Palermo: Palazzo Abatellis

Courtyard of the Palazzo Abatellis.

Perhaps I had underestimated a bit how important the feast of Epiphany is for the people of Palermo. I found a lot of tourist attractions in the city closed on that day, but the Palazzo Abatellis in the Via Alloro welcomed me with open arms. The palazzo houses the Galleria Regionale della Sicilia, which mainly has sculptures and paintings on display that date from the Middle Ages to the seventeenth century. There were not that many other visitors, so I could take my time and stroll through the various rooms at ease. The Palazzo Abatellis is a perfect example of Catalan-Gothic architecture, which was introduced in Palermo when Sicily came under Aragonese rule at the end of the thirteenth century. The palace was commissioned by Francesco Abatellis, who served as harbourmaster en magistrate of the city. The architect in charge was Matteo Carnilivari.

Francesco Abatellis married twice, but had no children. He therefore left the Palazzo Abatellis to his second wife, under the condition that after her death the palazzo was to become a Benedictine nunnery. In 1526 the palace was indeed converted into a nunnery, although the nuns that settled there were Dominican rather than Benedictine sisters. For their religious services they made use of a chapel, dedicated to Santa Maria della Pietà and built in the north-eastern wing of the complex. At the end of the seventeenth century this chapel was vacated, the reason being that just east of the Palazzo Abatellis the large church of Santa Maria della Pietà had been built, which is still extant. The Abatellis complex was severely damaged by an Allied bombardment in 1943, but after World War Two it was thoroughly restored and remodelled to accommodate a museum for medieval art from the deconsecrated churches and convents in and around Palermo. In 1953 the architect Carlo Scarpa (1906-1978) became involved in the project, a man who would become famous for his renovation of the Castelvecchio in Verona. In 1954 the museum opened its doors to the public.


One of the most splendid sculptures in the collection of the museum is a bust of a woman made by Francesco Laurana (ca. 1430-1502). It is assumed that the woman is Eleonora of Aragon (1346-1405), the Countess of Caltabellotta. She was a granddaughter of King Frederick III, who sat on the Sicilian throne between 1295 and 1337.[1] Eleonora was buried at the Abbey of Santa Maria del Bosco, Calatamauro, and the bust supposedly came from her tomb there. The beautiful work was made by a sculptor who was born in the Croatian town of Vrana, which was then under Venetian rule. Francesco Laurana’s name obviously refers to his place of birth: La Vrana, with Latin using the letter U both as a vowel (u) and as a consonant (v). In one of the first rooms of the museum we find a beautiful sarcophagus from the Laurana workshop. It was made for the young Cecilia Aprile, who died in 1495.

Bust, probably Eleonora of Aragon – Francesco Laurana.

Sarcophagus of Cecilia Aprile – Laurana workshop.

Two other sculptors who have won fame on Sicily are Domenico Gagini (ca. 1420-1492) and his son Antonello Gagini (1478-1536). Domenico was originally from Bissone in present-day Switzerland. After commissions in Florence, Genoa and Naples he settled in Palermo in 1463. One of his works in the Palazzo Abatellis is a splendid lactating Madonna (Madonna del Latte) of which the original paint has partly been preserved. Antonello Gagini was the son of Domenico from his second marriage, which explains the large age difference between father and son. The museum has Antonello’s Madonna delle Neve from 1516 on display (the year is visible at the foot of the Madonna). This Madonna delle Neve is, by the way, also a Madonna del Latte, as the Madonna is clearly breastfeeding baby Jesus. The name of the statue may refer to the foundation legend of the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, which is possibly depicted on the pedestal (a case of snowfall in Rome in August, followed by the construction of the basilica).

Madonna del Latte – Domenico Gagini / Madonna delle Neve – Antonello Gagini.

Some of the works in the museum are anonymous. The maker of a beautiful representation of the Nativity, which was once the cymatium of an icon, has for instance not been identified. I also very much liked a piece of an anonymous Byzantine mosaic from Calatamauro. Unfortunately the only information the museum can provide about the object is that the mosaic dates from the beginning of the fourteenth century. Perhaps it also once embellished the aforementioned Abbey of Santa Maria del Bosco.

Birth of Christ.

Madonna and Child, fourteenth century.


One of the most famous paintings in the Palazzo Abatellis is an enormous fresco of the Triumph of Death which dates from ca. 1445. The fresco was made for the Palazzo Sclafani, which is situated roughly between the cathedral of Palermo and the Palazzo dei Normanni and once served as a poorhouse. The fresco is exceptionally large: it measures 600 by 642 centimetres. After it was detached from the wall of the Palazzo Sclafani it was cut into four pieces to ease the transport to its new location. Unfortunately this quickly turned out to be a bad idea, as the paint has begun to seriously flake off around the edges where the cuts were made.[2]

Triumph of Death.

In spite of the damage the Triumph of Death is still a very impressive work. Death, with a scythe on his hip, is a skeleton figure riding on the back of a horse, shooting arrows at the unlucky souls around him. Below him several important figures have already been hit: the corpses of kings, popes, bishops and other clergymen have been piled up. On the right side of the fresco Death has just hit a man and woman who were partying (see the musical instruments). On the far left we see the sick, the old and the cripple, who are ignored by Death for now. The identity of the painter of this masterpiece, which draws comparisons with a similar fresco in Pisa, is unfortunately one big mystery. It is generally assumed that he was not from Sicily. The name of Guillaume Spicre, from Dijon in Burgundy, is often mentioned, but hard evidence is lacking.

Triumph of Death (detail).

Triumph of Death (detail).

Annunziata – Antonello da Messina.

Another famous work in the museum is that of the Annunziata by Antonello da Messina (ca. 1430-1479), which can be found in room X. What is special about this oil painting is that it is not a classical Annunciation. A classical Annunciation would, after all, feature not only the Virgin Mary, but also the archangel Gabriel. Antonello decided to portray just the Annunziata (“she who has received the Annunciation”), standing behind a lectern with an open book. Viewers have to imagine the archangel is there as well: he is standing in front of Mary. The work is dated to ca. 1475. Antonello was the most famous Renaissance painter on Sicily, and the same room has his portraits of the Church fathers Jerome, Augustine and Gregory the Great on display. Saint Ambrose of Milan is absent. The portraits are presumably parts of a polyptych that was sawn into pieces.

The collection of paintings of the museum is very diverse. In the rooms we for instance find panels featuring the apostles Peter and Paul, painted by Lippo Memmi (died 1356) from Siena. The panels were once part of a polyptych that stood in the church of San Paolo a Ripa d’Arno in Pisa. The museum also possesses a number of works by Pietro Ruzzolone, who was active on Sicily at the end of the fifteenth and beginning of the sixteenth century. A large crucifix by this painter can certainly be counted among the top pieces. In the same room we find, on a wall, a beautiful polyptych from the famous town of Corleone by an anonymous master. The Palazzo Abatellis suggests – albeit with a large question mark – that the polyptych may have been made by the painter Guglielmo da Pesaro (1430-1487). The painting features the Coronation of the Virgin. Jesus and Mary are flanked by Saints Michael the Archangel, John the Baptist, John the Evangelist and Leoluca, the patron saint of Corleone.

Room in the Palazzo Abatellis, with on the right a crucifix by Pietro Ruzzolone.

Polittico di Corleone.

Madonna and Child with a young Saint John the Baptist – Bronzino.

A work from the collection that I would have liked to have seen is a triptych by the Flemish painter Jan Gossaert (1478-1532), nicknamed Mabuse. Unfortunately this Trittico Malvagna had just been loaned to another museum. The absence of the triptych was compensated by the presence of a Madonna and Child and the young John the Baptist by the Florentine painter Agnolo Bronzino (1503-1572). This painting comes from a private collection and was loaned to the Palazzo Abatellis. With Bronzino we enter the Mannerist era.

The newest rooms of the museum are dedicated to works from the Mannerist and Baroque eras. After the colours of the walls they are called the Green and Red Rooms. The most impressive works in the Red Room are the paintings by the Flemish master Antoon Van Dyck (1599-1641). Van Dyck was in Palermo in 1624 when the city was struck by a terrible outbreak of plague. The plague was supposedly ended by Saint Rosalia, a young woman who lived as a hermit on Monte Pellegrino in the twelfth century. Since her intervention during the plague of 1624 Rosalia is considered the patron saint of Palermo. Van Dyck painted five portraits of her in the 1620s, one of which can still be admired in the Palazzo Abatellis. The museum also has another splendid work by this painter, an impressive Lamentation of the Dead Christ.

Coronation of Santa Rosalia – Antoon Van Dyck.

Lamentation of the Dead Christ – Antoon Van Dyck.


[1] Strictly speaking he was Frederick II of Sicily, but he chose to be called Frederick III. There had already been a Frederick II, i.e. the Holy Roman Emperor, who had also been King of Sicily and lies buried in the cathedral of Palermo.

[2] The work is discussed in John Julius Norwich, Sicily, p. 149-150 and Peter Robb, Midnight on Sicily, p. 222-223.


  1. Pingback:Palermo: Santo Spirito and the Sicilian Vespers – – Corvinus –

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