Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Norman-Arab-Byzantine Architecture in 12th Century Palermo

The island of Sicily has a rich history of cultural variety blending together, the very epitome of this is Palermo, which in the 12th century under the de Hautevilles was experiencing an artistic movement  influenced not only by the Norman rule, but also by its Arabic and Byzantine heritage. This Norman-Arab-Byzantine movement, so to speak, was felt throughout the Kingdom of Sicily, but as Palermo was the Norman capital, as well as the Arabic capital for the presence in the area, I shall concentrate on it. There are numerous wonderful examples of the fusion of cultures in Sicily, but first I will start with a small bit of history that led to this situation.

The Romans controlled Sicily from around 218 BC to 468 AD, when it became under the control of the Vandals briefly (468-476) and then the Ostrogoths. It was in 535 that Sicily was occupied by Belisarius, as part of Justinian's ambitions to reconquer the Western Roman Empire, Byzantine rule persisted until the beginning of the Arab invasions in 827 and with the conquest of Palermo in 832 (though the Byzantines still had control of parts of Sicily even in the 12th Century). Norman control of Sicily began with Pope Nicholas II authorising the de Hauteville family in the 1050's (with the alliance made solid in 1052) to retake Sicily for Christianity, this authorisation being granted, as long as they did not recognise the power of Constantinople (the Normans were already in firm control in southern Italy).

Roger II, who was the first King of Sicily (from 1130 to 1154, before this the Norman rule was divided between various dukes and counts) established himself as one of the most powerful monarchs in Europe, also established a court for which he hired people of a wide multi-ethnic background, especially Greeks and Arabs as officials. Under Roger II, Sicily became a highly tolerant society. It should therefore come as no surprise, that in the 12th century, Palermo experienced the Arab-Byzantine-Norman artistic movement, which incorporated these aspects. Pictured below is Roger II in an Arabic style mosaic found in the Capella Palatina.

The first example of architecture that I shall look at is the aforementioned, The Capella Palatina is a royal chapel located within the Palazzo di Normani (Palace of the Normans) which was initially built as a palace for Arab emirs and their harems, based on a site which had earlier been used for Roman and Punic fortifications. By the time of Roger II, it had long been abandoned by the Arabs, yet by 1140 Roger II had built the chapel and it is adorned with various links to Sicily's diverse culture at the time.

The mosaics in the Cappella Palatina are strongly reminiscent of Byzantium, gold-laden as they are. The set-up of the chapel is like that of a traditional Roman basilica ( though traditionally a meeting place, the style later became associated with churches, especially important ones.) This is seen by the three-nave longitudinal body, which is divided by cipolin ( an light Roman marble, consisting of mica- a shiny silicate mineral) columns of the Corinthian order. However, the arches in the Cappella Palatina are of a Saracen style, with other Arabic influences apparent with the 10th century wooden honey-comb ceiling, which is not only painted with Biblical stories, but also with Arabic and Norman courtly life. Clusters of four eight-pointed stars, typical for a Muslim design, are arranged to form a Christian cross. The architectural features of the Capella Palatina are so rich and varied, but it is far from the only example of this artistic movement in Palerme. Below you can see the Saracen-style arches and the Byzantine mosaicsand Arabic Muqarnas (honeycomb vaults for the ceiling) in the second picture.

Another example, of Arabic influence on architecture in 12th Century Palermo is the San Giovanni degli Eremiti ( St. John of the Hermits) which is actually near the Palazzo di Normani. The most striking feature of this building is its five red domes built on cubic towers, built at the time of its restoration in the 12th century. Originally, it was built around the time of the 6th century and it was later turned into a Mosque after the Arab conquest. In 1136, returned to Christians under Roger II, it was entrusted to the Benedictine monks of Saint William of Vercelli. Sadly, the red colour of the domes is not original, as at the end of the 19th century an architect found pieces of red plaster on them and so decided to paint them red.

The Chiesa di San Cataldo also has red domes in a similar style, founded in 1160, bearing also merlons in an Arabic style (the solid upright section in a battlement or parapet).

Finally, we shall look at the Cathedral of Monreale, built under William II of Sicily, it was begun in 1174 and as a church it was made into a Cathedral in 1182 by Pope Lucius III. Monreale, though in the province of Palermo, is actually 9 miles from the actual city and the commune itself has a population of roughly 30,000. Arguably, it is one of the finest examples of Norman architecture and is a exemplar of the Norman-Arab-Byzantine movement.

Strangely, after the Arabs forced the Bishop of Palermo to move this area, the modest church of Aghia Kiriaki became an ecclesiastical centre. Palermo was eventually conquered by the Normans, but its temporary importance may have encouraged William II to build his masterpiece here.

From the outside, you can the Norman twin-towered facade, but once you enter it gives way once again to Byzantine mosaics and decorative art in an Islamic style, which cover virtually all the walls, apart from the ground level, to two metres up (which arguably seem in contrast to the outside, which has been described as rather 'normal'.) The marble floor is geometrically patterned and is in-laid with mosaics of a Middle-Eastern influence. This floor supports two rows of columns in Corinthian style, with lancet arches (narrow with a pointed crown, also visible.)

The cloisters, outside of the cathedral, are the only part of the monastery to survive. They are remarkably preserved, once again mainly created by North African craftsmen, they are also decorated in an Arabic style. The cloisters were built in 1200 as part of the cathedral abbey and we can still see the influence of the craftsmen through the 108 pairs of marble columns, which have Arabic arches, on them are carved Biblical figures, mythological scenes, Arab warriors and Norman knights and also floral motifs and fauna (each column is uniques in some way.) In the south-west corner of the cloisters, is a almost mini-cloister within it,in which there is a Arab fountain surrounded by a four-sided colonnade. According to legend William often washed his face in this mountain (he sometimes lived in a small palace next to the cathedral.)

The archiepiscopal palace and the monastic buildings on the south side were once surrounded by a massive precinct wall, occasionally interrupted with one of 12 towers. However, only ruins remain, in particular, some of the towers are still visible, as are the monk's dormitory and the dining area (frater). The aforementioned cloister is the best preserved part of this area.

Monreale is also home to some royal tombs, a 16th century white marble work for William II is present, as well as his father's tomb( William I), which is deep read and porphyry, this is likely the original, as it dates to the 12th century.) William II's mother, Margaret of Navarre, also has her tomb in Monreale.

Below the pictures show the exterior (top) the interior of the cathedral (middle) and the cloisters, with the Arab style fountain in the background.

Norman Sicily in the 12th century was experiencing its Golden Age, this can be seen through its cultural output, as well as its military exploits. However, one of the best pieces of evidence for this is seen in the unique architectural style that was encompassed by the Norman-Arab-Byzantine movement, it shows a wealth monarchy, a high level of tolerance and combination of cultures, through its magnificence and splendour in design and decoration.


Image credit goes to Wikipedia

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