Cefalù: Museo Mandralisca

Enrico Piraino di Mandralisca.

The two employees at the ticket counter looked surprised. A visitor? In January? And a foreigner to boot! But I was obviously more than welcome in the Museo Mandralisca in the charming town of Cefalù. There were no other visitors that morning, so I had the museum all to myself. The Museo Mandralisca is dedicated to the private collection of Enrico Piraino, Baron of Mandralisca (1809-1864), and is housed in the former Piraino family palazzo. The most interesting objects of the collection are the archaeological finds and various paintings.


My travel guide mentioned a Late Hellenic mosaic that was supposed to be an “archaeological gem”. I suspect my guide was referring to a mosaic floor found in Cefalù in the Via Veterani, just two blocks north of the museum. This floor dates from the end of the second or beginning of the first century BCE, so from the Roman era. In the centre of the mosaic, in the part that is called the emblema, we see a swan and a Cupid. Unfortunately during my visit the mosaic was completely covered in washi paper. Perhaps it is currently being cleaned or restored. A good image without the washi paper can be found here.

Krater of the tuna seller.

After the aforementioned mosaic the most interesting object is a Greek krater (mixing vessel) that is known as the “krater of the tuna seller”. The krater features two older, balding men, one of whom is using an enormous knife to cut an equally gigantic tuna into pieces. On the floor, next to the head of the first tuna, is a second tuna that is clearly next in line to feel the blade. I have seen my share of Greek pottery, but this was an image I was completely unfamiliar with. Initially I even thought I was dealing with a forgery or a pastiche, but apparently the krater is authentic and dates from the fourth century BCE, when Sicily was the stage for wars between Greeks and Carthaginians.

Also part of the collections are a number of terracotta theatrical masks of various types. We for instance see the mask of the katakomos ochra, a heroine with big hair and a pale skin. Of course in Greek tragedies the role of the heroine was played by a male actor: female actors were simply out of the question. Another mask represents an ule. I have not been able to find any information about this type of mask, but perhaps an ule is a person who ululates? Both masks date from the fourth century BCE.

Katakomos ochra.

Portrait of an unknown man – Antonello da Messina.


As regards the collection of paintings I dutifully went looking for the top pieces mentioned in my travel guide. The most famous work in the museum is undoubtedly the portrait of an unknown man by Antonello da Messina (ca. 1430-1479). An alternative name for the portrait from ca. 1465 is Ritratto d’ignoto marinaio, “portrait of an unknown sailor”, although it is far from certain that the sitter was really a sailor. The theory that the man is Francesco Vitale da Noja, bishop of Cefalù between 1484 and 1492, has never been generally accepted either. The man is certainly not dressed as a bishop. In fact, he looks more like a nobleman or wealthy citizen. The most conspicuous element of the portrait has to be the enigmatic smile of the man, which makes the painting the Mona Lisa of Cefalù. According to tradition Enrico Piraino bought the painting from a pharmacist in Lipari.

I very much liked a canvas named Alba a Cefalu’ (sunrise at Cefalù), that is attributed to one Francesco Bevelacqua (1814-1858). The painting shows very well how the town is situated at the foot of a large rock, which the Greek colonisers of Sicily thought resembled a human head (κεφαλή). The famous twelfth-century cathedral of King Roger II towers above all the other buildings of the town.

Sunrise at Cefalù – Francesco Bevelacqua.

Last Judgment – John de Matta.

Helena and Constantine – Giovanni Mosco.

Lastly I will mention two special works. The first is a panel painting made by a certain Giovanni Mosco (1680-1724). We see the Roman emperor Constantine the Great (306-337) and his mother Helena. The style is evidently Greek and the text on the panel painting is in Greek as well. At the foot of the cross we also see the name of the painter in Greek letters: Ἰω(άννης) Μόσχω. The painter had the same name as a Byzantine monk from the sixth and seventh century. I have not been able to find much information about Giovanni Mosco, but apparently he was active in Venice as a painter of Greek icons.[1] Regretfully I have not been able to establish whether he was himself of Greek extraction.

The last work that I will discuss in this post is a damaged painting of the Last Judgment with Christ as a judge. The work was originally painted on panel, but was later transferred to canvas. The painter was John (or Juan) de Matta, who lived in the sixteenth century and was from the Spanish city of Valencia. His Last Judgment was without a doubt once an altarpiece, but we will probably never know for which church it was painted. The painting is, by the way, not from Enrico Piraino’s collection, but from that of the wealthy lawyer Vincenzo Cirincione. The works of Francesco Bevelacqua and Giovanni Mosco are from this collection as well. When he died Cirincione left more than 140 paintings to the municipality. It is therefore fully justified that a street in the town was named after him.


[1] According to Licia Buttà, PERSISTÈNCIES I MUTACIONS. LA QÜESTIÓ DE LA ICONA A L’ÈPOCA MODERNA, MATERIA 1, L’estil, 2001 / 139-146.

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  1. Pingback:In the streets of Cefalù – – Corvinus –

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