In 2015 the Arab Norman route of Palermo along with the Cathedrals of Cefalù and Monreale are have been declared World Heritage Sites.
Here are the monuments included in the route that has received the prestigious title: the Royal Palace, the Palatine Chapel, the Martorana church, the Church of San Cataldo, the Church of St. John of the Hermits, the Cathedral of Palermo, Zisa Castle, Admiral Bridge, Cathedral and cloister of Monreale, the cathedral of Cefalù.
Royal Palace – Palazzo Reale
It is likely that both the Phoenicians and the Romans built a fortress to dominate the entire city area on the hill where the palace is today. Nothing remains of these early buildings. The Arabs, after having built a castle for themselves, they abandoned it, as the Emir preferred to move with all his officers and troops to the seaside region of Al-Halisah.
Therefore, the restoration and transformation of the building into a splendid palace was thanks to the Norman people. The heart of it was a very spacious aula regia, also known as aula verde, where the king had meetings and banquets. The residence apartments, toilets, and staff quarters were in different wings, connected by terraces, balconies and gardens full of greenery and water basins, which already showed the sovereigns’ Arabic taste, who, here as elsewhere, used Islamic architects. From the stylistic point of view, the palace is the most important example of western Fatimid palatial art, both for the architectural characteristics and the decorations that artists lavished in the various rooms. After 1250, when Frederick II died, the decline of the palace began, which continued for about three centuries, until the Spanish viceroys chose it as their residence. On the one hand, they saved the building from complete abandonment, on the other hand, they changed it to suit their taste. Therefore, only a few of the original Norman style rooms have kept their original look. However, two real gems are hidden among them, the Sala di Ruggero and the Palatine Chapel.
The Sala di Ruggero was originally a bedroom. It is a panoramic room that overlooks the Bay of Palermo. The walls are elegantly decorated with mosaics that represent hunting scenes animated by figures and stylised plants. It is a rare example of the secular mosaic art of that time, which immerses its roots in the Persian East and North Africa.
Palatine Chapel. Started in 1130, the year of the coronation of Ruggero II, the first king of Sicily. It was completed over a period of 13 years and consecrated according to an inscription in the dome, in 1143. This church, defined by Maupassant as the finest religious jewel ever dreamed up by the human mind, is designed, in visual terms, merging many different styles of which Sicily was formed: the European, Sicilian, Byzantine or the Arabic.
The chapel is shaped like a western basilica with three naves divided by granite columns with rich gilded Corinthian capitals. With a more Western-style, though influenced by southern taste, the decorated floors and the inlays of the steps, balustrades and of the lower part of the walls, as well as the giant pulpit (small stage), set with gold, malachite and porphyry, and the Easter candelabrum, are a veritable bestiary of marble, donated by Archbishop Ugo di Palermo at the coronation of Guglielmo, son of Ruggero II. The mosaics are the finest products of Byzantine art, unmatched in any of the churches of Constantinople. Differing from the others, the Christ Pantocrator of the dome, to the angels surrounding him and the Evangelists engrossed in their studies, which are the oldest mosaics. The Islamic tradition is finally represented by the wooden ceiling of muqarnas (stalactites), as the most unexpected covering for a Christian church. This is, in fact, the classic ceiling that we would expect to find in the largest and most elegant mosques but never in a church. Intricate decorations adorn the stalactites and, more unique than rare in the history of Islamic art, there are decorations comprising human figures. The Arabic artists, in fact, in the tolerant atmosphere of Norman Palermo, were convinced to take a risk with these types of figures and so, with the help of binoculars, we can distinguish today realistic scenes of daily life of dignitaries and busy maids.
Church of S. Maria dell’Ammiraglio or Martorana. It was completed in 1143 thanks to a generous donation of the admiral Giorgio d’Antiochia. An Arab traveller, Ibn Jubair, who visited it in 1184, defined it as “the most beautiful work in the world”. Today, after a careful restoration, it’s still one of the most beautiful religious buildings in Palermo and Sicily. In 1436 it was given to the nuns of the nearby convent “of the Martorana”, reason why its second name is “the chapel of the convent”. To be able to contain the growing number of nuns, the building underwent an extension work, lengthening it by breaking down the original façade, which was replaced by a Baroque one. When entering the church it’s still possible to see the original Greek cross layout that impressed Ibn Jubair.
The Martorana mosaics, like those of Cefalu and the lovely ones of the Palatine Chapel, were made by a group of artists specially brought from Constantinople to Palermo and who worked here between 1140 and 1155. Unlike them, however, they didn’t include subsequent additions. At the entrance, on the north side of the nave, there is a dedicated mosaic in which Giorgio d’Antiochia is portrayed at the foot of the Virgin, the latter in perfect state of preservation. A treasure can be found on the opposite side. Perhaps the most valuable one of Martorana: a mosaic of Ruggero II, who is symbolically crowned by Christ.
Church of San Cataldo. It’s located right next to the Martorana church, built in 1160 during the Norman period. It preserves the original forms with the three red domes of Arabic inspiration, becoming, together with those of San Giovanni degli Eremiti, a graphical icon of the always multi-ethnic Palermo. The interior is very impressive, although it is not covered with mosaics. It is austere, making clear in this way the rectangular structure divided into three naves of six columns, with various capitals. The mosaic on the floor is the original one.
Church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti. It was founded by Ruggero II in 1142. During the most splendid years of the Norman domination, the annexed monastery was the richest and most privileged Sicilian convent. The church, now deconsecrated, is very small and it doesn’t have elements of particular importance inside, apart from traces of tiles, mosaics and frescoes and the stalactite ceiling of the mosque on which it was built. What is really fascinating is the exterior of the building. The five red domes are what first impresses the visitor, a very important element of several Arab-Norman buildings. And then the garden: the building is surrounded by greenery and colours of citrus trees, agaves, bougainvillea, roses, pomegranates and tall flowering shrubs. The lush plants climbing up the walls undermine the white columns of the small cloister and they stun with their scent. It is one of the most important monuments of Norman Palermo, often chosen as a symbol of the city.
Cathedral of Palermo (Madonna Assunta). It is located in the oldest sacred area of Palermo, where the Phoenicians, Romans, Byzantines and Arabs had raised their places of worship. When the Normans took the power, they immediately replaced the Muslim mosque with a Christian church. However, in 1184 the archbishop of Palermo, Gualtiero Offamilio, knocked down the building and undertook the construction of a magnificent new cathedral, a symbol of religious power in the city. After one year, the church was consecrated and dedicated to Maria Assunta.
Virtual tour ©Vittorio Ghelfi
Over the following centuries, the original building was modified with additions and renovations. The union, a picturesque mix of styles, gives life to a great and on the whole quite harmonious ensemble. The façade, fastened between the high towers with mullioned windows and columns, is joined by two pointed arches to the bell tower that faces it. Here, there is a large fourteenth century portal with bronze doors. The long right side is decorated with a spectacular portico in Gothic-Catalan style, under which there is a very rich portal, which is from the twelfth century as well. Finally, the particularly beautiful and charming part of the apse, the only one that has kept the original twelfth century forms. The interior, large and white, is cold compared to the exterior. Along the walls, there are marble statues of the school of Gagini representing saints. In the first and second chapel of the nave on the right, there are royal and imperial tombs. Roger II, Henry VI of Swabia, Constance of Hauteville and Frederick II of Swabia rest here, among others. All of them are in impressive porphyry sarcophagi: in the family tomb there is the founder of the Norman kingdom of Sicily, its destroyer, the involuntary cause of its end and its last beneficiary. Among the many chapels, we’d like to highlight Santa Rosalia, where the ashes of the patron saint of Palermo are kept in a silver urn from 1631. Finally the precious treasure, including precious objects and embroideries found in the royal and imperial tombs (note, in particular, the gold tiara of Constance of Aragon), sacred vestments, chalices, monstrance, etc.
Castle of the Zisa. The construction of this sollatium (a pleasurable place) was undertaken in the last years of the life of William I and completed by his son William II. It can be dated between 1165 and 1167. The name comes from the Arabic Al-Aziz, which means “beautiful”, and even today it’s in fact one of the most beautiful Arab-Norman civil buildings. According to the testimony of the historian Romualdo di Salerno, the king built the palace in Genoardo park and he surrounded it with magnificent fruit trees and beautiful gardens that made it pleasant, with many waterways and large ponds for fish.
Virtual tour ©Vittorio Ghelfi
Over the years, the Zisa has been restored and rebuilt not always with good results, and has only recently been given back – as far as possible in its entirety – for public use. In fact, the castle was turned into a Museum of Islam and it has interesting examples of the Arab world in Sicily. Moreover, as the original structure of the building was respected during the restoration as much as possible, the visit inside allows you to learn what the architecture of the Islamic medieval palaces was like. The ventilation and refrigeration system of the room is particularly interesting and, among these, the so-called Fountain Room, decorated with mosaics.
Admiral Bridge. The admiral was in fact Giorgio d’Antiochia, admiral of king Roger II. He built the bridge in 1131 to connect the city to the gardens beyond the Oreto river. Today, it has maintained its function, with a monument symbolising the link between the city centre and the suburb of Brancaccio in the centre of piazza Scaffa. Its structure consists of very pointed arches that allowed the bridge to survive even when the terrible flood in Palermo occurred, in February 1931. Afterwards, for environmental safety reasons, the river was diverted and now a garden grows under the bridge.
Virtual tour ©Vittorio Ghelfi
In 1860, on this bridge, Garibaldi clashed with the Bourbon troops that were defending the south entrance of the city. The night before the encampment from Mille to Gibilrossa, Garibaldi directed at Bixio the famous phrase: Nino, tomorrow to Palermo. The next day, the insurrection of Palermo took place.
Cathedral and cloister of Monreale. William the Good, King of Sicily, built the Cathedral (S. Maria la Nuova) in a short time between 1174 and 1176. It is said that it was after he had dreamed that the Virgin revealed the place where a rich treasure was buried and that he would have to use it for a pious purpose. More likely, William was driven by the desire not to be outdone by his grandfather Ruggero (Roger), founder of the Cathedral of Cefalu, St. John of the Hermits and of the Palatine Chapel in Palermo. The great church would be well served to perpetuate his name forever.
For the design of the church Islamic architects related to fatimid style art were called upon. They transferred and adapted to the Christian artefact modes of expression and spatial solutions typical of palatial architecture of their country. Despite the not always happy additions and renovations, the cathedral has been passed to us today with its splendour substantially intact.
The façade is decorated with a motif of blind arches, now partially hidden by a portico, built in the eighteenth century, under which there is a large portal with bronze doors of 1186 made by Bonanno Pisano. Along the left side there is another long portico, sixteenth century work of Gian Domenico and Fazio Gagini, and finally there are three big apses, still intact and magnificent in their decoration in limestone and lavastone. The interior of the cathedral still has the appearance it had in the twelfth century (apart from the wooden ceiling, which was rebuilt after a fire in 1811). It has a basilica-type layout with a large surface area: 102 m long by 40 wide. The walls are almost entirely covered with gilded mosaics totalling 6,340 sqm. The general level of these decorations, both with respect to the design and execution, is surprisingly high.
The execution of the mosaics was entrusted to Byzantine workers and the iconography is typically Greek. However, the relaxed attitudes of the characters, their softly draped garments, the pace of the movements, show a clear evolution in style from that of the Palatine Chapel and the Martorana, a typically Italian evolution. At the end of the twelfth century, Italian artists were, in fact, leading the way in iconographic art. The mosaic cycle carries out the concept of the triumph of Christianity in three different phases, showing: events prior to the incarnation (Old Testament); episodes from the life of Jesus (Gospel); events subsequent to the death of Christ and the life of the Apostles (Gospel and Acts of the Apostles). The whole thing is dominated by a gigantic Christ Pantocrator (his right hand only is two metres long) in the main apse, which represents the synthesis and purpose of the whole complex representation.
The Benedictine cloister, also dating from the time of William II, was part of a Benedictine abbey adjacent to the cathedral. It is a square area of 47 x 47 m, the layout of which undoubtedly belongs to the Christian area, but its general tone refers to the spirit and atmosphere of Muslim courtyards with porticoes. The little arcades delimiting the rich little garden are supported by 228 columns combined, all richly decorated and with capitals inlaid with plant, animal and fictional motifs.
Virtual tour ©Vittorio Ghelfi
Of particular interest is the illustrious capital on the west aisle, where William II is portrayed offering the cathedral to the Virgin Mary. In the south corner, in a small square enclosure, there is a delightful fountain, whose crystalline water flows from a little inlaid column.
Cathedral of Cefalù
The Cathedral (Transfiguration of Our Lord) was founded in 1130 by Ruggero II who according to the legend promised to build it if he survived a terrible storm that hit his ship when travelling near Palermo. The fury of the elements threw him onto the beach of Cefalù, where the king placed the first stone of this impressive building. It is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful cathedrals in the world, a perfect example of the Norman style. The façade is strongly defined by the two angular towers, completed in 1240, the massive size of which is lightened by single and double windows. In 1472 an airy portico with triple arches was added. The interior has three naves, articulated in two rows of marble columns on which seven arches rest. The ceiling of the central nave is in painted wood and is an important example of the Islamic art in Sicily. The apse, the cross vault and the adjacent walls are decorated with mosaics that are part of a magnificent Christ Pantocrator, a perfect example of pure Byzantine style and workmanship, perhaps the most sublime representation.