How “The White Lotus” Found Frisky Inspiration in a Real-Life Sicilian Villa

The neoclassical palazzo that sets the scene for the “Bull Elephants” episode is in keeping with creator Mike White’s knack for making place as much a character in the story as people.
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Sometimes you just need a vacation from your vacation. That’s certainly the case on this week’s episode of The White Lotus (Season 2, Episode 3), when Daphne (Meghann Fahy) hijacks a girls’ trip to Noto, Sicily, surprising Harper (Aubrey Plaza) with an unexpected overnight stay in a gorgeous Italian palazzo she saw online. There, the gals swim, snack, and get stoned—not necessarily in that order—ultimately finding common ground in their shared humanity. (Little do they know, however, that their husbands are getting into a whole heap of trouble back at the Lotus.)  

The real-life filming location for the Sicilian palazzo that appears in the "Bull Elephants" episode of The White Lotus: Sicily is the privately owned Villa Tasca in Palermo, Sicily.  

The real-life filming location for the Sicilian palazzo that appears in the "Bull Elephants" episode of The White Lotus: Sicily is the privately owned Villa Tasca in Palermo, Sicily.  

The three-story Sicilian palazzo where the ladies spend the night is known in real life as Villa Tasca, and actually sits in the coastal capital, Palermo, far from the southern city of Noto. First built in 1565 by the Baron de Montefalco as a summer hunting lodge, the historic house underwent various renovations until the 1700s, when it assumed its current form. The neoclassical villa sits on a large plot of land right smack in the middle of town, near the road to the Norman town of Monreale. Much of the current garden has been in place since the 1800s, making the bay fig, cypress, and stone fir trees some of the most mature in the region. There are multiple artificial lakes and ponds situated across the property’s 20 acres—including one inhabited by three swans—as well as a grotto, an artificial mountain, and a circular temple dedicated to Ceres, the Roman god of agriculture. The property also boasts both a Romantic and "Irregolare" gardens, the latter of which takes John Claudius Loudon’s traditional English gardenesque style and flips it on its head a bit, filling in the plant beds and pots with more climate-appropriate plants like palms, cycads, and a massive Norfolk Island Pine. 

Numerous luminaries have graced the estate over the years, including Italian violinist Niccolò Paganini, German aristocrat Otto Von Bismarck, former U.S. first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and, most notably, German opera composer Richard Wagner, who stayed on the property while he was writing the third act of Parsifal. That elite guest list extends to Hollywood productions, as well: The White Lotus is only the second production to ever shoot at the private villa, according to owner Giuseppe Tasca, who said the first was 1974’s Il viaggio, starring Sophia Loren and Richard Burton. ("I was very young, so I don’t remember much," Tasca says. "I know it was only a couple of days, and they had to send me me out of my room because Sophia Loren had to get in.")  

The hit TV series landed at Tasca’s villa thanks to his friendship with travel expert Emily Fitzroy, who was enlisted by HBO to help scout locations for the show’s second season. She’d previously helped the network craft Succession’s extravagant Tuscany getaway and says that when she heard The White Lotus was looking for sites in Italy, she immediately thought of Sicily. "Sicily is so different from the rest of Italy," she says. "It’s got this magic spell and you can totally fall in love with this weird, intoxicating island and the people that are on it." She says she also liked the idea that Sicily is "another wild, volcanic, slightly savage place," much like Hawaii, the setting for The White Lotus’s first season. 

Aubrey Plaza as Harper Spiller on the second season of the hit HBO series.

Aubrey Plaza as Harper Spiller on the second season of the hit HBO series.

FitzRoy herself was married on the Italian island some years ago, and that’s when she met Tasca. She’s been putting travelers up in his villa ever since (the private residence can be booked for events and holiday rentals), sitting down with the owner a few times a year for a drink. In the summer of 2021, she brought The White Lotus creator Mike White along for one of those drinks, and he and Tasca hit it off. Tasca invited White to his palazzo, and White decided it would be a perfect location to use at some point in the show.  

FitzRoy says that convincing Tasca to let White and the show into the villa wasn’t all that complicated. "Having done Succession, I knew that HBO has huge respect for the locations they work in, so there was never a worry about anything being trashed," she says. "These are very much houses that are not open to the general public that would typically never say yes to a big film crew coming in and spending weeks, if not months, with them, but I can hold their hands and say to the owners, ‘It’s my neck on the line if anything goes wrong.’"  

"It was pretty scary in the beginning, but they were very professional," Tasca says. "Mike White was almost like a football manager, cheering, ‘Let’s go!’" I didn’t expect everybody to be working hard while also in a fantastic mood. Everybody was smiling."

The walls and ceilings of the Piano Nobile room are entirely decorated with frescoes. 

The walls and ceilings of the Piano Nobile room are entirely decorated with frescoes. 

While at the palatial home, White also fell in love with the muted frescoes depicting whimsical revelers and gods. Tasca calls the pastoral paintings slightly "anthropocentric," explaining, "the man [in the drawings] is always in the middle of a sin." These somewhat suggestive frescoes were so inspiring to White that their influence actually extended beyond the boundaries of the "Bull Elephants" episode, even becoming the inspiration for the season’s opening credits, though both FitzRoy and Tasca say the production team took some liberties when it came to making the drawings a little more racy. "I think they’ve tweaked some of the ones to make them a bit ruder than they are, even though they are quite rude," FitzRoy says. "When I saw the beginning of the show, I was like, ‘Oh, I’ve never seen that before,’" Tasca adds. "When you live someplace, you don’t always see the details. I only later realized they added different parts to the designs."  

As is always the case in The White Lotus, Villa Tasca isn’t just a pretty background for the episode, but an integral part of the inner workings of the characters. The girls take full advantage of the home’s grand sun-soaked natural pool, with a half-submerged Daphne telling Harper she really just wants her husband to believe the pair didn’t come back to the resort because they’re "living it up in some sick palazzo," making the villa not just a residence, but also a pawn in a long game of relationship chess. Later, in a bit of naughty foreshadowing in the episode, Plaza’s Harper gets wacked out of her mind on a weed edible and stares at the Piano Nobile room’s intricate frescoes as if they’re a window into a parallel dimension or time, and a very stoned Harper and snack-happy Daphne take advantage of the room’s cushy couches to have a revealing chat about whether their husbands cheat. 

Villa Tasca and its luxe details ended up not being the only thing that made an impression on White, either: The director also ended up casting its owner in the series. Viewers can see the amiable Sicilian in his element in the "Bull Elephants" episode giving Fahy and Plaza’s characters a tour of his beloved villa. It’s something that comes natural to Tasca, who says he’s both proud of the home’s history and excited about its future: "It’s a very old home, but it’s very nice to keep it alive in a dynamic way."  

Top photo courtesy of Mondadori Portfolio Editorial / Getty Images.

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