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On a recent trip through Sicily — from the sensual and gritty city of Palermo to the luscious vistas of Taormina — I fell into a culture dedicated to beauty and a deep connection to nature. In this landscape of color and texture, edifices of terracotta, coral, and sage green dotted the land, while the interiors of homes were full of earthy textures, like linen and rattan.
My late Sicilian and Southern Italian grandparents emigrated by boat from the old country to America, but we weren’t exactly very close growing up. So this trip was an ancestral one for me. I wanted to find myself in its people — in its ways. I wanted to fill in the gaps in the knowledge of my ancestry and connect with my ancestry directly. I didn’t just come to indulge in the beauty, but to understand it.
History says a lot. Southern Italy and the island of Sicily became part of unified Italy fairly recently, back in 1861. Having been conquered more than a dozen times, the region is braided by distinct cultures and subcultures, languages, dialects, and cuisines. From the Greek and Roman to the Spanish and Arabic, you’ll find a potent, global multiplicity in the food, architecture, and aesthetic.
So I wondered: How can I find my own identity in this liminal space, and how can I respectfully bring this inspiration back to my Brooklyn, New York, home with me?
The phrasela bella figura,” or the beautiful figure, is often mentioned when discussing Italian culture. It represents the Italian desire to make a good impression and to embody beauty. Although it may seem like a bit of a cliché, Italians do want to make a good impression, but this extends far beyond fashion or looks. Food is presented beautifully on the plate, and indoor spaces are decorated to inspire and host.
After returning from Italy, I made a few changes around my space based on what I saw while abroad. Here’s how Sicily inspired my own home decor.
I mix my minimalism with a side of the ornate.
In Sicily, I noticed open, airy, largely minimalist rooms with small pockets of the ornate. For example, in our crumbling Palermo palazzo, two wooden, baroque-style chairs were outfitted in blood-red velvet (Sicilian artisanal designs were often hand-crafted by generations past), while an extra large, gilded mirror and carved wardrobe stood out as focal points with their rich finish and detailing, respectively. I remembered my own grandparents filling their small home with many pieces of rustic, old furniture; it always felt lived in and well-worn — never cookie-cutter.
After my Sicilian adventure, I needed to spruce up a somewhat dull middle room in my railroad-style Brooklyn apartment. I decided to turn that space into a Mediterranean style room, so I got my hands on a towering, secondhand ornate mirror. Now, whenever I’m in that room, I like to pretend I’m still somewhere in Palermo, daydreaming while walking through the ancient streets. I also have a large Mediterranean mural depicting a cornucopia in the living room near my bookshelves — simply to call on a Sicilian sense of pleasure. Basically, a few key pieces do a lot of work.
I choose the colors of Sicily for my accent pieces.
Sicily’s an island of color in and of itself. It’s full of greenery, bursting with flowers and fruits, and is surrounded by turquoise water. Much of the island is covered in the colors of the local specialties: pistachio and lemon, prickly pears, and Aperol. Some cities in Italy even regulate shutter colors by law to preserve tradition.
In a way, I wanted to embrace the colors of Sicily that my grandparents had left behind when they emigrated to the United States. So I fill my home with the hues of the Mediterranean landscape: ochre, lemon, pale pink, cream, herbaceous greens, and rust. Whether it’s a few soft throw pillows, gold-framed artwork, sheets, or a set of Arabesque-inspired coasters, I choose my colors that remind me of Sicilian cities.
I built a little sacred space inspired by Sicily.
Traveling through the island, I recognized my grandmother’s love of richly-decorated altar spaces, where a dresser top or windowsill functioned as a flower-laden, candle-adorned prayer space or spot for keepsakes and memories. I remember tinkering at her altars as a young girl, finding little prayer cards and notes under burning candles. In Sicily, these altars were indoors at restaurants and shops as well as in the streets.
In my home, I, too, create altars for reflection and ancestral homage. I decorate them with candles, photographs of loved ones, and, of course, things that evoke Sicilian culture: a Greek head vase full of fresh flowers, a plant (Italian rosemary), a couple of bright lemons, and charms (Sicilian ornaments like the evil eye or chilis). In a sense, these devotional items bring positive energy into the home and keep spirits high when things get tough. These spots call on a specific resilience that Southern Italians and Sicilians know all too well.
Light and air are priorities in my space.
My Brooklyn apartment is fortunate to get plenty of light and fresh air from huge bay windows on both of its ends. With access to balconies or double shuttered windows, Italian homes also prioritize light and air. For an island so connected to nature – so rooted in outdoors work and catching the daily meal — having access to sun and air must be one way to stay aligned with nature.
Fun fact: In some Italian folk practices, the helpful Italian house spirit “bella ‘mbriana’ must be kept happy with a clean home full of fresh air. So I open my windows daily.
For me, my home calls on small moments of Sicilian beauty. I’m not afraid to embrace the baroque, I’m intentional with Mediterranean colors, and I make sure every corner’s not just beautiful but meaningful.
Perhaps my ancestral homeland’s love for tending to beauty is a way of celebrating the domestic — the home and family? Perhaps it’s also a way of reclaiming a sense of home after constant shifting powers, immense poverty, and political turmoil? Either way, who can resist Sicily’s gorgeous natural colors? Beauty is fun, and it’s good for the human heart.