The Chinese Palace: is there a ‘pagoda’ in Palermo?

We are never tired of discovering Palermo, even beyond the city center. Not too far from the Favorita Park and Mount Pellegrino, you’ll find the Chinese Palace. This building, as it stands today with its elaborate oriental details, is the creation of architect Giuseppe Venanzio Marvuglia and was an ancient residence of the Bourbons. Why can we find a building like this is the Sicilian capital? What is its significance? Let’s uncover this secret together, with Sicilian Secrets!

The history of the Chinese Palace, sometimes also called the Royal Chinese Cottage, is a Palermo villa built adjacent to the Favorita Park. Its architectures inspired by Asian art make it a ‘unique piece’ and undoubtedly curious. This building was constructed at the behest of King Ferdinand III of Bourbon in 1799, based on a design by Giuseppe Venanzio Marvuglia. The reason for such a stylistic choice is quite simple… it was the fashion of the time! A skillful blend of neoclassicism and romance rises over three floors where, at the top, stands a high pagoda roof.

Chinese Palace
The Chinese Palace – Credits: Salvatore Ciambra

A few people know that before the Chinese Palace as we know it today, there was already a ‘cottage’ on the Piana dei Colli, a little gem that had not left King Ferdinand and his wife indifferent but was not suitable to serve as a royal residence. For this reason, the Bourbon sovereign ordered a mere reconfiguration of the palace without getting rid of its exotic and oriental soul.

A Journey Inside the Chinese Palace

A tree-lined avenue, echoing the beauty of the gardens surrounding this villa, welcomes visitors to the Chinese Palace. Step by step, you arrive at the entrance, and it is here that our journey begins. Before stepping into the interior spaces, look up and take a break not only to admire the aforementioned pagoda roof but also the two lateral turrets adorned with spiral staircases. Overall, the building may appear as a quirky mix of styles with polychromatic hues ranging from red to yellow to grey, creating an unconventional beauty.

The Chinese Palace with turrets adorned with spiral staircases – Credits: Salvatore Ciambra

Once you go inside, before delving ‘upwards,’ let’s take a look at the basement where the main spots are primarily an immense ballroom in the Louis XVI style and the meeting hall, both adorned by Giuseppe Velasquez. Moreover, here is a detail of a room built just below the dining room on the mezzanine floor, namely, the ‘Mathematical Table’. What is it? We’re talking about a mechanism designed by Marvuglia, a wooden structure with sliding panels to quickly transport dishes.

Meeting Hall – Credits: Salvatore Ciambra

Let’s move on, after passing the mezzanine with the king’s private rooms and the grand reception hall, let’s go up to the first floor – designed for court ladies and gentlemen – and then to the second one, undoubtedly the most important. It’s here, in fact, that the eye wanders through the most elegant rooms, namely the accommodations of Queen Maria Carolina. The two architectural masterpieces are the ‘Herculean’ small room in Empire style and the bedroom with a neoclassical alcove and sumptuous bathroom. There’s still one last floor that will leave you in awe. Step by step, you’ll arrive in the ‘Room of the Winds’, a room originally designed as an astronomical observatory.

Herculean small room at the Chinese Palace – Credits: Salvatore Ciambra

Some trivia facts about the Mathematical Table

The Mathematical Table, aka ‘the magic table’, is certainly an unusual and ingenious detail. Why did they have a retractable table? Elementary (Watson!): the idea of having a kitchen separate from the residential areas prevented the spread of odors and also served to hide the passage of servants. Today, we might say…for privacy!

Chinese Palace
The Mathematical Table – Credits: Salvatore Ciambra

And how to make the staff completely invisible if not with a table that apparently ‘sets itself’? The Mathematical Table, indeed, appeared already set on the upper floor…just like it was the a spell. The magic formula? An elaborate system made of ropes and pulleys! But that’s not all, Marvuglia also devised a way for the diners to communicate with the service staff so that the table could be lowered once the courses were consumed. It was enough to ring a bell and associate ribbons with different colors for each dish.

The Garden of the Chinese Palace

Before leaving the Chinese Palace, why don’t you get ‘lost’ in the lush Italian garden? Located at the back of the building, greenery unfolds with bushes and ancient trees interspersed with fountains and glimpses of blue sky. The flowerbeds of this romantic garden blend with low hedges that, although they form four intricate mazes, do not truly allow you to lose your bearings as it happens elsewhere…which makes their purely ornamental purpose clear, far from the often associated entertainment or the creation of ‘romantic refuges’!

Lastly, we have to mention the annex of the Chinese Palace, that houses the Giuseppe Pitrè ethnographic museum, founded in 1909 and dedicated to the popular traditions of Sicily.

Chinese Palace
The Garden of the Chinese Palace – Credits: Salvatore Ciambra
And so, by visiting at least virtually the Chinese Palace, we have discovered why there is a ‘pagoda’ (that isn’t a pagoda at all!) in Palermo. But our news doesn’t end here. Keep following Sicilian Secrets, from articles on the blog to interviews, not forgetting the news on the Facebook page and on Instagram. Stay tuned!

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