A large bearded man breastfeeding a snake, a male, serving as a pagan counterpart to Santa Rosalia: between ancient mythology and Renaissance and modern history, discover the origin of the protective deity of the city of Palermo.
This is the protective deity of the Sicilian city, its genius loci in Latin. A male counterpart of Santa Rosalia, he is simply known as Genio di Palermo – the Genius of Palermo. He is represented as a mature, bearded and crowned man, nursing a large snake. Various representations of him exist through the city of Palermo, including sculptures, fountains, frescoes and a mosaic. A veritable symbol and vivid personification of the city, with his fascinating iconography he embodies the spirit of the Sicilian people, long accustomed to encountering and clashing with the other, and with the strange. From his mythical origins to his many historical revisions, here is everything there is to know about the Genius of Palermo.
WHAT IS THE GENIUS LOCI?
In the religion and culture of the ancient Romans, the genius loci was a natural or supernatural entity tied to a place and considered an object of worship and veneration. The association between the Genius and the physical place probably originated from the assimilation of the Genius with Lares, figures from Roman mythology who represented the guardian spirits of deceased ancestors and who oversaw the smooth running of the family, property or economic activities. It is also interesting to note that, in more recent times, the term “Genius loci” has become an expression used in architecture to describe the aesthetic and socio-cultural characteristics of a place, an environment or a city. Thus it is a term that speaks to us in a transversal manner about the character of a place as the result of human-environment interactions and the habits that people develop in this context. In short, it indicates the character and the personality of a place. What, then, is the personality of Palermo?
ORIGIN AND MEANING OF AN URBAN DIVINITY
Most likely the origins of this symbol are pre-Roman, and therefore very ancient, but there is no certain information about the most archaic origins of this urban divinity. Ovid (first century BC) and Pausanias (second century AD) report that it represented the Genius loci of Palermo, but many of the later interpretations complicate the picture and offer additional and particularly suggestive perspectives.
According to some interpretations, the from the seventeenth century, for example, the bearded man is Palermo while the snake represents Scipio Africanus, the Roman general helped by the inhabitants of Palermo in the war against Hannibal’s Carthaginians. As a token of thank, Scipione is said to have donated a conca aurea, or golden basin, to the city (the base on which Palermo stands is called the “conca d’oro”) with a central statue of warrior feeding a snake from his breast.
The statue of the Genius in Palazzo Pretorio in fact is in a small basin, which reads: Panormus conca aurea suos devorat alienos nutrit, meaning “Palermo golden basin devours its own and feeds strangers”. This motto (which highlights the ambivalence of Sicily, a land that enchants the stranger but often hurts those who are born there) could be constructed as associating the Genius with the god Cronus (Saturn for the Romans), the great father of ancient mythology who devoured his own children.
The most enigmatic detail is unquestionably the snake (symbol of the earth, fertility and rebirth) feeding from the man’s breast. According to one of the most common interpretations, this iconography evokes the contact that Palermo has always had with the other, the foreign and the different. Through exchanges, trades, invasions and hybridisation, Sicily has always been generous in offering its beauty to those who come from outside, although in some cases it was not offered, but rather stolen, invaded and attacked. The other attributes – the dog (symbol of fidelity), the sceptre and the crown (symbols of regality) – are typical attributes of Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine, who is also linked to the serpent, as a symbol of renewal and healing. Sometimes the Genius is associated with an eagle, a symbol of pride and freedom, and another symbol widespread throughout the city of Palermo.
WHERE TO MEET THE GENIUS OF PALERMO
Not counting the various minor reproductions (such as engravings), there are eight representations of the Genius around the city. The Genius of the Port (or Genio del Molo) is a marble high relief located at the entrance of the port of Palermo, and is the oldest of the eight representations (neither the exact date nor the author are known). This Genius inspired another monument, the Genius of Villagrazia, a sculptural relief from the late seventeenth century. Elsewhere around Palermo are the Genius of Palazzo Pretorio, also without a specific date, and theGenius of Garraffo, made by Pietro de Bonitate at the end of the fifteenth century, which is at the Vucciria, in a niche in the aedicule by Paolo Amato.
In the eighteenth century the symbols and meanings linked to the Genius multiplied and diversified. The Genius played a more political and social role, becoming a sort of lay patron, a receptacle of the political momentum and enthusiasm of the inhabitants of Palermo. Triumphal allegories, symbols of the city, emblems and icons of political and civil history of the city began to accompany the iconography, as in the fresco of the Apotheosis of Palermo (1760) at Palazzo Isnello, the Genius of the Fountain in Villa Giulia (1778) (in the cover of this article) or in the Genius of Mosaic, a nineteenth-century masterpiece in the Palatine Chapel at the Norman Palace (which holds a medallion with the portraits of Ferdinand III of Bourbon and his wife Maria Carolina). The Genius of Piazza Rivoluzione, conversely, is a sculpture from the fifteenth century, placed on the fountain in the square. It became a true symbol of the desire for freedom of the people of Palermo during the revolts of 1948, and an icon of desire for redemption and liberation from foreign domination.
Source: Swide, by: Jonathan Bazzi