Competing for attention with 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 an 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 (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 have escaped such a gruesome fate for the time being. The precision of this astonishing work, including details of the horse’s nostrils 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, 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, who captured this likeness of Eleanor, daughter of King Ferdinand I of Naples, shortly before she married Ercole d’Este in 1468 and became the duchess of Ferrara. In room 11, Antonello da Messina's “Annunciation” is probably the artist’s most famous work, completed in 1476 in Venice. He depicts the Virgin as an adolescent girl, sitting at a desk with a devotional book in front of her, 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. Considering that news, her expression is remarkably serene. It's one of the most lovely and calming works anywhere.