Palermo is a city at a crossroads and the best place to start exploring it is at Quattro Canti, or Four Corners, the city's crossroads for more than 400 years. It was built in the early 17th century by the ruling Spaniards to surround a new intersection that neatly divided Palermo's four ancient quarters.
It's splendidly over the top - each corner has a marble fountain and classic columns flanking three storeys of statuary depicting a Spanish king, a saint and a season - with an energy and beauty that transcend the grime and underscore why it's so central to Palermitan life. Demonstrations start here, religious processions pass by here, and the sun is always shining on one of its corners - hence its other name, the Theatre of the Sun. When the mid-afternoon sun hits the autumn corner it glints off a new pane of glass in the old façade. Behind that window, contemporary art dealer Francesco Pantaleone has his office and gallery, FPAC. From his desk he can see the statue of spring on the opposite corner.
"In front of me there is springtime, which always represents rebirth and that makes me very happy," says Pantaleone, gazing out the window. It's an apt analogy for how he feels about his hometown, a city on the cusp of social and cultural renewal, again.
Projections at FPAC gallery.
Named Panormus, or "all harbour", by Greek settlers, Palermo's fortunes have soared and sunk through 25-odd centuries of invasions, conquests and a rollcall of rulers. In the 12th century, under the Normans, it was Europe's most brilliant city, then, under their successors, an exemplar of the harmonious coexistence of Islamic, Jewish and Christian cultures. At the outset of almost four centuries of Spanish rule it was a medieval backwater before rising to become 18th-century Italy's second largest city after Naples. But the Spanish encouraged profligacy as prosperity declined and some say it was downhill from there, apart from a brief cultural flowering in the 19th century when British traders amassed colossal fortunes. After Allied bombs wreaked havoc in 1943 the historical centre was left to crumble, and by the late 1970s it was all but abandoned.
Pantaleone's family has run a religious supplies emporium in the old town since 1905. He sold crucifixes before contemporary art became his vocation. "Sicilian people live a bit in the past," he says. By fostering an appreciation of contemporary art, he hopes to change the way people perceive Palermo. He shows the work of Sicilian artists and brings others to Palermo to create works shaped by their experience of the city.
After returning from New York, where he'd worked for the famed dealer Larry Gagosian, Pantaleone opened his first gallery in 2003, then moved into the much larger space at Quattro Canti three years ago. With its polished marble floors, white walls and exposed air-conditioning ducts it's the antithesis of the Baroque extravaganza outside. That's one reason why he built his office around the reglazed window - he didn't want the Quattro Canti view to detract from the art. He jokes that the only people allowed into the inner sanctum are those getting ready to sign cheques.
"It's important to try to have a contemporary view of the city," he says. "That's my point with contemporary art in Palermo and the people that want to catch the sense of this place. It's not a museum."
Thanks to Pantaleone and dozens of like-minded residents, there's a new vibrancy in old Palermo. You can feel it on Quattro Canti where the simple act of banning daytime and early evening traffic has transformed the crossroads, returning it to a place where people meet and gossip.
On the summer corner, second-generation restaurateur Dario Bisso opened Bisso Bistrot last year, an instant hit among Palermitani, who stand outside on Via Maqueda drinking wine while they wait for a coveted bar seat or table. Palermo hasn't really seen the likes of this Parisian-inspired bistro and its simpático vibe. The tables are shared, there are no bookings and the menu, overseen by Bisso's mother, Anna Maria, delivers affordable Sicilian classics such as uova con il pic pac (eggs cooked in a tomato sauce) and involtini di pesce spada (stuffed swordfish rolls).
Blocking traffic on the kilometre stretch from Quattro Canti to the imposing Teatro Massimo has helped to revive Via Maqueda, where there's a passeggiata every evening as people stream into what they call downtown from the newer zones of the city
Some ride bicycles with a nonchalance that would have been impossible when cars ruled the road.
On the waterfront of La Cala - itself a pocket history of the best and worst of times in the port city - the marina has been cleaned up and glass-box buildings house bars and restaurants where people gravitate on sunny Sundays for late-morning Aperol Spritzes.
While a generation fought to save Palermo from the ravages of post-war degradation, political malfeasance and a corrupt mafia-controlled building industry, the new generation has "I love Palermo" as a mantra and wants to enliven it. As well as opening wine bars, trattorias and cafés, they organise open city events and concerts in historic properties. Amid lively debate about restoration versus rebuilding, some are involved in major projects that sit happily in between. They agitate for more civic pride and have even clandestinely cleaned statues and fountains when city funds haven't stretched to their upkeep.
Bernardo Tortorici Montaperto di Raffadali is an unlikely agent of change. The Montaperti arrived in Sicily with the Normans in about 1100. His title, Prince of Raffadali, has antecedents in one granted to an ancestor by the first Norman ruler, Roger I, so he's considered a "real prince" among Sicily's countless dukes and counts. The 57-year-old lives in a massive part-Catalan part-Baroque palace that occupies an entire block not far from Quattro Canti. His late father started the Sicilian arm of Italy's historic-house association and his mother still runs the palace, where she hosts arts dignitaries and rents out grand rooms for wedding receptions.
Tortorici has made it his mission to open up the city so people can appreciate its "beauties". "It's a kind of karma that I have in my life, to reopen places that were forgotten and closed and not possible to see," he says. He established an association, Amici dei Siciliani Musei (Friends of the Sicilian Museums), to manage several church properties that the Curia couldn't afford to open. Art history students from the University of Palermo run the ticket offices and tours and curate events. Entrance fees fund restoration, but Tortorici aims to do much more than conserve and preserve.
"Our job is not only to open these places like museums and so forth, with the dust and the bore of museums, but we try to let them live in contemporary ways," he says from his office above his favourite charge, the Oratorio di San Lorenzo. Sicilian trade guilds built oratories as their private refuges for religious reflection and socialising, later decorating them in grand Baroque style. The most revered are those housing the stucco works of Giacomo Serpotta, one of the great European sculptors of the 18th century. He added marble dust to his plaster, giving it a stone-like lustre and luminance that make his figures seem alive.
In San Lorenzo, Serpotta created teatrini, tiny theatres depicting scenes from the lives of patron saints Lawrence and Francis. Above the altar his figures danced around Caravaggio's Nativity. But the painting was stolen in 1969, earning the oratory the infamy of being the scene of one of the world's greatest art thefts. In December Tortorici hosted the Italian president, Sergio Mattarella, at the unveiling of a "new" Caravaggio, created using digital technology and hung in the old frame.
Tortorici has been one of the forces behind the decade-old open-city program, Le Vie dei Tesori, or Streets of the Treasures. Staged in October, last year's event attracted almost 150,000 people, mostly from Sicily, to palaces and other prized sites. The abandoned Palazzo Costantino, which abuts Quattro Canti's autumn corner, was turned into a temporary art space and visitors could walk onto the balcony in front of the statue of Philip IV. In nearby Piazza Pretoria, which houses the town hall, the splendid frescoes in the newly renovated Palazzo Bonocore were open to viewers, and the city council unlocked the gates to the piazza's huge Mannerist fountain where public access has long been barred. The fountain's recently cleaned marble statues, whose nakedness so shocked 16th-century society, made a pristine backdrop for hundreds of selfies.
"It's a very joyful thing to see the fountain open and people queuing to see the palace and the town hall," says Tortorici. On Quattro Canti's other main cross-street, Via Vittorio Emanuele, some 5,500 people joined tours to the cupola of the Baroque church Santissimo Salvatore. From there they had a 360-degree view of the historical centre's four quarters - Kalsa, Albergheria, Capo and Castellammare - and an appreciation of their maze of medieval alleys and streets that no map can offer. The Amici is using revenue from the cupola tour to restore Santissimo Salvatore's altar, for which Tortorici is negotiating the return of a painting hanging in the Diocesan museum.
Palmero St Frances Assissi.
He's modest about his achievements, saying they're part of the growth the city has enjoyed since the 1990s, when mayor Leoluca Orlando introduced enlightened policies for rebuilding and restoration, and campaigned to open up Palermo, literally and symbolically. "If you came here 20 years ago you would be desperate because to see all these things was too difficult."
Orlando, who returned as mayor in 2012, is a fan of the open-city event, and another earlier in the year called Panormus in which local schoolchildren adopt a monument. Many city-run sites, such as the stunning Archivio Storico Comunale, were opened for Le Vei dei Tesori and the mayor pumped out messages on Twitter promoting daily activities.
Yet there are many signs that Palermo is doing it tough amid the Eurozone crisis - uncollected rubbish being the one most residents complain about. Tortorici plays down its effects: "We always had less money so we're used to it," he says. "We always try to make do with what we have." It's a sentiment echoed everywhere. If nothing else, Palermitani are adaptable.
The city lives and dies on tourism. Hopes are high that UNESCO's recognition last year of the magnificence of Arab-Norman Palermo will mean those sights attract more visitors. UNESCO added the Royal Palace and its chapel, Cappella Palatina, Palermo cathedral, Monreale cathedral, and six other 12th-century structures to its prestigious World Heritage list. The Cappella Palatina, with its golden mosaics, Islamic wooden stalactite ceiling and fusion of Latin, Byzantine and Arab styles, is worth a trip alone. As is the awe-inspiring splendour of palaces and churches from the period that art historian (and spy) Anthony Blunt dubbed "Sicilian Baroque".
Then there's the street life. This often involves street food, more acclaimed than most of the city's restaurants. A plate of just-cooked panelle, chickpea-flour fritters, from Friggitoria Chiluzzo near the harbour in Piazza Kalsa may well be the best one euro ever spent. Besides its panelle, the fast-fry shop is pure theatre as people of obviously mixed fortunes jostle to get near the counter every time a new batch comes out of the fryer.
The many cheeses at Ballaro market.
Still, for some travellers Palermo is a hard sell. It's gritty and can be confronting. On Via Alloro, one of the old town's most distinguished streets, there are people living in squalor alongside superbly restored palaces.
The spectre of the mafia still looms large, even if the tangible signs are anti-mafia. Shops and restaurants prominently display their membership of Addiopizzo, the collective of businesses that refuse to pay the pizzo, or extortion money, and a legacy of the murders of anti-mafia magistrates Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino in 1992 are 24-hour no-parking zones around judges' houses. There haven't been any bombings since then, leading a lawyer friend to call the zones anachronistic.
A few days before Dario Bisso opened Bisso Bistrot, there was a fire outside his family's Ristorante Sant'Andrea for which the mafia was blamed. Dario's father, Pippo Bisso, shut the restaurant, declaring "basta" - he'd had enough. They'd been intimidated for refusing to pay protection money ever since he and Anna Maria opened Sant'Andrea just off the Vucciria market 21 years ago, Bisso says. It was a distressing end to the highly regarded restaurant, something of a site of pilgrimage for fans of Peter Robb's 1996 book Midnight in Sicily.
But Bisso Bistrot was indeed a rebirth, and not just for the Bisso family. The bistro's historic premises still bear the shopfront of Libreria Dante, the go-to bookshop for writers such as Leonardo Sciascia and Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, the author of Sicily's most revered novel, The Leopard. When builders removed bookshelves they discovered walls covered with paintings from the Liberty era of buxom maidens draped in garlands. They date back to a time when the rooms were home to Caffè Ristorante Umberto I, the favoured hangout of Palermo's aristocratic classes in the 19th century. Bisso wants his bistro to be a more egalitarian haunt of writers, artists and musicians.
Amid so much history it's easy to get stuck in the past. Pantaleone laments that many fellow Sicilians and visitors still have Lampedusa's The Leopard as their main cultural reference some 53 years after Luchino Visconti turned the melancholy novel into a ravishing film. Nevertheless, Leopard tourism has been a good money-spinner and has its own story of rebirth.
Obliterated in World War II, Palazzo Lampedusa, the writer's beloved birthplace and home, has been remade recently. On the footprint of the old palace architects Fabrizio Favuzza and Alice Franzitta built 36 apartments, including a new home for themselves and a creative studio for a recording company. Their passion is palpable as they point out the remnants they were able to salvage. The most significant - a domed ceiling painted gold and blue in what was Lampedusa's mother's boudoir, and where the author was born - is now the foyer of an apartment.
On the terrace of the grandest apartment they built a concrete bench inset with a tiled mural as a homage to the writer, who was photographed on a similar seat in the walled garden of his final home on the Kalsa seafront. Instead of ruins, on Via Lampedusa Leopard fans now find palace walls and a plaque commemorating its four-year rebuilding program.
Osteria Nangia e Bevi's octopus salad.
Former Sydneysider Mariella Ienna was so taken with the revival of this oncewretched Castellammare area she bought a derelict apartment in a former Dominican monastery and spent three years turning it into a stunning home. A lawyer turned designer, Ienna used to live on the best street in the best part of town, the Liberty zone, outside the historical centre. But she loves her new neighbourhood with its mix of 13th-century church buildings like hers, Palazzo Branciforte, which was revamped by late Milanese architect Gae Aulenti for Fondazione Sicilia, Baroque palaces such as Palazzo Lampedusa, plus new drinking and dining hotspots.
"There's been a huge improvement to this general zone, with significant palazzi restored, and there's also quite a happening nightlife," she says. Tribeca, a favourite bar near her old home, has a downtown offshoot, I Grilli, nearby on Largo Cavalieri Malta. Most evenings its customers spill into the small square. Next door is Osteria Mangia e Bevi, a cosy spot where the specialty is pasta fritta - leftover pasta that's compressed and fried and served in a mini padella. "It's so popular I can't even get in there," she says.
Ienna, whose parents are Sicilian, went to Palermo in 2008 to improve her Italian. She fell in love with the city and stayed. "I was captivated by the blend of architectures and cultures, its layers of histories and the gritty charm of modern life," she says. "And slowly but surely it's getting better and better."