Nel 1901 viene pubblicato a New York e a Londra un diario di viaggio scritto dal prolifico autore inglese Douglas Sladen. Dal titolo In Sicily, racconta i suoi viaggi in Sicilia negli anni 1896, 1898 e 1900. Mentre il primo volume è dedicato a Taormina, Siracusa, Enna (all’epoca Castrogiovanni) e Agrigento (all’epoca Girgenti), il secondo volume narra il soggiorno a Palermo e varie escursioni a Marsala, Trapani, Erice, Selinunte, Segesta, Cefalù, Bagheria e Solunto. L’autore visita in modo approfondito la capitale siciliana e dedica addirittura un intero capitolo ai cimiteri della città, nel quale descrive il campo santo di Santa Maria di Gesù e quello di Santo Spirito.
Sono riportati qui sotto i brani riferiti al cimitero di Santo Spirito, accompagnati nel libro da una fotografia Alinari. Nel corso della passeggiata Sladen evoca i rivoluzionari uccisi nel 1848 e 1860, per i quali un monumento commemorativo era stato eretto una decina d’anni prima, nel 1885, su progetto di Damiani Almeyda. Egli resta affascinato dalla bellezza del luogo e ritiene addirittura che pochi monumenti funerari hanno il cattivo gusto di quelli visti nel cimitero di Staglieno a Genova. Inoltre resta particolarmente colpito di fronte a una tomba protestante inglese, realizzata in uno spazio recintato vicino alla chiesa dei Vespri: si tratta probabilmente del luogo di sepoltura dei diplomatici stranieri vittime del colera nel 1837, dove sorge ora un monumento sul quale è apposta una targa con i loro nomi.
With all its glorious memories of Sicilian independence and its beauty of arrangement, S. Spirito, the Cemetery of the Vespers, is not the most popular cemetery at Palermo. Anyone who can afford it likes to be buried at the Gesu.
[…] but the cemetery in use to-day was not established till five hundred years afterwards, when it was ordered by the Viceroy Caracciolo. It was filled to overflowing almost in a day during the cholera epidemic of 1837, and its boundaries were consequently enlarged. It belongs to the Confraternity of S. Ursula. In front of the church are buried Revolutionists who died for their country in 1848 and 1860.
[…] One the most charming features about this ancient historical church is its situation on the lofty banks of the rushing Oreto, from which it is only separated by a narrow strip of churchyard and a low parapet. Across the river rises a glorious panorama of mountains. Palermo is enclosed between a horseshoe rim of lofty mountains and the sea.
THE CEMETERY OF S. SPIRITO
It is difficult to imagine a more appropriate place for the long sleep than this graveyard of the Vespers Church at Palermo, for within the swift, golden river and the mountains which stand out clear against the sky, as clear as the nimbus of a saint, there is a quiet God’s acre where marble and flowers fill the spaces between the closest and most cypress avenues I have ever seen. All sorts of burial-places crowd the cypress alleys, and a very few of them are in the shocking taste which is so rampant in the Campo Santo of Genoa, or indeed the average campo santo in Italy. A few there are, such as the bust of Pietro Gangia, with its absurd mutton-chop whiskers ; but scarf-pins and billycock are laudably absent. There is one exquisite angel and child. The feature of this cemetery, like that of S. Maria di Gesu a little further out, consists in its noble chapel tombs, which have altars and seats for the mourning family as well as niches for the wealthy and lamented dead. Some of these chapel tombs are the work of the best architects, and cost as much as two thousand pounds. Family pride can be traced on some which bear no name, but only a coat-of-arms which every Sicilian may be expected to recognise ; others are full of mementos, from black and white metal flowers to photographs and bead crosses.
The beautiful cypresses, in quadrated rows, do indeed shelter all sorts and conditions of tombs. At least four confraternities have club burial-ground, in which a member is buried before a long procession of his fellow members, dressed in the misericordia costume of a cloak, generally white, which envelops the whole person, and another which goes over the head with piercings only for the eyes and nose. The cemetery proper belongs to the Confraternity of S. Orsola, but is adjoined on the south side by the catacomb enclosures of the Confraternities del Angelo Custode, del Paradiso, and del Rosario. Perhaps the two most striking featured in this most majestic of the graveyards of Sicily are an English Protestant tomb, erected in a separate enclosure next to the church at a date when in most parts of Sicily Protestants could not be buried in hallowed ground, and had to be hidden away in private gardens or caverns, like the catacombs of Syracuse, to escape being violated, and an English Bible text on an Italian tomb. […] It is a beautiful sight, this ancient and symmetrical church, with its elegant arcading of alternated brown stone and lava, standing against a background of lemon groves in tall, rough-cast walls. All the open space to which the Palermitans came on the Easter Tuesday of 1282 for the sports, at which the revolt was to begin, are now covered with the cypresses graveyard or expanses of lemon groves.
Douglas Sladen, In Sicily, vol. II, New York: E. P. Dutton and Co., London: Sands and Co., 1901, pp. 132-134 e 168