Center stage at this fine collection is the late–15th century palazzo that houses it, built around two courtyards and beautifully restored in the 1950s. On display is the array of the arts in Sicily from the 13th to the 18th centuries, though it’s hard to get beyond the gallery’s most celebrated work, the “Trionfo della Morte” (“Triumph of Death”). Dating from 1449 and of uncertain attribution, this huge study in black and gray is prominently displayed in a two-story ground-floor gallery (once you’ve looked at it up close, climb the stairs to the balcony for an overview). Death has never looked worse—a fearsome skeletal demon astride an undernourished steed, brandishing a scythe as he leaps over his victims (allegedly members of Palermo aristocracy, who were none too pleased with the portrayal). The painter is believed to have depicted himself in the fresco, seen with an apprentice praying in vain for release from the horrors of Death; the poor and hungry, looking on from the side, have escaped such a gruesome fate for the time being. The precision of this astonishing work, including the details of the nose of the horse and the men and women in the full flush of their youth, juxtaposed against such darkness, suggests the Surrealism movement that came to the fore 400 years later.
The second masterpiece of the gallery, at the end of the corridor exhibiting Arab ceramics in room 4, is a refreshing antidote, and also quite modern looking: the white-marble, slanted-eyed bust of “Eleonora di Aragona,” by Francesco Laurana. The Dalmatian-born sculptor was in Sicily from 1466 to 1471, and he captured this likeness of Eleanor, daughter of King Ferdinand I of Naples, shortly before she married Ercole d’Este and became the duchess of Ferrara. Of the Sicilians, Antonello da Messina stands out, with an Annunciation (room 11). It is one of the two Annunciations he painted; the other is at the Bellomo museum in Siracusa. This one is probably the artist’s most famous work, and he completed it in 1476 while in Venice. He depicts the Virgin as an adolescent girl, sitting at a desk with a devotional book in front of her and clasping her cloak modestly to her chest. She raises her hand, seemingly to us viewers but probably to Gabriel, who has just delivered the news that she is to be the mother of the son of God, about which she looks remarkably serene. It is one of the most lovely and calming works anywhere.