Palermo – Renaissance architecture – Fontana di Pretoria

There is very little Renaissance architecture in Palermo, partly due to its physical distance from Florence and Rome, but also because of the lingering influence of the dominant Norman style. By contrast Messina, only two kilometres from the mainland, was much more amenable to the prevailing tides of architectural fashion from outside the island (my posts here).

The only notable example, other than a handful of churches and the odd palace, is the High Renaissance Fontana Pretoria, an ornamental water fountain located in Piazza Pretoria, a central square adjacent to Quattro Canti, another famous sight that is a symbol of the city (see next post). You’ll find all these places on my map.

The three-tier fountain revolves around a central basin surrounded by four bridges of stairways enclosed by balustrades.

Between the flights of stairs on the middle tier are four large basins decorated with sculptural groups representing allegories of rivers, consisting of a colossal statue lying on a cliff flanked by a newt and a nereid.

Classically these sculpture groups represent the father of all rivers, the Nile, and two of its two tributaries, as well as the Hippocrene, a river of Greek mythology. After transportation to Palermo, they were renamed for the major waterways in the city (the Papireto, Maredolce, Oreto and the Gabriele o Cariopele).

The fountain became locally known as the Fontana della Vergogna, the “fountain of shame”, partly because of the nude statues that stand around the base but also because of the disproportionate sums paid to purchase and maintain it. Due to its position in front of the city hall, it became a representation of municipal corruption.

Other statues depict fables, monsters, tritons, neirids and nymphs, many spraying jets of water. The fountain was originally commissioned by Luigi Alvarez de Toledo and completed in 1555 by Florentine artist Franscesco Cammilliani, with the help of Michelangelo Naccerino. However Alvarez was forced to reign in his spending so the fountain was sold to the city of Palermo, dismantled into 644 pieces for transportion, and reassembled by Camillo Camilliani (son of Franscesco) in Palermo some twenty years later.

Of the original 48 statues, a few pieces were lost in transit (some possibly kept by Alvarez), others were damaged and a few more were added to make the fountain more suitable for Palermo. The latter include a Venus (I presume the recumbent female figure representing a river above) by Antonio Gagini (from the famous local family of sculptors) and a statue of Bacchus, who tops the fountain, which was remodelled to identify with the Genius of Palermo (a symbol of the city, see later post).

For a few euros you can get a great view of the fountain from the roof of the Chiesa e Monastero di Santa Caterina d’Alessandria (the marzipan monastry, see later post) which overlooks Piazza Pretoria. In the past you could also get a view for free, from the roof of the city hall Palazzo Pretoria, but this wasn’t possible when I went during the Covid pandemic.

On to the Baroque next!

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