In a much discussed passage in his essay on the uncanny, Sigmund Freud described getting lost in Genoa and walking in circles only to return unwittingly and repeatedly to a site of the city’s (and his) repressed fears and desires, the red-light district. During my trajectories through Palermo over the years I have often returned, despite myself, to the Ucciardone prison. Looping through unfamiliar back streets near the docks and, as if sleepwalking, once more bumping into the towering pock-marked walls of this notorious early nineteenth century Bourbon institution.
Often referred to in the past as ‘the university of the mafia’ or ‘the mafia hotel’, in recent years the Ucciardone has been largely superseded by a new complex, the Pagliarelli, out on the city’s ring road; nonetheless it still holds many prisoners. As a structure of power and site of affect-laden memory it remains unsettling and alienating. Its brutal performance of authority, the lingering spectres of those it has incarcerated, the unimaginable violence and suffering it has contained, all conspire to conjure a gravitational pull that seems to haunt and suck so much of the life out of this area of the city.
Writing in 1956, a few months after his release from the Ucciardone, the activist and pacifist Danilo Dolci remembers the “pained eager eyes” of long-term prisoners “watching intently through the bars two cats copulating in the garden below, while the prison radio blared out a boxing match; and, high on the outside wall, one could read the hypocritical carved words: Omnia vincit amor” (quoted in McNeish, Fire Under the Ashes, 1965: 134).
Today the prison somehow finds me again, but this time I determine to contest its toxic power in some pissy act of resistance by walking its circumference while wishing away its raisons d’être: lasso it within the dream of the city being able to enact a better version of itself, something like that. Years beforehand, I had found a tiny niche in the prison wall from within which a faded miniature of Santa Rosalia looked out impassively at passersby, a skull balanced on a red bible in one hand, the powdery remains of flowers at her feet. There’s no sign of her today, just an abject corridor of traffic fumes, abandoned trash, dog shit, graffiti (FORZA NUOVA CONTRA IL COMMUNISMO), gouges in the stone, bodged repairs.
Every twenty paces or so, I take a photograph of the surface of the wall with the vague notion of reconfiguring its architectural integrity by creating a composite linear collage that could be laid out flat like a pathway, rolled into a Mobius strip or punctured with portals giving on to other vistas of love conquering all.
Then a sudden shout in Italian from above:
- ‘Ey Americano! Buon giorno!’
Looking up over the wall, the grilled window of one end-of-block cell is just visible from the street, sun-bleached rags and old clothing hanging from the metal bars. Two pairs of hands wave enthusiastically, a tiny flutter of humanity, and I wave back.
- ‘Hello hello! What are you doing?’
It’s a young man’s voice. His face remains invisible, just his hands and those of a silent cellmate in the afternoon light. I cup my hands to my mouth and shout back:
- ‘I’m walking and looking’.
- ‘A posto! Great! … Will you walk and look for me?’