Palermo, Sicily – discovering the unknown unknown…

On my first trip to Sicily a local guide looked me in the eye and candidly asserted, ‘Nobody passed us by’. She was referring to the endless stream of invaders who arrived on Sicily’s shores and seized control of the land and it’s resources in the name of some far away king or queen. Greeks, Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs, Normans and Spanish, they all controlled parts of Sicily at some point during the last two thousand years. This combination of cultures created a rich, complicated tapestry of art, architecture and religion. A legacy of African, European and Arabic styles in a heady, chaotic melange.

WALKING through the streets of Palermo you can see a huge Norman Castle (built by the French), Byzantine Churches from the 12th century (eastern and exotic in style) and literally hundreds of Baroque Palaces built for Spanish aristocrats in the 18th century. The historic centre of Palermo is fascinating, vibrant and chaotic.

IN A SMALL SQUARE outside the town hall is the spectacular, frothy and hedonistic Fontana Pretoria. A layered fountain decorated with naked gods and goddesses, frolicking in a series of marble basins. The fountain was commissioned in the 16th century by a wealth Spanish aristocrat and built in Florence. It was then shipped to Palermo and installed in Piazza Pretoria, where the nudity of the statues caused much consternation amongst the pious Sicilians. They called it ‘Fontana Vergogna’ meaning embarrassment or disgrace! Immediately opposite ‘Fontana Vergogna’ is Palermo University and here, in what appeared to be the former porter’s lodge of the building, I discovered the newly opened ‘Stanza di Carta’, a brand new bookshop, selling rare and unusual books.

THE STANZA DI CARTA is a rather small bookshop. It is very, very tiny indeed. Downstairs it probably measures about 10 feet by 10 feet, upstairs there’s a minuscule gallery which runs round the circumference of the shop at mezzanine level. It’s wide enough for a person to walk along, without moving sideways. There’s also a seating area, with two chairs and a bow window overlooking the street below. I spent ages looking at the windows of the shop, before going inside. Each window had been covered with sheets of A4 paper. Each piece of paper had a quote printed on it in large letters. I was busy translating these sentences in my head. One was a quotation by Mark Forsyth:

‘The perfect book, the one that answers all the questions you didn’t know you had, is on the high shelf, in the corner, pulling your hand towards it. The unknown unknown, those things which you didn’t know you didn’t know, are there awaiting you, at the back of the bookshop’.

Translation – The perfect book, the one that answers all the questions you didn’t know you had, is on the high shelf, in the corner, pulling your hand towards it. The Unknown Unknown, those things which you didn’t know you didn’t know, is there awaiting you, at the back of the bookshop.

The quotation, in Italian, attributed to Mark Forsyth, clearly an Anglo-Saxon name, intrigued and perplexed me. Although the name Mark Forsyth sounded familiar I didn’t know who he was or his claim to fame. Also, what exactly was the ‘Unknown unknown’ (that was familiar to me too) but what did it mean? At that moment the owner of the bookshop beckoned for me to go inside. I was reluctant to enter – it was a very small shop and the books looked very old and very obscure. However Pietro Onorato was determined that I would visit his shop and admire the eclectic collection of leather-bound volumes filling the wooden shelves that stretched from floor to ceiling, covering every inch of wall space.

OXFORD, ENGLAND – He asked me where I was from and when I replied Oxford, England my fate was sealed. Surely I must know Mark Forsyth? Was he a friend or just a mere acquaintance? I hadn’t the heart to tell Signor Onorato that I didn’t know Mr Mark Forsyth, so I just mumbled something incoherent and busied myself examining the books and the tiny, mouse-sized gallery. Once inside the ‘Stanza di Carta‘ I felt like I’d entered Doctor Who’s tardis. Everywhere I looked there was an interesting book to examine and a hidden corner to discover. The words of Mark Forsyth kept rattling around in my head. The Unknown unknown. L’Ignoto ignoto.  Suddenly I remembered the familiar source of those words it was Donald Rumsfeld, US Secretary of State in the Bush administration at the time of the invasion of Iraq. When he itemised the known knowns, the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns. The man was making a good point. The most interesting category is the ‘unknown unknowns’. In other words the things that we don’t know we don’t know. Mark Forsyth then took Rumsfeld’s words and used them to explain the delight and joy in discovering a book in a bookshop that we didn’t even know we were looking for! In Italian the sub-title of L’Ignoto ignoto can be translated as, ‘Bookshops and the pleasure of not finding what you are looking for’. It’s all about the charm of the unexpected….

L'ignoto ignoto - The Unknown unknown, a short essay by Mark Forsyth
L’ignoto ignoto – The Unknown unknown, a short essay by Mark Forsyth

At that moment, Signor Onorato appeared at my side and offered me a gift. It was a copy of Mark Forsyth’s essay in Italian. A present for me to take away and enjoy. I accepted gratefully. He explained that Forsyth’s essay on the perfect bookshop, which need only be one room, or perhaps two, in size, had inspired him to open his characterful bookshop in Palermo. Much later the same day as I travelled high above the Mediterranean bound for northerly latitudes, I started reading L’Ignoto ignoto. Not only had I discovered a perfect bookshop in Palermo, I’d also discovered the talent of Mark Forsyth. I’m going to have to read him in english one day soon.

La Stanza di Carta, Bookshop, Palermo
La Stanza di Carta, Bookshop, Palermo

Translation – In this small and well-organised bookshop, one room (or perhaps two), there’s a book on the table, just one. If you buy it many secrets will be revealed to you.

L'ignoto ignoto - The Unknown unknown, a short essay by Mark Forsyth
L’ignoto ignoto – The Unknown unknown, a short essay by Mark Forsyth


  • The ‘Stanza di Carta’ officially opened in April, 2019. A lifelong passion for books inspired Pietro Onorato to open this magical and idiosyncratic bookshop. An article about him and the shop appeared on news platform Meridio News, Palermo in late March, 2019: La Stanza di Carta – Bookshop
  • Palermo is a superbly interesting city, I’d suggest staying at a luxury B & B called L’Hotellerie, run by the charming Fresia Colajanni.  Located on the waterfront at Foro Italico, 15 mins walk from Piazza Pretoria & the delightful ‘Stanza di Carta’. L’Hotellerie, Palermo
  • Mark Forsyth is a highly respected British writer. His work often concerns the meaning and etymology of English words. He is the author of several best-selling books including ‘The Etymologican’ and ‘The Horologicon’.
  • He also has a blog: Inky Fool blog
  • Donald Rumsfeld actually said (February, 2002):  ‘Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones’.
Palermo, Sicily - view from L'Hotellerie B&B
Palermo, Sicily – view from L’Hotellerie B&B

Written: August 2019

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