Palermo – Baroque architecture – gates & fountains

As you might expect, there is a lot of Baroque in Palermo. So much so that the next four posts will be about it. There’ll be posts on Baroque Churches and another on the stucco work of Giacomo Serpotta. This post has all the leftover bits that have nowhere else to go. Gates and fountains feature a lot.

Just a block away from the Fontana Pretoria (previous post) is Quattro Canti, an octagonal piazza at the intersection of the city’s two principal streets; Via Vittorio Emanuele (aka the Cassaro, the oldest street in the city, laid down by the Phonecians) and Via Maqueda (laid out in the 16th century when it was called Strada Nuova).

The four corners mark the starting points of the four historical neighbourhoods of the old city; Il Capo to the northwest, La Loggia to the northeast, La Kalsa to the southeast and L’Albergheria to the southwest. Constructed betweem 1609 and 1620 by Giulio Lasso during the period of Spanish rule, the four buildings around the circus together represent the earliest example of Baroque in Sicily. The actual name of the square is Piazza Vigliena, after the Spanish viceroy who commissioned it, but locals refer to it as Quattro Canti.

When I first came to Palermo, Quattro Canti was polluted and traffic-choked but since 2015 both Via Vittorio Emanuele and Via Maqueda have been pedestrianised, which has greatly improved everyone’s experience of the city. Once again it’s a place where people can come to meet, and where buskers can ply their trade (video here).

As you can see in the video, the four near-identical facades have canted corners and are curved to heighten the effect of the design (both typical features of Baroque). The buildings each have three floors with a fountain at their base, the basin of which is topped by a statue of one of the four seasons. The fountains are reminiscent of the Quattro Fontane in Rome, from which Quattro Canti takes inspiration (my post here).

However, unlike Quattro Fontane, the Baroque theme continues up the facade of the buildings. On the second level are statues of the four Spanish kings of Sicily in recessed niches.

And on the third storey we can see the four patronesses of the four historical neighbourhoods, respectively the Saints Cristina, Ninfa, Olivia, and Agata. The Sicilian royal coat of arms sits atop.

Another important gate (marking the beginning of the Cassaro), and also a symbol of the city, is the Porta Nuova, next to the Palazzo Normanni.

The gate was built in 1536 to celebrate the visit of Roman Emperor Charles V who had just captured Tunis from the Ottoman Empire. It was destroyed by fire in 1667 and rebuilt in 1669 by the architect Gaspare Guercio who added a pyramidal roof with polychrome majolica tiles bearing images of eagles with spread wings.

The facade facing Piazza Indipendenza has four impressive telamons (or atlases), depicting the Moors defeated by Charles V. The two figures in the central position have severed limbs as a sign of submission.

I stumbled upon this startling statue of a king with a serpent biting his chest back in 2009 when I was wandering around the then deserted back alleys of the semi-derelict Vucciria (it’s come on a lot since). I now know that it’s the most important of the seven main representations of the Genio del Garraffo o Palermo lu Grandi, an ancient deity of pre-Roman origin who over time became the lay protector of Palermo. The Genio is the personification of Palermo and the symbol of its inhabitants.

The Genio was relocated from the center of Piazza Garraffello and moved to its current location in Piazzetta Garraffo in 1698, although the date 1663 is engraved on the marble plaque above it in Roman numerals (MDCLXIII). The statue itself is older, created by Pietro de Bonitate in 1483.

The aedicula housing the statue, and the intriguing cartouche on the wall facing it are both typically Baroque .

Over in Piazza Marina is the Fontana del Garraffo, sculpted in 1698 by Gioacchino Vitagliano. It shouldn’t be confused with the less attractive Fontana del Garraffello currently in Piazza Garraffello, although it was once located there, replacing the Genio del Garraffo o Palermo lu Grandi.

The fountain depicts the goddess of abundance standing on an eagle which is fighting a hydra. The name comes from the Arabic word ‘ghanarraf’, meaning “abundant water” as Piazza Garraffello was once the location of the city’s most important water source.

Now, moving on to Baroque churches…

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