PALMI’S ASSEMBLAGE OF CULTURE
La Casa della Cultura, the complex of museums and libraries in Palmi has a good name. It certainly piqued my interest. The photos I had seen of various items in its ethnographical museum had further aroused my curiosity. Before visiting, however, I thought it best to confirm the opening hours.
I called on and off for several years—numbers from the town’s website and from a few visitor guides. The phones rang and rang: no answer and no answering machine. One day after listening to the familiar busy signal, a friend and I just decided to check it out.
Driving north from Reggio, we made the thirty miles in about forty-five minutes in a leisurely mid-morning ride. The gate was open, the complex’s gardens looked a bit overgrown, but the front door was unlocked. A custodian appeared and put the lights on. We were the first or perhaps the only visitors of the day. The phone? That rings in the library. No one has worked there for some time. Apparently, the House of Culture wasn’t as vibrant as the town’s website made it out to be – a shame, really, as it has a lot to offer.
The list of museums and libraries that make up the House of Culture is quite long for a town of just 19,000 inhabitants. The most interesting for a general audience would be the Mueso di etnografia e folklore “Raffaele Corso” (Ethnographic and Folkloristic Museum, named after an important Calabrian anthropologist). For opera lovers, however, the Museo musicale Francesco Cilea e Nicola Antonio Manfroce may be of prime interest. These opera composers were both born in Palmi and many of their scores, manuscripts and other documents are preserved there.
In addition, Cilea (1866-1950) has his own section in the complex’s library, Biblioteca comunale Domenico Topa, which contains a number of subdivisions, most notably that of another one of Palmi’s distinguished sons, Leonida Rèpaci (1898-1985), writer, essayist, poet and playwright. The author and his wife also donated their art collection to Palmi, thus founding the Pinacoteca Leonida ed Albertina Rèpaci (Picture Gallery), housed within the complex. The Antiquarium Nicola De Rosa (Collection of Antiquities) with pieces dating back to the fifth century BC, Gipsoteca Michele Guerrisi (Plaster Cast Gallery of Calabrian sculptor Guerrisi), Palmi’s section of Reggio Calabria’s state archive and the town’s auditorium complete the list.
THE ETHNOGRAPHIC MUSEUM
Only the Ethnographic Museum and Picture Gallery were open that day, and most days, I presumed from the custodian’s smile and shake of the head when asked about the other sections of the complex. So we started out with the Mueso di etnografia’s delightful collection of folkloristic and cultural artifacts that spoke to the Calabrian peoples and their customs. Personally, I would list it as a “must see” for those interested in the area’s inhabitants and their traditions.
Objects on display come from everyday life; they represent the seasons of the year and the stages in the human life cycle. Folkloric traditions, religion and superstition are highlighted.
Ceramics feature prominently, in particular originating from the neighboring town of Seminara, and also from Nicotera, further north in the Province of Vibo Valentia. Brightly painted ceramic figurines show off traditional costumes, and a collection of statuettes designed for Christmas crèches testifies to the longstanding popularity of elaborate nativity scenes.
Conventional superstition is also well represented by the many ceramic forms used to protect homeowners from evil spirits. For example, “babbaluti” were placed on the chimneys of houses to ward off or repel the “malocchio” or evil eye. Special masks were also set into doors to rebuff these maleficent influences. These talismans sported just enough freakishness to scare off the bad karma—amusing to look at when you aren’t giving someone the evil eye.
Other colorful exhibits include a pair of Giganti (giant puppets that rest on the shoulders of their carriers who dance through the streets at festivals) and a number of everyday wooden implements with fanciful carvings. The spindle collection is particularly noteworthy. The slender wooden rods crowned with female figures were whittled by shepherds who presented them to their love interests as a pledge of affection.
Just across the hall, the art gallery features a display of mostly 18th and 19th century paintings and sculptures. Included in the exhibit are works of Edouard Manet, Camille Corot, Giovanni Fattori, Renato Guttuso and Amedeo Modigliani. The collection also contains a painting or two by the writer and gallery’s founding donator, Leonida Rèpaci.
While the overall display, lighting and informational aspect of the exhibition rooms can in no way be described as state of the art, Palmi does its best in making this assemblage of over 200 works of fine art available to its citizens and I would imagine especially to the local schoolchildren on class outings.
PARKS AND BEACHES IN PALMI
The center of town was a short drive away. Its Villa Comunale is a pleasant city park with a lovely canopy of trees under which to take a leisurely stroll. It sits on the edge of a hill that affords a beautiful panorama of the Tyrrhenian Sea. On clear days, Sicily’s Aeolian Islands are silhouetted in the distance.
Further down the hill at sea level, the Parco archeologico dei Tauriani (Taureanum Archeological Park) features evidence of peoples dating back to prehistoric times. Highlights include remains of a Roman road, public buildings and an amphitheater.
For summer holidaymakers, Palmi’s terraced topography provides a dramatic backdrop for its picturesque, sandy beaches. Most notably, the Scoglio dell’ulivo, a rocky outcropping topped with an olive tree located a few meters from the coast, features prominently in many photographs of the area – justifiably so.
CENTER OF CULTURE
Palmi’s culture extends to religion, and folkloric elements combine with the spiritual in two grandiose processions during the month of August. The Varia di Palmi celebrates the city’s patron saint and the Festa di San Rocco is a festival in honor of Saint Rocco (or Roch).
Clearly, there are many opportunities to soak up culture in this town. Between the folklore exhibits and fine art, the House of Culture is well worth the visit. I would have been interested in taking a peek at the other collections, as well, but with the personnel limitations, they were under strict lock and key. And although I didn’t see any other visitors on a mid-week morning in November, I would hope that summer beachgoers and tour groups stop in for a little culture every once and a while. I recommend it.
For an in-depth look at the beautiful land in the toe of the Italian boot, check out Calabria: The Other Italy, my non-fiction book about daily life, history, culture, art, food and society in this fascinating southern Italian region.
Visit this intriguing museum in Palmi on my Calabria tour!
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