You may wish to see an introductory page to this section first.
Monday, April 2, 1787.
By 3 o'clock p.m., we at last, after much trouble and difficulty, got into harbour where a most glorious view lay
before us. (..) The town facing north, lay at the foot of a high hill,
with the sun (at this time of day) shining above it. The sides of
the buildings which looked towards us, lay in a deep shade,
which, however, was clear, and lit up by the reflection from the
water. On our right Monte Pellegrino, with its many elegant
outlines, in full light. (..) A brilliant haze gave a blueish tint
to all the shades. (..) Kniep has to-day left me to make my pilgrimages and observations by myself, in order that he might accurately sketch
the outline of Monte Pellegrino, the most beautiful headland
in the whole world.
J. W. Goethe - Italian Journey - Translation by Charles Nisbet
Our first business was to examine the city, which is easy
enough to survey, but difficult to know; easy, because a street
a mile long, from the lower to the upper gate, from the sea
to the mountain, intersects it, and is itself again crossed,
nearly in its middle, by another. Whatever lies on these
two great lines is easily found; but in the inner streets a
stranger soon loses himself, and without a guide will never
extricate himself from their labyrinths. (..) Through the singular gateway, which consists of two vast
pillars, which are left unconnected above, in order that the
tower-high car of S. Rosalia may be able to pass through, on
her famous festival, we were driven into the city. Goethe
The gate was named after Felice Orsini, wife of Viceroy Marcantonio II Colonna, the commander of the Papal fleet at the 1571 Battle of Lepanto. The construction began in 1584 and it was completed in 1637; this explains why the lower section of the gate has a rather neat design, while the upper one shows a more elaborate decoration, a feature of many XVIIth century Italian monuments.
(left) Town side of Porta Felice; (right) Il Cassaro (from Arabic "Al Qasr" - The Castle - today Corso Vittorio Emanuele II); it crosses the city in an east-west direction from Porta Felice to Porta Nuova
Our fondness for Palermo increases every day and we are beginning to look forward with regret to the time of our leaving it which is now fast approaching. We have made acquaintance with many sensible and agreeable people. The Sicilians appear frank and sincere; and their politeness does not consist in shew and grimace like some of the polite nations of the continent. (..) The great street was the course and to this end it was covered with earth to the depth of five or six inches. The firing of a cannon at the Porta Felice was the signal for starting and the horses seemed to understand this for they all set off at once full speed and continued at their utmost stretch to the Porta Nuova which was the winning post. It is exactly a mile and they performed it in a minute and thirty five seconds which (..) we thought was very great.
Patrick Brydone - A Tour through Sicily and Malta in 1770.
In 1740 a race, similar to those of the Carnival of Rome, was added to the celebrations and entertainments in honour of Rosalia, the patron saint of Palermo, which take place in July.
(left) Porta Nuova; (right) Il Cassaro seen from Porta Nuova; the first building on the left is Ospedale di S. Giacomo
Two large and profound inlets of the sea formed the ancient Harbour of Palermo; and, according to Diodorus Siculus, this City acquired its original name Panormos because the term signifies in Greek, a deep Harbour.
Mariana Starke - Travels in Europe for the Use of Travellers on the Continent and likewise in the Island of Sicily - 1838 Edition - based on a travel to Sicily made in 1834.
Porta Nuova stands on a low hill where ancient Palermo was founded. At its northern and southern sides it had ravines with small streams which were about to enter the sea; they provided the town with two natural harbours (you can see a map of the ancient town in the introductory page). The coastline was closer to Porta Nuova than it is today. During the Arab rule the streams were covered and the ravines were filled to allow the development of the town. A new harbour was created near Porta Felice.
The gate was called Porta Nuova because it was opened in 1460 to replace another one. It is located near Palazzo dei Normanni or Palazzo Reale, the residence of the Kings and Viceroys of Sicily. In 1535 it was the location of great celebrations in honour of Emperor Charles V who had just conquered Tunis. The Emperor entered the town followed by thousands of Arab prisoners and Christians he had freed from slavery (you may wish to see the changes which were made in Rome for the arrival of the Emperor). Fifty years later Viceroy Marcantonio Colonna decided to rebuild the gate in the form of a triumphal arch which celebrated the victory of the Emperor, hence the four telamons portraying Arab prisoners. In 1667 the explosion of a nearby gunpowder magazine brought about the collapse of the gate. It was rebuilt as it was.
The streets as in all Sicilian towns are admirably well paved or rather flagged. Palermo is also kept very clean.
Sir George Cockburn - A Voyage to Cadiz and Gibraltar: up the Mediterranean to Sicily and Malta in 1810/11
This inscription makes reference to King Philip V (aka Philip of Anjou) who ruled over Sicily for some years during the Spanish Succession War. In 1713 he was forced to cede the island to Victor Amadeus II, Duke of Savoy. In 1705 the acting Viceroy was Cardinal Francesco del Giudice, Archbishop of Monreale who, with the endorsement of the Senators of Palermo, promoted a new paving of Il Cassaro. The inscription makes reference to the traditional name, but also to Via Toledo, the name which was given to the street after it was redesigned in 1568 by Viceroy GarcÝa ┴lvarez de Toledo y Osorio. He is best known for having been the commander of soccorso maggiore, a military expedition which put an end to the 1565 Ottoman Siege of Malta. A very important street of Naples was also named Via Toledo after Garcia's father, i.e. Pedro ┴lvarez de Toledo y Z˙˝iga, Viceroy of Naples.
In 1577 Viceroy Marcantonio Colonna endorsed the opening of a new large north-south street which would have crossed Il Cassaro at approximately its midpoint, thus dividing Palermo into four quarters (or mandamenti) of approximately the same size: Seralcadio or Il Capo (north-west), La Loggia or Castellammare (north-east), Albergheria or Palazzo Reale (south-west) and La Kalsa or Tribunali (south-east).
The new street was completed in 1599 by Viceroy Bernardino de Cardenas y Portugal, Duke of Maqueda, a castle near Toledo. Both the street and the (lost) gate at its northern end were named after the viceroy.
The opening of the new street was due also to the request of the noble families to have additional space where to build their palaces. Via Maqueda, similar to Il Cassaro, is lined up with large palaces displaying some very complex coats of arms, which show the heraldic genealogy of the landlord. By and large these palaces are less interesting than those along Il Cassaro, e.g. Palazzo Castrone Santa Ninfa.
Last night the two great streets and the four gates of the city that terminate them were illuminated in the most splendid manner (for the Feast of St. Rosalia). These streets cross each other exactly in the centre of the city where they form a beautiful square called La Piazza Ottangolare from the eight angles they form. This square was richly ornamented with tapestry, statues and artificial flowers and as the buildings which form its four sides are all uniform and of a beautiful architecture and at the same time highly illuminated it made a very fine appearance. There are four orchestras erected in it and the four bands of music are greater than I had any conception this city could have produced. Brydone
Quattro Canti: (left) one of the fountains; (right) coat of arms of King Philip III of Spain surrounded by the Chain of the Order of the Golden Fleece, one of the most prestigious chivalry orders. The eagle holding the coat of arms is a royal symbol as well as that of the City of Palermo
The most showey of the two principal streets is called Il Cassaro; the other La Nova. At the
point of intersection is a small octagon area, embellished with statues of the seasons so short in their proportions,
that I took them for busts. Above each is a figure of a
Spanish monarch executed in a better taste.
Henry Swinburne - Travels in the Two Sicilies. 1777-1780
The statues of the kings can be seen in the introductory page. The octagonal shape of the square brings to mind Piazza delle Quattro Fontane in Rome which was designed shortly before Quattro Canti. A similar approach was followed at Messina to decorate an important crossroads.
Bastione Guccia (XVIth century) near Porta Nuova
The town is surrounded mostly by a wall or houses built on the space where there was a wall and some remains of bastions and fortifications. Cockburn
The design of the gates does not suggest strong defensive worries; this because the high bastions which flanked them have been demolished or are hidden by modern buildings with the main exception of Bastione Guccia. There were thirteen XVIth century bastions in total. Those near the harbour were dismantled in the XVIIIth century to open a promenade and public gardens where Goethe enjoyed strolling about.
The harbour was protected by two fortresses at its entrance; in case of need a chain between the two was raised to prevent enemy ships from entering it, similar to what was done on the Golden Horn and in many other harbours, e.g. at Kyrenia. In 1922 facilities for a new harbour were built to the north of the old one.
Porta dei Greci: (left) side towards the harbour; (right-above) detail showing an Ottoman prisoner (the gate celebrated the 1550 conquest of Mahdia); (right-below) town side and beyond the gate one of the decorated wagons for the Feast of St. Rosalia (it opens in another window)
Palermo has five gates the Porta Nova and Porta Felice are the best, but the Porta de Greci is very pretty. Cockburn
The gate was built in 1553 in a rear position between two bastions which were demolished in the XVIIIth century. It was then relocated nearer the seafront to make room for a large square. In the XIVth century Greek merchants had their houses and their church near the gate. The neighbourhood is today referred to as La Kalsa (The Elected One), an Arabic name for the (lost) fortified residence of the Emirs of Palermo which was situated there.
The great streets that divide the city are to be illuminated in a magnificent manner. The number of pyramids and arches prepared for these illuminations they tell us exceeds two thousand. They are erected on each side of the street betwixt the foot path and the pavement and run in two right lines exactly parallel from end to end. Each of these lines is a mile in length which makes four miles for the whole. The four gates are the vistas to these four streets and are to be highly decorated and illuminated. From the square in the centre of the city the whole of this vast illumination can be seen at once and they assure us the grandeur of it exceeds all belief. Brydone
The tradition of illuminating the streets, churches and palaces of Palermo continues today and it is not limited to the celebrations for St. Rosalia. Porta Carini, which is named after a small town near Palermo, is located on the northern side of the historical town and with the nearby streets it houses Il Capo, the most popular marketplace together with Ballar˛ and La Vucciria.
(left) Porta Mazzara; (right) coats of arms of Sicily during the Aragonese rule
This gate in the south-western section of the historical town (Albergheria) was opened in the XIIIth century and it was redesigned in 1326. In the XVIth century it was closed and incorporated into a new bastion. When the latter was demolished its lower part came to light and was restored. It is very near S. Giovanni degli Eremiti.
(left) Porta S. Agata; (right) view of the dome of S. Maria del Carmine a Ballar˛ from Porta S. Agata
This gate in the southern section of the historical town is dated XIIth century and it was opened into a medieval enclosure. Its portal was decorated with a (lost) image of Our Lady of Mount Carmel.
Other pages on Palermo:
- Norman-Arab Monuments
- Martorana and Cappella Palatina
- Medieval Palaces
- Churches of the Main Religious Orders
- Other Churches
- Palaces of the Noble Families
- Public Buildings and Fountains
Plan of this section:
Agrigento - The Main Temples
Agrigento - Other Monuments
Catania - Ancient Monuments
Catania - Around Piazza del Duomo
Catania - Via dei Crociferi
Catania - S. Niccol˛ l'Arena
Piazza Armerina and Castelvetrano
Reggio Calabria - Archaeological Museum
Selinunte - The Acropolis
Selinunte - The Eastern Hill
Syracuse - Main Archaeological Area
Syracuse - Other Archaeological Sites
Syracuse - Castello Eurialo
Syracuse - Ancient Ortigia
Syracuse - Medieval Monuments
Syracuse - Renaissance Monuments
Syracuse - Baroque and Modern Monuments
Taormina - Ancient Monuments
Taormina - Medieval Monuments
Villa del Casale