“On December 21st, the day of Saint Thomas Apostle, the viceroy gave the first blow to build the four decorated walls of the square”. As Filippo Paruta and Niccolò Palmerino report, today is the anniversary of the inauguration of the building site for the construction of the “Four Corners” (Quattro Canti).
The two prelates, in their Diary of the City of Palermo (an absolutely fascinating reading, by the way, with news of all kinds, such as the wedding of the nobles, various accidents and wonders, the arrests made by the Holy Inquisition and much more), in truth don’t write anything about bricklayers and stonemasons at work and the reason is obvious: the works, after that “first blow” elegantly given by the viceroy don Juan Fernandez Pacheco de Villena y Ascalon, did not start. The craftsmen were set to work in August 1611 to carry out the project designed by Giulio Lasso, and it took twenty years to complete it (but the work for the definition of the decorative details went on until 1663).
The square was intended to give prestige to the intersection between via Toledo (now via Vittorio Emanuele) and the Strada Nuova, New Road, which still today is named after another viceroy, Bernardino di Cardines, Duke of Maqueda. Two arteries that for a very long time remained the main ones of the city (and still are of the historic center) and along which nobles and clergymen hastened to have sumptuous palaces and convents built, most of them still existing. Named after the Marquis Villena, the square is actually rarely called that. In common speech it remains “I Quattro Canti”, the Four Corners, even if it is not quadrangular, as the presence of four corners would suggest, but circular. A shape underlined by the facades, which are curved.
One square, twelve statues (plus one)
Each facade is divided in three orders, each of them with a statue: the four seasons, depicted by Venus, Aeolus, Bacchus and Ceres, four Spanish kings (Charles V and three Philippi, II, III and IV), and the four patron saints of Palermo, Agata, Oliva, Ninfa and Cristina, later dethroned by Santa Rosalia. Statues and decorations are all in marble. Originally the statues of the sovereigns had to be in bronze and the Senate commissioned them to Giovan Cola Viviano and Scipione Li Volsi, who had to make two each. We have no news of the works of Viviano, perhaps they were never made. Li Volsi, on the other hand, completed the task and the bronze statues of Charles V and Philip IV were placed in their niches.
They remained there only until 1631. In that year Charles V was transferred to piazza Bologni, where he still stands, while Philip IV was rebuilt, bigger, and moved in front of the royal palace. In 1662 the statue was cast and remade even bigger and then placed on a very ornate pedestal. In 1848, during a riot, people took it down and tore it to pieces. We do not know exactly why Charles V did not suffer the same fate, but as a matter of fact, this is the only Palermitan bronze statue of the seventeenth century still standing.
An all purpose square
The square immediately became the center of Palermo’s social life, a hub for vehicular traffic and a meeting place, even a place for executions, the most famous being that of Giovanna Bonanno, a serial poisoner known as the “vinegar old woman”. The procession of the wagon of Santa Rosalia, arranged every year on the occasion of the feast that celebrates the discovery of the saint’s relics passed from here (and still does). The four saints who until 1625 had been the patrons of the city, must attend the triumph of the “santuzza”. The wagon stops in the square and, in the light of hundreds of colored lamps, the mayor mounts it with a bouquet of roses for the saint, shouting “Viva Palermo and Santa Rosalia”.
The fifth corner
Among the ecclesiastical orders who hastened to build on the Strada Nuova there were the Theatines, whose church was the first building to rise on the square. The complex, designed by Giacomo Besio, was completed in thirty years and no expense was spared. The columns, ten meters high, carved in a single, immense block, were transported with enormous effort along the Cassaro on a large number of wagons. The facade, our fifth corner, is later, having been completed in 1778. Exactly symmetrical to the southern corner of the square, it is structured in the same way, even if the statues here are only two.