The Genie of Palermo: a four-thousand-year old frightful enigma.
Ancient Greeks and Romans were maniacally obsessed by the Genie: there was no place without its own Genie. A natural and supernatural being, able to describe the way that place was and the way their inhabitants interacted with it. It described what that place did to whoever was born, lived and worked there. In many cities founded by Greeks and Romans the memory about their Genie has been lost, but not in Palermo. Actually, Palermo has been honouring its Genie for four thousand years with many statues.
The most important one is kept in the Palazzo del Comune (Town Hall building) and whoever comes in will pass in front of it. However, the most picturesque version is part of the town daily life: you can find it here , in the middle of Piazza Rivoluzione.
The statue shows a fork-bearded little man, with a crown on his head.
Sometimes it seems like he is looking upwards, with half-closed mouth, with an expression on its face that might look like religious devotion, but I have my doubts about it.
The weird thing is that he is hugging a big snake, which is biting his chest.
Luckily, written on the Town Hall copy of the statue, we can read the phrase in Latin: “Palermo e la conca d’oro divora i suoi e nutre gli stranieri”
“Palermo and the Conca d’oro devour its children and feed the strangers”
This sentence suggests that the old bearded man is not the Genie, but the snake he is hugging with such a great tenderness is, while feeding itself with his blood. So, maybe, the old bearded man is the symbol of the Palermitan who is going to be devoured, day after day.
Tourists can relax and enjoy their stay, the Genie is taking care of them all. Sense of hospitality in Palermo is well-known. But the Genie’s plans for the inhabitants of the town are quite different: the destiny for its children seems to be only failure. Sad fate for people living in Palermo: it seems like they are devoured by the place, by their own fellow-citizens or by the snake.
You don’t believe that?
Well, let’s go and have a look to what has happened in the history of the town in the last thousand years.
Throughout ten centuries there has been only one king who was born in Palermo: William the Good. He was sterile and the direct lineage of Hauteville family ended with him.
Constance, his aunt, was born in Palermo and married the emperor Henry VI in Germany. William had recommended her as his rightful heir but some enemies in Palermo plotted against her. In the end, Henry had to come to Sicily, get to Palermo and be crowned on 25th December 1194 (he was born in Nimeguen, in Holland). The day after his wife Constance, while travelling to Sicily, gave birth to Frederick in Jesi, a small town in the region of Marche.
Frederick was a lucky boy: thanks to his destiny as an emperor, he could stay in Palermo, enjoying the favours of his Genie.
However, if you noticed it, Constance became Queen of Sicily because of her husband, and not because she was born here.
More recently, many famous families made their fortune in Palermo. The Whitakers, first of all. As the name suggests, they came from the far England. They became hugely rich but their dynasty, together with their fortune, came to an end with the last of them, the famous Pip. Can you guess where he was born? None from the Whitaker family was born in Palermo before him.
And then, how about the famous Florio family? Between the 19th and the 20th century they had been able to create an economic and industrial empire, in Sicily and all around Europe. Ignazio Florio senior was born in Palermo and (who knows why) he was so successful everywhere but in this town: the tonnare, Marsala wine, the sailing company with associates from Genoa. His son, born in Palermo, saw the huge family factory being wounded up. Nothing survived, like in an utter cannibalization.
In Palermo, on the contrary, there were (and still are) a lot of traces of wealthy and well-established foreign communities: people from Florence, Genoa, Naples, Venice, England, Germany, France and Spain. And Turks, Arabs and Africans, of course.
Are you wondering if the Genie still works, in the age of internet? It seems like it.
Unfortunately, the most famous people from Palermo of the last 30 years are Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, murdered by mafia in 1992 in Palermo.
So, don’t be surprised by our hospitality. The Genie of Palermo suggests to its children that fortune can come only from “outside”, above all if this fortune is brought by someone who was born anywhere but in Palermo.
Need a proof?
A very famous Sicilian saying:
“Cu nesci arrinesci (if you leave, you’ll make it)”
Translation from italian by Marzia Lisciandrello. Thank you, Marzia.
Originally published at www.amvisual.net on March 21, 2016.