Sicily’s largest city Palermo boasts a series of art and architectural sites that are so exceptional they have earned the city, including the nearby village of Monreale and Cefalú, a place on UNESCO’s World Heritage list. Italy already has a record number of places on this prestigious lists, but what sets Palermo apart from the other Italian World Heritage sites is a unique Sicilian, cross-cultural expression, most readily seen for example on the exterior of Palermo Cathedral.
The World Heritage monuments, a series of nine in total, have a common denominator in that they date largely from the 11th and 12th centuries, a time when the Normans ruled this island at the crossroad of civilizations. Sicily has always been and island in a state of flux, ruled periodically by the Greek-Byzantine, Romans and Arabs, then by the Normans, the Germans and later by the Spanish for four hundred years, followed by centuries under Royal families from all over Europe, based either in Naples, Palermo or Turin in northern Italy.
The Normans in Sicily
In the late 10th century the Normans, lead by Roger II’s father, Roger (I) of Hauteville in Normandy conquered Sicily, an already multicultural island dominated by the Greek, but at that time mostly under Arab control. Soon however, the Normans firmly governed what was to become the Kingdom of Sicily. Their presence ushered in one of the most prosperous periods in the history the island including southern mainland Italy. Native Sicilians mostly of Greek-Byzantine, Italian-Lombard and Arab origin and their respective cultures thrived peacefully alongside the Normans for many decades.
During this short but formative period in the history of Sicily, an amalgamation of cultural expressions resulted in a number of truly outstanding architectural and artistic works in and near Palermo. In addition to the Palatine Chapel, both Palermo Cathedral and the Cathedral of Cefalù were initiated during King Roger II’s reign.
Under the Normans a divided Sicily rose to a whole new level, becoming a force to be reckoned with in the Mediterranean and also the European context, and before long a kingdom too, upon Roger II’s crowing by the Pope in 1130. Artists and scholars were invited to Palermo and the multicultural island enjoyed a relatively short but formative period of peace and prosperity initiated by King Roger II’s open minded statesmanship. Succeeding Roger II was his grandson William, creator of the Cathedral of Monreale.
Palermo Cathedral is an elaborate fusion of architectural styles dating back to the middle of the 12th century when the Normans under King William, son of the great King Roger II, ruled over Sicily and southern mainland Italy. The cathedral speaks eloquently of Palermo’s cross-cultural history, first inspired by the confluence of Arab-Norman cultures, followed by a massive Gothic-Catalan influence during four hundred years of Spanish domination of the island, then on to the Baroque and finally the Neoclassical period evident in the cupola and cathedral interior from the 18th century. The spacious square provides ample room for a stunning panoramic vista as you approach the cathedral.
The focal point of the warm, sandy coloured and intricately decorated exterior is the magnificent Gothic-style portico flanked by heavy towers in what seems to be in a Romanesque style, sometime also referred to as the Norman style. The tall Spanish-Gothic towers adorned with turrets across the side-street are connected to the main building by an arched section.
The cool, white marble interior contrasts starkly with the warm and playful exterior.
The main cupola crowning the building seems at first glance somewhat out place, but its high and free-standing position balance rather well with the overall, albeit slightly disjointed structure, all the while making a clear statement that this is indeed a cathedral, notwithstanding its multicultural appearance. The cupola is also a natural extension of the cathedral interior, so to say, the result of a total neoclassical renovation.
The Palatine Chapel was commissioned by the Norman Roger II in 1132, a year or so after he was crowned the first King of Sicily by the Pope
Like a precious stone inside an unadorned treasure chest, the most radiant gem of the fascinating Arab-Norman Palermo heritage is without doubt the Palatine Chapel in Palazzo Reale, also called Palazzo dei Normanni, the oldest royal residence in Europe and present-day seat of the Sicilian Regional Assembly. The chapel is totally integrated in Royal Palace building itself, with a small entrance on the first floor facing the inner palace courtyard. The lively decorated wall under the arches outside only hints at the astonishing mosaics that await you inside.
The chapel interior is a harmonious fusion of a variety of styles which reflect the Arab-Norman era of Palermo and Sicily: notably in the overall “Western” and Norman structure of the building including the basilica-style nave, and the “Eastern” nature of the luminous mosaics in the transepts and apse attributed to Byzantine artists, as well as the equally impressive honeycomb-like muqarnas vaulting with hundreds of painted facets. The density of the artworks; from the decorative designs to the host of biblical scenes and important religious and historic characters are counter-balanced, so to say, by the rhythmic and symmetric layout which draws your vision towards the focal point; the image of Christ in the apse. The image almost identical to the ones in the Cathedral of Cefalù and Monreale, both from the same period.
From the roof of the Cathedral of Monreale you can see far and wide, across the Conca d’Oro basin, past Palermo and beyond, towards the open horizon of the Mediterranean Sea. No wonder the town of Monreale, situated high on the slopes of Monte Caputo some 20 minutes by car from down-town Palermo, features so prominently in the history of the city below. The Cathedral, preceding its sister Palermo Cathedral by a decade or so, was begun in 1174 under the Norman King William II’s rule of Siclily. The surprisingly large cathedral including the cloister premises totally dominate the charming main square of the town. The exterior is unmistakably in the Romanesque or Norman style, with the typical fortress-like towers flanking the main façade and portico entrance.
While the bulky building is relatively featureless on the outside, the interior will surely render you speechless. Upon entering, the first thing that strikes you how big the cathedral really is, further emphasized by the enormous scope and sheer splendor of the Byzantine mosaics and detailed artworks all around, culminating in a stupendous, thirteen meters wide and seven meters tall image of Christ Pantocrator, solemnly hovering in the apse.
The name Monreale comes from the Latin mons-regalis, or monte reale in Italian, meaning “royal mountain”, a name later given to the palace by the Norman leader and conqueror of Sicily, Roger I of Hauteville in Normandy had built here.
The “Arab-Norman Palermo and the Cathedral Churches of Cefalú and Monreale” serial World sites were inscribed on the World Heritage list in July 2015, nine monuments in total, all situated in central Palermo, except Monreale and Cefalú Cathedral:
- Palermo Cathedral
- Cappella Palatina
- Cefalú Cathedral
- S. Maria dell’Ammiraglio
- San Cataldo
- San Giovanni degli Eremeti
- Castello della Zisa
- Ponte dell’Ammiraglio
UNESCO’s justification for inscription are based on Criteria (ii) and (iv), which in summary underlines the “fruitful coexistence of people of different origins (Muslim, Byzantine, Latin, Jewish, Lombard, and French). This cross-cultural population “…generated a conscious and unique combination of elements derived from the architectural and artistic techniques of Byzantine, Islamic, and Western traditions”.
All photos by Asgeir Pedersen
This article was first published in January 2016.