the insects of the “magician prince” of Palermo in a unique collection

An emblematic figure of Palermo, Prince Raniero Alliata di Pietratagliata had the reputation of being a “black magician”, passionate about occultism and paranormal phenomena

It took ten years of painstaking work to put in order the vast collection of insects created in 50 years by the nobleman, esotericist and entomologist Raniero Alliata of Pietratagliata, which today is accessible thanks to the first ever publication of the taxonomic catalog “Insects of the Prince“.

A peculiar and emblematic figure, who lived in Palermo between the end of the 19th century and the 20th century, he died in 1979, he was called by all the “magician prince” for his reputation as “black magician”, Passionate about occultism, theosophy, spiritism and paranormal phenomena.

A highly cultured man, recognized in 1903 as Prince of the Holy Roman Empire, he was a point of reference for many intellectuals of the time, from Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa to the poet Lucio Piccolo, from Gioacchino Lanza Tomasi to Bent Parodi.

With a difficult character – bordering on misanthropy according to what was reported by those who had the opportunity to interact with him – it is said that, after losing a large sum of money, he developed this aversion to interpersonal relationships and spontaneously confined himself – from 1925 until his death – between the walls of the Villa Alliata di Pietratagliata (located in via Serradifalco in Palermo), a neo-Gothic jewel, built by his father on a project by the architect Francesco Paolo Palazzotto.

It was in these years of isolation from the world (very few times he left the Villa, in search of specimens of insects in the surroundings) that Raniero Alliata put to use a collection, which can be defined monumental, of insects which, forty years later, thanks to the commitment and patience of Fabio Lo Valvo, today it is usable by everyone, not just by professionals.

They refer to his research, and above all to painstaking cataloging, about 90 thousand specimens, of three thousand different species, placed, scientifically (and now we will tell you in what sense) in 465 boxes, often made ad hoc (like the one that houses the butterflies, with double glass so as to allow the perfect vision of the same).

“The collection – Fabio Lo Valvo, scientific curator of the taxonomic catalog told us – is truly unique in its kind, both for the quantity of specimens it contemplates, and for the supply of scientific information, intuitions and, last but not least, drawings made by the Raniero Alliata himself, material kept at the Terrasini Regional Museum of Natural History“.

However, we need to take a step back to get to today and better understand the significance of this all material.

After the death of the “magician prince”, those who considered themselves “eternal”, having no direct heirs (he married a woman of Norwegian origin at an old age but had no children) and not even many friends (it is said that only five were present at his funeral people) his properties, or rather, what was left – considering that over the years he had sold many of the possessions to support himself – including the collection of insects, it passed to Chiaramonte Bordonaro family.

The latter, having to face the debts left by the prince, began to recover money by selling the furnishings of the villa, the villa itself (passed from the hands of a mafioso and for this confiscated, now owned by a private person who is renovating it) and also the collection of insects bought in 1986 by the Sicilian Region (for 50 million lire) and kept since then in cabinets (some originals) in the Study Collections Room of the Terrasini Museum, which until now can only be used by scholars.

«Each box – Lo Valvo told us – is a work of art in itself. Reconstructing all the undated writings, for which the work was even more difficult, and pinning them on every type of support – from the back of receipts, to the cartons of the pasta packs, to the address books, in short, on every support that came to his hands – we deduced that Prince Alliata was not only an enthusiast or a curious one.

Hers was one real obsession which led to the identification of species, rare and not – mirroring the naturalistic variety of the past that no longer exists in the city, for this reason of inestimable value – also specifying the individual variations found on the body of each specimen.

It is possible to hypothesize, in fact, that he prepared these boxes, like a Mendeleev periodic table, arranging the place for every single variant of the species.

Also for this dynamic the Prince’s collection is one of a kind, an insect cannot be moved from one place to another, it would alter the study and evolution of the same species.

In Italy, and beyond, I would like to say, there is no collection of this scientific and cultural importance ».

The added value of this work that has become a catalog – the first publication of Prince Alliata (in life he only published tables accompanying the publication on Sicilian birds by Mario Mariani), is the site that accompanies the pages of the book.

On the portal set up, in fact, it can be consulted from anywhere in the world thanks to the texts in English, you can see all 465 boxes of insects, discovering with your own eyes the exceptional care that Raniero Alliata spent in this project.

“I received applause both for the catalog and for the site from many parts not only of Italy but above all from the experts who, in this historical moment but in general always, through the site have the possibility to access the collection at any time “.

The catalog, waiting for the Sicilian Region to systematize the distribution for those who want to buy it online, can be consulted at the Info point of the Sicilian Region.

«We have taken great care – concluded Lo Valvo – also to the graphics of the catalog, edited by Guido Mapelli, keeping faith with the meticulous attention with which the prince created the collection; for this I also wanted to affix the monogram, made by the prince himself, with his initials ».

The catalog contains, in addition to the texts and a selection of shots (edited by Guido Mapelli, Clara Mapelli and Toti Bommaritoche) that reproduce part of the collection, also very rare photos of Prince Alliata, made by Melo Minnella.