In 1859, even though the city of Palermo was well furnished with public theatres, the idea of creating an international competition for the construction of a new theatre named for Ferdinand II gained momentum. The theatre was to be built in Piazza Marina. The City Government of Palermo deemed the building of a theatre an absolute necessity. It was to be an work of great importance and value for the city, to be built utilizing a great number of local artists and artisans. In 1860, however, after the arrival of Garibaldi's Thousand and the fall of domination by the Bourbons, the idea of building a new theatre seemed to wane and four more years would pass before the project would begin. In 1864, in fact, thanks to the vision of Mayor Antonio Starabba, the Marquis of Rudinì, the city administration launched an international competition for the construction of a monumental opera theatre (which would later become the Massimo Theatre) and, in 1865, a local competition for the construction of a daytime all-purpose theatre awarding the project to Giuseppe Damiani Almeyda, a young engineer. The theatre would be built at an outside border of Palermo as an ideological example of the expansion of the modern city, and in opposition to the other theatre, which was destined to satisfy the aristocratic need for an opera theatre adequate for grand opera. This theatre was to be dedicated to the enjoyment of the common people with productions of operetta, comedies and tragedies, celebrations, holidays, equestrian shows and the circus.
It was then decided to build a large amphitheatre without a roof outside of Porta Maqueda, at the beginning of the street named Via della Libertà. In 1865 a contract was stipulated with the Galland construction firm but building could only begin in 1867. In 1868 the city decided to transform the amphitheatre into an indoor theatre in order to increase the possibilities of theatre pieces that included music and prose. The architectural project was modified, but the construction continued at a slow pace because in the meantime various controversies had arisen between the city and the Galland Company.
In 1869, the city government voted to dedicate the theatre to Gioacchino Rossini at his death but in the end nothing happened. In fact, when the theatre still unfinished and without a roof, was inaugurated on June 7th, 1874, with Vincenzo Bellini's opera "I Capuleti e i Montecchi", it became Palermo's principal opera theatre for the next twenty years, and was still called the Politeama City Theatre. In 1882, after the death of Garibaldi, it was given the name of Politeama Garibaldi. In 1877, the roof commissioned by the Oretea Foundry, was completed, but the final embellishments were completed only in 1891 for the great National Exposition that was held that year in Palermo. It was on that occasion that the official opening took place with a performance of Verdi's Otello with the famous tenor Francesco Tamagno in the title role and King Umberto and Queen Margherita in attendance.
An important example of neoclassical architecture, the Politeama presents a grand entrance under a monumental triumphal arch with Mario Rutelli's Quadriga bronze of Apollo, representing the "Triumph of Apollo and Euterpe" at the top, next to a pair of Benedetto Civiletti's bronze horses and cavaliers representing the "Olympic Games". At the two sides of the principal entrance, behind two large candelabras, one can find two large stones with the historic inscriptions dictated by Isidoro La Lumia and higher up two low reliefs representing "Famine" designed by the painter Pensabene. Around the building's semicircular body, two levels of doric and ionic columns and painting in blue and yellow, together with decorative figures representing circus acts against a red background are present. The triumphal arch at the front is refined with a beautiful art work of bas relief in stucco, a work of Rutelli, that represents a multitude of musical angels and singers. Inside, the hall, in the shape of a horse shoe with two levels of theatre boxes and a double large gallery originally created for 5000 spectators, has Corinthian columns above the stage opening with a bronze bust of Giuseppe Garibaldi positioned at the centre, and two allegories of tragedy and comedy at the sides.
Damiani proposes a rich polychrome decoration in Pompeian style both inside and outside the theatre having commissioned the decorators Gustavo Mancinelli, (creator of the frieze of the eleution celebrations that surround the sky blue ceiling), Giuseppe Enea, Rocco Lentini, Giuseppe Cavallaro, Carmelo Giarrizzo, Francesco Padovano and Giovanni Nicolini. On the outside, along the two lateral curves, the decorations are by Carmelo Giarrizzo and feature foot races on the ionic level and horse races on the doric level. At the ionic level one finds the frescos of Nicolò Giannone, Michele Cortegiani, Luigi Di Giovanni, Rocco Lentini and Enrico Cavallaro. Luigi Di Giovanni also decorated, both sides of the stage at the upper gallery level, while Onofrio Tomaselli, Rocco Lentini, Vincenzo Riolo, Giuseppe Enea, Salvatore Gregorietti and Salvatore Valenti decorated the hallways and lobbies. The vestibule offers a spacious ceiling decorated with reliefs and friezes while the hallways and minor halls such as the Hall of Mirrors together with the upper level halls (Red Hall and Yellow Hall), which once hosted the city Gallery of Modern Art, are all decorated with paintings by Giuseppe Enea, Rocco Lentini and Giuseppe Cavallaro. Damiani is also the designer of the two majestic, external candelabras and supervised the placing of Benedetto De Lisi's 1865 monument of Ruggero the seventh in front of the theatre. In the gardens on the sides at the front of the majestic building, which occupy approximately 5000 square meters, one can admire the sculptures of Valerio Villareale (Baccante), Benedetto De Lisi (Silfide) and Antonio Ugo (David).
At the Politeama Garibaldi, many prestigious artists such as Leopoldo Mugnone, Arturo Toscanini, who during 1892 and 1893 conducted seven opera productions, Vincenzo Tamagno, Victor Maruel, Nellie Melba, Mattia Battistini, Mary Boyer, Giovanni Zenatello, Teresa Arkel, Gemma Bellincioni, Gilda Dalla Rizza, Francisco Vignas, Bianca Scacciati, Eugenio Giraldoni, Rosetta Pampanini, Gianna Pederzini, Mario Basiola, Beniamino Gigli, Carlo Tagliabue have appeared in opera seasons through 1950. In 1896, Giacomo Puccini's La Bohème rose to new life at the Politeama Garibaldi after its disastrous debut in Turin. On that memorable evening, with an ecstatic public insisting on encores of the endings of the various acts, Adelina Stehle and Edoardo Garbin sang the leading roles.
Today, the theatre is the prestigious home of the Orchestra Sinfonica Siciliana Foundation and is a reference point of great importance, both for location and notariety for the City of Palermo. Often, the two large public squares facing one another (Ruggero Settimo and Castelnuovo) where the theatre is situated, are commonly referred to as Piazza Politeama.
Giuseppe Damiani Almeyda
Born into a nobil Palermo family (he was the son of Felice Damiani and of Carolina Almeyda), Giuseppe Damiani Almeyda was born in Capua on February 10, 1834. Encouraged by his family to study arms, he demonstrated a great passion for design at a very young age and, thanks to his brother Francesco, began studying mathematics and design. Gustavo Mancinelli was one of his teachers. After studies in Naples at the School of Bridges and Roads, in 1859 he transferred to Sicily and in 1872 became the engineer for the City of Palermo, maintaining the position until 1891. Professor at the Technical Institute and at the University of Palermo, he won numerous prizes for architecture and wrote significant articles, treatises and monographs in which he joined his love for design and art history (for example The History of Modern Italian Art; Applications of Elementary Geometry to the Study of Design; Istituzioni Ornamentali sull'Antico e sul Vero).
His significant works are characteristic of the artistic and cultural life of his times connoting the history of Sicilian architecture at the end of the 1800's and the beginning of the 1900's. Tenacious opponent of Basile's modernism and of floral taste, he died in Palermo on January 13, 1911 leaving us architectural masterpieces such as the small buildings at Villa Giulia in Palermo, the Villa Florio in Favignana, the Grand Hotel of the Thermal Baths in Termini Imerese, the Oretea Foundry (today demolished) in Palermo and, above all, the beautiful Politeama Garibaldi where his love of color and polychromy triumph.
The Stage Curtain of the Politeama painted by Gustavo Mancinelli
The great stage curtain of the Politeama (weighing 450 kilograms or 992 lbs. and measuring 14 meters by 13 or approximately 45 by 42.7 feet) was made in 1891 by Gustavo Mancinelli (Rome 1842 – Naples 1933), son of Giuseppe, creator of the stage curtain of the Theatre San Carlo in Naples, for the theatre (the Politeama Garibaldi) that was to be noted, during the era of the National Exposition, as the symbol of a modern Palermo at the beginning of the city's transformation into one of the capitals of the Belle Epoque.
As was typical of the period, the theme painted on the curtain refers to subjects connected to classicism and mythology. It evokes the ancient glories of the island, Magna Grecia, with the intent of celebrating the centuries old tradition of Sicilian theatre. The protagonist of the work, is in fact Aeschylus, founder of the ancient tragedy, who, after transferring to Syracuse, began, in front of the tyrant Hiero, the representations of the "Etnee" written in honor of his new country.
In the center of the chamber, one can see a monumental semicircular sofa with Hiero, clothed in a red robe and holding a scepter in his right hand, immersed in a natural light and surrounded by numerous members of his court. A woman is seated next to him, holding a fan in her left hand while resting her face on her right hand. Her right elbow leans against the body of Hiero. Two women can be seen standing: one holding a lyre and the other holding a tambourine. A third woman, seated, accompanies Hiero with the lyre, and with her nude body cloaked in a green mantel, recites verses.
The characters and objects on the canvas are depicted naturally as a tribute to Sicily, land of theatre and myth, which seems to want to reflect the worldliness of Umbertine Italy, which in 1891, celebrated its glories in Palermo. The painting, part of a modern vision, deserves full membership in the new Pompeian school of painting much in vogue during the second half of the 1800's in all of Europe.
The Eleuterie Celebrations of Gustavo Mancinelli
The Eleuterie Celebrations (Celebrations of Liberty) took place in various parts of ancient Greece in honor of Zeus Eleutherios (Jupiter, the Liberator) in memory of the victory of Aristide over the Persians (478 B.C.). The most famous were those organized at Platea, where every four years a horse race and gymnastic matches took place. At sunrise, all the residents met in a parade, announced by a trumpet sounding, and proceeded with wagons filled with myrtles and flowers, and with one transporting a black bull, followed by young people bearing jugs filled with olive oil, wine, milk and precious perfumes. The parade, lead by a magistrate, arrived at the tombs of the dead where the bull was sacrificed.
Gustavo Mancinelli depicts the ceremony of the Eleuterie Celebrations inside the sky blue arch of the Politeama Garibaldi connecting it to the cult of Demetra, the goddess which gave agricultural knowledge to the human race: planting, plowing, harvesting and related activities.
(Rome 1842 – Naples 1903)
Son of the celebrated painter Giuseppe (Naples 1813 – Palazzolo di Castrocielo 1875), Gustavo studied at the Royal Institute of Fine Arts of Naples and, at a very young age, participated in the Bourbon Biennial of 1855–1859. In 1863, he won the competition for the National Institution with the "The oath of Hannibal" (Naples, Gallery of the Academy of Fine Arts) and until 1883, participated regularly in the Expositions of the Neapolitan Promotional Society with watercolors, paintings and pastel drawings. He was named honorary Professor of the Academy of St. Luke and took part in the National Expositions of Milan in 1874 and in 1883 and of Turin in 1880.
In 1891 he participated in the National Exposition of Palermo and, in the month of November, presented to the public the theatre curtain, created for the Politeama Garibaldi of Palermo "Aeschylus at the Court of Hiero of Syracuse". Mancinelli completed the paintings at the base of the arch, depicting the Eleuterie Celebrations for the same theatre.
In 1895, having completed work in the Municipal Theatre of Syracuse, directed as in the case of the Politeama of Palermo by Giuseppe Damiani Almeyda, he also created the theatre curtain depicting Dafne in a forest populated by nymphs and decorated the vestibule, the railings of the theatre boxes, and the vault of the theatre main floor.
In Palermo's City Hall, his portraits of Umberto I and of Queen Margherita of Savoia are kept, donated to the city by the sovereigns themselves.
Between 1897 and 1898 Mancinelli participated in the decoration and fresco of the Hall of the trading floor of the new Naples Stock Exchange Building, depicting the allegories "The Fine Arts" and "History".
He did not paint exclusively religious and historical subjects, but began a lucrative activity in portrait painting. The Museum of Capodimonte in Naples holds some of his works of a historical nature.