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A Chinese villa in Sicily? A pleasant surprise!

By Ricky Toledo and Chito Vijandre, The Philippine STAR Published Apr 30, 2022 5:00 am

The marriage of East and West in various disciplines is always a source of fascination despite controversies about cultural appropriation. How one sees and interprets the other can only be fertile ground for dialogue and enrichment on both sides. Filipinos know this so well since we have been at the crossroads of cultures throughout history. 

Visiting Palermo in Sicily, we were expecting to see a range of influences, from Roman and Byzantine to Norman, Arab and Spanish, but Chinoiserie came as a pleasant surprise. There are rooms done in this style in the Palazzo dei Normanni and the Palazzo Mirto, but it is at the Palazzina Cinese that it is fully realized in magical settings that have been the source of inspiration for artists, interior designers and even fashion designers like Dolce & Gabbana and porcelain tableware like Bernardaud.

Although the root of the word is “Chine,” the style actually embraced a wider region of the globe to include Japan, Korea, Southeast Asia, India, and even Persia.

The reception room with Chinoiserie wall and ceiling paintings contrasting with Empire chandeliers

First appearing in Europe in the 17th century, Chinoiserie reached its height in the 18th century as trade increased with China and the rest of East Asia. Although the root of the word is “Chine,” the style actually embraced a wider region of the globe to include Japan, Korea, Southeast Asia, India, and even Persia. Alternatively, it wasn’t an exclusively European style, with versions to be seen even in Latin America since the Galleon Trade brought large amounts of porcelain, lacquer, textiles and spices from Manila-based Chinese merchants to new Spanish markets in Acapulco, Panama and Lima.

Described by some critics as “a retreat from reason and taste and a descent into a morally ambiguous world based on hedonism, sensation and values perceived to be feminine,” and “lacking the logic and reason upon which Antique art had been founded,” Chinoiserie was tailor-made for Ferdinand I, King of two Sicilies — a vain, lackadaisical monarch who much preferred to hunt rather than to rule.

Chinoiserie mixed with Empire and hybrid Neoclassic furniture and furnishings

His wife, Maria Carolina, the sister of Marie Antoinette, was so disappointed with their arranged marriage in 1768, saying, “What irritates me most is that he thinks he is handsome and clever when he is neither the one nor the other.” The king was no kinder, complaining that, “she sleeps like the dead and sweats like a pig.” They nevertheless had 18 children to fulfill their duty of perpetuating the dynasty.

Chinoiserie’s exuberant decoration, whimsical nature and focus on leisure and pleasure was just what the couple needed after an ill-considered war against France forced them to flee from Naples to Sicily in 1798. Unhappily exiled in Palermo, they missed La Favorita, their getaway outside Naples that was done in this style, so when they saw a Chinese-style villa built a decade before by Baron Benedetto Lombardo della Scalla and designed by Giuseppe Venanzio Marvuglia, they arranged to acquire it immediately and asked the architect to renovate it to their liking. Important painters like Giuseppe Velasco and Vincenzo Riolo from Palermo, and Elia Interguglielmi from Naples, were commissioned to do the amazing frescoes.

Oriental genre scenes provide a dining backdrop.

The villa itself, consisting of five levels, is a mix of different architectural styles, from Gothic to Neoclassic with Oriental elements like pagoda roofs and Asian decorative motifs. The roofs were modified by replacing the side roofs with two symmetrical terraces that have columns supporting perforated wooden architraves, while in the central part is a large pavilion roof on an octagonal drum, topped by a pinnacle of an inverted double chalice.

In the north and south elevations, porticos supported by six marble columns are arranged in semicircles, crowned by pagoda roofs. Flanking the building are two turrets with helical staircases, connected by aerial passages to the galleries of the upper floors. 

The interior of a Roman Villa done in trompe l’oeil

From the entrance steps, you enter the lobby, which leads to the reception room with walls decorated in Chinoiserie motifs, as well as inscriptions in different languages to welcome guests from around the world. Adjacent to the lobby is the dining room with a table that could be raised from the lower floor when the king wanted privacy. The king’s bedroom and a game room are also on this floor with some beautiful Chinese-inspired frescoes by Giuseppe Velasco.

The Turkish Room in the queen’s apartment

The “tent” ceiling in the Turkish Room

On the second floor is the queen’s apartment, where it gets more exotic and eclectic-century. A Turkish room with stylized Ottoman patterns and columns topped by papyrus capitals is done in a color palette of sage and beige that looks very contemporary. The ceiling mimics the top of a tent, toning down the grandiosity to a cozier, more intimate level.

The Pompeiian Room in Neoclassic style

A Pompeiian room is designed in Empire style, reflecting the taste for antiquity linked to the discoveries of the archaeological excavations of Pompeii and Herculaneum, which had been rediscovered in the 17th and 18th centuries after being destroyed and buried by an eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD.

The Queen’s neoclassic bedroom with Orientalist touches

Her bedroom is neoclassic, a look also adopted by her famous sister in the salons and royal residences at Versailles. Punctuating the walls are endearing circular frescoes of the queen’s young children that she had painted with inscription “images of tenderness” like “my hope.”

The Bourbon influence carries over to the basement, where the ballroom is done in Louis XVI style and the king’s bathroom features a huge marble bathtub. One of the most remarkable frescoes in the villa can be found here: a breathtaking trompe l’oeil of the interiors of a classical Roman villa that has a crumbling ceiling opening to a sky with birds flying out to freedom. You could almost imagine the monarchs spending time there, reminiscing about their home and former lives in Naples before exile, wanting to go back. 

Outdoor Chinese genre scenes and garden trellis murals mix with Middle Eastern accents.

Actually, the way Marvuglia designed this magnificent villa with such beautiful interiors, murals and furnishings, the family must have settled into their new Palermo home splendidly, leaving Naples behind as just a distant memory.