Sicilian Villas: A Cultural Vacation Through Sicily’s Heritage

The town of Bagheria is situated just 13 km from Palermo, it is named la città delle ville, the city of villas, and for good reason, during the 18th century it became a vacation getaway for Palermo’s nobility. The Island’s capital was home to the vice regency and scores of aristocrats who were more or less at the service of the viceroy and when the hustle and bustle of the big city was too much they fled to the neighboring countryside and built their “vacation homes.”

The construction work began during the 17th century. Initially there were 28 villas in the area with 22 in Bagheria alone but many were partially or entirely destroyed during the 20th century Sicilian urban planning reform, much of which took place without the proper permits. What remains is a heredity of Sicily’s contradictory past. The testimony of opulence and misery, riches and rags. These villas are living architectural monuments that tell their own stories through their magnificent structures and materials – not to mention their grandeur.

The Most Ancient

Villa Butera

Built in 1658 by the prince of Raccuja this is the oldest of Bagheria’s villas and is situated on a main street with same name, corso Butera. It belonged to a Spanish prince who made Sicily his home, the entrance has a statue of the prince with an inscription in Spanish. The Medieval style palazzo originally had two towers of which only one survives today. The villa has been converted to a religious convent.

Sicilian Baroque Villas

Villa Cattolica

Principe di Cattolica Francesco Bonanno commissioned the construction of this villa in 1736 but he neither oversaw the project nor did he ever live at the villa. Thus the architect who worked on the entire project from start to finish wanted to make sure his name would forever be part of the villa. He his own name, rather than the owner’s forged on one of the main entrances. The façade reflects the baroque architecture of the time. Today visitors can admire the villa both outside and inside. It is home to the Galleria d’Arte Moderna, the modern art gallery, with a permanent exhibition of the work of native artist, Renato Guttuso, who donated 400 of his works to the city before passing away.

Villa Valguarnera

This is one of the most imposing and lavish villas in the city. Built in 1713 by the wife of principe di Valguarnera it is a typical Sicilian baroque villa. It is perched on a hilltop 165 meters high and is surrounded by a park. Numerous Italian and European crowned heads and celebrities have sojourned in the villa and have written about it. Today the it is a privately owned residence.

Villa Larderia

The original architectural 18th century plan for the building was in the shape of a star. The project was never completed and the construction has only three of the star’s points at 120 degree angles. It has since becomes a religious and educational institute. Visitors wishing to see it can contact the institute.

Villa Aragona-Cutò

This is Bagheria’s public library which was built between 1712-1716 by the principe di Aragona, then later bought by the Cutò family. It later became the private property of the mother of the author of the Sicilian novel, Il Gattopardo (The Leopard), Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. The interior walls are decorated with frescoes by Flemish painter Neil Boremans. One of the most acclaimed frescos, Mars and Venus, is on the ceiling of one of the rooms.

Sicilian Neoclassical Palazzo

Villa Villarosa

This is an 18th century neoclassical structure and really the only one of its kind in the area with a classical 10-meter Doric portico composed of eight columns. The villa has been renovated and the frescos on the walls have been restored to their original splendor. For a long time it was the home of the members of the Society of Jesus. Since then the palazzo has become the property of several entrepreneurs who invested in an extensive renovation work in order to bring out its elegance and classical beauty. Today the villa is open for weddings, congresses and tours.

The Most Eccentric

Villa Palagonia

In his Italian travel memoires, Italienische Reise published in 1816 Goethe dedicated six pages to this villa, none of which are very enlightening, and with good reason. Nicknamed the villa of monsters, the entire estate was originally conceived to house dozens and dozens of statues of monsters of all shapes and sizes. Built in 1715 by the principe di Palagonia, whom most thought was insane, its structure is a commingling of baroque and neoclassical styles.

This is by far the most peculiar and intriguing of Bagheria’s villas, It was during the Enlightenment, an age in which aesthetics mattered, that the prince wanted to prove to the world that it is not outer beauty that matters, but what’s inside. He made his point and commissioned one monstrous statue after another. The Villa has the salone degli specchi, or the room of mirrors, to reflect the many aspects of human vanity. There are rooms full of horrible creatures, anthropoids and cadavers that are all dressed up and have nowhere to go. Although many of the statues are lost there are many more that can be seen for the price of a museum ticket.

Whether you’re a lover of antiquities, architecture, or world civilizations, the city of Bagheria has many villas where civilizations, styles and society converged, that make it worth visiting.

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