Palermo – Arab-Norman architecture

Palermo is considered to be the most invaded city in Europe with the Phonecians, Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Vandals, Ostrogoths, Arabs, Normans, Swabians, Angevins, Aragonese, Savoyards, Bourbons, Italian Republicans and Americans all having passed through at some point.

Very little remains of the architecture that came before the Normans, at least above ground. They simply incorporated the older structures into their own buildings, which in turn were altered by later rulers. A case in point is the hotchpotch cathedral which has undergone numerous reworkings over the centuries, not always to its benefit (we’re looking at you neoclassical cupola).

Construction began in 1184 under Palermo’s archbishop, Walter of the Mill, an Englishman who was tutor to the Norman king William II.

One of the more successful alterations is the main entrance, a 15th-century, three-arched portico by Antonino Gambara, now considered a masterpiece of Catalan Gothic architecture.

The cathedral was erected on the site of a 9th-century mosque, itself built on a former chapel. The columns supporting the portico must have been salvaged from the mosque because if you look carefully at the columnn on the far left, you can see it is inscribed with a passage from the Koran.

Careful study of the intricately carved portal reveals lots of tiny figures having fun in the leaves.

The madonna above the portal dates from the 13th century.

The interior of the cathedral is pretty bleak and unattractive. The only thing that caught my eye was this beautiful stoup (a basin in which worshippers dip their fingers in holy water before crossing themselves).

The work is attributed to Antonello Gagini (1478–1536), the most famous member of the Gagini family of sculptors who had a big influence on ornamental architecture in Sicily at the time. His sons Vincenzo, Giacomo and Fazio also worked on the cathedral.
They also gave their name to one of my favourite restaurants in Palermo (see my coming restaurant reviews).

Next time I’m in town, I’ll visit the cathedral treasury and roof which is said to have great views.

Another salad building is the Palazzo dei Normanni. Despite the more recent name, the palace actually dates back to the 9th century Arab era but was given a major makeover by the Normans.

Considered the oldest royal residence in Europe, since 1946 it has been home to Sicily’s regional parliament (so lots of security). More of the palace can be seen when the parliament is not in session.

The palace itself isn’t particularly exciting but it does contain the Cappella Palatina, a jewel of Norman-Byzantine design, which simply must be visited. You’ll see why in the next post.

Some Roman, Greek and Islamic artefacts that were found during excavations are on display down in the vaults.

Another Norman palace is the Castello della Zisa located just west of the centre. Inspired by Moorish architecture, it was a summer residence for the Norman kings who hunted in the surrounding park which was then outside the city walls. Now only the layout of the Arabic garden remains to give a hint of its former glory. The name Zisa itself derives from the Arab term al-Azīz, meaning “dear” or “splendid”.

The most impressive part is the main hall on the ground floor, the ceiling of which is decorated with muqarnas, a form of ornamental vaulting typical in Islamic architecture sometimes called “honeycomb” or “stalactite” vaulting, or in Iberian architecture, “Mocárabe” (see my Alhambra post). They serve as a transition from the walls of a room to a domed ceiling, as well having a sound baffling function.

Other styles of ornamentation have been added to the mix.

Another famous Arab-Norman sight is the neighbouring churches of Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio and San Cataldo. The two couldn’t be more different with the former containing incredible Byzantine decoration (see next post) and the latter virtually bare (possibly because it was unfinished).

However San Cataldo does have a very distinctive exterior with its red Moorish domes and merlons (the upright sections of battlements and crenellations).

To be honest you can probably save yourself the €2 entrance fee. I spent about two minutes inside, mainly looking at the cupolas up in the ceiling.

Also rather underwhelming is Chiesa di San Giovanni degli Eremiti, a Romanesque church near the Palazzo dei Normanni.

Again the interior is virtually devoid of decoration although there were once some plaster murals.

The site was initially a Benedictine monastery founded by Pope Gregory the Great in 581 and the remains of the cloisters can be seen outside in the small garden.

In the 9th century the monastery was destroyed by the invading Berbers and rebuilt as a mosque, but was reconsecrated as a church 1132 by the Norman king Roger II. Like San Cataldo it has striking red domes (see top right in the pic), although these are later Norman-era additions in homage to Arab style.

Finally, a few minutes’ walk from the train station, is the Ponte dell’Ammiraglio, a perfectly formed Norman bridge seemingly abandoned in a dried out river bed.

Together with the Norman-Byzantine Palatine Chapel and Church of Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio (see next post) and the cathedral of Cefalú and Monreale (see later posts), these buildings together form an ensemble of structures that are recognised by UNESCO as having ‘outstanding universal value’.

Everywhere mentioned can be found on my Google map of Palermo.

So, just because something is listed by UNESCO doesn’t necessarily mean it’s worth visiting, especially if eye candy is what you’re after and your time is limited. Although their architectural value is undoubted (highly influential in the rest of the Med), I found most of these places a little dull if I’m being honest, so you could save time by missing some of them out.

However, the Norman-Byzantine architecture in the next post is a very different matter…

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