A small medieval village in the Park of Madonie with a delightful, still well preserved old town that captivates you from the very first moment, the town develops around the castle of Ventimiglia, near a Byzantine hamlet called Ypsigro. Walking through its narrow streets, is like entering another dimension, it’s like seeing a parade of knights and beautiful ladies wearing rustling brocade clothes and complicated hairstyles. Not by chance, at the beginning of summertime, during the ”Infiorata of Castelbuono”, the historical parades really take place through wonderful tapestries of fresh flowers.
We start our journey from the beautiful Old Madrice. Built in the fourteenth century on the ruins of a pagan temple, the church is preceded by a Renaissance portico added in the 16th century and enriched by a portal in Catalan style. The interior, originally with three naves, has been expanded to four at the end of the fifteenth century. A magnificent polyptych dominates the main altar, a true masterpiece depicting Christ enthroned in majesty with saints, attributed by some scholars to Antonello de Saliba, by others to Peter Ruzzolone.
The lovely marble statue of Our Lady of the Angels by Antonello Gagini and the fresco depicting the Marriage of the Virgin dating back to 15th century, are other wonders not to be missed. Some of the columns separating the aisles, are decorated with frescoes of saints among which stands out for its elegance and delicacy the one portraying St. Catherine of Alexandria. The crypt is entirely frescoed (XVI sec.) with episodes of the passion, death and resurrection of Christ.
Castelbuono is, therefore, a little enchanted jewel and, as in any respectable fairy tale, there must be a castle and here’s an impressive one!
It was built by the powerful Count Francesco I Ventimiglia in 1317, upon an existing watchtower of the 12th century. It hosted the court of one of the most influential families of Sicilian history, even more powerful than the Vicerè!
These potent counts, who rebelled against the Sicilian rulers, had their Palatine Chapel which is still a precious casket, with wonderful stucco on the bottom of pure gold leaves decorated by the brothers Giuseppe and Giacomo Serpotta (1684-87); behind the altar, kept in a fine, silver reliquary bust of 1521, is the skull of St. Anne, the patron saint of the village.
Today the Castle of Ventimiglia is the seat of the Civic Museum of Castelbuono with its several sections: Archeology, Urbanism, Sacred, Modern and Contemporary Art. Its rich program of exhibitions and cultural activities makes it a dynamic landmark for research, meetings and experimentations .
The Natural History Museum Francesco Mina Palumbo was born from the passion of an enthusiast, fond of botany doctor who lived in 800 that devoted himself to the collection of the botanical species, reptiles and insects of Madonie, classifying and recording them very accurately.
Another small wonder is the Church of St. Francis, dating back to the 4th century , with the annexed Ventimiglias Mausoleum, a late medieval, octagonal building which can be accessed from the church through a Renaissance, marble portal in lauranesco style and which houses the tombs of the Ventimiglias, lords of Castelbuono.
Along the nave of the church towards the exit, in the choir, you can admire one of the three oldest pipe organs of Italy, dated 1547, which still keeps all the original mechanical components: hearing its sound is like taking a leap into the past.
Not far, the New Madrice, dating to seventeenth century, which houses a valuable cross painted on the bottom of pure gold and a frame with thistle leaves (XV century), but also the beautiful Lamentation over the dead Christ by Joseph Velasco and two magnificent baroque altars with twisted columns by Giuseppe Serpotta.
Along the main street, the Fountain of Venus Ciprea (rebuilt in 1614) with Andromeda above, Venus and Cupid in the central niche and four bas-reliefs with mythological scenes related to the theme of love.
As in any kingdom there is also an old Bank of the Court in the heart of the city, let’s try to get in. Up a staircase we come to the clock tower where you can see and hear the ticking of time through a device that, since 1885, with its gears in motion, relentless beats the hours, minutes and seconds.
Castelbuono is also known for its manna, a whitish stalactite, vaguely sweet, hanging from the ashes of Castelbuono and the nearby Pollina: the sap of these trees comes out from the incisions made on stems and branches and, once dried under the hot summer sun, it is collected and used as a sweetener, laxative, depurative and even for cosmetical and medicinal purposes. The manna, in fact, has important features and can be used to treat various diseases. A recently born consortium of young producers is working to revive the culture of the manna.
Also very delicious are the panettone, the typical christams cake, and the Easter Dove cakes flavoured with manna, now exported throughout the world.
It would be great to come here early in the morning and to see the street cleaners donkeys! Yes, they are the ones who collect the bags, cleaning up the country from top to bottom, even along the narrowest streets, where cars can not drive. But the donkeys carry also culture: sometimes they turn into press agents advertising, along their path, the events organized by the Civic Museum.
Finally, let’s relax under the sun and sit at a table of one of the inevitable cafés in the main square, in the midst of this relaxed atmosphere, yet teeming with life.
Castelbuono comes alive especially in the summer, in July, during the feast of St. Anne. With the Key handing over ceremony, the court of Ventimiglia resumes to parade through the streets of the city, especially in August, when, on the occasion of the ‘Ypsigrock Festival, the city is filled with young people and new sounds.