My vision takes a moment to adjust to the dimness inside as I’ve just stepped through a doorway.
After a few moments, I take in the shape and scale of a grand staircase crowned by an ornamental gateway. The ostentatious gate is embellished with intricate archways.
A row of sculptured wrought iron flowers crowns the gate, followed by a series of deadly arrowheads like a sadomasochistic version of the Florentine iris.
A large urn squat in the corner of the foyer. Its full mouth is covered with a leather hide. The container has a stout build which extends out into a significant paunch, its girth gathering itself into a flat base.
The Salleo family used this robust vase to store olive oil, a valuable harvest for the Baron. It reminds me of the Sicilian writer Luigi Pirandello’s story La Giara, which described an olive oil urn large enough to fit a full-grown man inside.
The urn personified in the story was as vivid and alive as any other of the characters. I’m glad to see the Baron’s rustic pitcher is still in one piece, unlike Pirandello’s, which didn’t survive the story in one piece.
Above the full-bodied jar, there is a window that cuts through the several meter-thick front walls. The opening is carved out obliquely, creating a funnel-like shape extending towards the inside foyer, creating an impressive depth and focusing on the little light.
It appears to be a simple round window with an ornamental star designed iron grate from the outside. Inside it creates a flood of sunlight which it gathers and funnels into the foyer like a natural spotlight as the golden afternoon sun shines into the entrance. I begin to explore the ground floor, following the tawny dusty floor tiles around to the left side of the staircase.
I walk through two doors with rotund archway frames. One leads down to a cellar that has been closed for many years and is most certainly infested with rats, mice, spiders and other nasty things.
A more massive door opens onto an enormous storage room divided into three parts by two thick archways. The wooden floor is rotten in different spots. The original room served to store and dry out the annual hazelnut harvest.
Today the hazelnuts are replaced by a chaotic selection of cabinets, ottomans, tables, assorted pieces of broken furniture, books, picture frames and another left behind bits and pieces. There is a distinct musty yet nutty smell.
I can easily imagine the room emptied of odds and ends and filled with freshly collected hazelnuts. Which would have been turned over regularly by full-toothed rakes; as the hot summer wind blows through the grates of the ventilation windows, the smell of roasted nuts hunts this space.
The sight of the enormous storeroom filled with the annual harvest must have been impressive. The odour of drying dirt-covered hazelnuts is still in the air, effortlessly evoking the earth, dust and the toil of the past.
On the other side of the staircase, two doors lead down to a rat-infested cellar; another opens into offices used by the palazzo’s caretaker.
The large, surprisingly well-lit room is littered with old photographs of past Barons, antique maps of Sicily and yellowing maps of the Baron’s properties.
Stained papers are hung on the wall; they take up large strips along most walls and cover one entire corner section of the room. The various landholdings are coloured according to the specific products like an exotic countries flag pinned up on the wall, a whole red strip for hazelnuts, yellow for grain and green for olives.
Besides the office, there is a vast storeroom filled with wooden grain silos about a meter tall lined up against a wall.
The grain stores are now empty, and slumped upon their edges are: dozens of horse saddles, halters and ropes are testament to the extensive stables once held by the Baron.
Attached to the ceiling of the storeroom is a rectangular net of bars designed to hang cured meats. White strings still dangle from the frame, as if servants have just cut down the prosciutto, salami and pancetta.
A wine cellar is connected to the storeroom, its scaffolding cradling bottles of every description, a succession of containers: large decanters with rounded bottoms placed in straw holders, ten, twenty, thirty-litre wine bottles shaped like perfume phials, beakers and test tubes in an extensive laboratory.
Each glass flagon has its irregular curve creating confusing reflections. The only thing each has in common is their emerald green hue, as if the same ancient glassmaker has blown them.
At the centre of the room, there is a table overwhelmed with strange-looking instruments. From coffee grinders, tubes, bottles, and puzzling gadgets I had never seen before placed one on top of the other.
A layer of dust and cobwebs cover them and blend the objects like it is one gigantic scientific instrument from the Renaissance.
Perhaps this strange apparatus has been left behind by an alchemist who invented this jumble of tools for his experiments, a tangible relic of an eccentric aristocrat recluse.