From the power of a single family to the Holy Inquisition: the story of Palazzo Chiaramonte-Steri

Home » From the power of a single family to the Holy Inquisition: the story of Palazzo Chiaramonte-Steri

Walking around the streets of the Old town of Palermo, a visit to the well-known Marina Square is required. In the middle of it, you can see the small but luxurious Garibaldi villa, famous for its Ficus macrophylla culumnaris, planted in 1864 when the garden was built as well. It is nowadays considered the biggest tree in Europe.

Just at the opposite side of the square, the majestic Chiaramonte – Steri Palace is located, striking people with its magnificence and splendour. Today the palace is the headquarter of University of Palermo’s rectorate and it is also a museum.

Inside its beautiful rooms, meetings and lectures often take place. Its austere shape and its current use hide a fascinating and often sinister past.
After crossing the threshold of the huge wooden front gate of the palace, a group of guides will welcome you, ready to show you the beauties of this place. Once, I was one of them too and the story and the secrets of the place enchanted me to the point that I still remember this experience with a deep emotion and nostalgia.
Therefore, I am here to guide you among these walls as I used to do with my group of visitors. Readers, let’s start!

The palace is located in the historical area of Kalsa, which used to be marshy and where the Kemonia river flowed through. This river, together with the Papireto one, crossed and divided the city of Palermo in four quarters. Nowadays, the two rivers are both underground after the works of reclamation and expansion in the residential area. In 1307 Manfredi I Chiaramonte started the construction of what would become his biggest dwelling. The Chiaramonte family, from whom the palace takes its name, probably descendeded from the De Clermont family from France, who arrived in Italy from Piccardia, with the Normans. Part of the family settled down in Sicily, where they became one of the most powerful and influent families of the XVI century and this building is the symbol of the height of their power.

Considering the proximity to he port and the image the family wanted to show about themselves, the building was built with a squared shape and its name Steri, indeed, comes from Hosterium that means fortress.
The palace we see today is the result of the alternate of several owners and the different use they made of it during centuries. After the Chiaramontes, from XV century to 1517 the palace was the dwelling of the Spanish Viceroys, then it was home to the Royal Customs and from 1600 to 1782 the palace became the headquarter of the so-called Holy Inquisition which, as we already know and as we will also have the chance to discover during our visit, was not so holy. After the restoration during the Fifties by the architect Carlo Scarpa, the palace took its current function.
From the secondary entrance, we move to the inner courtyard, passing through the undergrounds that you can see from the top of a glass hallway but, do not worry, it is safe!

Already from here we can see that the authority of this family manifests also in the art form. The whole palace is full of what was called Chiaramonte Style, characterised by  decorations made with the white stone from Comiso, with zig zag mouldings typical of the anglo-norman architectural style, covering gates, double and triple-arched windows with pointed arch, with decorations from the Islamic style perfectly mixed in a unique Sicilian style.

Its courtyard is a perfect example of this style, surrounded by a colonnade where all the capitals are different from each other. They just have in common the subject: leaves, flowers and, somewhere, the emblem of the family that is a sort of a mountain with five tips. Each tip probably represents a dynasty of the family. Today all the emblems of the palace are no longer visible because, when the Spanish Viceroys took the palace over, they decided to erase all the traces of their predecessors. Just one emblem is still visible on the top of the gate of the room in the last flour.

From the courtyard, we reach the first floor by climbing a steep staircase with high steps. The palace is on just two floors, but its height might induce us to think of at least three or four floors. Clearly, the Chiaramontes were a very family inclined to physical activity and who loved gymnastic!
Luckily, today, the palace is equipped with an elevator that, in an effort to overcome architectural barriers, allows those who have motoric problems to have a tour of the building, even if a not complete one.

The first floor houses the Sala Magna, one of the most beautiful rooms of the palace. Its peculiarity is the wooden roof of 28 meters in length per 8 meters in width, realized in just three years and completed in 1380 by three Sicilian artists who left their signs and the date of construction in a beam situated at the bottom of the room. The painted roof can be read like a book.  Indeed, it is a sort of an illustrated medieval encyclopedia, with scenes of the Ancient Testament, epic wars, episodes of the lives of King Arthur and Charlemagne, love scenes from Tristan and Iseult, writings, leaves and geometrical elements. Regarding the use of this room there are several theories, but the most credible one says that it was the most important receptive room. This theory is demonstrated by the presence of several emblems painted at the beginning of each beam and of other scenes representing the life of men such as haunting and war scenes. Manfredi III Chiaramonte wanted to show in this way his power and his richness to all the nobles of the time and to warn them to always remember their status quo and, therefore, to obey him.

The room is worth to be seen also because it hosts one of the most famous paintings of Renato Guttuso La Vucciria” realised in 1974. The painting represents, in a very rough realism, a spitting image of the people’s life in the homonymous market not far from the palace.

Now it’s time to move to the second and last flour, to the “Trusses Room, so-called for its wooden roof as well and characterised by its wooden trusses that support it. Looking at the ceiling and letting the sight of the sea from the window influence your thoughts, you can have the impression of being under the bottom of a ship upside-down. Maybe another way for Manfredi to show his power in the maritime trade too.

Still from this window, we also have the chance to goback in time. Let’s imagine to be in the XVI century, the Marina square totally empty, without the current garden which was the stage of solemn performances like jousts, horse ridings and also grimmer shows. Cages with the heads of the inconvenient nobles beheaded used to hang from the the façade of the palace. The family was as powerful as less disposed to objections. As the saying goes, “who lives by the swords shall die by the swords”, Andrea Chiaramonte, the last exponent of the family, was first beheaded by the Viceroys and then his body threw by the window where we standing are now, as a warning to all possible usurpers. Even the Spanish had not a mind for dialog.

Therefore, tragically, a part of the story of the Steri, strongly tied to that of the family Chiaramonte, comes to an end. Now I’ll leave you, just for a while, to recollect and absorb what you have learned by reading this article, before starting the second part of this tour, which has as main character the Holy Inquisition.

Some useful information

  • Ticket: full price € 8 – reduced-price ticket € 5
  • Duration of the visit: about one hour and a half
  • In winter it’s better to bring an umbrella, because part of the tour is in the open air. Therefore, you need to go out to reach the other side of the building.
  • Wandering around the palace by yourself is not allowed, both because there are some important historical works of art and because you would miss the explanation of the amazing history of this palace.