After the murders of the two judges, Sicilians seemed to embrace their enormous cultural wealth as a way of overcoming the island’s darker reputation. Despite the assassinations, the trials of crime bosses went forward. Since 1992, more than 170 life sentences have been handed down by local prosecutors. As powerful, venal and pervasive as the Mafia continues to be—drug trafficking and corruption in the construction industries, for example, remain a problem—the majority of the island’s five million citizens reject it. Thanks to a vigorously enforced anti-street-crime campaign, Palermo, for the first time in decades, has now become a city where it is safe to walk, day and night.
And throughout the island, signs of this cultural revival are everywhere—in restorations of Noto Valley’s spectacular Baroque monuments in the southeast; in a privately sponsored project to conserve the rare flora and fauna of the Aeolian Islands, 25 miles to the north; in cooking schools, such as Anna Tasca Lanza’s classes at Regaleali, her country estate, near the central Sicilian town of Vallelunga; in a wide-scale effort to shore up the town of Agrigento’s mile-long stretch of Doric temples—one of the most extensive concentrations outside Greece itself—on the south coast, and, in 2002, in composer Sollima’s own sold-out performance of his opera at the restored 19th-century opera house opposite his studio.
Reopened in 1997 after 23 years of intermittent restoration, the Teatro Mássimo, a neo-Classical temple dominating an entire city block, symbolizes Palermo’s renaissance. Claudio Abbado conducted the Berlin Philharmonic at the gala opening; the opera house now showcases local and international talent. Film buffs might recognize the dark sandstone exterior from the opera scene in The Godfather: Part III, shot here in the late 1980s.
Seated in the Teatro’s royal box, its walls sheathed in velvet, former artistic director Roberto Pagano tells me that two churches and a convent were razed in the 19th century to make room for the original building, incurring the wrath of Catholic authorities and conservative politicians alike. Why erect this temple of luxury, critics asked, when the city lacks decent hospitals and streets? “They had a point,” Pagano acknowledges, surveying five horseshoe-shaped tiers of magnificently restored and gilded box seats.
An expert on Palermo-born composer Alessandro Scarlatti and his son, Domenico, Pagano has organized an annual Scarlatti festival. But he champions contemporary works as well. “Palermo was a center for experimental music in the 1960s and ’70s before the theater closed: we want to revive that reputation,” he says.
Few Sicilians approach the island’s cultural revival with more zest than Baroness Renata Pucci Zanca, the 70ish vice president of Salvare Palermo (To Save Palermo), a local preservation organization. She takes me to Lo Spasimo, a once-derelict 16th-century monastery recently transformed into a performance center. Entering the roofless nave of a former church now used for outdoor musical and theatrical productions, Zanca tells me that the interior, before it was given a new lease on life, had become a dumping ground, filled with “a mountain of trash 20 feet high.”
In the historic district surrounding Lo Spasimo, a squaremile area with a great profusion of medieval, Arab-Norman and Baroque buildings, Zanca next takes me on a tour of dilapidated palazzos. Some of these still bear damage from bombings in 1943, when the Allies captured Sicily. Others, such as Palazzo Alliata di Pietratagliata, only appear derelict; inside, tapestries, ancestral portraits and antique marquetry chests fill elegant drawing rooms. “Palermo is not like Rome, Venice or Florence, where everything is displayed like goods in a shop window,” says Princess Signoretta Licata di Baucina Alliata. “It’s a very secret city.”
To finance the palazzo’s upkeep, Alliata invites small groups of tourists to pay for the privilege of hobnobbing with Sicilian aristocrats in private palazzos. Dinner for 16, served in a sumptuous Baroque dining room with a soaring, trompe l’oeil ceiling and a gargantuan Murano chandelier, evokes a scene, and a recipe for “chicken livers, hard boiled eggs, sliced ham, chicken and truffles in masses of piping hot, glistening macaroni,” from The Leopard, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s 1958 novelistic portrayal of Sicily’s proud, crumbling 19th-century aristocracy.