Thursday, June 3, 2010

Prison of the Inquisition at Palazzo Steri

For almost 200 years Sicily lived one of the darkest pages of history, as did many parts of Mediterranean Europe; an execrable "added value" of what was already an oppressive domination at the time: the Spanish Inquisition. Though it began officially in 1601 and ended in 1782 under the enlightened vision of Neopolitan viceroy Caracciolo it had, however, already existed on other parts of the island for many years prior as part of a free-for-all lynching against the Conversos and others found guilty of what was deemed stregonery and heretical.

In its quest to "keep the faith", it inflicted the most gruesome forms of torture conceived by deranged human minds, and in Palermo, these were practiced in and around the Palazzo Steri in Piazza Marina, which became the Inquisition tribunal and seat. The palace itself, oddly enough, was already the theater of sanguinary transitions of power: built by and belonging to the powerful Chiaramonte family (so imposing was their fame and wealth throughout Sicily that the architectural style known as the Chiaramontano derives from their family) in the early 1300s, the last heir was decapitated by Spanish troops just outside the main entrance; subsequently, the exterior of the palace was rigged with cages that exposed the heads of nobility that rebelled against Charles V, used as deterrents to those who dared to do the same.

It was in this lugubrious environment therefore that the setting became almost natural for the inhumane sentences that were carried out. People of all races and creeds who spoke all the known vernaculars of the time and who still populated the island well beyond the decree of Ferdinand and Isabella were literally swept off the streets when accused of, or even merely suspected of committing, dubious crimes against the church. Packed into minuscule cells, they somehow found a way to express their fears, their anger, their despair - and, in some bizarre instances of Inquisition Stockholm Syndrome, expressions of unwavering faith to the church - through etchings and graffitis that "decorated" the detention cells.

All manner of materials were used, from blood to excrements to smuggled coal. Miraculously, as a testament to the gruesome ambiance that was the Steri Palace, many of these graffitis have remained intact, serving as vivd reminders of the horror and ignorance of the past and as proof of how the Inquisition made no distinction about whom it put on trail - the most exemplary of these graffitis can be considered the one that expresses the verses of the Apostles' Creed, written in 17th century English.

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