Behind every great fortune there is a crime, this is how Mario Puzo opens his book ‘The Godfather’, summarising and somewhat forcing the thought of Honoré De Balzac who had written The secret of great fortunes without apparent cause is a forgotten crime, because it was made to fit, in ‘Le Père Goriot’, a novel published in 1834 and part of the ‘Scenes from private life’ of The Human Comedy. The novel is dedicated to the French zoologist Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire. Indeed, the story tells how wars and conquests have always brought great spoils and land to the victors, which were then granted to the most valiant or loyal subjects. In times of peace, those who disappointed the sovereign of the day were punished by expropriating the goods granted to them and passing them on to those who showed loyalty. The fate of these goods is then entrusted to the ability of those entrusted with them to generate wealth, education, and culture for themselves but also for the communities that inhabit those places.
In classical Greek civilisation, the ‘best’ (from the Greek word oi aristoi from which aristocratic derives) united the beautiful and the good in kalokagatia, the ideal of aesthetic, physical and moral perfection. In Roman times came the notables (nobilem in Latin) who by birth or investiture belonged to a class considered superior and for this reason: they held and exercised power, were entitled to special privileges, accumulated wealth, and prestige. Then there are the enriched, those to whom life has granted the good fortune to take a rapid social lift, who to ratify their social ascent and be accepted into the ruling class resorted to the purchase of titles or marriages of interest to become related to noble families to whom they brought resources and from whom they acquired titles, as for example Calogero Sedara in Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard.
To show their importance, the lords built constructions that were the cornerstones of the territory and often determined its toponymy, that part of linguistics that studies the meaning and origin of the names given to a given place. On the one hand, there were castles and fortresses and agricultural bagli, civic/military, defensive and introverted settlement models that offered shelter and protection to the population. On the other hand, there were magnificent country villas and town palaces, treasures of art and civil architecture that constituted the artistic vanguards of their time. The cornerstones of urban and rural areas were also religious architecture, convents and monasteries that were centers of study, protection and transmission of knowledge that witnessed to the power of this or that order.
Today, many of these architectures have been converted to civic use (schools, hospitals, offices or places of representation) often acquired as public heritage, but even when ownership remains private these become social magnets, territorial evidence and catalysts of identity, nourishing the mutual sense of belonging of heritage and people to the communities in the places. Belonging (previously subordinated to submission to the master who graciously granted protections and safeguards to workers who ‘belonged’ to him) is developed in different ways also by tying these monuments to relevant events in individual and family life (birthday parties, communions, and weddings, etc.) and thus becoming common goods, repositories of memory that is both personal and collective.
Rather than a class attribute, nobility of spirit is distributed in every social group just like stupidity, it derives from education and especially from example, which is the highest form of teaching and consolidation of wisdom. Sage is said in Sicily of a good person who behaves well, and wise is certainly Giuseppe Tasca d’Almerita, who with his wife Luisa Mainardi (daughter of the great ethologist Danilo) has opened the park and garden of Villa Tasca to the public. A very happy union. On the one hand, the exponent of a family that lives off the land as culture and knowledge, cultivates the roots (tradition) without neglecting the fruits (innovation) and for this reason has turned farming into a courageous activity of avant-garde and excellence, introducing innovations such as dedicating land far from the sea to wine production and no longer only along the coast, as was the case here previously, given that the most important characteristic of the Sicilian wine was its navigability, that is, the ability to be transported by sailing while maintaining its qualities without becoming vinegar, so much so that the Accademia dei Georgofili asked Domenico Sestini (Florence 1750-1832, in those years in Catania as custodian of the library and museum of the Catanese nobleman Ignazio Paternò Castello Prince de’ Biscari) to investigate the secrets of navigability, which he collected in the text ‘memoria dei vini siciliani’ written between 1770 and 1775 and published by the academy in 1812. On the other is his wife, who has opened a centre in the park with spaces for training or simply socialising dogs in their free time. In between is the awareness of biodiversity as a culture of protecting one’s own and getting to know the different. Together they have taken an avenue that is not of sunset but of the dawn of an idea that blurs the boundary between public and private, respecting each other’s prerogatives on an individual and collective level.
The social dimension of nature – relevant in both agricultural and animal communities – is the subject of the process initiated, with unpredictable outcomes and immediate and obvious satisfactions. The project started about a year earlier than planned, due to the pandemic, a time when the need and usefulness of providing parks and gardens open to the public in a district that lacked them became even more evident. The park was opened in July 2020 before having completed the set of planned interventions to facilitate the use of the space. One of the few cases in which pandemic time has been put to good use with an innovative mentality, without waiting for a return to a past that will no longer be the same but which we insist on considering irresponsibly desirable.
Giuseppe Tasca d’Almerita is a count, but what counts most here is not the title but the development of a theme of social nature and political relevance in which public and private intertwine to the point of making private property a common good. For a couple of years now, the Tasca family have allowed public use of the villa’s park by opening it up to the public, not before arranging it by modulating the terrain, moving plants, and setting up small mobile wooden kiosks in dedicated areas where you can eat a traditional Palermo sfincione or a Palermo roast or barbecued stigghiole, drinking an aperitif, a glass of wine or a Sicilian craft beer.
For a symbolic fee, you can spend a few hours or an entire day with your family or friends, experiencing a slice of Eden on earth that is accessible to all: a daily ticket costs €3.50, while children aged 0 to 3 and disabled persons with an accompanying person have free admission; a full annual season ticket is €12.00, while for the over 65s and 18 to 24 year olds the price is €9.00 and for accompanied children and minors aged 4 to 17 it is €6.00, and disabled persons with an accompanying person always have free admission. The website for information, purchasing tickets and subscriptions, booking guided tours or spaces for parties and events is https://parco.villatasca.com.
The social and nature experience can also become cultural with various possibilities: booking a guided tour of the villa (€15.00 per person to see the sights and hear stories and anecdotes) or a visit to the historic garden. During the week you can go with your dogs for paid dog training or socialization activities, and free gardening activities held by landscape architects that complement the free visits for park subscribers accompanied by a naturalist who illustrates flora and fauna, educating people to observe and read the natural space that surrounds us and that creeps into our cities, taking advantage of every available foliage or body of water. Or one can simply come to relax, placing (i.e. square) oneself and one’s family around a small table under the trees or a plaid on the lawn, leaving the children free to roam around independently having a playful experience of nature in a place that is widely patrolled by the public and staff. We must not forget family events such as parties for a variety of reasons, from birthdays to communion to weddings. In addition to the public use, one can also privately enjoy the wonderful spaces of the villa by resorting to hospitality in the villa’s luxury suites where it is, however, difficult to sleep due to the excitement and emotions the space provokes in the observer. (https://villatasca.com/it/).
Few, and only those that are essential, are the signs around to indicate obligations and prohibitions, each showing that they know what should and should not be done, thereby demonstrating that spontaneous enjoyment of the park does not require instructions. The unusual absence of mobile phones in the hands of parents and children is striking, not because of a ban but because of spontaneously felt uselessness. More: the tendency to overturn the real experience with the virtual one is reversed here thanks to a path that makes us experience the opposite, we find ourselves in fact inside a living impressionist painting; Indeed, as you walk around, you almost find yourself in a scene reminiscent of Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l’herbe (the breakfast on the grass that caused such a scandal at the time) and especially that of Seurat’s Un dimanche après-midi à l’Île de la Grande Jatte (‘a Sunday afternoon on the island of Grande-Jatte’, albeit here without a river). This plunge into art, which is a leap in space and time, can be done without the aid of helmets, visors or headphones, the sensory experience that unites indoors and outdoors is the same.
In 2021, the park went into full swing with 14,000 subscribers and admissions of between 80,000 and 100,000 people. The first months of 2022 saw a downturn due to the rainy winter, but with the arrival of the warm season there is a definite upswing and subscribers are already over 10,000. The park’s surface area is more than six hectares, one of which is used for dog-relationship activities, another occupied by the historical-romantic garden, three hectares of parkland open to the public and one hectare for parking.
Important in experiences like this is the shift in the perception of the sense of belonging where possession as one’s own possession prevails over belonging as the coincidence of identity, of place and inhabitant: that place is not mine but, recognizing myself in it, that place is me, being more than having. The pandemic had interrupted the path, but surrender is not an option for those who know how to do things, and well; therefore, today the project has regained vigor, rewarded by the participation of those who prefer the advantages of an island of peace in a large garden park in the city centre, to the sweat bath on the way to the sea, with the accompanying kilometer-long queue in the car to reach the beaches. This is borne out by the photographs taken yesterday on a typical Sunday at the start of the warm season.