The Palermo Crucible
The Piazza Marina is situated behind a row of antique palazzi facing the gulf in Palermo's historic center. In the middle is an acre of garden called the Villa Garibaldi, which is surrounded by a handsome Art Nouveau, wrought iron fence depicting animals of the hunt. A gigantic Ficus magnoloides tree dominates one quadrant of the garden, each enormous branch sending shoots to the ground like elephants' trunks, creating a labyrinth of arched chambers underneath. The Piazza Marina was the center of elegance in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Palermo. Here men and women of baronial and princely pedigree gathered nightly, clothes and carriages on display, to eat jasmine petal ices and gossip (Eberstadt 1991: 48). After the unification of Italy in 1860, however, the city's northward expansion diminished the importance of this luxurious scene, creating new piazzas and boulevards as places for the elite to be seen. That the Piazza Marina was the scene of the 1909 murder of New York City police officer Joe Petrosino, sent to Palermo to pursue mafiosi, did nothing to enhance its reputation.
Near the end of World War II, Allied bombers destroyed many of the waterfront palazzi, and by the mid-1960s the Piazza Marina was somewhere to avoid, a place where you had to step over garbage, be vigilant against pickpockets and purse snatchers, and wonder whether the magnolia tree, abandoned to the surrounding patch of weeds, hid something sinister in its gothic roots. In a 1991 New Yorker article describing the neighborhood around the piazza, Fernanda Eberstadt vividly captured