King of the Palms – The Grand Hotel et des Palmes Palermo, September 2014: my sojourn in Sicily for a week commenced in an air conditioned communion with the spirits of the former guests of this once ostentatious hotel, whose wall to wall rippled marble, worn red carpets, potted palms, and tinkling fountain where a tonic from the sweltering heat and stink of Palermo in a late summer cocktail of traffic fumes and reeking drains. The imposing, idealised bust of composer, Richard Wagner, sporting an enormous cranium and an entire floor called the Salone Wagner at first eluded my comprehension. I was later to learn that Wagner stayed in a suite on the same floor as my own room and was painted by Auguste Renoir, whilst he wrote Parsifal in 1883. Clearly, this hotel has played host to some impressive clients over its 150 year history.
The huge and imposing shrine to 19th century opulence and grandeur retains many of its stunning features including a magnificent mirrored dining room, complete with faded floral murals and art nouveau gilt framework, a colossal crystal chandelier and the many knick-knacks, accoutrements and sculptures collected by successive owners, each with their own interpretations of taste and refinement; such a plethora of reproduction commingled with genuine antiques adorns the corridors and table tops laden with Majolica fir cones or spiked eggs worthy of any wunderkammer. The disintegrating mirrors have a particularly distressed allure owing to the mercury breaking down and are the shattered eyes of the hotel, reflecting into the beholders gaze all the intrigues, bizarre histories, histrionics, and mumbled reveries which have come to pass since it was built in the 1870’s as a vast private residence for the British Ingham family.
In room 224 the surreal author and closet gay eccentric, Raymond Roussel (1877-1933) died by possible suidide on July 14th 1933. Naturally, I asked the concierge if I could see the room in which Roussel spent his last days sleeping on a mattress on the floor pushed up against an adjoining room door to stop himself falling out of bed during an attack of delirium. I was told the room was occupied and that it wasn’t the same room 224 as it was in 1933. The concierge had to think a moment about the layout history of the hotel and said somewhat peculiarly, ‘You will kill himself’.
Roussel, whose self-published books include, Impressions of Africa (with its hilarious description of a native belching dance) and Locus Solus (which describes the reanimation of the dead by hairless cat via a special life-giving aqua vitae) was quite possibly an undiscovered literary talent (later lionized by the official surrealist movement under the direction of Andre Breton). Roussel used his own considerable personal wealth to print his obsessive and weird books, which very few people can ever complete owing to their staggering fixation of inconsequential detail. The entire configuration of the hotel’s rooms has been altered and renovated beyond recognition since the 1930’s, in fact, nobody actually knows where Roussel’s room is any more. To console myself I have been consciously searching for a photograph of Roussel taken in Palermo and read that he trained himself to imitate a friend’s voice and mannerisms to such a level of fanatical perfection over a period of 7 years that he was pitch perfect. Among other curious accomplishments he made a study of mites living in the plumage of pigeons and had a glass viewing panel inserted into his Mother’s coffin so that he could look at her after her death. This overage, spoilt Mummy’s boy, had sleek brilliantined hair and at times a hirsute handlebar moustache, a puckered lip and a penchant for sailor’s meat. He salaried a long suffering female companion, Charlotte Dufrene, to pretend to be his mistress wherever he went so that he could pursue his ‘real’ interest in casual sex with sailors and escape the marauding blackmailers that plagued his life with taunts and threats. Raymond, whose drug intake was copious had several failed attempts at slashing his own throat and wrist before finally succumbing to an overdose of barbiturates. Where does your unhappy spirit wander in this enormous old hotel at night? Was it you that pulled the brass carpet rod out on the stairs each morning so that some poor unsuspecting American tourist would take a tumble? The enigma of Roussel’s demise in Palermo tantalizes and persists.
Leaving my thumbed and buckled thaumatropes, crayon doodles and mental perambulations aside, I took a painfully slow bus to the city’s limits and wandered out into the ravenous sun’s glare to quickly descend into the catacombs of the Capuchin monastery. This is a place I had heard people talk about in hushed whispers, where some 8000 mummified cadavers are on show in in the crypt’s corridors. Nothing can prepare you for the sight that meets your eyes when you enter the main avenue of the catacombs with their densely packed recesses full of robed, hooded corpses – it’s like something from an Amicus 1960’s horror movie. The lolling, lopsided remnants of the former living 19th century people line the pock marked plaster walls, dust and cobwebs fill their enucleated eye sockets, their worm eaten parchment-like skin is a yellow-orange hue, the colours of bile and death, mouths gape awry and the gap-toothed seem to mock the onlooker with a knowing cynicism, protuberant lips are frozen in the grimace of rictus, these non-living husks of people are filled with straw, padded and patched up, manacled to the walls crudely with garden wire, their horribly disfigured boots and shoes curling upwards, claw like fingers emerge from the tattered cuffs of yesteryear, flecked with the remnants of blood stains. The Cappella dei Bambini is an enclave sectioned off behind a metal grille, in which are displayed the dried out bodies of infants and babies sporting their finery, now much besmirched with grime and filth. Faces hang like ragged leather hides from their tiny skulls, they wear gloves and heads droop forward heavily as if they’ve been drugged. Here and there a faded violet sash ribbon or crimpled bonnet reminds us that they once walked, sang and played in the streets above in the year 1850. Like ghoulish homunculi these little corpses totter, teeter and sway on their mawkish pedestals, beckoning our sorrow and indignation. They look something like the children that have crawled out of Francis Bacon’s violent orange and pink paintings (1962-65: I am thinking of ‘Woman with a Paralytic Child on All Fours’) into some cavern filled with the stifled and plaintive sobs of the living dead; the catacombs with all their enervated gristle, fouled fabric, and straggly hair, entices the visitor into deeper recesses and gloomy cubby holes filled with open coffins in which the wizened dead repose like oddly eviscerated mannikins. Line after line of bambini, some almost certainly now skeletons with fur lined bonnets, upstage any waxwork show I have ever seen. In a febrile and tremulous hand I penciled the linear outlines of the inhabitants of the dead zone, hastily shading and cross-hatching their clogs, caps, hats, petticoats and sagging skins. Never have I been sandwiched between the living and the dead with so much perspiration trickling down my brow. The marauding clan of tourists, sporting all manner of whacky hairdos and festooned with a plethora of red and blue tattoos, careered around the catacombs’ narrow walkways with a look of nonchalance and the bored detachment of those who are glutted on electronic media culture. Despite the prohibition of photographs, many stopped momentarily to grin gormlessly adjacent to a mummy and take an aimlessly addictive selfie. In a little over 70 minutes I managed to scribble some 25 or so mummified bodies in my black bound pocket sketchbook, to be ‘filled in’ later with a murky palette of water colours. Stumbling out of the catacombs into the roar and honk of the street is something of a culture shock and I assuaged my nerves with tea at a local café before the long walk back into Palermo by the west gate, emblazoned with its moustachioed 16th century Moor’s, monstrous gargoyles spewing a cornucopia of putti and flowers/fruit into the polluted atmosphere.
Winding my way through the thundering avenues of cars towards the Botanic Gardens I came to the entrance of a neo-classical palm tree museum delineated in a dusted red ochre. Inside is a mock-up of the great botanist, Linnaeus’ study complete with leather bindings and fake quill pens. To the side is a gallery filled with hundreds of rather odd, amateur paintings of palm trees, exhibits of objects hewn from palm wood: polished jewellery, fetishes, forks, spoons, shoes and trinket boxes. There’s a display about the uses of palm trees for oil, cosmetics, cooking and textiles. The large windows overlooking the delicate fronds of more palm trees bring to mind a painting by the Belgian artist, Guillaume Corneille called simply, ‘Palmier Roi’ painted in c.1967 in lurid pinks, greens and vegetal hues. A frenetic metamorphic landscape (not unlike the one glimpsed beyond the trees outside) is painted from above and below and populated by strange pod-like creatures morphing into plants dominated by the mighty palm tree – the king of the palms.
I felt like I had swung full circle, having traversed the baking streets full of grit, tumult and fragments of blown cardboard litter. I was now in the wooden heart of the city’s palm haven an oasis of escapism.
In the electric night of Palermo a storm was incubating the dreams of the dead, distilling them in its livid, blackened chalice. A scuttling transit of cockroaches scurried past me on the pavement towards an unknown destination and reminded me of the late ‘dark’ paintings of Philip Guston (1917-80) whose monumental depictions of ‘fanciful bugs’ parading up and down gullies, swarm into the chocolate (or excrement) coloured crevices entrenched in Guston’s pictorial imagination. I refer to the painting, ‘Ravine’ of 1979. Only, these real unpainted insects were hurrying away from the encroaching electrostatic rumble, whilst all around me spidery fork lightning illuminated the city’s Baroque towers, cascading rooftops and surrounding mountains like momentary snapshots of silhouettes. Huge spits of rain spotted my shoes and face so I hurried back to the hotel. The air conditioning had given up the ghost and no amount of manicured opprobrium could persuade the sullen front of house staff at the Grand Hotel des Palmes to offer a desk top fan for my room. Sometimes you just have to sleep on a bug-filled storm and imagine what Raymond Roussel would have done in his room with his phials of sipped drugs, lurid visions and shit smeared underpants.
Encapsulating an experience of Palermo would not be complete without a visit to the museum of medieval art to see The Triumph of Death, a 15th century fresco that fills an entire room in this little visited palazzo which is rigorously policed by matriarchal guardians who remind visitors ‘No foto!’ even when you have no camera. Huge, dramatic and sombre, the Triumph of Death is an astonishing rendering of human folly pierced by the arrows of death, who is a plague-ridden undead riding his apocalyptic horse across a landscape of dissolution. The chivalrous aristos and damsels lie dead in a heap of carefully staged rigor mortis stuck with pins like poppets used in witchcraft. Snarling greyhounds strain on their leads as death bounds past, the casuistry of the hoy-polloy is exemplified by their pursuit of hawking, music and merry making. Eat, drink and dance for tomorrow you die. The plash of a magical fountain adds a moment of distraction to this tableau vivant type spectacle, lending it a regenerative quality of contemplation. Nobody can make paintings like this today it would seem and even if they could, what would we make of them? Upstairs there are blackened madonnas, an Annunciation with a flaring star looming like an incandescent UFO into the frame, and a room filled with odds and ends, fragments of bigger paintings that have long since vanished into the ether. One that particularly took my fancy had part of a glimpse into a landscape beyond the picture, in which the eye goes on a metaphysical journey into the grain of the wooden panel, where it has been burrowed by the gorging onslaught of the worm, deep into a tangled thicket and through the cardboard scenery of hills, into blue mountains swirling with a miasmic mist, only to discover that one is lost in the ephemeral painted moment. I admired the stones painted in the foreground with their deliberate chevron shaped shadows and limited foreshortening. Gobstoppers strewn along a rocky pathway trampled on by the elongated shoes of the medieval world are in abundance in this charred and cracked panel. Everyone wore a vivid red tunic in this age. Outside the yawn or vomit of another marble monster seemed to bid me a fearsome farewell as I passed through the gate to the ancient cobbled street. Having walked only for a few metres I turned a corner and entered a building filled with dust, dead spiders, and fantastic shadow puppets. Many of the displays did not work as the light bulbs had pinged long ago. You have to imagine what the shadows look like when they’re projected onto a screen, your fantasy must evoke the cavalcade of mythology and abbreviated chivalry to get an impression of how all these puppets work in tandem, with squeaky actor’s voices and the sinister, unblinking expression of the puppets. I could have stayed all day in that little museum of marionettes. Night was descending over the immense black blobs of trees bordering the Piazza Verdi. The great twittering engines of birds tweeting their sweet lullabies to the living and the dead in this bubbling calyx of a city, in which the magic of history and the urgency of the moment are molten with our forged dreams. Palermo is a vibrant, tour de force of a place, once encountered it cannot easily be forgotten.