Chiaramonte – Steri Palace: The Spanish Inquisition between sanctity and materialism

Home » Chiaramonte – Steri Palace: The Spanish Inquisition between sanctity and materialism

Here we are again to continue the story of the Palace. We stopped in the XVI century, when in Marina Square the Spanish Viceroys exercised their power and senteced the imposters with no mercy. Now, dear reader, I ask you to fast farward a few centuries and to figure out the same square and the same palace with almost the same friendly habits. So, we move between the XVII and XVIII centuries when another Spanish owner sets in the Palace whose importance is no more a worldly but a spiritual level. It’s time for the Spanish Holy Inquisition!

In that period, this institution publicly  showed its sanctity just in this square with the so called Auto da fé. It was a real public show were the unbelieving and impenitent prisoners were took in procession in a long parade that ended in the Marina Square, already set up with stages for authorities and parterres for the working-class. Do not think that inquisitors were not magnanimous people, another chance of salvation was granted to everyone! The penitent, to save himself, could count on the so called act of faith, that means that, if he was innocent, only the God’s hand could save him from stake and torture. As you can immagine, reader, there is no record of events like that.

The place of detention was a building close to the palace, commissioned by the Inquisition in 1605, to host more comfortable prisons instead of the too small underground room of the palace (the Army Room). It is a unique structure because it was built just for this purpose.

From the outside, the building is quite anonymous and it doesn’t revel anything about its unhappy past.
Astonishment is the first feeling you feel entering the first cell, mixed with curiosity and incredulity.
The walls are historical documents to all intents and purposes. There are graffiti, writings, drawings, poems, thoughts left by the prisoners who had occupied these rooms during the years and that used those walls as a personal diary where they could pour out their pains and frustrations in different ways and with the tools they found in the jail. What we see was realised with coal, smoke of candles, blood and other bodily fluids, leaving really few free spaces on the walls where the graffiti are also up to the ceiling.

Periodically, the inquisitors replastered the walls of the cells both for sanitary reasons and to avoid that the future prisoners could follow suit with graffiti. So, this is a stratification of plaster and graffiti of nearly two centuries of evidences so, in the same wall we can find graffiti from different years. You can understand it from the context of the writing, from a link with a specific person or event happened in a precise period of time or from the date the prisoner had left.
Thanks to these evidences, we have a different point of view and a wider pictures of the period, the events in the city, the organisational structure of the Inquisition, how they treated prisoners, their way of living but, among them, who they were and what they felt. Contextualising is not easy because some graffiti are ruined or part of them no longer exists, so we try to interpret what prisoners really wanted to express and this is also an interesting and captivating task that the vistor can personally do.

Some recurring elements among drawings are crosses, ships, inquisitors. There are also many pictures of saints, such as Saint Lucy, patron saint of sight, often represented just with the eyes, was invoked by the prisoners to receive lux. Cells were most of the time dark and just a small and really high window let a thin beam of light to enlighten a narrow part of the jail so, prisoners had to live and draw in the dark or semi-darkness, that’s why they were losing their sight day by day.
Some drawings are quite childish and realised by not skilled hands, but other ones are really well done and realistic, marking an expert hand.

We can also find writings in different languages, not only in italian but Sicilian, Latin and English. From this, we can understand they were anglicans or probably simple mercenaries or merchants docked in Palermo for business. Among these, we find thoughts, quotes, beautiful poems, prayers, coded messages, representation of the city and very detailed maps of Sicily and also many other drawings that let us undestand that those prisoners were not shady criminals but common people such as fishermen or merchants but also educated people, men of learning, academics, poets, artists, men of faith, seasoned travelers, imprisoned for their ideas, for something they have said or done, or just for their lifestyle or properties. The common practice was to undress prisoners from all their properties that were then confiscated by the Holy Inquisition. It often happened that the Inquisitors, attracted by someone’s riches, used to find a quick excuse to report him so they can imprison him and take all his properties.

On the second floor it’s possible to visit the accurate reconstruction of the original cells. All of them had an antechamber for the guardian, divided from the cell by a wooden and iron door with a really low jamb, maybe a way to force them to bow down and start their atonement path. Right on the left side, there is the restroom which was, differently from the majority of the prisons of that time, a closed room within four walls, with a brickwork bathroom that let prisoners have more privacy and helped to keep the place clean. Being coverd from the eye of the guardian, the restroom was, for the prisoners, a place of surge against their persecutors but also a more intimate surge. We find, indeed, both satirical representations to mock the inquisitors, but also erotic figures that make this place similar to the rest rooms of our service stations. In one of the rest rooms there is also the brief but powerful and sharp writing Nega (Deny) like a warning or more a plea for the future prisoners to withstand tortures and not to confess.
So many are the writings that leave us astonished:

Weep the misarable lady because it is a weeping place
Patience, bread and time
Though is the agony eternal neither consciousness nor soul had deprived me

A very weird thing is the presence of colour in some drawings of the second floor, impossible to find in the cells, unless directly supplied by the outside. This could mean that prisoners were able to corrupt the guardian, who knows with what kind of bargaining chip, or that the inquisitors themselves gave the necessary tools to push them to draw specific topic. All the coloured drawings are all saints or scenes from the Ancient Testament, so it coould be an alternative way of redemption.

Many prisoners left their sign and some of them their story but, to analyze and comment all graffiti and tell all the stories it could take an entire book!

The story of the protection of these prisons has been particuarly troubled and the recostruction of that period has been hard, presenting many obstacles. 
Starting from 1782, when Ferdinand I ratified the abolition of the Holy Inquisition, it was decided to eliminate traces of this dark period burning at the stake all documents, instruments of torture, files about prisoners and inquisitors (maybe to avoid revanges from the prisoners) deleting very important testimonies.

The bulding was abbandoned for a while but, at the beginning of the 20th century, when the restoration works started, rumors surfaced of some graffiti from 27th century that would have soon been covered. When Giuseppe Pitré heard these rumors, he slipped in the bulding site with the sicilian writer Leonardo Sciascia to dig up with a chisel these graffiti and analyze and shoot the miserables’ testimonies that lived among those walls. Their job was later published in a book Urla senza suono: graffiti e disegni dei prigionieri dell’Inquisizione (Screams without sound: graffiti and drawings of the Inquisition’s prisoners) about the cells of the first floor and it is atually the only written collection of this extraordinary heritage. Several appeals were done by Pitrè to save this huge historical heritage but with no success.

After World War II, another event marked the inexorable decline of the walls. Don Totò (Salvatore Di Falco), a secondhand dealer from Palermo, took  possession of the ground floor with no permission turning it into a big warehouse of knik knaks. The bulding was actually already owned by the University of Palermo that several times tried  to evict him but with no results. Just in 2002, when Don Totò died, it was possible to empty and clean the bulding to finally start the long-awaited restoration.

You can easly immagine how this not proper use of the rooms could have ruined and lost many graffiti but, thanks to our state-of-the-art tehniques and materials, it was possible to save the desperate the prisoners’ tesimonies, letting us to admire this huge historical heritage unique in the world till now!