When the water of Palermo came down from the towers

They emerge when you least expect it, inside a courtyard, leaning against the ancient city walls, besieged by residential buildings, naturally in the cemented areas of what was once the golden basin and in those spared still today cultivated with vegetable gardens and citrus.
We are talking about the water towers, a widespread presence in the urban landscape of Palermo, historical documentation that survived almost by inertia the radical transformations of the city fabric and from which a wide range of research directions branches off: from the material culture of excavation models to systems of irrigation, from the jurisdiction of the waters to its management, up to embracing the history of urban morphology through the centuries, from Islamic domination at least until the beginning of the last century.

The volume by Loredana Corallo and Ferdinando Maurici (The water towers of Palermo. Preliminary photographic repertory, Kalòs, 200 pages, 35 euros) is now dedicated to the water towers, which for the first time records and photographs this extensive series of minor architectures.

The map that introduces the repertoire already shows the widespread diffusion of the water towers in the Palermo area, from Croce Verde to Cruillas, from Ciaculli to Baida, from Acquasanta to Cardillo, passing naturally through the ancient walled city, also providing a synthetic and indirect glance of the distribution of water resources. The water towers in fact exploited the principle, well known even in ancient times, of communicating vessels, using both the various abundant springs in the heights arranged around Palermo, as well as the numerous wells that drew from the aquifers, in addition of course to the courses of the Papireto , Kemonia and Oreto. “Qanat”, modern historiography has often called them using the Arabic vocabulary, rediscovering the underground channels that in the Islamic age crossed Palermo from side to side, leading the water to the surface and making it flow into cisterns, tubs, bathrooms; “Ingrottati”, instead, a widespread terminology called them, placing the accent on the appropriately excavated and directed cavities of the Palermo underground.

Even if the vertical panorama of the water towers, this singular skyline often camouflaged in the more general one of the ancient and modern city, among plaster, brick and even reinforced concrete labyrinths, mostly dates back to a more recent age, from the 18th century until the beginning of the last one, when the new Scillato aqueduct, inaugurated in 1893, made the traditional distribution of water obsolete according to a gravity system that raised it to the top of the towers to make it go down again.

Zisa water tower

And here they are, therefore, these towers, with a trapezoidal or rectangular section, equipped with external ladders and iron galleries, sometimes as high as obelisks, other times reduced to stumps, configured in the simple essentiality of their function – no frills, no decorations – or, al on the contrary, disguised as a repertoire of signs that aimed to lend them a few quarters of historical nobility. Like the tower of piazzetta Sette Fate, in front of Santa Chiara, which has a crenellated crown on the top and, on the two main sides, a vertical sequence of pointed arches for an unlikely Gothic past in great vogue in city architecture between the nineteenth and early centuries Twentieth century; other battlements are located on the top of the tower between piazza Malaspina and via Galilei, while that of the Cortile delle Officine, near via Goethe and therefore close to the historic center, exhibits the proud appearance of a medieval castle and the tower of via degli Angelini , next to the headquarters of the prefecture of Villa Whitaker, it has an elaborate decoration at the top studied on the motifs of Islamic architecture. This suggests that, at least on some occasions, engineers or public employees who remained unavoidably anonymous also contributed to the design of these towers who had an idea, in many respects naive, of urban decor exercised on books and illustrations at heart.

However, the prize for originality should be given to the architect of the tower in via dei Quartieri which today appears, plastered in white, like a lighthouse with no sea or horizon transplanted into the heart of an agricultural village overwhelmed by building speculation not far from the Favorita. Water tower, but of itself, was also the Doric column designed by Marvuglia for the Fountain of Hercules.

The fountain of Hercules alla Favorita

Other towers, on the other hand, proudly do without these and other camouflages, and still stand proudly today in their functional nudity: the one in via Remo Sandron for example, which served the Ucciardone floor, or the slender and very high one of Piazza della Pinta , that is, on the border of the ancient Galca where the sedimentary platform on which Palermo stands was slowly declining towards the sea, facilitating the fall of the water in a network, partly underground and partly aerial, of pipes, basins and towers.

Duly published to accompany the text, the four large eighteenth-century broad bricks cited by the Marquis of Villabianca (partly attributed to Giovan Battista Cascione, proto-engineer of the Senate and dated to 1722) and now exhibited in the rooms of the Historical Archive, display the geography of the Palermo waters in the geometrized courses of the four main springs, Gabriele, Garraffo, Papireto and Uscibene. The cartouches mark the presence of the water towers; not all have survived, but those paintings lend themselves as a suggestive guide for an urban trekking exercise.