...the Palermo of shameful immodesty

The Piano del Pretore
With splendid churches and imposing baronial palaces, this square has always represented the beating heart of the city. It is the greatest symbol of municipal power and the place of residence the highest local government official: the City Magistrate. To add prestige to the “Piano del Prestore”, where the majestic municipal palace stands, the Senate of Palermo decided to embellish the piazza in front of it. What could have been better than a monumental fountain?
A story that began in Florence
“A stupendous fountain that has no equal in Florence, or perhaps in Italy”, wrote Giorgio Vasari in his famous Lives, in reference to this monumental work, brought from Tuscany to become the symbol of the urban rebirth of sixteenth-century Palermo. The fountain had been originally commissioned to the great Florentine sculptor Francesco Camilliani by the noble De Toledo family, former Viceroys of Naples and Sicily and relatives of the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo I of the Medici, to enhance the garden of their villa in Florence. The work to create the sculptural elements and architectural furnishings of the garden probably began before 1553 and took Camilliani and his collaborators, including Michelangelo Naccherino, several years, continuing throughout the decade and beyond. In fact, in 1562, Bartolomeo Ammannati was still making ninety wooden columns intended to support a pergola in front of the main fountain.
Palermo and its fountain
The very serious financial situation lead Luigi di Toledo to take the decision to dismantle the Florentine garden and to sell the fountain. Thanks to the intercession of his brother Garçia, who was viceroy in Sicily when the works for the extension and improvement of the ancient thoroughfare of Via Cassaro were begun, the Senate of Palermo purchased the monumental work for the sum 20,000 scudi in order to add new lustre to the square in front of the Magistrate’s Palace. The sale was finalised on 8 June 1573. The fountain arrived in Palermo between 1574 and 1575, dismantled into 644 pieces, 112 of which were packed into 69 crates. Some elements suffered damage during transport, while others were retained by the owner. The installation, recomposition and creation of the missing elements were entrusted in 1574, to Camillo Camillian, son of Francesco. He was responsible for a genuine remodelling of the entire design of the work, in terms of both its architectural and sculptural composition and the realisation of the entire plumbing system, due to the new and different spaces that had to accommodate the sculptural complex. This seems confirmed by the fact that among the pieces in the first consignment there were only two of the four statues of the river gods that now compose the fountain, lending weight to the suggestion that it was originally intended to be composed of only two or at most three sections and that the remaining sculptures were made specifically for the new destination of the complex.
A masterpiece of Mannerism
The fountain has an elliptical plan, with a circumference of about 133 metres and a height of 12.90 metres. On the first level, it is surrounded by elegant balustrades, interrupted by four large accesses, each delimited by a pair of colossal male and female half-figures. On the second level, divided up by four flights of steps, there are four fish ponds, each with six niches decorated with small heads of animals and monsters, with water spouting from their nostrils... a scenographic bestiary that ranges from bucolic sheep to a more exotic rhinoceros. At the border of each fish pond, personifications of the city’s four ancient rivers, the Papireto, the Gabriele, the Maredolce and the Oreto, recline in front of the gushing basins flanked by Tritons, Nereids and Sirens. At the corners of the balustrades enclosing each of the four flights of steps, there are sixteen statues representing various mythological figures. Inside the fountain there are statues of the gods of Olympus and the deities of pleasure and abundance. The complex culminates in a large pool, from which two marine monsters emerge bearing a first basin with four marble geese and a group of sea horses, dolphins and sirens beneath a second basin. In the middle of this there are four winged cupids supporting the final basin, surmounted by a cherub holding a cornucopia from which it pours a stream of water.
What a disgrace...
Never ask an inhabitant of Palermo how to find Piazza Pretoria... they don’t know it! Everyone knows the square as “PIAZZA DELLA VERGOGNA” (“PIAZZA OF SHAME”). Could this be because of the shameful practices of the government of which the square has always been a symbol...? Or perhaps it is because of all those beautiful statues shamelessly displaying their nudity in front the city’s most important cloistered monastery, dedicated to St. Catherine of Alexandria, the dome of which towers immediately behind the monumental fountain? The legends regarding it are numerous and have been passed down by word of mouth for centuries... It is said that on one moonless night, offended by such an unprecedented offence, the nuns sent a hatchet man to castrate all the male nudes facing their church in such an attitude of mockery...
Credits: Story

LA MONICA M., La Fontana Pretoria di Palermo, Palermo 2006. RUGGIERI TRICOLI, M.C., Le fontane di Palermo (nei secoli XVI-XVII-XVIII), Palermo, Linee d’Arte Giada, 1984.

Youth Committee of the Italian National Commission for UNESCO

Credits: All media
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