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Palermo – I Quattro Canti

quattro canti a palermo

I Quattro Canti, or piazza Villena, or Ottagono del Sole, or Teatro del Sole, is the name of an octagonal square at the intersection of the two main roads of Palermo: the Via Maqueda and the Cassaro, today Via Vittorio Emanuele (ancient street of Phoenician origin, connecting the acropolis and the Palazzo dei Normanni to the sea), about half of their length.

Urbanistic of Quattro Canti

The exact name of the square is Piazza Villena (as a tribute to the Viceroy whose full name was marquis don Juan Fernandez Pacheco de Villena y Ascalon), but ancient sources remember it as Ottangolo or Teatro del Sole because during the hours of the day at least one of the architectural scenes are illuminated by the sun.

The Quattro Canti proper are the four decorative apparatuses that delimit the space of the intersection. Built between 1609 and 1620 and surmounted by the royal senatorial and viceroy crests (in white marble), the four elevations present an articulation on several levels, with a decoration based on the use of architectural orders and figurative insertions , from bottom to top, they follow each other according to a principle of ascension from the world of nature to that of the sky. The four floors of the facade are thus decorated: on the lower floor, fountains that represent the rivers of the ancient city (Oreto, Kemonia, Pannaria, Papireto); then, an order in Doric style, containing the allegories from the four seasons (represented by Eolo, Venere, Cerere and Bacco); the next order, in Ionic style, houses the statues of Charles V, Philip II, Philip III and Philip IV; finally, in the higher order, the four Saints Palermo, Agata, Ninfa, Oliva and Cristina, patron saint of the city already before the advent of Santa Rosalia (1624) and of San Benedetto da San Fratello (1652).

An ancient saying celebrating in the Four Songs the virtual center of Palermo read “feasts and forks at Piazza Villenalan” (public parties and capital executions).

view of Quattro Canti
View of the Quattro Canti square

History of Quattro Canti

Hired in 1606 the government of the city and the island, the viceroy, two years later, entrusted the Florentine architect Giulio Lasso with the urban layout of the square, to which he worked for many years. The project was inspired by the crossroads of the Four Fountains of Rome, designed by the urbanists of Pope Sixtus V in much more modest forms of the subsequent Palermo version.

In 1609 the structural part of the two cantons, later called Santa Ninfa and Sant’Agata, which bear the crests of the Viceroy Vigliena, was already finished. In 1612 the canton of Santa Cristina, belonging to St. Joseph, was promoted by the viceroy Ossuna. In 1615 Giulio Lasso is already dead and from 1617 he is Mariano Smiriglio, Senate engineer and former overseer of the construction site during the direction of Lasso.

With Mariano Smiriglio we are witnessing a change in the initial decorative program: in the upper order, which originally was supposed to house the statues of the sovereigns, the statues of the four holy Palermo women are placed: Santa Cristina, Santa Ninfa, Sant’Oliva and Sant ‘Agate. Of the four royal simulacra, originally envisaged in bronze, by Scipione Li Volsi, only those of Charles V of Habsburg are executed, then placed in Piazza dei Bologna and that of Filippo IV, once placed on a marble machine on the floor of the Palazzo dei Normans and then destroyed. The current marble statues present at the Quattro Canti were sculpted between 1661 and 1663 by Carlo D’Aprile.

On 2 August 1630 the works for the four fountains were commissioned with the statues of the Four Seasons, also in bronze and then made of marble: the Spring and the Summer were made by Gregorio Tedeschi; Autumn and Winter by Nunzio La Mattina. The present lower basins of the four fountains are nineteenth-century and were built to compensate for the difference in level created in the pavement of the square that had been lowered due to the leveling of the street. The “Quinto Canto” which can be seen on Via Vittorio Emanuele and is part of the right façade of the Church of San Giuseppe dei Teatini was decorated in 1844.

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