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Villas of Sicily

Before coming to Sicily I made a vow to resist the usual orgies of description: no octopuses gleaming in slick mounds at street markets, no ineffable gelato, no marzipan candies shaped and colored to imitate artichokes. How droll food writers always seem to find these trompe l'oeil candies. How saccharine, they always forget to remark, is the taste. And so there would be no food writing for me, I resolved, until the invitation came, about a week into my visit, to lunch at the Palazzo Biscari.

Readers familiar with Anthony Blunt may remember that the late Surveyor of the Queen's Pictures, also a Soviet spy and scholar of the Sicilian Baroque, once judged this vast edifice a perfect prototype. Built in the 1700's for the princes of Paternò Castello, the Palazzo Biscari is indeed a compelling pile, but it is also set in a city that some guides consider among the most degraded in Western Europe. In that contradiction lies an important truth about Sicily.

I say "truth" but, of course, there is no single agreed-upon truth on Sicily, an island that a famous anti-Mafia prosecutor once called "too complicated even for Sicilians to understand," a judgment I see no reason to dispute. Overloaded with art historical treasures, undersupplied with infrastructure, left half-crippled by the Mafia, an organization once officially held not to exist, Sicily possesses a combination of stark topography and social rococo that enchanted an often cranky Goethe on his 18th-century sojourn there, and beguiled and perplexed me on my own. Sicily, it almost goes without saying, is a deeply paradoxical and in some ways separate universe. The remnants of a courtly aristocracy continue to inhabit grand houses embedded in often decaying cities where poverty and corruption are so intractable that many regard their own existence as material for some dark universal joke. Indeed, a singular black humor seems to cut across class lines in Sicily, as I was to discover during several weeks there—much of it as a tourist privileged to observe at close hand the island's titled class.

Catania, for example, is a large city on the eastern side of the island, spread across a broad plain below the deceptively placid cone of Mount Etna and historically shaped by its convulsive whim. Destroyed by an earthquake in 1693 and later rebuilt in the then-new Baroque style, the city is organized on a super-rational grid whose wide avenues and palm-fringed squares have less to do with civic spirit than with dread of seismic shock. In Catania, the usual confectionary aspect of Baroque architecture tends to be offset by the widespread use of gray lava stone, a substance that might weigh the soul on even the sunniest of days.

"Catania is black," the wry septuagenarian journalist Baroness Renata Pucci Zanca said on my visit. "The town," she added merrily, "is black."

When it rains there, it is blacker still and rain it did when I arrived, drizzle becoming cracking thunderstorm and then Homeric squalls that pelted the island for days. Having flown in from dreary Milan on the fantasy of a balmy and lemon-scented escape, I found myself instead in a landscape resembling a soup pot sealed tightly beneath a lid of gray sky.

"It's a disaster!" said Giovannella Paternò Castello di San Giuliano, at whose 18th-century family villa in Carruba I arrived soaking wet and in need of a drink. After a week threading the scruffy maze of old Palermo I was looking forward to spending time at the Don Arcangelo all'Olmo, a recently renovated, centuries-old family compound situated amid 200 acres of lemon groves set on a ridge between Etna and the Ionian Sea. That, anyhow, is what Giovannella di San Giuliano assured me, although the view had to be taken on faith, since neither mountain nor water could be detected through the murk.

My cicerone in eastern Sicily was to be Giovannella's eldest brother, the Marchese Benedetto Paternò Castello di San Giuliano, scion of a clan from that caste sometimes referred to as the Leopards, after the inescapable novel (The Leopard) by the Sicilian prince Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. Unlike most European aristocrats, Benedetto di San Giuliano is seductively unpretentious, a seasoned world traveler and raconteur likelier to hold forth on the Jungle Room at Graceland than on the intricacies of the Almanach de Gotha, that dreary studbook of the European aristocracy.

It is true that when the Prince of Wales came to Sicily in 1990, he stayed with the San Giulianos at their 15th-century castle outside Catania. It is also true of the San Giulianos that they do not allow the prettiness of their pedigree to go to their heads. Among the family's more admirably pragmatic traits is its leadership in a move among highborn Sicilians to lure tourist dollars away from the overrun hills of Tuscany by opening up their own astounding villas, abbeys, and vineyards to paying guests.

One young prince, for instance, the London-based Antonio Licata di Baucina, recently joined his cousins Riccardo and Aleramo Lanza in forming a company to conduct high-end tours of Europe, which could include a formal meal at his family's Renaissance palazzo in an old quarter of Palermo. Some might find it easier than I do to resist the idea of staging a private dinner party at the palace, where the gymnasium-sized salon has stucco walls ornamented with dancing leopards and where the dining room is lit by a Murano chandelier that is the largest 18th-century example of its kind. "It is like an octopus," Antonio's mother, Princess Licata di Baucina,told me, "with ninety-nine arms." The wine-making nobleman Lucio Tasca d'Almerita recently began leasing his 18th-century villa on the outskirts of Palermo, a place where Wagner was a frequent enough guest to have left behind the manuscript fragments that Count Tasca keeps framed. And the Baroness Annastella Chiaramonte Bordonaro now leases a villa in Palermo, a place with a garden so extensive that the baroness's father once led quail shoots there.

That these properties rent for sums that would make most ordinary people blanch is hardly surprising. Yet not all the new hotel-keeping in Sicily is pitched at the few remaining winners of the dot-com lottery, a fact that in itself seems worthy of remark. The Marchesa Maria Luisa Palermo, for example, is one among a number of aristocrats who now run reasonably priced agritourism ventures, hers a farm, the Villa Lucia, in the hills outside Syracuse. The owners of the Relais Santa Anastasia have converted their austere Benedictine monastery near Cefalù into elegant lodgings set amid vineyards where grapes for the abbey's excellent Chardonnay blends are grown. And, of course, the San Giulianos have the Don Arcangelo all'Olmo, where paying guests like myself find an unusually high level of cosseting and an even rarer degree of access to a largely hermetic world.

To be well-introduced in any Italian city is not merely to engage in some Jamesian fantasia. Italian society has never been renowned for its embrace of outsiders, and it does not take the instincts of Tony Soprano to comprehend that the advantages of friends in Sicily is foremost a practical concern. "It's an impossible place," Giovannella di San Giuliano's youngest daughter, Ilaria Balduino, explained over dinner one evening in New York. "Tourists come for a vacation, they don't come to do battle," she said, referring to the never-ending challenge of navigating the island's "First World prices and Third World hotel service," its weirdly goosed-up tariffs, its fluky timings, padlocked churches, and the blandly accepted fact that a great many sights in this most secretive of places are entirely closed to view.

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