The name Palermo derives from the Greek word Panormos, meaning “all port”. In fact, it was the spacious natural harbour that favoured the earliest settlements and the founding of the city on an oblong rocky spur bounded to the north by the Papireto River and to the south by the Kemonia. The ancient port, of which only the present-day Cala remains, lays between the mouths of the two rivers. Evidence exists of the presence of different peoples in the area: the Sicans in the area: the Sicans in the 12C BC, followed by the Cypriots, Cretans, Elymi and Greeks. The first permanent urban settlement, however, was founded by the Phoenicians between the 8C and the 7C BC. The Paleapolis (from the Greek “old city”) lays on the upper part of the oblong rocky spur and was surrounded by strong city walls. A second city, the Neapolis (from the Greek “new city”), was later built between the two rivers, but outside the city walls and closer to the port. Between 485 BC and 306 BC Panormos was involved in the longlasting struggle for supremacy between the Greeks and Carthaginians. From 254 BC, the city was ruled by the Romans. Christianity soon flourished and spread, as is witnessed by the presence of a series of catacombs, including the famous ones of the Papireto (Porta d’Ossuna). In 536, the Gothic garrison which had occupied the city was driven out by the Byzantine general Belisarius, and Palermo passed under the rule of Constantinople, which had reunited the Roman Empire. The first Cathedral was built between 590 and 604 on the initiative of Bishop Victor.

Two Palermitans, Agatho and Sergius, became Roman Popes and were later canonized. The city was stormed by the Saracens in 831, after a one-year heroic resistance. In 1072, Palermo was liberated by a Christian army led by the Hauteville brothers, Roger (Great Count of Sicily) and Robert (“the Guiscard”), and regained its ancient splendour. In 1130, in fact, it became the capital of the Kingdom of Sicily and on Christmas Day that same year the first King, Roger II of Hauteville, was crowned in the Cathedral, which was restored to the Christian cult. Trade and cultural activities had already recovered and were flourishing again, Favoured by Palermo’s position as the capital of a great cosmopolitan kingdom. Roger II added architectural splendour to the Castrum superius, which became his Royal Palace. Inside this complex construction, in 1132, he built his Palace chapel (the “Palatine Chapel”), dedicated to St. Peter, which is the most magnificent  example of medieval art in Palermo. Meanwhile, the city was enriched with splendid buildings: the churches of San Giovanni dei Lebbrosi, San Giovanni degli Eremiti, San Cataldo, Santa Maria dell’ Ammiraglio (the “Martorana”). Just outside the city walls, Roger II created a large park with woods, plantation, stock farms, artificial lakes, and luxury royal residences: Maredolce, Favara, Parco (Altofonte). Roger II was succeeded by William I, who built the Zisa royal residence within the great Royal Park. His successor, William II, built the Cuba. During his reign the Hauteville dynasty reached the height of international prestige. He promoted the construction, within the boundaries of the Royal Park, of the great Monreale Cathedral and of the nearby Benedictine monastery and Royal Palace. The church is another gem of medieval architecture in Sicily. The interior is richly decorated with splendid Byzantine mosaics and the cloister is one of the highest expression of Romanesque sculpture applied to architecture. In the meantime, from 1170 to 1184, the old Palermo Cathedral was partially demolished and reconstructed as a much larger building on the initiative of Bishop Gualtiero, who transformed it into the greatest cathedral of medieval Sicily. In the 12C, Palermo was the splendid capital of the first Italian unitary State after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire.

The Hauteville dynasty was followed by that of the Hohenstaufens, with Emperors Henry VI and Frederick II. The reign of Frederick II was of no advantage to Palermo. On his death (1250), a period of political unrest began, to slowly lose its role of predominance, while Naples was gradually increasing its prestige. The crown of Sicily (a vassal of the Holy See) was assigned by the Pope to Charles of Anjou, the brother of the King of France. The Angevins (French) went so far as to subject Sicily to military occupation. This led to the “Vespers Revolution”, which broke out in Palermo on Easter Monday 1282, causing the expulsion of the Angevins from the island. The legitimate heir to the throne was King Peter of Aragon who, supported by the Sicilian nobility, was crowned King of Sicily in Palermo on 4 September 1282. This marked the beginning of the weak dynasty of the Aragonese of Sicily, who became subject to the great aristocratic families. In the 14C Palermo was in fact under the rule of the powerful Chiaramonte family. But, in 1392, the Aragonese of Spain put an end to these aspirations to autonomy. Andrea Chiaramonte, the only one of the four Vicars who resisted the troops of Martin of Aragon, was captured and beheaded in the Piano della Marina, the square overlooked by his sumptuous Palermitan palace, the Steri, which can still be admired today. In 1415 the crown of Sicily was joined to the crown of Aragon, and the island was ruled by Viceroys. These alternately resided in the Chiaramonte family’s Steri or in the Castellammare (the sea castle), and only at a later time, in the 16C, in the ancient Royal Palace. 15C art was characterized by the “Sicilian Gothic” style, bearing Catalan influences. The most outstanding architect of the time was Matteo Carnalivari of Noto, to whom the elegant church of Santa Maria della Catena, in the Cala quarter, has been attributed. Carnalivari also designed Palazzo Abatellis and Palazzo Aiutamicristo (1490), chosen by Charles V and Don John of Austria as their residences in the following century. Between the 15C and the 16C, new impulse was given to Palermitan sculpture by the workshop of the Gagini, a family of skilful sculptors and stucco decorators (Domenico, Antonello and a host of relatives).



The Gagini did not confine their work to sculpturing single statues of Madonnas and Saints, but inserted them into magnificent architectural ensembles, enriched with frames, panels, balustrades depicting storie of Saints and delicate decorative motifs, which embellished church apses and chapels, thus introducing Tuscan Renaissance taste into Palermo.

In the 17C-18C, architectural activity was promoted not only by the city Senate, but also by two important groups of clients: the Aristocracy and the religious Orders. The great aristocratic families built sumptuous palaces which were unequalled in Europe. Palazzo Villafranca, Palazzo Ugo, Palazzo Belmonte and Palazzo Riso were erected in Piazza Bologni, Palermo’s aristocratic showcase. The majestic Palazzo Travia rose along in the Marina promenade. An entire new street, the Strada Nova (the present-day Via Maqueda) was started in 1600 to allow the building of new aristocratic palaces (the most important being Palazzo Comitini). At the crossroads of the Strada Nova and the Cassaro was, and still is, Piazza Vigliena (also known as the Octagon, the Theatre of the Sun, or the Four Corners of the City), the heart of 17C-18C Palermo. The religious Order entrusted their “architects in cassocks” (who had been the disciples of the masters of Mannerism and Baroque, in Rome) with the design of religious houses, churches, monasteries and convents. All these buildings contributed to Palermo’s architectural grandeur: from the Jesuit Casa Professa to San Giuseppe dei Teatini; from Santa Teresa alla Kalsa to San Domenico; from San Francesco Saverio to Sant’Anna. The prevailing style in architecture was, at this time, Mannerism. Baroque taste was only limited to the internal decorated with polychrome marble inlays, stuccoed human figures and ornamental motifs, skilfully executed ironwork, polychrome floors, not to mention paintings and furnishings.

In sculpture, Palermo outclassed the rest of Italy with the greatest stucco decorator of all time: Giacomo Serpotta (1656-1732), the author of the splendid stuccoes in the Oratories of Santa Cita, the Rosario and San Lorenzo. His work was continued by his son Procopio and by numerous disciples. Great names in painting were those of Pietro Novelli (1603-1647), Filippo Paladini, Vito d’Anna and Antonio Grano. At this time, public festival – both lay and religious – were at the height of their splendour, also thanks to the rich scenographic ensembles, to the external decorations of churches and palaces, to the magnificent Triumphal Chariots of St. Rosalia (the city’s patron saint) and to the “firework display machines”.
Between the 18C and the 19C, the architect Venanzio Marvuglia designed the Riso, Geraci, Costantino and Coglitore Palaces, the Oratory of San Filippo Neri, Villa Belmonte and the Chinese Palace. In the 19C, the architect G. B. Filippo Basile designed the greatest opera house in Italy, the Teatro Massimo, which was commenced in 1875 and completed in 1897, while the engineer Giuseppe Damiani Almeyda designed the Politeama Garibaldi, erected in 1874.

Later, thanks to the elegant work of Ernesto Basile, Filippo’s son, Palermo became the Italian capital of the liberty architectural style. Among his best-known works are: the Villa Igiea Hotel, Villa Florio, the Florio Pavillon, Villa Deliella (no longer extant), Villa Basile, the Kursaal Biondo, the seat of the Cassa di Risparmio, etc. The best painter of the time was Francesco Lojacono; in sculpture, the best-known artist was Mario Rutelli. Meanwhile, Palermo was expanding beyond its ancient walls, onto the area previously used for the great National Exhibition of 1891. The “middle-class” part of the city was thus created. In the 1950s, creowds of people from the neighbouring provinces arrived in Palermo, mostly attracted by the prospects of a job in the regional administration, resulting in an enormous building expansion.