At the turn of the 20th century, all of Europe’s elite longed to be in Palermo. This was a city of grand villas, huge parties and, at the heart of it all, the dynamic Florio dynasty who made their fortune in marsala wine and shipping – and who held famous parties presided over by the utterly captivating Donna Franca, wife to Ignazio Junior.
The Continent was in the midst of the Belle Époque, the pre-war period when art and culture were the status symbols du jour. Writers, composers and artists visited Sicily, which became a late must-stop on the Grand Tour and remained (as it does today) reliably exotic, littered with the remnants of ancient civilisations and the leftover customs of myriad cultures.
Ernesto Basile – superstar architect
Around the city, plenty of evidence of this period of growth and regeneration remains: the Belle Époque changed the face of the city and it’s noticeable in the ornate and fanciful kiosks still scattered about town. Some were designed by Ernesto Basile, the architect most associated with the era on the island, who also oversaw the completion of the huge Teatro Massimo opera house, alongside the fanciful playboy mansion of the dashing Vincenzo Florio Junior, Villina Florio.
Basile’s influence stretched all the way to the seaside suburb of Mondello, where he designed a raft of holiday homes for wealthy clients. And he also designed Villa Igiea for the Florios, originally as a sanatorium inspired by the illness of Ignazio and Franca’s daughter. However, grand hotels sprung up across Europe like wildfire during the Belle Époque and, before it was even finished, the building was converted into an opulent retreat.
Villa Igiea – a Belle Époque masterpiece
The hotel’s reception space (Sala Basile) was designed by Basile himself and visiting today is like taking a trip back in time. Murals commissioned by Basile and painted by Ettore de Maria Bergler stretch across the walls in scenes of garlanded women, a triumph of Sicilian Art Nouveau style.
Meanwhile, in Florio restaurant, gilded mirrors and overblown greenery and forest green accents hark back to a time when the hotel was Sicily’s most prestigious address, popular with movie stars and royalty.
For a Belle Époque inspired stay in Sicily, book into Villa Igiea.
Five Belle Époque must-sees in Palermo
- Villa Igiea: the most famous hotel of the Sicilian Belle Époque
- Teatro Massimo: to watch opera or ballet in Belle Époque splendour
- Chiosco Vicari: a fanciful Basile-designed kiosk outside the Teatro Massimo
- Villino Florio: glamorous home of Vincenzo Florio
- Kursaal Biondo: the grand Basile frontage of this former cinema is worth seeing (though it’s now a bingo hall)
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