Villa Palagonia, Sicily’s Baroque garden of monsters
Monsters, mirrors and 18th century excess all meet at Villa Palagonia, one of Sicily’s strangest attractions. Villa Palagonia is one of the earliest examples of Sicilian Baroque architecture, begun in 1705 by architect Tommaso Napoli as a summer residence for Don Francesco Ferdinando Gravina, fifth prince of Palagonia.
Located in the seaside town of Bagheria, just east of Palermo, and constructed of the golden stone called tufa with accents of pink marble, the villa glows with the colors of sunset and was devoted to summer pleasures. It was the prince’s grandson, Francesco Ferdinando Gravina II—twisted in both body and mind–who later commissioned the bizarre garden statuary that earned the Villa notoriety as the Villa dei Mostri (Villa of Monsters).
Scirocco–the nerve-shredding wind that brings sand from the Sahara–was blowing the day we visited, giving an oppressive tint to the sky and adding to the strangeness of the day. The villa both fascinated and appalled 18th and 19th century travelers doing the Grand Tour of Europe. The German writer Goethe was horrified by the garden’s “bad taste and folly”, noting “Beggars of both sexes, men and women of Spain, Moors, Turks, hunchbacks, deformed persons of every kind, dwarfs, musicians, Pulcinellas…deformed monkeys, many dragons and snakes, every kind of paw attached to every kind of body, double heads and exchanged heads.”
Though just over 60 of the original 200 sculptures remain, it’s easy to conjure up an 18th century summer night in which elegant guests drew up to the villa in horse-drawn carriages, stepping down into the jasmine-scented garden, torchlight making the stone monsters and musicians seem to flicker with life.
Inside, the Prince’s guests would find an eccentric interior that included spikes concealed under velvet seating, and funhouse-type mirrors that made his guests appear as deformed as the Prince himself. Today, only the Hall of Mirrors remains, shimmering with patina and mystery, three-dimensional marble busts of lords and ladies on the walls permanently in attendance at the ball. Villa Palagonia is truly Europe’s most bizarre monument to Baroque decadence.
Located just 15 km from Palermo in the seaside town of Bagheria, Villa Palagonia is located on Piazza Garibaldi at the end of Via Palagonia, about a ten-minute walk from the train station. About an hour should be allotted to tour the Villa and its gardens. There are several other villas open to visitors nearby and good shopping and restaurants on Corso Umberto. If you’re asking for directions, be sure to pronounce Villa Palagonia correctly: VEE-la Pa-la-go-NEE-a. Bagheria is pronounced Ba-gay-REE-a. For more on touring seductive Sicily, see the region’s official tourism website, Visit Sicily – Island of Art.