Palazzo dei Normanni: (left) south-western section seen from outside the city walls; (right) Torre Pisana
The viceroy's palace, which stands near the western gate (Porta Nuova),
is an immense mass of discordant parts built at different periods. Fragments of Arabic building join towers of
Norman construction; to which additions have been made
in every subsequent century.
Henry Swinburne - Travels in the Two Sicilies. 1777-1780
The palace stands on the highest and westernmost point of the historical town. While the Emirs of Palermo usually had their residence at La Kalsa near the harbour, the Norman kings preferred this more defensible site and strengthened and enlargened the existing castle (al-Qasr in Arabic, a name which eventually was attributed to Il Cassaro, the street which led to it). The Normans built four towers to protect their palace, of which only Torre Pisana was not entirely modified in the following centuries. Its current aspect is the result of modern restorations aimed at emphasizing its medieval aspect. The reference to Pisa is recorded in a chronicle of the XIIth century. The Maritime Republic of Pisa helped the Normans in their conquest of Sicily and perhaps the tower housed officers or merchants from that town. They had a church near the harbour which was eventually rebuilt near the Il Capo marketplace (S. Ranieri and SS. Quaranta Martiri Pisani).
Palazzo dei Normanni: coats of arms of Spanish Habsburg kings in Cortile Maqueda (left) and above the main entrance (right). Eagles with open wings make up most of the stone bestiary of Palermo because in addition to being a royal emblem they were a symbol of the city itself. You may wish to see a Roman Stone Bestiary
Marquis Fogliano, the Viceroy may be considered with regard to Naples as what the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland is with regard to England with this trifling difference that like his master he is invested with absolute authority and keeps his parliament (for he has one too) in the most perfect subjection.
Patrick Brydone - A Tour through Sicily and Malta in 1770.
Palermo, April 8, 1787. After spending the morning in visiting the different churches, I proceeded to the Viceroy's palace, which is situated at the upper end of the city. (..) The Viceroy (Francesco d'Aquino) and suite entered the apartment. His carriage evinced that graceful freedom which became so distinguished a personage. (..) At table I sat by the side of the Viceroy, who inquired into the objects of my journey, and assured me that he would give orders that everything in Palermo should be open to my inspection, and that every possible facility should be given me during my tour through Sicily.
J. W. Goethe - Italian Journey - Translation by Charles Nisbet
The Habsburg Kings of Spain and after them Charles of Bourbon and his successors ruled Sicily via Viceroys having a large authority. They redesigned the palace which was referred to as Palazzo Reale and demolished most of its fortifications.
Palazzo dei Normanni: Cortile Maqueda (after a Viceroy who gave his name also to the second most important street of Palermo), the main courtyard with the entrance to Cappella Palatina which was restored by King Ferdinand I of Bourbon in 1800
The Palace is an old and irregular building; the inside forms two squares, one has a piazza, or colonnade, of three stories, with handsome columns. (..) The Queen resides in this Palace; the King remains at the Favorita with his mistress; and it is only on what they call name days that is the birthday of some of the Royal Family, that a regular drawing-room or levee is held.
Sir George Cockburn - A Voyage to Cadiz and Gibraltar: up the Mediterranean to Sicily and Malta in 1810/11. In 1810 the writer was appointed to the staff of the English army at Messina when Sicily was at risk of being invaded by the French. Britain protected the island and King Ferdinand I who in 1806 moved from Naples to Palermo where he resided until 1815.
"Teatro Marmoreo" (Marble Theatre) opposite Palazzo dei Normanni; in its proximity mosaics of ancient Roman houses were found in 1915
In 1662 a complex monument was erected to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the coronation of King Philip IV. He was called El Rey Planeta because of his possessions in the four known continents (which were represented by statues), a concept similar to that depicted by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi at Piazza Navona in 1650. In 1848 during an uprising against the monarchy the statue was destroyed. In 1856 a new statue was placed on the monument, but it does not portray Philip IV, but Philip of Anjou, grandson of Louis XIV, King of France, who eventually became Philip V of Spain and ruled over Sicily in 1700-1713. He was the founder of the Spanish branch of the House of Bourbon from which the Neapolitan/Sicilian branch originated. In other words Ferdinand II, King of the Two Sicilies in 1856 was the great-great-grandson of Philip V.
Monument to Emperor Charles V: (left) bronze statue by Scipione Li Volsi; (centre) Pillars of Hercules at the Strait of Gibraltar with the inscription "Plus Ultra" (Further Beyond) indicating that Charles' empire spanned beyond them; (right) a symbolic representation of the Lutheran eresy as Hydra, a monster with seven heads which was killed by Hercules in his second labour
In 1630 it was decided to erect a statue to Emperor Charles V and to place it at Quattro Canti. The size of the statue however was not proportionate to that of the square and it was eventually placed along Il Cassaro, in Piazza Bologni. Perhaps Charles V would have thought that his conquest of Tunis which was celebrated at Palermo with great ceremonies would have been an appropriate event to remember on his monument, but in 1630 the Thirty Years' War between Catholic and Protestant Nations was at its peak and it was preferred to highlight Charles' (sometimes reluctant) role in the repression of Lutheranism.
(Near Quattro Canti) is a square (Piazza Pretoria) formed by the senate house and some large convents (those of S. Giuseppe and of S. Caterina della Ruota). The centre is crowded with a fountain calculated for a much more ample space and consequently seen to great disadvantage. Swinburne
No sooner had the procession of St. Rosalia finished the tour of the great square before the praetor's palace than the fountain in the centre, one of the largest and finest in Europe, was converted into a fountain of fire throwing it up on all sides and making a beautiful appearance. It only lasted for a few minutes and was extinguished by a vast explosion which concluded the whole. Brydone (you may wish to see a page on Baroque Fireworks in Rome).
Fontana Pretoria (2)
The story behind this fountain and how it ended in a square which was too small for it is almost unbelievable. It was designed in 1554 by Francesco Camilliani, a Florentine sculptor for a garden in Florence which belonged to the family of Leonor de Toledo y Osorio, daughter of the Viceroy of Naples and wife of Cosimo I de' Medici, Duke of Florence. In 1573 the landlords were in great financial difficulties and they managed to convince the Senate of Palermo to buy the whole fountain. It was dismantled into its 644 components and shipped to Palermo where it was placed opposite the Senate House. The decision to buy the fountain perhaps originated from the fact that Messina had already a large fountain designed by a Florentine sculptor. It was popularly known as Fontana della Vergogna (Shame), either because of the complete nudity of the statues or because of the waste of public money to purchase it.
Fontana Pretoria (3) another detail can be seen in the image used as background for this page
In the wall are several niches in a row, from which animals of all kinds in white marble, are looking with stretched-out necks. Horses, lions, camels, and elephants, are interchanged one with another; and one scarcely expects to find, within the circle of this menagerie, a fountain, to which, through four openings, marble steps lead you down to draw from the water, which flows in rich abundance. (..) Amidst all this, however, one cannot fail to recognize a certain talent in imitating natural objects; for instance, the heads of the animals around the fountains are very well executed. By this means it is, in truth, that the admiration of the multitude is excited, whose artistic gratification consists chiefly in comparing the imitation with its living prototype. Goethe
(left) Genio di Palermo alla Vucciria (Genio del Garraffo); (right) the same on a kebab shop roller shutter. It is portrayed also in reliefs depicting coronation ceremonies in the southern portal of the Cathedral and in a mosaic at the entrance of Cappella Palatina
Palermo has four female patron saints (Agatha, Olivia, Nympha and Christina) in addition to St. Rosalia. It has also a male patron, the Genius of Palermo or more simply Palermo, a bearded king on a throne with a big snake suckling from his breast. It was a personification of the city which most likely originated from a small relief in the harbour. In 1483 the merchants from Amalphi, Pisa, Genoa and Barcelona commissioned a large statue of the Genius to Pietro de Bonitate, a sculptor from Lombardy. It was part of a fountain which was replaced by another one in 1698; prior to that year the statue was moved to a decorated niche on the wall of a nearby building.
Fontana del Garraffo (1698)
The fountain was designed by Paolo Amato, an architect who is best known for the lavish decoration of SS. Salvatore. It was moved to a square near the harbour in 1862. Garraffo derives from an Arabic word meaning plenty of water, something which Palermo owes to its Arab rulers.
This City is Watered by two small streams (..) which were, under the skilful management of the Saracens, the parents of irrigation, made to convey into Palermo and its Suburbs such an abundance of water as renders the climate damper than other parts of Sicily.
Mariana Starke - Travels in Europe for the Use of Travellers on the Continent and likewise in the Island of Sicily - 1838 Edition - based on a travel to Sicily made in 1834.
Fontana del Garraffello alla Vucciria (1591)
Today we understand better how the water was conveyed to the fountains of Palermo. The system of underground channels, wells, cisterns and ventilation towers is similar to the qanats which were widely employed in the arid regions of today's Iran until recent years e.g. at Ardestan.
In 1943 the area near the harbour, and not only that one, was severely impacted by Allied bombings; the fact that a small fountain at La Vucciria, a popular marketplace of Palermo, was spared was regarded as a sort of miracle.
La Vucciria: (left) entrance from Via Roma, a modern street; (right) one of the shops very early in the morning
Whatever lies on these two great streets is easily found; but in the inner streets a stranger soon loses himself, and without a guide will never extricate himself from their labyrinths. Goethe. This is still true for some parts of historical Palermo such as La Vucciria, the layout of which was designed during the Arab rule without gridlines and with many cul-de-sacs, similar to what can still be seen in the Medina of Sfax in Tunisia.
Fontana del Genio di Palermo at Piazza della Rivoluzione or Fieravecchia
A smaller statue of the Genius of Palermo ended by becoming a symbol of revolution. It is a XVIth century work and it initially decorated a fountain of the harbour. In 1687 it was relocated at Fieravecchia, another marketplace, on a marble pedestal. In 1848 during the uprising against the Bourbon monarchy it became a point where people gathered to express their discontent; they placed flags of Italy or Sicily in the right hand of the statue. In 1852 the government decided to remove the statue and placed it in a warehouse. In 1860 when Giuseppe Garibaldi entered Palermo the statue was brought back to Fieravecchia and the square was renamed Piazza della Rivoluzione; eventually the monument was turned into a small fountain.
Fontana dei Draghi on the road to Monreale
(Archbishop Francesco Maria Testa) has at his own expence made a noble walk the whole way from this city to Monreale, which was formerly of very difficult access, as it stands near the top of a pretty high mountain. The walk is cut with a great deal of judgment on the side of this mountain, and winds by easy zig-zags to the top of it. It is adorned with several elegant fountains of water, and is bordered on each side with a variety of flowering shrubs. Brydone
To-day we took a drive up the mountains to Monreale, along a glorious road, which was laid down by an abbot of this cloister, in the times of its opulence and wealth: broad, of easy ascent, trees here and there, springs, and dripping wells, decked out with ornaments and scrolls, - somewhat Pallagonian in style (a reference to statues at Villa Palagonia at Bagheria) - but still, in spite of all that, refreshing to both man and beast. Goethe
As a matter of fact this fountain is dated 1630, i.e. before the new road to Monreale was opened.
Albergo dei Poveri
Fontana dei Draghi is situated opposite a very large building of the XVIIIth century which housed the poor with the clear purpose of driving them out of the city. It was also known as Serraglio, from Turkish sarayi (palace), which Italians used for the Sultan's Harem, but also from Italian serrare (to close, to lock). This because, although it was not a jail, Albergo dei Poveri was a place of confinement for poor of both sexes.
Loggia of Ospedale di S. Bartolomeo near Porta Felice
A hospital was built near the harbour to house the sick who landed there and were suspected of carrying infections. In 1608 it was enlarged by Viceroy Vigliena and it was eventually turned into an orphanage. In 1943 almost the whole building was destroyed by bombings, but the very fine loggia at the side of Porta Felice was carefully rebuilt and today it houses temporary exhibitions.
Ospedale di S. Giacomo along il Cassaro and near Porta Nuova
In the late XVIth/early XVIIth century the Spanish viceroys built a large military quarter near Palazzo dei Normanni. It included a hospital named after St. James and decorated with xenodochion, a shell with a pin, a symbol of the hostels on the route to St. James of Compostela. In this building the pin was replaced by three swords. Notwithstanding some changes it still retains an interesting design, because of the use of bugnato.
Teatro Massimo (completed in 1897)
In the 1880s plans were drawn for the urban development of Palermo; by and large they did not have a major impact on the historical town, with the exception of the opening of Via Roma, a street parallel to Via Maqueda, in order to facilitate communication between the railway station (near Porta di Vicari, the southern gate) and the new neighbourhoods outside the northern walls. Teatro Massimo, a opera house, was built in an area near Porta Maqueda, the northern gate, which was demolished, and it was meant to be a sort of imposing entrance to the new town. It was designed by Giovanni Battista Felice Basile and his son Ernesto. The latter was eventually commissioned with the enlargement of Palazzo di Montecitorio in Rome.
Teatro Politeama Garibaldi (completed in 1891)
Teatro Massimo stood almost opposite another imposing building which was meant to provide Palermo with a multi-functional entertainment facility. It was designed by Giuseppe Damiani Almeyda, an architect and a professor at the University of Palermo. He most likely had in mind Cirque d'Hiver, a venue built in Paris to the same purpose in 1852 and Anfiteatro Corea, i.e. Mausoleo di Augusto in Rome which had been adapted to house bull fights, circus performances and other events.
Other pages on Palermo:
- Gates and City Layout
- Norman-Arab Monuments
- Martorana and Cappella Palatina
- Medieval Palaces
- Churches of the Main Religious Orders
- Other Churches
- Palaces of the Noble Families
Plan of this section:
Agrigento - The Main Temples
Agrigento - Other Monuments
Catania - Ancient Monuments
Catania - Around Piazza del Duomo
Catania - Via dei Crociferi
Catania - S. Niccol˛ l'Arena
Piazza Armerina and Castelvetrano
Reggio Calabria - Archaeological Museum
Selinunte - The Acropolis
Selinunte - The Eastern Hill
Syracuse - Main Archaeological Area
Syracuse - Other Archaeological Sites
Syracuse - Castello Eurialo
Syracuse - Ancient Ortigia
Syracuse - Medieval Monuments
Syracuse - Renaissance Monuments
Syracuse - Baroque and Modern Monuments
Taormina - Ancient Monuments
Taormina - Medieval Monuments
Villa del Casale