A melancholy sense of lost hegemony and deteriorated grandeur was brought to Britain from southern Europe by the Grand Tourists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and profoundly informed the aesthetics of the Gothic and Romantic movements, as in the archetypically Gothic edifice of Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto, a crumbling mansion set in a desolate Mediterranean landscape. There is something of that feeling to be found in twenty-first century Sicily, not because it is especially dissipated, but because it is filled with such a plenitude of historical buildings, ranging in historical provenance from antiquity to the Baroque and beyond, that it would be economically impractical to keep them all in a good state of repair. On a recently civilised island such as Britain it’s easy enough to identify and protect the important buildings, but Sicily is infested with them, and most of them appear to be decaying. For the modern traveller from northern Europe it’s as well to take them in your stride, and see them as equivalent to the crumbling nineteen-seventies concrete shopping centres that litter ones homeland, in order to avoid being crippled by the cumulative affect of their tragic histories. However, if there was one place I saw in Sicily where that monumental melancholia seemed to be worth entertaining, it was not a single building, but the complex of pavilions, glasshouses and gardens that comprise Palermo’s Orto Botanico.
The late eighteenth-century administrative buildings no longer serve any public function, beyond a few desultory displays, but they still present a grand formal entrance to the street, and once we had passed through the modern ticketing hall and shop, we made our way to the perimeter of the site in order to experience their visual introduction to the gardens beyond. This trio of pavilions, a larger central Gymnasium, flanked by two attendants, are magnificent neo-Classical structures, guarded by a pair of sphinxes, and decorated along the frieze of the Gymnasium with exquisite bas-relief carvings of botanical specimens. These have clearly been restored recently, their stonework as clean and sharp as the day it was unveiled, but they are equally clearly beginning to deteriorate already, and whatever capital funding was secured for their conservation does not appear to have been backed up with an adequate supply of revenue for maintenance.
Climbing the stairs, fortunately unmolested by the sphinxes, we entered a central, high-ceilinged room, which had once been used for the cultivation of tropical plants, which would be carried outside during the daytime, and protected at night. It now houses the aforementioned display, an interesting selection of objects from the spirit collection, which must once have been central to the institution’s botanical research. The objects were in a terrible condition, the liquid depleted, the jars damaged, and the specimens shrivelled, as though they had simply been dumped there and abandoned. The museological interest of collections in Britain is often sadly undervalued, but I’ve never seen it so callously disregarded as here, where these important documents of the history of a discipline seem to be accorded the status of disposable ornaments.
Disciplinary history is again being wiped from the surface on which it is inscribed in the gardens beyond. A large section of the site is given over to rectilinear beds, once planted hierarchically according to the Linnaean classification of plant species, but that taxonomic order has been replaced by, presumably, one more immediately useful to the logistical demands of the research that still takes place in the gardens, which since 1985 have been managed by Palermo University’s department of botany. It is hard to determine from a casual stroll the extent to which science structures the gardens, or the extent to which they serve the needs of botanical research; but it is clear from their appearance that there are no resources to make things pretty for the sake of it, as I’m accustomed to see in British botanical collections like those at Cambridge, Edinburgh and Kew. Much of the site appears neglected or even abandoned, its beds overgrown, its specimens withered, its geometrically sited ponds clogged with weeds and slime, the majority of the growth parched and brown. One kind of labyrinth has been overwritten by another.
The founders of these gardens, this scientific collection, clearly had great ambitions, and historical illustrations of them show a verdant, closely-tended place. Current circumstances, which may be guessed at given the context of a city smaller than Leeds with the cultural infrastructure of a European capital, appear to render those ambitions unrealistic. It is a beautiful place nevertheless, perhaps because of its neglect. Its geometries are delineated by impressive plantings of mature, thorny-barked silk floss trees, and it is full of unexpected features, like the unexplained dinosaurs we came across in a modern, well-maintained glasshouse. It is possessed of an aesthetically available hot-climate despondence, beaten down by the sun as though by repeated physical blows. It is a place where the taxonomy and Classical architectural order of the Enlightenment breaks down, rupturing to reveal the disordered, quantum surface of our own post-structural epistemological locality. The books of its library are defaced and strewn haphazardly about the stacks, still signifying pathetically like mortally wounded insects attempting to take flight and disseminate their precious cargo of information one final time.