By Gaetana D’Amico and Christopher Livesay
Palermo, August 28 – Owners of a Palermo apartment were shocked to discover during recent renovations that part of their home was once an ornate 18th-century mosque. The flat in Via Porta di Castro is in an area of buildings over what used to be the Kemonia river, before it was filled in around the year 1600, near the Royal Palace of Palermo. The couple, Giuseppe Cadili and Valeria Giarrusso, both journalists, bought the apartment eight years ago. They had planned to knock down the wall of a room to create an open area, but Cadili soon realized that the plaster was damp.
“There was a leak inside of a wall. Cleaning it up a bit I realized that there was Arabic writing on it,” he said, noting the script was in gold and silver painted on blue background. “I would never have imagined that the writing covered all four walls”. Experts say the mosque was built inside a private dwelling, the first discovery of its kind in Sicily. It was at that point that the amazed owners decided to have it examined. Gaetano Basile, an expert in Palermo history, told them the inscriptions were artisan versions of a decorative calligraphy widespread in the 1700s. Most of it is purely decorative, Basile told Salvatore Ferro of the daily Il Giornale di Sicilia. “This is a well-known part of our culture, marked by the invention of ‘rabbisco’, an entirely Sicilian legacy of arabesque design,” he said. “The Sicilian artisan, who did not know Arabic, mistook calligraphic verses for decoration, and emulated them.” It is likely that the house belonged to a North African nobleman or merchant who had made his home in Palermo around the later 1700s,” he added, noting that a large Muslim community lived in the Sicilian capital at the time. “The owner basically had a mosque built in his house. There are clear indications of this.”
“First of all, it faces east, the walls are of an identical size – 3.5 by 3.5 meters, it has doors located in such a way as to prevent the placement of furniture, and the ceiling has a repeating lamp pattern”. The owners intend to preserve the space as is. “We wanted to give the proper weight to this discovery and convey our love for the historic center,” Cadili said. “Too often things from our past are destroyed instead of bringing them back to life.” This room also transmits an extraordinary feeling of serenity. “This is why we decided to keep it as we found it: we put in a sofa and a desk and, out of respect for the Muslim culture, we do not serve alcoholic beverages in this room.”