Giuseppe Vasi’s stunning view of the Sicilian capital of Palermo depicts the city from an imaginary point high above the sea to the northwest. The urban vista includes Palermo’s most important architectural gems and historical localities, including many of the noble palaces dotted throughout the city. The mapmaker was ideally suited to compile this extraordinary panorama, as he was a Palermo native who had trained with the best mapmakers and architectural draughtsmen in Rome.
Palermo has naturally been depicted on countless maps, charts, and plans, but few stand out like Giuseppe Vasi’s ornate rendition. Vasi was known for his masterful ability to compose stringent and exciting architectural views of impeccable quality. His successor, Giambattista Piranesi, would elevate this practice to new heights and still stands among the greatest architectural artists ever. Vasi’s views and maps constituted some of the necessary precursors that allowed Piranesi to hone his artistic genius. But more than that, Vasi’s depiction of Palermo was also the depiction of his hometown, and the deliberate inclusion of the surrounding countryside is no doubt a reflection of Vasi’s view of what Palermo fully constituted.
Vasi’s chart consists of complementary but distinct visual levels, each purposefully designed to convey a specific atmosphere or quality of the city and its surroundings. We see the city’s orthostatic urban plan, its main thoroughfares, secondary and tertiary streets, large and small piazzas, city gates, and the old city’s urban fortifications. Palermo is famous for having retained most of its ancient Roman grid system, even as the city developed over the centuries. This heritage is evident in the urban plan, which is structured along a major north-south running thoroughfare (Cardo Maximus), intersecting with a major east-west thoroughfare (Decumanus Maximus). At the intersection, we find an open space traditionally known as the tetrakoinion (no. 6 on the map).
As was the style in many of the great Italian bird’s-eye-views of the era, the architecture of the urban sprawl has been clearly defined and delineated, allowing viewers to identify individual buildings. At the southern end of the city, we find Palermo’s two large and shielded harbors – a smaller one in the old city (today used for privately owned sailboats and yachts) and a much larger commercial one built immediately to the east (used as the industrial and ferry harbor of modern Palermo). Both the harbors and the sea fronting Palermo are full of beautifully rendered sailing ships of various dimensions and what looks to be a single galley approaching the harbor front.
Outside the city, we are also treated to a plethora of detail in the surrounding landscape. Among the notable features are the gardens that stretch north of the old town but which today constitute a central part of Palermo. Outside the urban enceinte, we find several large estates surrounded by agricultural lands, many of which appear to be vineyards. And to the east of the new harbor, we see the ancient Roman viaduct zigzagging down the hillside, carrying fresh potable water into the city.
Along the fringes of the chart, we find an extensive key in Italian, linked to a wide range of features and buildings within the city. These naturally include many churches and palaces for which Palermo is famous. Along the bottom of the map, we find a number of inset scenes. The central one is a traditional city view of Palermo from the sea. Once again, we see both ports, along with the island’s volcanic mountains in the background. On either side of the central cartouche that contains the urban prospectus, we find four vignettes illustrating some of the finest standing palaces of the Sicilian capital. In the prospectus and the eight detailed vignettes, important buildings and features are numbered and tied to a key at the bottom of the central cartouche. Two putti in each upper corner hold open two thick curtains, giving the city and its countryside a distinctly theatrical setting.
In general, Vasi has deliberately crafted a map to provide viewers with both a traditional urban plan and a broader view of the surrounding landscape. In this sense, the sheet is not just an urban view but a Sicilian view, which essentially lands it somewhere between a map and a plan.
The OCLC notes only a single institutional copy of this extraordinary chart, held in the library of the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (OCLC no. 71664661).