Palermo, Italy

Pretoria Square

At the end of a narrow passage, the spectacular Piazza Pretoria with its fountain and the numerous gleaming white statues is captivating.

Rearranged in the Sixteenth century, it is a marvellous example of urban planning, which has achieved a perfect balance between space and volume.

The space forms a trapeze, defined between the sides of the churches of Saint Catherine and Saint Joseph dei Teatini. The domes of the two churches, which stand opposite each other, dominate the piazza, enclosing it within a series of prestigious palaces and buildings, including the Palazzo Senatorio the Town Hall, also called "Palace of the Eagles".

What is really striking about the square, however, is the Pretoria Fountain, which, as well as being one of the most beautiful fountains in Italy, takes up the entire centre of the Piazza. Restored in 2003, it is as admirable today as it has ever been.

The fountain was created at the end of the Fifteen Hundreds for the father in Law of Cosimo Ist of the Medici family, to embellish his Florentine villa. However, upon his death his son decided to sell the edifice, which was bought by the Senate of Palermo. It was then dismantled, transported to Sicily and reassembled by the son of a sculptor who had assumed ownership and direction of the work.

However, installing a fountain of such proportions, proved difficult. In the end, nearby buildings were demolished to make space for it. Having been initially made by private commission for a private garden, the fountain caused something of a stir, when it was installed in a public space. The numerous nude figures were considered somewhat bold, and for some time it was labelled "the fountain of shame". Even Giorgio Vasari's ringing endorsement of it as "very stupendous" did not save it from public condemnation.

Surrounded by railings, the perfectly circular fountain rises from a broad base to a delicate central point with consummate style. The wonderful thing about this fountain is that it was made to be entered. Based at ground level, the outer ring of stone, protecting the first "layer" of water, is connected to the inner stone ring by four symmetrically placed flights of steps. These steps (completed with elegant banisters) connecting the two rings of stone, once allowed entrance to the very heart of the fountain.

The explorer then becomes counted among the many figures and beasts decorating the fountain. Rising from its centre is a shaft of marble from which grows a cherub holding a cornucopia. Figures of the gods of Olympus and rivers of Palermo stand all around with other statues of pagan gods reclining, standing, or sitting. Fantastical figures and animal heads spill water into the many basins located around the rings.

The overall effect however is neither chaotic nor overpowering, as the space between the figures is well judged.