On December 26, 1798, Horatio Nelson’s HMS Vanguard arrived in Palermo. Aboard the British admiral’s ship, there was a very important cargo.
In addition to “the most precious furniture of the palaces of Caserta and Naples and the most valuable rarities of the museums of Portici and Capodimonte, the crown jewels and twenty million or perhaps more of coins and precious metals”, King Ferdinand IV of Bourbon, his wife Maria Carolina and their children traveled on the ship.
The sovereigns settled in the Royal Palace, but just after a few days, they realized that the ancient Norman residency was not for them. The centuries had left their marks on it and, although restoration and expansion work had been carried out, it was more or less abandoned. Thus King Ferdinand commissioned Giuseppe Riggio, prince of Aci, to find an accommodation more suited to the royal family, as neither in Palermo, nor in its vicinity, there were “buildings and estates owned by the Crown adequate to be both a royal residence and a Royal Site, intended for specific leisure or utilitarian activities “.
The Real Favorita estate
Probably the king wasn’t optimistic about the possibility of returning to Naples in a short time and so he started modernization works at the palace, but also – and most of all – he began to acquire land for the realization of the Royal Sites, where he could devote himself to his favorite activities, that is hunting, fishing, and agricultural and zootechnical experiments. The most prestigious of these sites is what we know today as the Real Favorita Park.
The estate, about 400 hectares wide, was built at the beginning of 1799 by merging the contiguous properties of several aristocratic families in the Piana dei Colli area, north of Palermo. The area was perfect for the king’s purposes, with a mountain where to go for “romantic walks”, vast wooded areas in which to gallop following wild boars and hares, and a swamp, on the nearby coast, where he could go hunting birds.
Equipped with “entrance pavilions for the guards on horseback, an avenue of honor, regular ornamental gardens, a villa, a church and service buildings (with stables, shed, guardhouse, kitchens, cellars, warehouses, and lodgings), this park ended up taking on the role of the main royal residence”. Today only a pale semblance remains of the estate, but the residence of the sovereigns is still there and, with its elegant as well as extravagant appearance, it can still take us back to two hundred years ago.
The “Chinese passion”
In the eighteenth century, Europeans were deeply fascinated by chinoiserie. Those who could afford it had entire “Chinese-style” rooms, but even a few pieces of furniture would be enough, or perhaps some decorations. In Palermo, Baron Benedetto Lombardo della Scala decided to go big: He would get an entire Chinese villa.
What we know today as the Palazzina or Casina Cinese (Chinese Palace), was built at his disposal around 1790, among the lemon and citrus groves in the Piana dei Colli, on a project by Giuseppe Venanzio Marvuglia. The construction, in wood and stone, had the shape of an oriental building, with a central body flanked by two lower ones, pagoda roofs and slender columns supporting the wooden galleries, with red painted railings. All around a fence on which dozens of bells tinkled when the wind blew.
The new residence in Palermo
The villa immediately aroused the interest of the king, who had it annexed to his estate. Venanzio Marvuglia was summoned and instructed to restore the “villa of the bells”, adapting it to the needs of a royal family. The architect (later replaced by his son Alessandro Emanuele) succeeded in the unusual task of combining the oriental style of the house with his neoclassical taste. Even the decorations reflect this original stylistic choice, with ornaments of Chinese taste alongside those of neoclassical style preferred by Maria Carolina. The queen specifically requested extensive references be made to the archaeological finds of Herculaneum and Pompeii (among other things, she wanted the encaustic floors, a very refined technique used in the most elegant Roman villas), as well as a Moorish touch.
The Casina Cinese is a unique building of its kind, eclectic and fun, elegant and surprising. You enter the main floor, with the king’s bedroom, the game room, the audience hall, and the dining room, all sumptuously decorated with Chinese motifs and tapestries dyed with herbal juices. In the dining room, to the right of the entrance, you’ll see the mathematical table, or à la clochette, designed by the architect Marvuglia himself on the model of the dining table that Louis XIV had in his residence in Marly.
Recently restored thanks to funding from the Le Vie dei Tesori Foundation, the table allowed the royal family and guests to dine without the hassle of seeing waiters around. It is connected to a freight elevator in the basement. The servants brought the dishes from the kitchens through an underground passage, put them on circular trays, and then hoisted them up to the table with a system of pulleys. The diners had a couple of strings at their disposal, each connected to a wooden stick on the mechanism in the cellar. If you wanted bread or salt, you would pull the corresponding string, the stick would raise and indicate a note on which the desired food was written so that the “underground” waiter could provide.
From the king’s bedroom, a hidden ladder leads to the bathroom, with an enviable marble tub. From here, we are in the basement, the king could pass directly into the ballroom, decorated in Louis style and, next to it, into the “ruins” room with an incredible trompe l’oeil in the vault and on the walls. When the restorers started to work here, they had a hard time distinguishing the real spots of humidity from those painted between stones and foliage!
Going up, you pass the intermediate floor with the rooms reserved for ladies and knights of the court and reach the second floor, where the queen’s apartment is located, with two large terraces and four different rooms. The Turkish parlor, with its Thousand and One Nights’ look; the Saletta Ercolana, with decorations that recall archaeological discoveries; the bedroom, in neoclassical style, with the medallions of members of the royal family, and finally the Cabinet of Precious Stones, with a very refined inlay on the walls.
From here you can admire the geometries of the Italian garden, the closest part of the gardens that continue to the west of the palace, where a park with paths and neoclassical decorative elements was arranged (the great Fountain of Hercules stands out), together with the agricultural estate and hunting reserve.
The house remained the property of the Bourbons until the advent of the Kingdom of Italy, when it passed first to the Savoy family and then to the Italian state which, at the beginning of the twentieth century, destined the entire estate to “public enjoyment”. In 1935 the Casina became part of the patrimony of the Municipality of Palermo, which used it for civil weddings for some time. Closed for more than twenty years, it has finally been restored and is now open to visitors.
Various information is taken from Ettore Sessa’s text “The Royal Estates of the Bourbons in Sicily”, which dedicates ample space in particular to the property of Ficuzza. To learn more, there is also the booklet “Casina alla Cinese in Palermo – Diletto e Meraviglia”, published by the Sicilian Region and by the BBCCAA Superintendency of Palermo.