A Baron’s dominion

Deep in the kingdom of the hazelnuts, the Baron of Salleo’s family had wealthy agricultural patronage with many hectares of hazelnuts, olive trees, wheat fields, together with country properties, a residence at the centre of Sinagra and another in the nearby hamlet of Baronia, most probably named in honour of the Baron himself.

The Salleo family lived here for many generations and were an essential local aristocratic family.

Historically local feudal barons in Sicily held much power over the locals, forcing them to work for a pittance in bad working and living conditions, taking the local wealth for themselves.

With little interest or respect for workers, the Barons were left to rule over their properties like little kings taking advantage of the poorer class until the economy shifted from one based on agriculture to one based on industry, and their landholdings lost their value.

The Salleo family is recalled with great respect and warmth by the local community. The last Baron who lived in the family palazzo at Sinagra was an outspoken communist. He held political reunions in his mansion.

His enemies and competitors would send spies to eavesdrop on speeches and political strategies. In one famous local tale, a spy entered the small garden in front of the palazzo. He climbed up a tall palm tree and overheard conversations in the second storey whose windows were usually left open in the summer.

Like so many other ancient Sicilian Norman and Bourbon aristocratic families like the Salleo, Stagno d’Alcontres, di Lampedusa and Piccolo’s, they lived upon wealth immersed by past generations. Maintaining the lifestyle, sometimes in idleness and slowly shedding the properties and land, leaving it all behind in the divisions of inheritance.

Some families survived through the destruction of the world wars, decay and abandonment. Today, many forgotten homes of aristocracy dot the island, boarded and shut up, falling to pieces like many haunting fragments of history.

When the restoration project of the Salleo’s palazzo took place only a few hundred meters from my house, I dawdle through the mansion in its original abandoned state, which I found more evocative than its post-restoration brilliance.

I volunteered as an assistant to the architect (who happened to be my husband). Holding one end of a tape measure, I was granted a precious glance into the discarded history of the Palazzo Salleo.

The once-wealthy home is on a narrow side street that was the main street of Sinagra. Via Umberto once housed the town hall, police station, doctor’s surgery and most stores.

The palazzo is beside the Church of the Crucifix or the Convent, a large grey stone building with a bell tower dating back to the Middle Ages. The local government has already restored the church, with its rugged aged wooden beams, precious wooden crucifix and faded painting of the Madonna with a child hanging on the wall like an overexposed photographic negative.

During the church’s restoration, a communal catacomb was discovered underneath the building, an early cemetery. The entrance of this communal grave can be seen from the church through a glass panel on the floor.

In front of the mansion’s main entrance is the rusty gate of the Salleo’s overgrown garden, with a corroded family’s coat of arms hung at its apex. The crest consists of a lion raised upon its hind legs below the sun. Under the feline’s back paws, three diagonal bars support its legs and a large letter ‘S’.

Peeking through the gate, I see overgrown weeds, bushes, two tall palm trees and stately secular pine. It is an inferior realm for the regal lion of the crest to rule.

I wonder what the Salleo lion has seen from his sentinel-like position on the palazzo. Fifty years ago, he would have witnessed the movements of a busy town centre which have gradually closed down or moved away.

These days the tarnished and weary lion of the forgotten garden is disturbed only by the occasional motorino speeding by.