8.21.2013

Amazing Italy: A Forgotten Museum with Art Like the Louvre's Mona Lisa

In Palermo, Sicily, there is a museum that exhibits art as good as the best in the Louvre. And it is housed in an extraordinary 15th century palace, a rare example of gothic-Catalan architecture, fully restored back in the 1950s by one of Italy's best 20th century architects.

The museum is Palazzo Abatellis in Via Alloro, a suggestive old part of town, the Kalsa quarter near the sea. Here it is:



And the architect is Carlo Scarpa who magnificently brought back to life a palace that had been gravely damaged during World War II - like the whole town of Palermo that lost 80 percent of its buildings to bombings.

The art I'm talking about? Here it is, the magnificent head of Eleanor of Aragon by an unknown artist. For many, her smile is as beautiful and enigmatic as the Mona Lisa's - but I prefer her profile:




 You see her as soon as you walk in. The next high point (after many other artwork) is Antonello da Messina's reading virgin, the extraordinary rendering of a musing young woman as she faces her unique destiny:



And then, the end of the visit comes as a veritable shock. You find yourself looking at a huge fresco, so big that it is composed of four pieces occupying a whole wall (it is in fact 6 by 6.4 meters). It is called Il Trionfo della MorteThe Triumph of Death (a common theme in 14th century Europe) and it used to adorn the entrance of a hospital - I'm not sure to what extent patients felt uplifted by it... Nobody knows who painted it, but it is an absolute world masterpiece, judge for yourself:



To get the full impact, you'd need to go there and actually stand in front of it. But even from this small image you can get an idea of the violence and beauty of it, a "terrible beauty" to use Yeats' phrase. Just take a close look at the death horse:


Look at the horse's head. Reminds you of anything? Yes, Picasso's famous Guernica painting - except the head is turned the other way. See here:


The same violence...

This painting, the Triumph of Death, figures prominently in my novel Crimson Clouds. When  the protagonist visits Palermo with his lover, he learns his mother is dying in Paris just as he is transfixed by the beauty of this painting...The juxtaposition of the painting with the news he's just received on his cell phone traumatizes him.

Don't let that stop you next time you visit Sicily and make sure you include this museum!




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