An elegant iron fence of particular design …

4 August, 2010

The hunting of wild animals is like a leitmotif that runs through Sicily’s history .  It seems that everyone who has ever ruled the island, from Roman to Bourbon, has derived great pleasure from the extensive hunting that has been available.  Not surprisingly, images of the hunt – wild boar, birds of every description, deer, hare and wild cat – have found their way into the island’s art, architecture and literature.  Vivid hunting scenes can be seen in the Roman mosaics at Piazza Armerina;  Frederick II’s book on the art of hunting with birds, written in the 13th century, continues to this day to be used by falconers; and a stately Bourbon hunting lodge, the Palazzina Reale, still dominates the woods at Ficuzza, not far from Palermo.      

In Piazza Marina, a large and gracious square near Palermo’s old harbour, nobody seems to pay a lot of attention to the elegant iron fence that surrounds the Giardino Garibaldi.  Attention is usually focused instead on the Piazza itself, or the garden – and both have much to offer.   But if you take the time to look closely at this fence, you’ll see that it continues the theme of the hunt.  The design is interesting and evocative – and definitely worthy of closer inspection.   


In 1863, an architect who is now perhaps best known as the designer of Palermo’s grand opera house, the Teatro Massimo, Gian Battista Filippo Basile, was commissioned to redesign Piazza Marina and create a garden in its centre.  Within a year, he had created the Giardino Garibaldi, introducing the Ficus Magnolioides  trees that are now so huge and greatly admired.  He had also  designed and completed its surrounding iron fence.

The railings of the fence are in the form of arrows and at intervals there are elegant slender columns incorporating a brace of birds and, among them, what looks like either a rabbit or a wild cat.  Below the brace of birds is something that looks to the uninitiated something like a pineapple.  This puzzled me for a long time, until I discovered that it is a game bag.  When you look closely, you can see that the bag is like a string bag – it may, in fact, have been made of thongs of leather – and that here and there the heads of small birds can be seen poking through the holes.  At the bottom of the column, is the head of a wild boar.  At each corner of the fence, and at the sides of the gates, there are large decorative shields and other ornamentation.

The detail of the fence is impressive.  It is the workmanship of the Fonderia Oretea dei Florio, a nearby foundry that was owned by the Florio family and responsible for much of the decorative ironwork of the Liberty period at the end of the 19th century.   

I suppose this fence could have been created elsewhere, but it seems to me that there is something essentially Sicilian about it.  When I first saw it I was reminded of one of my favourite scenes in Visconti’s film The Leopard, a scene in which the Prince joins his loyal retainer, Don Ciccio, at daybreak for a day’s hunting in the Sicilian countryside.  Now almost every time I pass the fence, that scene and the world it conjures up are with me.  

6 Responses to “An elegant iron fence of particular design …”

  1. Sally F Says:

    I really enjoyed getting more detailed information on that fence, which you took me to see on my first visit to Palermo and loved photographing.

  2. CateM Says:

    I must confess to being one of the many who has not paid attention to the fence in Piazza Marina. I think I must usually be too busy checking out the wares at the Sunday market or admiring the impressive Ficus trees! I will make sure I have a closer look next time.

    I enjoyed this post – it has made me want to watch The Leopard again.

    • kateludlow Says:

      I must admit the fence has quite a bit to compete with! Still, it’s worth a closer look – and particularly if you have a chance to watch The Leopard first.

  3. Prof John Onians Says:

    Dear Kate,
    I was amazed to find your photos of the fence because I am writing about it in my next book European Art.A Neuroarthistory. I had photographed it myself but never found out about its history, as you have done so impressively.
    I would love to find whether you have an image I might use in my book, as I only have one of low resolution.
    Would it be possible to contact you directly by email?
    Best wishes, John

    • kateludlow Says:

      I am delighted that you found my article on the fence interesting and I’m sure I should be able to help with images. I’ll let you know by email what I have.

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