The mysterious charm of the Genius of Palermo

The tonality of Palermo is shadowy: the chiaroscuro of the entrance hall, the coolness of the botanical garden, the silhouette of the buildings drawn on the red-hot sidewalks, but also the mystery of its tales, always in balance between myth, play and invisibility. Starting with his protector: the famous genius of Palermo, whom we do not know whether he is a god, a hero, a sovereign. We do not even know how it got there, in ancient Panormos, and when.

Yet it is everywhere: there are those who claim that there are seventeen reproductions of the Genius. He is depicted as an old old man with flowing hair and beard: on his head a crown, next to often an eagle, at his feet a dog. Sometimes a giant snake sucks its breast. It’s everywhere: in the form of a fountain (Villa Giulia), of a medallion on a gate (Fontana Pretoria), of a tapestry (in the Palazzo Comitini).

On the door of the Palatine Chapel is a composition of mosaic tiles; sometimes it is in the form of a fresco, as in the attic of the beautiful ballroom of the Palazzo Isnello or in the church of Del Gesù (Casa Professa). The oldest Genius is the so-called Genius of the Port or Genius of the Pier: a high relief carried by the time that now stands at the entrance to the marina to protect the city and its inhabitants, but also as a welcome sign for ships wishing to cast anchored.

Genius loci in Palermo has also become a “puppet” with a long white beard and a beautiful crown, made by the old family of Argento puppet masters.

Only in the fountain of Villa Giulia’s beautiful garden, however, does the genius show all its grandeur: the statue, made of white Carrara marble in 1778 by Ignazio Marabitti, depicts a mighty sovereign with a dog at his feet to represent fidelity. An eagle spreads its wings beside; behind him hangs from a rock a cornucopia of luck and abundance; in one hand he holds a snake, which turns in coils along the whole body.

It’s not an ancient image, and it does not hide the secret behind a tale, but right there in the garden, which Goethe defined as the most beautiful place in the world, you can stop in the cool and listen to the story of Saturn, lord of the golden age, who he was depicted with an iconography not so different from the Genius of Palermo. God reigned in a prosperous and happy time when the earth spontaneously offered its fruits and death and disease were forbidden.

In this sense, the presence of the genius in the hidden nobles and in the cracks of the houses, in the middle of the fountains, on the ceilings of frescoes and in the face of the wind on the waterfront would be reminiscent of a fabulous age for humanity and at the same time a kind of auspicious charm: the hope of a return to old splendor.

Even the serpent with its hypnotic coils forming a round would account for the cyclical time that turns around itself and brings the city back to the beginning, to Saturn.

Another explanation for the presence of the snake in the iconography of the genius seems to have been given by a small version of it, Palermu ‘u Nicu, “Palermo the Little”, a statue of uncertain origin placed at the end of the sixteenth century on the stairs to the Palazzo Pretorio, the City Hall Representation Office.

At the bottom of the sculpture is a cut reminiscent of: Panormus conca aurea suos devorat alienos nutrit (“Palermo, the golden basin devours its own and many aliens”). Behind this motto would be an allusion to the role that Palermo played during the Punic wars, when he favored the African Scipio against the Carthaginians and thus fed the enemy by betraying his own.

In this ambiguity, in the presence of elements that never offer a unique interpretation, Palermo retains its own mystery through the Genius: it reveals small chunks of stories and hides others, making it impossible to grasp the key to the story. Therefore, while hunting for “geniuses” around the city in terms of a treasure hunt, it is not the true legend of the true genius of Palermo that reveals itself, not its origin, not its significance, but the buildings, the houses, the caves , the fountains, gardens and squares to pamper yourself for a short time in a small glimmer of light.

From “Sicily of the Gods – A Mythological Guide” by Giulio Guidorizzi and Silvia Romani, (Raffaello Cortina Editore), 296 pages, 19 euros

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