The Teatro Politeama Garibaldi is the first in order of time of the great theatres constructed in Palermo during the second half of the nineteenth century, as one of numerous far-reaching town-planning projects. Designed by Giuseppe Damiani Almeyda in 1867 and completed in 1891, it dominates the square that was to become the heart of the modern city, reflecting the felicitous condition of artistic culture in Palermo and of the new bourgeois governing class in Europe in general.
Some years before, in 1860, the first mayor of Palermo after the unification of Italy, Giulio Benso, Duke della Verdura, had sparked discussions on the city’s future layout between some who supported an “economic” model and others desiring something “grandiose” – in the end the latter group won the day, having accepted some modifications. The plan was for a new city centre stretching westwards from Via Maqueda, expanding along the new Strada della Libertà conceived by Ruggiero Settimo’s revolutionary government in 1848. Along this thoroughfare there were to be three theatres: one more or less there the Massimo is, another beyond the crossroads in Piazza Regalmici (Quattro Canti di Campagna), and the third, an “Olympic circus”, in the garden of Villarosa (now Piazza Ungheria)
During the preparatory phase of the international competition for the construction of the Teatro Massimo, the municipal authority entrusted Giuseppe Damiani Almeyda, a young civil engineer born in Capua in 1834, with the task of designing a “polytheama” (a theatre for shows of many kinds), located in the square dedicated to Ruggiero Settimo, to serve as a daytime popular theatre. One reason for the initiative was to combat the atmosphere of social and economic crisis after a cholera epidemic in 1866-67. The theatre was to be a venue of equestrian circus exhibitions of gymnastics and acrobatics, then all the rage, operettas, comedy plays, dramas, and festive celebrations in general – not just for the aristocracy and the well-to-do, as well as operatic performances pending completion of the Teatro Massimo. Thus, perhaps for the only time in Italy, two theatres were being built at one and the same time: one – the Massimo – an aristocratic temple of opera; the other – the Politeama – more popular in character, intended to exalt theatre’s social function.
In 1874, although incomplete and unroofed, the theatre was inaugurated with Vincenzo Bellini,s The Montagues and the Capulets; other operas followed in the next few years, alternating with the Teatro Bellini. In 1874 the Oretea Foundry made the metallic covering, an extremely bold work for the times that was declared by some to be “impossible”. In 1882, after his death, the theatre was dedicated to Giuseppe Garibaldi. But the official opening was in 1891, on the occasion of the inaugural evening of the National Exhibition: an exceptional gala in the presence of King Umberto and Queen Margherita, with the performance of Verdi’s Otello, with the celebrated singer Francesco Tamagno in the leading role. In the 1891-92 season, the star conductor was Arturo Toscanini
While the construction of the Massimo dragged on slowly amid sterile polemics that delayed its opening, the Teatro Politeama played an important role in the National Exhibition in 1891-92, when it was the venue of numerous events and public performances. For this special occasion a number of “ephemeral” pavilions were set up in the area adjoining the Radaly orange orchard, in what was known as the Firriato di Villafranca (Villafranca Estate), which stretched between Via Libertà and the present-day Via Dante, Via XX Settembre, Via Garzilli, Via Spaccaforno, Via Villafranca, and Piazza Mordini alle Croci – later to become the city’s new residential quarter.
In 1897, with the opening of the Teatro Massimo, the new city centre began to take shape, with its two squares and two theatres opening mirror-wise at opposite ends of Via Ruggiero Settimo: the first, higher up towards Olivella and the old city centre, the second, lower down towards the new development zone of the Firriato di Villafranca, a “service quarter” of part of the city then being transformed between Borgo di Santa Lucia to the south and the plain of Sant’Oliva to the north, an area of trade and commerce mostly inhabited – until then – by shopkeepers and artisans.
Palermo, with its 260,000 inhabitants, was then the fourth largest city in Italy, in terms of population, after Rome, Milan, and Naples. And it could boast – in addition to the Massimo and the Politeama – four other theatres: the 18th-cent. Bellini and Santa Cecilia, the Garibaldi (1861), and the Mangano Amphitheatre, set up in 1889 using non-permanent material in what is now Via Ruggiero Settimo, in the garden of the no longer extant Palazzo Villarosa
As in the magnificent Municipal Historical Archive’s Main Hall (1883), so also in the Teatro Politeama Damiani Almeyda displayed refined artistic skill and a mind open to international influences and the latest research trends: here he made use of the classical archetype of the “polytheama”, i.e. a circular Roman amphitheatre with arches and an open cavea capable of holding 5,000 spectators. It had to be built quickly and on a limited budget – hence his use of simple materials to which he however imparted grandiose decorative effects, using strikingly lively colours that emanated an exuberant sense of vitality.
With its profound innovations in theatrical typology and construction techniques, the Politeama was the fruit of the architect’s particular interest in Hellenism an Greek and Roman polychrome architecture, which he had studied first at Pompeii and Herculaneum and the in Sicily at Selinunte and Agrigento. The result is a rare example in the panorama of Italian architecture in the second half of the 19th cent., in which we find a complex and elegant application of state-of-the-art technology in ironwork construction combined with an artistic experience derived from the interpretation of Graeco-Sicul forms possessing their own refined polychromy. Damiani Almeyda himself also designed the theatre’s external and internal decoration, achieving an admirable unity between architecture and ornamentation. The artists involved included Giuseppe Enea, Rocco Lentini, Carmelo Giarrizzo, Nicolò Giammone, Francesco Padovano, and Giovanni Nicolini.
The theatre is circular in shape. Outside it has a double portico with a series of slender Ionic and Corinthian columns with a blue and yellow wash and figures surmounted by a frieze presenting cirsus games against a red background.
The monumental entrance is shaped like a triumphal arch, surrounded by two great bronze candelabra; at the very top towers the bronze Quadriga of Apollo, by Mario Rutelli, surrounded by two pairs of horses and riders, also in bronze, by Benedetto Civiletti.
The auditorium, preceded by an ample foyer at the centre of which stands a sculpture by Amleto Cataldi, The Veiled Dancer, is horseshoe-shaped, with two tiers of boxes and two terraced caveae capable of holding an audience of 950. Here the eye is caught by the Pompeian-style colour and decorative scheme in the crowning frieze in the vault, with frescos representing The Eleutherian Festivals by Gustavo Mancinelli (these festivals, celebrated in classical Greece, were dedicated to the cult of Demeter). Mancinelli also designed the curtain, representing Aeschylus at the Court of Hieron at Syracuse. The ceiling, which has the appearance of a velarium, is a delicate sky-blue.
The upper gallery is divided by cast-iron columns surmounted by a sequence of fanlights, while an ample colonnaded portico – with a bronze bust of Garibaldi at the centre – marks the wall above the proscenium. The compact geometry of the general layout, visible in the perfect symmetry of the corresponding measurements, is complemented by a series of decorated rooms along the lateral façade used as places for refreshments, vestibules, and foyers
The Politeama Garibaldi Theatre is the official seat of the Sicilian Symphonic Orchestra and hosts a very popular concert season.
The little garden outside the theatre presents a number of delicate sculptures: Bacchant by Valerio Villareale, Sylph by Benedetto De Lisi, and David by Antonio Ugo. In front of the theatre stands a marble monument dedicated to Ruggiero Settimo, sculpted by Benedetto De Lisi in 1865; this statue looks symmetrically across to another on the other side of Via Libertà, that of Carlo Cottone, Prince of Castelnuovo, a work by Domenico Costantino (1873), standing in the square that takes his name, behind this latter statue, amid a grove of palm-trees, is a bandbox, a neoclassical work by Salvatore Valenti (1874-75).
Today the Politeama Theatre is a topographic and visual point of reference that is essential for the city, to the extent that the broad square where it stands (Piazza Ruggiero Settimo) and that opposite (Piazza Castelnuovo) are commonly called by the same name: Piazza Politeama.
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