You know I love Palermo. It’s warm, it’s on the sea, it has incredible food and my kind of personality- creative, fun and smart. But I love it even more so for its steeped relationship with contemporary art. Repeat Palermo visitors may be shaking their heads, but let’s pull out the receipts.
Founded in the 8th century BC by the Phoenicians, Palermo started out as a trans-Mediterranean outpost, and with the millennia, the small port became a coveted city and a melting pot of cultures. The 20th century saw a new migration that happens to this day. Artists like Manfredi Beninati and Jenny Saville, along with a bevy of curators and critics, have called the city home for decades because it’s the perfect address for creativity. No wonder, Palermo hosted the nomadic arts biennale Manfesta in 2018, and this year, has the third appointment of Biennale Arcipelago Mediterraneo BAM, a months-long multi-venue art biennial. From now through January 23, 2023 BAM sprawls across the city with exhibitions, events and artist residencies, but if a trip to Bella Sicilia not on the yet on the agenda, here are five galleries and museums that will make you plan Palermo as your next contemporary art destination.
Quite possibly the most monumental of Palermo’s contemporary art spaces, ZACentrale is 17,000 square feet of contemporary art experience. Occupying an enormous hangar, which was once factory for Studio Ducrot, Europe’s historic furniture designers of the 1900s), ZACentrale brings in artists from around the world. and captivates with cutting-edge exhibitions curated by founder Beatrice Merz and team. From site specific installations to performances and everything in between, artists have free range to create and curate art-minded experiences, interacting with viewers for experiential works of art.
Merz brings decades of experience, innovation, and experimentation and art to Palermo. ZACentrale is the Sicilian outpost of her Torino-based arts center Fondazione Merz, named for her artist-parents Mario and Beatrice Merz. ZACentrale opened its doors in 2021 in Cantieri Culturali, a requalified industrial district in Palermo’s Zisa neighborhood. Neighbors include Palermo’s Fine Arts school, artist workshops, and other cultural organizations.Currently, ZACentrale is hosting Insolitudine, four simultaneous solo exhibitions and part of BAM.
RISO is what known as una chicca, a tiny gem of a museum hidden on the busy Corso Vittorio Emanuele, one of the oldest roads in Palermo. Palazzo Belmonte Riso itself is decayed beauty, the shell of a Sicilian Baroque palace that was bombed out during World War II. The left over architecture houses a small and charming collection of pieces by artists including Carla Accardi, Jannis Kounellis (a very trippy up-eneded room) Robert Longo and Christian Boltanski. Take a peek outside where you stand in the crater of the bombed out building and next to a piece by Richard Long.
Normally, Via Maqueda is a crowded pedestrian street worth avoiding as the throngs of tourists and tacking food spots are overwhelming and annoying, but in the middle of the chaos is an oasis of art – the 17th century Chiesa della Madonna della Mazza, almost anonymous at No. 391.
Step inside and you’ve entered a tiny church of Sicilian Baroque whose renovation includes a loving white wash and a contemporary surprise. On either side of the main altar are two arched chapels with two mesmerising paintings by Romanian artist Adrian Ghenie.
For full immersion in Palermo’s contemporary art scene, there is no better place than FPAC. Pantaleone himself is Palermo. FPAC, his eponymous gallery is the best outpost to show off the gallerist’s vast knowledge and fathomless modern and contemporary artists.
Engaging shows feature emerging and established artists from Italy and around the world. Pantaleone also curates off-site exhibitions in the city’s most spectacular locations including private palazzi and Project Wall, a monthly outdoor space for “external artists”.
FPAC’s location in the very center of Palermo at Quattro Canti celebrates the revitalized centro storico and is a firm reminder that Palermo isn’t stuck in the past. Charmingly, FPAC does bring a little history as the address is just one door down Pantaleone Arte Sacra, the historic boutique of religious art, devotional sculpture and sacred parchments owned by Pantaleone’s family for over 100 years.
I know, I know – What does a 15th century palace have to do with contemporary art? In the case of Palazzo Abatellis, everything. The former monastery is Sicily’s regional art gallery – a coveted collection of paintings and sculpture (primarily Sicilian) from the 12th to the 17th centuries. When I walked through I came to a full stop at the floor-to-ceiling fresco Trionfo della Morte (Triumph of Death). The mid-15th century painting shocked me with its grimly fantastic imagery- but only because it was so modern it reminded me of Picasso’s Guernica.
Architectural buffs, take note: Carlo Scarpa was brought in for renovations in the 1950s! The mid-20th century Venetian architect, best known for captivating, minimalist and austere designs, had a jaunt at Palazzo Abateliss, upgrading the overall curation, display and hanging, and adding some signature architectural touches including a fabulous staircase.
Where to Stay
Honestly, Palermo can be a tough place for a great hotel. The last time I stayed there, I felt like I was in my 1990s college dorm, complete with bad air condition, fluorescent lights and all night party. Full disclosure: I’ve stayed all over the city from curious five stars to cheap and cheerful hotels by the Quattro Canti, the busiest pedestrian intersection in the city. So you get it, I have an opinion.
If I want luxury, views and grand hotel charm, there is no better address than Villa Igiea. The newly minted Rocco Forte Hotel is a century-old landmark complete with grand halls of original marbles and wood carvings, and a seaside oasis. In the 2020, Rocco Forte overhauled its design and room count, giving the now 100 rooms and suites a contemporary decor – my preference are the Deluxe and Junior suites with terrace. But don’t worry, its design retains its historic bones, especially at the step-back-in-time Igiea Terrazzo Bar.
My favourite neighbourhood in Palermo is Libertà, a tony district of gorgeous Liberty/Belle Epoque architecture, and wonderful shops, restaurants and cafes. To me, this is the best example of contemporary Palermo life. Palazzo Planeta, owned by famed Sicilian winery Planeta, is pied-a-terre palace os seven very stylish apartment flats. Each has living room and kitchen, letting you experience of being Palermitano, even if for a brief moment.
A version of this article appeared in Forbes, November 2022. Photos ©Erica Firpo