Just a short distance from Quattro Canti in the centre of Palermo is Piazza Pretoria, a name that conjures visions of grandeur (the Praetorian Guard were the elite Roman soldiers who were bodyguards to the emperors). Here the name derives from the 15th century Palazzo Pretoria (also know as the Palace of Eagles) which forms one side of the square. The building is home to the city’s mayor, and yet despite its importance, is ignored by the majority of visitors to the square. Piazza Pretoria has another name. The Square of Shame.
Now there are two reasons for the description. The first refers to that civic resident and a history of corrupt politics within the city (seemingly predating the mafia), but the second refers to the strange fountain that dominates the square, though this has also been seen as a tangible representation of the other. This is all the more credible since the Senate of Palermo made the decision to buy and install the fountain here. And the fountain’s contribution to the city’s shame? Its nude statuary.
Now this might seem a little odd. Why should Palermo be any different to the numerous other Italian cities that boast similar artworks and similarly disreputable politics, but here the island’s history of colonisation must be considered too. Sicily was ruled by Spain for much of its history, and the Spanish Inquisition enforced their laws here.
The strange thing is that the fountain should never have been here (and not all of it is). It was originally designed by Francesco Camilliani for a garden in Florence, four hundred miles away. Here, in the 16th century there was already a strong Spanish influence through Don Pedro Álvarez de Toledo, second cousin of Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain Charles V. Don Pedro’s daughter was the wife of Cosimo de Medici, Duke of Tuscany. One of his sons commissioned the work by Camilliani, but despite the family connections Don Luigi had a lot of debts, which is how the work originally described by Vasari as unparalleled in Florence, and perhaps in all of Italy came to be sold to Palermo. The viceroy at the time was one of Don Luigi’s brothers, perhaps the beginning of the associations with corruption.
And so in Tuscany the work was disassembled into over six hundred pieces, though in the transfer some were lost (probably retained by Don Luigi) and others were damaged so Palermo acquired an incomplete jigsaw; embarrassing when they had demolished a number of buildings in the city to make room for it. The answer was to employ Camilliani’s son to redesign it.
We shall never know what it looked like originally, but now it is a strange mix of deities, grotesques and animals, but one that draws a lot of tourists, and though the politicians of the day seek to discourage people from sitting on the structure and making it into a Sicilian Spanish Steps, it’s a losing battle.