon king’s fantasy of China

When visiting Palermo in Sicily, you might be expecting to see a range of cultural influences, including, Norman, Arab and Spanish, but the existence of a palace designed in a Chinese style may come as more of a surprise.

As trade with Asia grew in the 17th and 18th centuries, people across Europe started to collect Chinese- inspired goods including ornaments, wallpaper, paintings and textiles, a style that became known as Chinoiserie. King Ferdinand IV of Naples took that art form to the extreme with his Chinese Palace, or Palazzina Cinese, the centre piece of his private game reserve in the Favorita Park north of Palermo.

Ferdinand was in exile in Palermo when he commissioned the palace, along with his wife Maria Carolina, older sister of the last queen of France Marie Antoinette, after escaping on British Admiral Horatio Nelson’s HMS Vanguard ship as French armies started advancing toward Naples in 1798.

He claimed the area of the Favorita park and purchased and appropriated the lands from noble Palermo families. The palace was designed by architect Giuseppe Venanzio Marvuglia in 1799, on the site of an existing building constructed in a Chinese style by Baron Lombardo Benedetto della Scala around 1790.

From outside, the brightly coloured structure has semi-circular arcades on its northern and southern sides, and is topped by a pagoda. There are two towers flanking the building, with spiral staircases leading to an upper floor. It is on five levels starting with a basement and ending at the top with the pagoda-covered “Sala dei Venti” that was originally destined to be an observatory.

When you walk up the entrance steps you come through the lobby and into the reception room, where the king used to meet representatives of other delegations. The walls here are decorated in a Chinese style and also display inscriptions in different languages, welcoming signs for people from around the world.

Adjacent to the reception lobby is the dining room which has an unusual table with levers for the servants to raise and lower plates from below. That way the nobility could be kept apart from the serving staff for reasons of privacy. Some of Ferdinand’s famous visitors here are believed to have included Lord Nelson, and Lady Emma Hamilton, wife of Sir William Hamilton, the British Ambassador to the Kingdom of Naples at the time.

Elsewhere on this floor you can see the king’s bedroom and a games room. These quarters contain many Chinese-inspired frescoes by Giuseppe Velazquez. I found it intriguing to look at the way Italian styles have blended with Chinese.

At the time, the rising but still limited exposure to East Asian art and fashion fuelled fascination for these distant countries and their traditions. It is interesting to think about the way different cultures can fascinate each other, perhaps because they help you learn more about what it means to be human.

In modern times some people express irritation or offense when others imitate their culture, calling it “cultural appropriation” and viewing it as a form of stealing intellectual property. Italy itself fights the “Italian sounding” trend of foreign companies profiting from copying Italian cultural ideas.

But on the artistic front, I think these imitations by one culture of another are a merging of two traditions, which leads to additional forms of art with their own value. When someone from another culture is inspired by your country’s traditions and style and copies part of them, this can serve as a reflection of your society. Looking at what a foreign person likes and fantasises about your country can help you see the strong points of what you have to offer the world, a means of helping you to see the areas of your culture to protect and promote, and a source of pride.

I hope that I am able to achieve that sometimes with this blog, looking at Italy through an English person’s eyes.

On a higher floor you come to the apartments of Maria Carolina. Various styles can be found here, including a Turkish room and another section inspired by the ancient site of Pompeii which had been rediscovered in the 18th century after being destroyed and buried by an eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD.

I liked her bedroom, decorated in a neoclassical style, where she had circular frescoes painted on the walls of her young children accompanied by the inscription “images of tenderness” then also her first son: “my hope”, her husband: “my support” and also of herself “me stesso” (this is apparently a grammatical error and should really take the feminine form “me stessa”).

On the lower floor you come to the ballroom and the bathroom with a huge marble bathtub. There is also an interesting trompe l’oeil painting which gives the appearance of a run-down house with a crumbling and open roof.

Outside, the gardens are also very beautiful, including fountains, palm trees and boxed hedge mazes. Here you have a wonderful view on the back of the palace.

The Palazzina Cinese came under the control of the Italian state property office in the 19th century. It was later passed to Palermo’s local council, who installed the Giuseppe Pitrè ethnograhic museum on the site. For a while in the 1980s the palace was closed due to deterioration, but it has since been reopened to the public and is undergoing stages of renovation. Recently the lamps have been restored and put back into place. For opening hours, I would advise checking with the site beforehand as they seem to vary. When I last checked for example, it appeared to be closed on Sundays and Mondays.

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