Via Dante was once, and to a large extent still is, one of Palermo’s elegant streets. It was opened in 1892 and called Via dell’Esposizione, in homage to the great national exhibition that had taken place the previous year, to celebrate the splendor of Palermo entrepreneurs.
The pavilions of the National Exhibition, designed by Ernesto Basile in “Sicilian – Norman” style, were located precisely in an area at the beginning of Via Dante (the current name was given in 1910). At the end of the event, the large buildings were demolished and the area parceled out, and the Via dell’Esposizione was traced, which joined with Via dei Lolli. This long road thus reached the district of Olivuzza where the elegant suburban villas of some very prominent families had been built. Like the Whitakers, heirs of the billionaire Benjamin Ingham and his economic empire, and the Florios, Palermo entrepreneurs who need no introduction.
Today I will tell you about Villa Virginia, built by Commendatore Vincenzo Caruso, a partner, and administrator of the Florios. Vincenzo was the son of Gaetano, also an administrator of the Florios, a person of great ability and so fond of the family that he baptized his own children Vincenzo and Ignazio, just like the Florio brothers. Vincenzo, who had taken over his father’s role, shared the bond with the family, and therefore when he decided to build a residence for himself and his wife Virginia, he obviously chose the professional to whom to entrust the design among those who habitually frequented the Florios.
The project was thus entrusted to architect Filippo La Porta who had followed the construction site of the Florio residence in Favignana, a project by his teacher Giuseppe Damiani Almeyda (the latter was one of the most renowned engineers and architects of the time and, as a university professor, he had formed the best Sicilian professionals). At the same time, Caruso chose to build along the aforementioned Via dei Lolli, buying a large plot of land close to the immense Whitaker property, at a convenient distance from the Florio residences, which he could reach with a short walk in the green.
The project for Villa Virginia dates back to 1908, the beautiful drawings on large yellowed paper sheets are now framed and exhibited on the first floor of the beautiful villa. The current owners, Laila and Eleonora Orlando, found them, stacked in the cellar. I can only imagine the emotions they felt by unfolding the large sheets. You can see the exteriors, the interiors, the garden project, the many details. The villa, in fact, was designed as a unicum, a “total work of art”, in which each part contributes to create an overall image. Exactly as Villino Florio, designed by architect Ernesto Basile, which today we can only imagine because the interiors burned in 1962. Villa Virginia, instead, still keeps many original, well-preserved pieces. Crossing the threshold of the house is like stepping directly into the past.
The furniture is by Ducrot and Mucoli, the ceramics come from the Florio factory, the leaded windows are those designed by Pietro Bevilacqua, and today, like a hundred years ago, they filter the light in a kaleidoscope of luminous hues. Curved, floral style lines wind on the steps of the staircase, on the display cabinets, on the chandeliers, while the gramophone and the piano seem to resound of distant music. Even the radiators are the original ones, cast-iron beasts minutely decorated in relief that, when turned on, heat the rooms with results worthy of much more Nordic climates. On the first floor, the bedrooms have been transformed to allow hospitality (the villa can be rented) and even here every detail has been recovered, from the door handles to the bathrooms, with the bathtubs raised on cute feet.
Unfortunately, Vincenzo and Virginia had no children and so, after them, Villa Virginia was inherited by Rosa Amoretti, a Genoese niece of Virginia who used to spent the summer in Palermo. She met and married Baron Vincenzo Valenti and the two settled in the villa. They had two children: Giuseppe, who died as a child, and Giancarlo, a passionate archaeologist who, having no children or direct heirs, testamented the villa to the Orlando family. Eleonora Orlando, who accompanied me on the visit, told me about her adolescence within these walls and how, in recent years, she decided with her sister to open the doors of the villa on selected occasions: Once a month with the guides of the coop. Terradamare and on the occasion of the festival Le Vie dei Tesori, in autumn.
Visits are an unmissable opportunity, especially because the guide will be able to indicate the many details that make this ancient villa precious. The pomegranates that decorate the doors, for example, a symbol of fertility which unfortunately did not have the desired effects for Vincenzo and Virginia. The portrait of Virginia made by the painter Ettore De Maria Bergler, the author of the magnificent frescoes that adorn the hall of Villa Igiea. The gold-decorated leather covering the walls of the studio, and the precious paintings by the Japanese painter O’Tama Kiyohara who decorated the walls of the dining room, creating a fairytale landscape that gives the place a very special atmosphere.
On leaving, the tall buildings that flank Villa Virginia, the result of a nefarious building expansion, bring me back to the present and to an era that often, unfortunately, loses sight of beauty. And then I think, once more, that places like this must be guarded, to remind us how we were and how we still could be.