History - The history of palermo city

The history of the City of Palermo from the Imperial Period, the Spanish Domination, until the Second World War.


Prehistory and first settlements

Human settlement in the Palermo area goes back to prehistoric times as one of the most ancient sites in Sicily, with interesting graffiti and prehistoric paintings discovered in the Addaura grottoes in 1953 by archaeologist Jole Bovio Marconi: dancing figures performing a propitiatory rite, perhaps “shamans” who lived in the island.
The city of Palermo - whose founding over prehistoric settlements is unknown - , on the convergence of two natural parts.

Phoenicians founded Palermo and named it “Zyz”. Until that time the area was a flourishing merchant colony and a support base for the northwestern Sicily. The name “Zyz” (the “z” should be pronounced as “s”) is not verified yet, but many coins from the Punic period of Palermo bear the caption “Zyz” and, as Palermo was one of the three Punic cities of Sicily (Thucydides, VI, 1-5), it probably had its own mint. The name seems to derive from the shape of the city cut by two rivers reminding the outline of a flower.
Palermo acquired a certain commercial importance due to its location but especially to the two rivers (the Kemonia and the Papireto) and became a popular destination for Greeks who lived in the eastern part of Sicily, which, however were never able to conquer it. The Greeks called Palermo “Panormos” (from the Greek παν - όρμος , “all port”) because of the two rivers that created a huge natural harbor. This name spread through the strengthening of Greek influence on the island.

The city remained under Phoenician control until the First Punic War (264-241 BC), after which Sicily was conquered by the Romans. In particular, Palermo was fought over by the Carthaginians and the Romans until 254 BC when the Roman fleet besieged the city forcing it to surrender and enslaving the population that was forced into war to redeem their freedom.
Hasdrubal tried to take the city back, but the Roman consul Metellus defeated him. Hamilcar made another attempt to take it back in 247 BC, so camped with his army on Monte Pellegrino (then called "Ercta") trying on several occasions to regain the lead. However this was in vain, as Palermo remained loyal to Rome. Palermo therefore gained the titles of Praetura, the Golden Eagle, and the right to mint a coin of its own, as one of only five free cities in Sicily.
For this reason, the Carthaginians abandon the territory of Palermo. The Roman period was quiet: the city became part of the province of Syracuse and after the division of the Empire, both Sicily and Palermo have been attributed to the Western Roman Empire.

Imperial period, Barbarian and Byzantine invasionsi

In 1868 notable palaces (including a large theatre still existed in the Norman age) and mosaics have been discovered in Piazza Vittoria (“Victory’s Square”). This fact made Palermo a flourishing and beautiful city during the Golden Age of the Roman Republic and Empire.
During the Roman Empire, it was a Roman colony - according to geographer Strabo - and it provided large amounts of wheat for the capital. However, after the reign of Vespasian, it decayed. In 445 it was sacked by the barbarian invasions, with Genseric, king of the Vandals who suppressed the city with fire and sword until the dominion of Odoacer, Theoderic's Ostrogoths.
In 535, the Byzantine general Belisarius stormed the port of Palermo, stealing it to the Ostrogoths. The Byzantine rule lasted until 830 when the Arabs disembarked in Marsala four years earlier, capturing Palermo and making it the capital city of their Sicilian emirate.

Arab Domination

n the ninth century, Muslims from North Africa invaded Sicily and began the conquest of the island in 827. They conquered Palermo in 831 and in 965 the whole island. The Arab rulers moved Sicily's capital to Palermo that didn’t change ever since. The city had to be equipped with all the bureaucratic structures.
Under their rule, Sicily became a rich and flourishing land in commerce and culture, according to the geographer and traveler Ibn Hawqal. The city was famous because there were more than 300 mosques inside, it was known throughout the Arab world. It was a period of prosperity and tolerance: Christians and Jews lived in harmony with Muslims.

The Normans

The golden age of Palermo continued with the Normans (especially with Roger II and the Emperor Frederick II), who were able to collect and use the cultural heritage of Arabic, Greek and Roman. When Frederick II died it followed a long period of instability which culminated in the anti-French revolt (the Sicilian Vespers, 1282). Palermo separates from Naples and offers the crown of Sicily to Frederick III of Aragon.
The Normans restored Christianity as the official religion and declared Palermo to be the capital of the island. In 1130, Roger II was crowned King of Sicily in Palermo. Thus, it began a reign characterized by the coexistence of various ethnic backgrounds and religious beliefs, a sort of federal state with a first parliament (created in 1129) and the organization of the cadastre according to a modern design.

The most important buildings of the city still show its civilization, as the Martorana church and the Palatine Chapel. The Arab geographer Idrisi, in the book dedicated to King Roger, testifies this magnificent period of splendor and wealth.
William I (“Il Malo”) and William II (“Il Buono”) succeeded the two Roger and attempted to oppose the ambitions of the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa who wanted to destroy the kingdom of the Normans in Sicily.

Swabian's Period

The state marriage between the emperor Henry VI, son of the German emperor, and Constance of Hauteville, daughter of Roger II, in 1185 attempted a peaceful settlement but only opened the way for the Swabian conquest. So, in 1194 Palermo was conquered by the German king. Thus, Palermo reached its golden age with Swabian rule under Frederick II, son of Costance I.

Palermo’s court became the core of the Empire, including the lands of Puglia and Southern Italy. The first Italian poetical school was born in Palermo; and politically the king called "Stupor mundi" (wonder of the world) anticipated "the figure of the Renaissance prince" - as Santi Correnti has written - even with the so-called Constitutions of Melfi (1231).
However, Frederick II reign was characterized by struggles against the Papacy and the Italian municipalities. Here the king was victorious or ceded to compromises organizing the Fourth Crusade and equipping the island and the south with castles and fortifications. He was buried in the cathedral of Palermo, in 1250. As a result, he causes the wars of succession in which Manfred, (his son) was defeated in Benevento in 1266 by Charles of Anjou, brother of the king of France.

Angevin's Period

The Angevin rule began with Charles of Anjou and lasted until 1282. Charles and his officials exploited Sicily heavily. Meanwhile the capital was moved to Naples and the island rebelled in 1282 (the Sicilian Vespers), when before the Church of the Holy Spirit - it is said - the popular reaction exploded as a result of the offense against a woman of Palermo by a certain Drouet.
This event was an opportunity to banish the hated Angevins. Meantime Peter III of Aragon was sent to take the crown of the Kingdom. A ninety years war started and developed into three distinct phases and would ended with the peace of Caltabellotta in 1302, the peace of Catania in 1347 and finally with the Treaty of Avignon 1372.

Aragonese Period

As soon as the revolt of the Vespers broke out in Sicily, the Aragonese fleet, which landed on August 30, 1282 in Trapani, was already in Palermo and with the occupation of the city by Peter III, Charles d'Angiò was forced to retire in September 1282 in Naples.
Peter III obtained the title of King of Sicily, kept the crowns of Aragon and Sicily divided. in 1284 in the Aragonese crusade he left the island and thus took turns in the leadership of the kingdom Alfonso III of Aragon and Giacomo II of Aragon . The political situation was not yet clear.
Charles II of Anjou still claimed the island and the Aragonese, in difficulty in Spain, sought an agreement with the Angevins, thus abandoning the Sicilians and their expectations. In this context, the Sicilian Parliament , gathered at the Castello Ursino in Catania, elected Giacomo's brother Federico III d as King of Sicily 'Aragona , very sensitive to the demands of Sicily.
The alliance plan was upset: from this moment the Sicilians continued the fight under the regency of Federico, against both the Angevins and the Aragonese of Spain of King James.
Artistic traces of the Aragonese period can be found in Palermo in some palaces sumptuous like Palazzo Steri and Palazzo Sclafani in Chiaramonte style, while trade with Genoa and Spain flourished with the exchange of raw materials and handicrafts.

The Peace of Caltabellotta

In 1302 the peace of Caltabellotta was finally signed, which divided the kingdom of Sicily into kingdom of Trinacria (only the island), entrusted to Federico and the kingdom of Naples (the part of the peninsula), led by Charles of Anjou .
Federico, entrusted the crown to his son Pietro , tried to circumvent the peace and the war resumed in 1313 . find a final agreement only on the death of Peter (1342), when his son Ludovico under the tutelage of Giovanni d'Aragona ascended the throne. It was probably thanks to Giovanni's diplomacy that a first peace agreement was reached with the Angevins called the "Peace of Catania" on 8 November 1347 . But the war between kingdom of Sicily and kingdom of Naples would have ended only on 20 August 1372 after ninety years, with Treaty of Avignon signed by Joan of Anjou and Frederick IV of Aragon , with the assent of Pope Gregory XI .

Spanish Domination

In 1494, after the death of King Martin, Sicily was annexed to Spain and Palermo became the seat of the Viceroy, the governors who were given the power of the island to share with the barons. Jews were expelled, the Holy Office was established, and the privileges of nobility grew.
However, the artistic activity of the city revived as the result of heavy taxes withthe construction of sumptuous public buildings such asSt. Joseph's Church,Santa Maria dello Spasimo Church and the new scenographic organization ofPorta Nuova.
The Hapsburg dynasty ruled in Sicily with Charles V after Ferdinand of Aragon. At Charles death, the crown passed on to his son Philip II (the Spanish branch of the Habsburgs) who exercised his power through the viceroy, backed by the local nobility.
The city was enriched by the nobility with the opening of Via Maqueda, with statues erected to kings in “Quattro Canti” (like the Charles V statue in Piazza Bologna), and with sturdy walls and bastions for the defense of the territory.

Here's what the writer Albert Jouvin wrote during the Spanish period:

«Palermo is not conveniently comparable to other cities but Naples, not only because it is an important seaport, home to the Archbishop's palace, capital of a kingdom and residence of a Viceroy, but also because it must be counted among the most beautiful and largest cities and it is placed in one of the most pleasing site of Italy: it stands in the midst of a fertile country extending for several miles and surrounded by charming hills on which it stand the most stunning homes holiday and seasonal dwellings of nobles where they are delighted since they enjoy the view of the sea and the most beautiful gardens in Italy.
In a word, you cannot imagine anything lovelier, more charming than this place, sweeter than its air; nothing like the grandeur and magnificence of its palaces, the most delicious of its fountains and gardens. Walking through the city, we admired it constantly appreciating the length of its streets traced in a straight line which have an infinite perspective, enjoyable as it is between two really beautiful rows of houses that delight those who walk through them.
The Cassaro one is the most important, for both its length and its width, and because it crosses far and wide the city and it divides it into two equal parts».

Bourbons's Period

After the Treaty of Utrecht (1713), Sicily was handed over to Victor Amadeus II of Savoy for a short time as it was involved in European wars between France, Austria and Spain until 1734 when the Bourbons returned with Charles III who chose Palermo for his coronation as king of Naples and Sicily.
Under this monarch the city grew and developed a flourishing commerce and construction industry.
He was succeeded by his son Ferdinand, not much liked by inhabitants of Palermo, but in 1798 the events of the French Revolution forced the king to take refuge in Palermo. In 1816 he abolishes the parliament and the Kingdom of Sicily, creating the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.
From 1820 to 1848 all Sicily was shaken by upheavals, which culminated on 12th January 1848 with the popular insurrection led by Giuseppe La Masa. Thus, a parliament and constitution were proclaimed, with committees chaired by Ruggero Settimo who was the president of the new kingdom that lasted sixteen months.
The Bourbons heavily bombed the harbour and the surrounding quarters of Sicily (King Ferdinand IV was therefore called "bomb king") which remained under their rule until the appearance of Giuseppe Garibaldi.
Garibarldi entered Palermo through Porta Termini: in 1860, with his troops, the "Thousands" (already active from the 4th April in the Gancia revolt with Francesco Riso), he entered Palermo triumphantly through via Porta Termini the 27th May, after the proclamation of Salemi that allowed him to assume the dictatorship of the island (to release Sicily from the Bourbons).

After the plebiscite later that year, Palermo and the whole of Sicily became part of the new Kingdom of Italy (1861). Palermo in those years is perfectly exemplified by the French scholar René Bazin:

"It just looked like a capital, a sovereign old city, this white Palermo, surrounded by orange trees. It faces the most beautiful yard ofthe world, largely opened, limited by two mountains whose magnificent crest is above the blue sea.
Behind a semicircle of dark vegetables, there is a huge citrus trees garden where the whiteness of a rich house shines here and there, and that soon narrows, forming a valley and rising as a ribbon in the middle of treeless peaks. It is the Conca d'Oro.
Inside, two major roads that are cut at right angles, Via Maqueda and the Corso Vittorio Emanuele, divide entirely Palermo and trace the sign of the cross over the city as well as the pious builders of that time ordered it.

The monuments are everywhere: they belong to all ages, each telling the landscape, and the sumptuous mood, poetic or warrior, and the so different breed’s soul that have occurred in the island. As it has often changed hands, Sicily has not loved anyone, maybe it always a disappointed dream of freedom in its heart. On the contrary, they adorned it for pleasure: Saracens, Normans, and Spanish.
The Normans were primarily manufacturers; they had brought with them the Gothic of the North; but the splendor of the South soon changed their eyes and they became like those painters of Germany and the Netherlands, which lost the shadows keeping travelling: they built for light with marble and scarlet and gold mosaics, and the Gothic bent to the new ideal. It produced some masterpieces that are so far away from Notre Dame of Paris as the Doric temples. Only Palermo can prove it.
When you cross the city from the sea, you can see an ancient Saracen mosque which domes are still red; further, in the upper part of the Corso Vittorio Emanuele, the road is bounded on the right by a long balustrade terminating with a garden, bay and pomegranate trees spaced according to the South taste that does not love the trees for themselves but discreetly use it to corroborate the work of man; then just before it, for a huge stretch, exposed to the sun that colors it of yellow, the Cathedral of the Assumption rises its silhouette beveled like feudal castles, with its peaks and battlements, its turrets and its towers.

I do not know what may have been the impression of other eyes than mine; I thought I saw a façade of Westminster transported in a blonde light. A few hundred meters from there, in the middle of the Royal Palace, the Palatine Chapel stands out, the jewel of Palermo. Yonder, all the poetry of the North and of the South meet and mingle. If its lines remind the Gothic origins, everything else is a new art: the wonderful fusion of daylight and reflexes, which does not leave any part of the building in full shade, the lining of the walls, mosaics of glass of a sweet splendor, the finite of the smallest parts of sculptures, of a spiral in the bottom of a column, the feathers of a bird in a frieze, unnecessary or lost details in our North cathedrals whose slight smile here does not escapes."

(René Bazin 1894).

After the unification of Italy

In 1866, the antiunitary riot, “rivolta del sette e mezzo”, broke out. From that year onwards, Palermo followed the history of Italy and Sicilian participated to all wars for the expansion of the territory.
Between the nineteenth and the twentieth century, thanks to a group of enlightened entrepreneurs (Florio, Ingham, and Whitaker) Palermo experiences a flourishing period of economic and cultural growth (earning the "Floriopoli" appellation).

Afterwards, the outbreak of the World War I and Fascism relegated the city to a marginal role in the Italian scenario.
During the World War II, the city was bombarded since the early days of the conflict, by the French and the English aviation, mainly on military targets.
With the intervention of the United States, the bombing became disastrous and indiscriminate, and entire neighborhoods were destroyed causing hundreds of civilian casualties and inflicting serious damage to the artistic heritage of the city.
After the liberation, the city was bombarded by the Luftwaffe, which aimed to destroy allies in the port of Palermo.

The Postwar Period

After the World War II, the liberation of Italy began through the Cassibile armistice and MIS struggle for the independence (the Movement for the Independence of Sicily). Since 1946, Palermo is home to the Regional Parliament and as capital of the region, it was given special status as an autonomous region. Today, Palace of the Normans (Palazzo dei Normanni) is the seat of the regional parliament of Sicily.

Recovered from the destruction of World War II, Palermo boasts today - also because of its role as capital of the autonomous region of Sicily - of a high prevalence of tertiary activities and of a vibrant cultural life.

Today, the Sicilian capital owes its economic revitalization – to the above mentioned activities of the tertiary sector – and to a good recovery of the tourist flow favored by the mild climate and by the rich artistic heritage of the territory.

Nevertheless, the modern criminal organization keeps heavily affecting the city, which continues to be plagued by serious economic and social problems.
The main topic of the contemporary age is the struggle against Mafia and bandits like Salvatore Giuliano, who controlled the area of Montelepre; Palermo had to share effective control, economic as well as the administrative, of the territory with the Mafiosi families for decades, characterized by the heavy building speculations, the so-called "Sack of Palermo".

Today Palermo, one of the most beautiful bays of the Mediterranean Sea between Monte Pellegrino and Capo Zafferano and surrounded by the Conca d'Oro, is a city of 720,000 inhabitants that hankers for redemption and its ancient splendor. Palermo is also one of the most important trading and business centre of the island, Africa and Mediterranean and it is the seat of a University frequented by many students coming from Islamic countries, as its relationships with Muslim world were never ceased.

Its urban expansion has been remarkable. It is connected to the mainland through an international airport and it has an increasing number of maritime links. However, if tourism, its art treasures and natural beauty were valued, it could be the perfect connection between Northern Europe and the African continent again.