Quattro Canti, or Piazza Villena, or Ottagono del Sole, or Teatro del Sole, is the name of an octagonal square at the crossroads of the two main streets of Palermo: Via Maqueda and Cassaro, now Via Vittorio Emanuele (ancient street of Phoenician origin, connecting the Acropolis and the Norman Palace to the sea), about half their length.
The exact name of the square is Piazza Villena (in honor of the Viceroy whose full name was Marquis de Juan Fernandez Pacheco de Villena y Ascalon), but the ancient sources recall it as Ottangolo or Teatro del Sole because during the daytime at least one of architectural quintions are illuminated by the sun.
The new road
An entire road of great importance still gives the city great prestige. The Spanish domination, through ups and downs, was already well-established in the island. Almost a century had passed since the coronation of Charles V in 1516, when Sicily had come under the Hapsburg Crown. In the presence of the clergy and nobility, Bernardino de Cardenas y Portugal, Duke of Maqueda, Viceroy of the Kingdom of Sicily from 1598 to 1601 and regent of the government in place of the king, gave the symbolic blow with his golden hammer that marked the opening of the “Strada Nova”.
It was a true urban revolution: for the first time, a street axis cut perpendicularly across the ancient Via del Cassaro (later Via Toledo), the artery along which the first Phoenician settlement of the city of Pànormos had developed, completely redesigning its appearance. The five historic districts were irremediably affected and the medieval appearance was lost in favour of a layout more in keeping with the times and with Spanish tastes. Baroque Palermo was born, perfectly divided into four new administrative districts: the “Mandamenti”, each dedicated to one of the city’s four patrons: St. Christina (Albergheria or Palazzo Reale), St. Nympha (Capo or Monte di Pietà), St. Agatha (Kalsa or Tribunali) and St. Olivia (Loggia or Castellammàre).
The Vigiliena octagon
The result of the intersection of these two straight thoroughfares, the “octangle” of Piazza Vigliena, in tribute to the Viceroy don Juan Fernández Pacheco, Marquis of Villena, marks the exact centre of the city within the walls, as well as the beating heart of that symbolic cross that defines the city’s new urban layout. It appears as a mighty stage set, framed by the four rounded corners of the sculptural-architectural façades that define the space of the intersection. It is commonly known as the “Quattro Canti”, as each corner corresponds to one of the Cantons or Mandamenti: four corners for the four districts, in a new city and a picturesque new square where the sun never sets. In this “Theatre of the Sun”, in fact, at least one of the architectural scenes is always illuminated at any time of the day. “The sun never sets on the lands of the Spanish empire”, as Charles V is reputed to have said.
From the earth to heaven
The initial project for the layout of the square, which began in 1608, was designed with great monumentality by the Florentine architect Giulio Lasso. The architectural portion of the four corners was completed in 1620, under the direction of Mario Smiriglio, from Palermo, the engineer of the Senate and former site supervisor when Lasso was directing the works. At around that time, the designs for the decorations were also prepared, with the collaboration of Nicasio Azzarello and Giovanni D’Avanzato. The iconological plan of the work, devised by the scholar Filippo Paruta, is based on the arrangement of three distinct orders, symbolising the deep interpenetration of the human and divine dimensions: the Tuscan order at the bottom; the ionic order in the middle; and the composite order at the top. The interpenetration of the earthly and divine elements can also be seen on the numerical level, where the number four refers to the earthly sphere (the seasons, the elements and the ages), whereas three is the sacred number par excellence.
The four façades are characterised by their strong sense of theatricality, their exploration of perspective and scenography on an urban scale and the effect of light and shadow created by the interplay of the structures. They are articulated on multiple levels, with a decoration based on the use of the architectural orders that follow one another according to a principle that begins from the world of nature to reach that of heaven. The first order features the fountains, which represent the rivers of the ancient city with allegories of the four seasons, each accompanied by a monstrous hybrid figure symbolising one of the four elements (earth, fire, air and water). The next order contains the statues of the Spanish monarchs Charles V, Philip II, Philip III and Philip IV. The final order has the four patron saints of the city, Agatha, Nympha, Olivia and Christina.
Western corner first order, Summer and Fire; second order, Philip II; third order, St. Nympha.
Eastern corner first order, Winter and Water; second order, Philip III; third order, St. Agatha.
Northern corner: first order, Autumn and Air; second order, Philip IV; third order, St. Olivia.
In 1606, the town and island government, the viceroy, two years later, entrusted to the Florentine architect Giulio Lasso the urban layout of the square, which he worked for many years. The project was inspired by the crossroads of the Four Fountains of Rome, designed by Pope Sisto V urbanists in much more dimensional forms than the later Palermitian version.
In 1609, the structural part of the two cantons called Santa Ninfa and Sant’Agata had to be completed, carrying the coats of arms of Viceroy Vigliena. In 1612 it was complete the canton of Santa Cristina, adhering to San Giuseppe, promoted by Viceroy Ossuna. In 1615 Giulio Lasso was already dead and from 1617 he was director of the work Mariano Smiriglio, Senate engineer and former shipyard watchdog during the Lasso direction.
With Mariano Smiriglio there is a change in the original decorative program: in the upper order, which originally had to accommodate the statues of the sovereigns, the statues of the four holy virgins of Palermo were arranged: Santa Cristina, Santa Ninfa, Sant’Oliva and Sant ‘Agate. Of the four gift simulators, originally made of bronze, by Scipione Li Volsi, only those of Charles V of Hapsburg, then placed in Piazza di Bologna and that of Philip IV, once placed above a marble machine in the floor of Palazzo dei Norman and then destroyed. The present marble statues at the Quattro Canti were carved between 1661 and 1663 by Carlo Aprile.
On August 2, 1630, the works for the four fountains were commissioned with the statues of the Four Seasons, which were also made of bronze and then made of marble: Spring and Summer were realized by Gregorio Tedeschi; Autumn and Winter by Nunzio Morning. The current lower basements of the four fountains are nineteenth century and were made to compensate for the elevation in the squatting platform of the square that had been lowered due to the leveling of the street. The “Fifth Song” that is seen on Via Vittorio Emanuele and is part of the right facade of the Church of San Giuseppe dei Teatini was decorated in 1844.