In Palermo, under the spell of the Florio family

WITH square flooded with sunlight adjacent to the church of San Domenico, we pass without crossing the dark trench of the alley, decorated with traditional linen hanging from the balconies. We are located on Via dei Materassai, right in the center of old Palermo, a few steps from the port.

This is where it all began, in a working-class area where two brothers, expelled from their native Calabria by an earthquake, landed around 1800. Soon Paolo and Ignacio Florio opened a spice shop. “How could small pepper, cumin and cinnamon traders become the owners of the city in three generations? », – Asks the writer Stephanie Auci from the family of history teachers, who for almost six years looks in the archives to restore the fabulous Italian “success story” of the Florio family.

Baroness Franca Florio, born della Motta, has her own portrait at Villa Igieia

• Marie Shodi for life

Good paternalism

Because in the next generation it was the ambitious Vincenzo who began a variety of industrial activities, from the production of the famous Marsala wine to the management of several shipping companies. In the coastal area of ​​Arenella, his palace Quattro Pizzi with ocher stone towers, eroded by time, shows a beautiful upward trajectory. A marble statue of a man who became a senator stands elsewhere on the waterfront. But the Palermo novelist prefers to lead us to the foot of another sculpture, this time bronze, of the sculpture of Ignatius (third generation, the trajectory is also spinning), which sits in the center of… Place Florio.

As Ignatius the Elder not only bought an island or two to build palaces there, he continued to develop tuna fishing and canneries, where fish would now be stored in olive oil instead of salt. He created a fleet of 99 very competitive ships in the seas of the globe. He also made the Florio foundry an industrial flagship, which he deployed all the way to Marseilles, defending some social progress.

According to the official story, it was his employees who ordered a monument dedicated to the good boss he was, and as Stephanie Auchi presented it in her saga. But Ignatius was the one who forced Florios to move to the respectable side of the high family: his marriage to Baroness Giovanna d’Ond of Trigon first led to the color blue. blood in the clan. Enough to make you forget about the usual origin and “smell of sweat” that is still tied to your cloak, “ smiling novelist, inexhaustible to the Sicilian aristocracy, “Those nobles with their mixed Arab, Norman and French blood who were going to seize water in the company of the entire European elite.”

Villa dei Quattro Pizzi in the Arenella area.


Strong desire for success

As soon as the “Sicilian aristocracy” is spoken of, the name of Prince Giuseppe Tomazi di Lampedusa comes to mind. His novel is imbued with lush nostalgia cheetah remains a symbol of the transition from the ancient world to the present. Prince Salina accepts an alliance with the bourgeoisie, which will be bound by the marriage of his nephew Tancred: “Everything must change so that nothing changes” the phrase remained known as the mantra.

But Stephanie Auci did not allow herself to be crushed by the weight of this literary heritage. She boldly jumped over the aristocratic barrier and followed in the footsteps of the business bourgeoisie, these Florios and their wives, inhabited by a fierce desire for success. Translated to Palermo in the late 19th centuryand century construction of prestigious buildings in the city center: thus, the Teatro Massimo, whose patrons were Florio (large dome and monumental pediment), had to compete with nothing but the Paris Opera.

Heading further north to the coast, we discover Villa Igiea, furnished in the spirit of the Beautiful Age with its impressive ballrooms, chandeliers and floral frescoes in the Art Nouveau style. Today it is the 5-star Palermo Palace, which offers breathtaking views of the port of Aquasanta and the blue line of the Sicilian coast. At the turn of the XX centuryand century Florios undoubtedly became the richest family in Italy. Like his father, Ignatius Jr. married Baroness Franca della Motta from a poor aristocratic branch, whose beautiful portrait adorns the walls of Villa Igieia. Both of them dominated the social and artistic life of the Beautiful Age, receiving in turn Kaiser William II or English King Edward VII, the city of Palermo, which then deserves the nickname “Floriopolis” …

Villa Igia (opposite) was decorated with Art Nouveau Florio during the Beautiful Age.

• Marie Shodi for life

The rise and fall of the dynasty

From the huge estate of Olivuta Park, which marked the peak of the trading dynasty, only a wonderful architectural fantasy in the Art Nouveau style remained: Villino Florio. Turrets, colonnades and plant motifs almost disappeared in 1962 during a fire started by the local mafia due to dark real estate.

Here we are: how to say Palermo without mentioning “Octopus” at some point? As soon as we left the airport, the taxi driver showed us a monument erected in memory of the anti-mafia judge Giovanni Falcone, who killed Cosa Nostra on May 23, 1992. Stephanie Auci was not left out either, explaining that this is the date “September 11 Sicilians”, shock that led her to study law: “The Mafia is not just a criminal organization, but a system of power and unhealthy values ​​deeply rooted in Sicilian society. »

The saga of Florio shows the first seed planted during the time of Ignatius the Elder to become the invasive links of the next generation. In any case, their fortunes suddenly fell under the leadership of Ignatius the Younger, who tried in vain to modernize and expand the family shipyard in 1905. In vain. Then Florio’s house fell quickly: “In Palermo, public opinion is divided. There are those who point to Florio’s arrogance as the sole reason for their ruin, and others who blame the central government of Rome, which preferred to support the industrial bourgeoisie of the North, Milan and Genoa by replacing Palermo. The truth is probably between them. »

We depart from the bustling city center to reach the area of ​​Monte Griffon. Cypress-lined paths where the sound of birdsong rises to the cemetery of Santa Maria di Gesu: here rest Florio, in his sober and chubby mausoleum, the only decoration of which is a stone lion drinking from a spring, a symbol chosen an entrepreneurial family, without the coats of arms that made the city prestige before quietly disappearing. With the exception of a few car failures: Vincenzo Jr., one of the last heirs and a great athlete before eternity, built a reputation as a Targa Florio race car that revived Sicilian roads until 1977.

The saga of Florio, from Stephanie Auchi.
The world’s bestseller, the trilogy has already sold 1.5 million copies in 37 countries.
Volume 1, the lions of Sicily, was published last year in France by Albin Michel, 21.90 euros.
In May this year: volume 2, The triumph of the lions. Albin Michel, 21.90 euros.

To walk Palermo in the footsteps of Florio, visit the Massimo Theater or Villino Florio, contact the tourist information center:

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