Palermo: Ponte dell’Ammiraglio

Ponte dell’Ammiraglio.

People visiting the Ponte dell’Ammiraglio in Palermo will not immediately take it for a monument that is on the UNESCO list of world heritage. The environs of the bridge are rather shabby. There is a lot of traffic on the busy Corso dei Mille and a lot of trash in the grass surrounding the bridge. It took me a lot of effort to take pictures that did not feature car tyres or plastic bottles. And yet I would highly recommend a visit to the bridge. The Ponte dell’Ammiraglio is closely linked to an important figure in the history of Norman Sicily and the bridge also played a role in the opening phase of Giuseppe Garibaldi’s military campaign on Sicily in 1860. After admiring the bridge you can continue to the charming little church of San Giovanni dei Lebbrosi, which can be reached on foot in five minutes.


The Ponte dell’Ammiraglio was completed in 1131. The stone bridge across the river Oreto was commissioned by George of Antioch (died 1151 or 1152). George was an Arabic-speaking Greek who served the Norman-Sicilian kingdom as ammiratus ammiratorum or Emir of Emirs. In that capacity he was not just a naval commander, but in effect also the Prime Minister of King Roger II (1130-1154). The mighty admiral left Palermo two great monuments. The bridge that was named after him is the first monument, the beautiful church of Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio in the centre of the city is the second. In my previous post about this church I have already discussed the admiral’s life in some detail.

The Ponte dell’Ammiraglio granted the Norman kings access to their estates on the other side of the Oreto. This is where the castle of Maredolce stood, of which the remains can still be visited. The castle is one of the many “pleasure palaces” that the Norman kings of Sicily had erected outside Palermo. La Zisa and La Cuba are other famous examples. Visitors to the bridge will notice that the river Oreto is nowadays just a narrow stream, and that it no longer passes under the bridge, but just west of it. In 1938 the course of the river was diverted. This was an old idea, which was intended to prevent Palermo from being hit by floods, as had happened so often before 1938. Just seven years previously, in 1931, a flood had for instance claimed the lives of ten people.

Ponte dell’Ammiraglio.


The revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807-1882) is one of the key figures of the Italian unification process in the nineteenth century, known as the Risorgimento. Streets or squares have been named after him in almost every Italian town. On 6 May 1860 he and his redshirts – according to tradition the shirts were originally made for work at an abattoir – boarded two steamers in the harbour of Quarto, not far from Genoa. Five days later Garibaldi’s small force landed at Marsala on Sicily, some 80 kilometres southwest of Palermo as the eagle flies. The force numbered 1,162 men, but as “the Eleven hundred and sixty-two” does not really have a magical ring to it, the men are usually referred to as “the Thousand”. The long Corso dei Mille which curls around the Ponte dell’Ammiraglio was named after Garibaldi’s army.

Giuseppe Garibaldi by Salvatore Lo Forte (Galleria d’Arte Moderna, Palermo).

Garibaldi and his men were up against the army of King Francis II of the Two Sicilies, which outnumbered them by a large margin. The name “Two Sicilies” in this case refers to a kingdom that covered both the island of Sicily and Southern Italy, with Naples as the most important city. In the Norman era there had been one Kingdom of Sicily (island and mainland), but in 1302 this had been split by the Treaty of Caltabellotta. From 1504 onward Sicily and Naples were once again united in a personal union and both kingdoms were ruled by the same Spanish monarch, although the King of Sicily usually had a different number from the King of Naples. The emperor Charles V was for instance Charles I of Spain, Charles IV of Naples and Charles II of Sicily. It was not until 1816 that King Ferdinand IV of Naples and III of Sicily simply became Ferdinand I of the Two Sicilies (note that he was not King of Spain).

King Francis II was a great-grandson of Ferdinand I. On 15 May his badly motivated troops suffered a defeat against Garibaldi’s little army at Calatafimi. This was a blow, but the capital of Palermo was still defended by a large garrison that should have been able to stop the already depleted Thousand. Francis’ generals expected an attack from Monreale and concentrated their troops in the western and northern parts of the city. Garibaldi, however, outflanked them and approached Palermo from the southeast. At the Ponte dell’Ammiraglio his redshirts clashed with the king’s forces and the outcome was a victory for the former. The road to Palermo, where the citizens supported Garibaldi, lay wide open now. On 30 May 1860 the warring parties agreed to an armistice, and on 6 June the city formally surrendered. At the end of July of the same year the last royal forces abandoned Sicily.

This could have been the end of the campaign, as Camillo Benso (1810-1861), Count of Cavour and Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia[1], prohibited Garibaldi from crossing the Strait of Messina to the mainland. Garibaldi, who had just received extra volunteers and weapons, ignored the order and knew that his move was implicitly supported by Victor Emmanuel II, the King of Piedmont-Sardinia. In early September Francis II fled from Naples, allowing Garibaldi to capture the city. On 1 October the last battle of the campaign was fought at the river Volturno. In spite of heavy losses Garibaldi’s army managed to defeat their Neapolitan opponents. In the meantime King Victor Emmanuel II had launched his own offensive from the north. On 26 October 1860 the two men met at Teano in Campania and shook hands. Just a few months later, on 17 March 1861, Victor Emmanuel was proclaimed king of a united Italy.


[1] The House of Savoy, which ruled over Piedmont, had acquired Sardinia in 1720 in exchange for Sicily. Until 1847 members of the House were formally only Kings of Sardinia, although their capital was at Turin on the mainland. The 1847 Fusione perfetta ended all administrative differences between the island and the mainland.

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