A Palermo Puzzle

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.

Between 1998 and 2003 the whole fountain was restored.  I wonder how much of the money allocated went astray?  After all, it seems to be a tradition.



Vocabulary (SOS 4)

If you’re a regular visitor you won’t be surprised that architectural imagery is going to feature heavily in my Barcelona posts, partly because I love to view interesting designs anyway, but also because this city has some very significant contributions to make, from the most visited monument in all of Spain (Gaudí’s Sagrada) to the high-tech digit of Torre Agbar.


Some new vocabulary will be needed along the way, so let’s begin with Modernisme.

Something special was in the air at the end of the 19th Century.  In Britain the Arts & Crafts Movement was gathering pace under the influence of William Morris and John Ruskin, each of whom has appeared here before.  Whether as a result of this, or the same reaction against industrialism, Art Nouveau became established in Europe under a variety of different names.  (It even reached Havana!)

In Catalonia this was Modernisme; a celebration of craftsmanship in all it’s forms; furniture, jewellery, art, metalworking, stained-glass, ceramics, textiles and of course architecture.  In Barcelona you can’t escape it, at least if you keep your eyes open, and there’ll be lots in future posts.  It celebrates natural forms and curves, but also a romantic view of earlier times so a Gothic revival became part of parcel of the same movement; a strange juxtaposition to my eye.

Nevertheless, it all makes grist for the photographic mill!_PW_0003

Another Look

I’ve gone coast to coast, just to contemplate

Joni Mitchell – Blue Motel Room

No sooner had I basked in the Sandsend sunshine than it was time for me to return to Bootle, where the nearest interesting stretch of sand is to be found at Crosby, the beach where Antony Gormley’s work Another Place stands embedded in the sand.APW_6327

I’ve blogged about this location twice before, but I find the place absolutely compelling and for a variety of reasons.

This is the same stretch of sand that fronts the dunes at Formby, though a few miles further south, and whether due to the sheer expanse of this coast, or the challenges of access here (there’s a walk from the car park that passes a park, play area and leisure lake so there are easier options than the beach) the shoreline never seems to be very busy.  Attractive if you enjoy having plenty of space to exercise your dog or its owner.

For others the proximity of the shipping approaching the port of Liverpool provides the interest; the world’s first commercial dock is still one of the UK’s busiest.  Add in a backdrop of wind turbines and you have an industrialist’s wet dream.

But for me the Gormley figures are the attraction.  One hundred cast iron figures, identical but for an identifying wrist band,  stand facing out to sea, but being spread over a two-mile stretch of coastline they are sparse, with no more than three or four ever in your field of vision.  Even then the fact that they are at different distances from the water allows perspective to resize them, thus giving them greater individuality.  Each of the hundred seems to stand alone, gazing out over the undulations of sand and water and creating a surprising sense of isolation.

APW_6334The sea too plays a part in giving each an individual feel, decorating them with barnacles, weeds and a patina of corrosion that affects no two in the same way.  The sea may also be the culprit for the fact that some of the figures are partly buried in the shifting sands… though there may be another explanation!

Gormley is one of Britain’s leading artists, but his reputation hasn’t been gained through press controversy like some of his contemporaries.  Of the three works I’ve come close to (Domain Field and The Angel of the North being the others) he demonstrates an ability to connect with humanity using cold steel.  This was my third visit to Another Place.  I doubt it will be my last.


A few days after posting this item I came across this programme which describes the history of this artwork and the reactions of the people of the area to their installation… BBC Radio documentary about the artwork

USP (Venezia 272)

The upkeep of any historic building is an expensive outlay, and even with the vast wealth of the tourist euros that flood into the city everyday, you need to find a way to get a share of that cashflow.  The many churches in the city are testament to this; some rely upon frescos, sculptures and paintings by the masters of Renaissance Italy to make them a desirable destination, but if the beneficence of long-dead artists and their sponsors didn’t extend to your place of worship how do you draw in the crowds?

San Giacomo di Rialto operates as a concert venue as well as a church, and has a small sideline in historic musical instruments.  It’s a relatively small collection, but worth a visit if you’re passing, and with so many passing Rialto, that might just be enough.


How Do They Smell? (Venezia 259)

Just a few yards from La Partigiana, an artwork replacing a statue dynamited by fascist sympathisers, stands a bust of a composer who died in the city.  Nothing remarkable about his presence here then, though there is an irony in the juxtaposition of this work with the other, given his reputation for anti-semitism and adoption as an exemplar by the Nazi party.

To be fair to Richard Wagner, the Nazism occurred long after his death so he could not be held responsible, and with a number of Jews among his close friends his views may well have been exaggerated.  Nevertheless he is a controversial figure, which perhaps explains why in recent years an act of vandalism saw his nose smashed off.  It seems that the left and the right are no respecters of art, though as the bust of Verdi in the same park was also attacked, perhaps the act wasn’t politically motivated so much as that of an opera critic?


In Sickness & In Health (Venezia 254)

Another of those little additions made to shop windows as part of the Visual Public Service art installation around Via Garibaldi in Castello, the closest thing you will find to a normal street, though it is in actual fact a canal that was filled in when Napoleon captured the city.

Like so many of the others the caption could easily be missed or its significance overlooked, particularly as its in English.  I wonder if Dottore Baldisserotto speaks the language?

It amused me anyway.


War and Pieces

Art and War may seem like strange bedfellows at first, but on consideration there are many great art works that have drawn their inspiration from war in virtually every artistic medium.  The Hindu god Vishnu is both creator and destroyer of worlds, and the ancient Greeks appointed Athena goddess of the arts and victory in war.

There has been a lot of interest in the fate of art during times of war of late.  George Clooney’s film The Monuments Men is a fairly lightweight attempt to dramatise the work of those who sought to prevent major cultural artefacts falling into Nazi hands.  (Give me Burt Lancaster in The Train for a bit of grittier art rescue).

There there’s been the revelations about Cornelius Gurlit, the German whose father was one of Hitler’s art dealers and who amassed a collection worth over $1 billion at today’s prices.  The trouble is the work was frequently looted or sold under duress, so there are considerable efforts to restore it to its rightful owners of their descendants.

_MG_1910I was reminded of this when I visited the photography exhibition at Tre Oci on Giudecca, for the permanent exhibits show the preparations made to protect much of Venice’s artistic heritage from damage.

The Giant’s Staircase at the Doge’s Palace was covered in sandbags and bolstered beneath with many more._MG_1781

The bronze well heads were removed to safe keeping, and great conical defences built over them._MG_1778-Edit

Panels from the ceilings inside the Palazzo were removed leaving gilt frames showcasing bare roof timbers.

The whole of the facade of St Mark’s Basilica was covered with an enormous wall of sandbags and supporting timber.  Statues were dismantled and removed.

Venetians had suffered before you see.  When Napoleon had taken the city in the 19th Century, he looted many works of art and placed others in storage in what is now Accademia, the great repository of works by Bellini, Tintoretto, Carpaccio and more, pending its removal.  Luckily he handed Venice to the Austrians shortly afterwards, leaving much of the booty in one place and inadvertently creating a great collection.

Come the Great War, Austria were the enemy and all those preparations were aimed at preventing damage from Austrian bombers.  In over 42 air raids, some 1000 bombs were dropped on Venice.  Cultural vandalism or bad strategy?  The Italian fleet were based at Arsenale in the city.

The defences around St Marks were effective, but at the other end of the grand canal, on 17th October 1915, a bomb intended for the train station destroyed the roof of Santa Maria di Nazareth (better known as Scalzi), and with it the incredible ceiling fresco painted by Tiepolo.   Surviving fragments are on display at Accademia, and serve to demonstrate the scale of the loss.

Meanwhile the aforementioned Mr Clooney, and the bride that he wed in this city, campaign to have the Elgin Marbles repatriated from the British Museum back to Athens.  Ironically one of the original reasons for their removal was to protect them from further damage; the Ottomans who ruled Athens at the time having used the Parthenon as a munitions store, which exploded under fire from…


Now who has the moral high ground?