This Ain’t Your Godfather’s Palermo

A Palermo street

OK, so actually this IS your Godfather’s Palermo.  But it’s also so much more.  This beautiful city, which so many people know primarily because of its association with the Mafia (Cosa Nostra, to be more precise) and because it served as the stunning backdrop for the tale of Vito Corleone’s early life in Coppola’s second installment of The Godfather films, has long been an important Mediterranean port and is home to a stunning array of historical sites spanning millenia.  Most readily-visible are the Norman monuments from the 11th and 12th centuries, but a little “digging” reveals a long and storied past.

Founded by the Phoenicians in the 7th century B.C., Palermo’s excellent harbor made it an important assembly point for Phoenician troops as they expanded their territory in the Mediterranean.  The Greeks in nearby Segesta called the site Panormus, which translates as “always fit for landing in,” an important quality for a port!  The Greeks desired Panormus for obvious reasons, but were able to capture it only once in 276.  They held it for such a short period of time that it can not truly be said to have ever been Greek.  Under the Romans, Palermo was first a “Free City” (civitas libera) and immune from taxation (immunis), and was later named a colony (colonia) under Augustus, a privileged status much sought-after by cities in the ancient world.

The same attributes that made Panormus desirable in antiquity attracted later peoples as well, a state of affairs that caused the city to prosper through the centuries but also resulted in the loss of much of the evidence for ancient occupation.  The city wall of the Carthaginians as well as a cemetery from the same period have been recovered, but little else from the early history of the city remains.  A visitor today encounters instead the stunning monuments of the later Arab and Norman conquerors of the island, which is what I will focus on for the remainder of this post.

The Muslim conquest of Sicily was a long-fought one, lasting from 831-904.  At its conclusion the Emirate of Sicily was founded, with Palermo as its capital.  The island remained under Muslim control until a minor Norman noble, Roger I, reconquered it in 1090 and became Count of Sicily.  It was really under his son Roger II, however, that Palermo flowered as a cultural and artistic center.  The second Roger took over administration of the island in 1105 and was crowned King of Sicily in 1130.

Christ crowning Roger II, from the Church of Santa Maria dell'Ammiragli (The Martorana), Palermo

The monuments that remain from the rule of Roger and his son and grandson (both named William) are the architectural jewels in the crown of Sicily, and not only because of their beauty.  They represent in physical form the peaceful and tolerant rule of the Normans.  While the Crusades raged across Europe and the Middle East, and sometimes violent disagreements played out between the Western Catholic Christians and the Eastern Orthodox, the Norman rulers allowed Muslims and Greeks to remain living peacefully on the island, and even encouraged them to continue their own traditions of worship and art (although at the same time Roger II did contribute men and supplies to the Crusader cause in the Holy Land, as was his sacred duty).  The outcome of this previously unheard-of style of rule was a capital city rich in lavishly-constructed and -decorated monuments.  Here are a few of the highlights:

San Giovanni degli Eremiti (Saint John of the Hermits)  This church, attached to a monastery with a beautiful and lush cloister, was built on the site of a former mosque which, in turn, had been constructed on the site of a 6th-century Christian church.  Roger II’s architects incorporated red domes into the design of the church, an unusual element that intentionally recalled the form of the Islamic place of worship that previously occupied the land:

View of the Islamic-style domes of San Giovanni degli Eremiti, from the cloister

Palatine Chapel  Roger’s private chapel is located in the building that has housed the Sicilian parliament since 1130, making it one of the oldest Parliaments in Europe!  Though many of the rooms of this beautiful building are not accessible to the public because of their use in contemporary government, the palace’s chapel is one of the primary tourist attractions of the city, and is not to be missed.  A physical representation of Roger II’s political tolerance, the structure of the palace was designed by Norman architects in a Romanesque style, then the walls of its chapel were decorated by local Byzantine artisans, their work rivaling the finest mosaics elsewhere in the Greek world.

Interior of the Palatine Chapel

Detail of a mosaic: Mary

Looking up, a visitor can take in the extravagant carved and painted “stalactite” wooden ceiling, designed and executed by Muslim artisans.

The Islamic "stalactite" ceiling

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Fittingly, Roger II and his successors are entombed in porphyry sarcophagi in the church.

Tomb of Roger II


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Monreale

Interior of Monreale Cathedral

A short distance outside Palermo, Roger II’s grandson, William II, had an elaborate Benedictine abbey constructed.   We don’t know precisely when work on the structure was finished, but it must have been largely completed before William’s death in 1189, because political circumstances after he passed were so chaotic that it is unlikely that a major construction project could have made much progress.  Like the buildings built under his grandfather, Monreale reflects Norman, Byzantine and Arabic traditions, though changes and additions made in the Italian Renaissance and Baroque styles in the 15th and 16th centuries make it more difficult to read the earlier architecture than in the Palatine Chapel.  The church boasts over 46,000 square feet of stunning mosaics, the design of which incorporates over 4,000 pounds of gold leaf!

My favorite Monreale mosaic: Noah puts out the cat

Bronze doors of Monreale

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Equally impressive are the massive bronze doors, which took the artist Bonanus of Pisa almost three years to complete.  There is an amusing detail of the construction of the doorway: Bonanus assumed that the frame for the doors would be rectangular, as European church doors almost always were.  William’s architects, however, created a doorframe in the Islamic style, using a pointed arch.  A visitor who pays close attention will see that the top panels of the door decoration are cut off by the unexpected shape of the doorframe.  This may be a perfect example of when tradition clashes with progress.

The fountain of Monreale cloister

It is the cloister at Monreale that is often cited as its most beautiful space.  It is among the best-preserved Romanesque cloisters in the world and, as in the church, its architects drew on multiple traditions.  The basic decoration of the space is traditional Romanesque, with arched colonnades; the fountain (a beautiful and useful addition to most medieval cloisters that gave the monks a place to wash) nods to the Islamic influences on the island by taking the form of a palm tree – the modern visitor must use their imagination to picture the falling water that would form the leaves of the tree.

The columns, though, are the most interesting elements of the space.  Like most medieval cloister columns their capitals are richly carved, illustrating Biblical scenes.  Unlike most medieval cloister columns, however, they are not plain marble, but rather are decorated with intarsia, a technique in which materials are inlaid in a pattern.  Most of the intarsia decoration here is composed of tiny pieces of colored marble, though some of the inlaid chips are also gilded.  The patterns vary from column to column, but several display chevrons (a v-shaped pattern), a design that was an important element of Norman architecture in Europe.  On the columns here, it refers to the European roots of the builders.

View of the Monreale cloister columns

These are just a few of the most outstanding examples of architecture in Palermo.  It is also well worth visiting some of the later buildings, such as the 18th-century Baroque ancestral palaces of Sicilian nobles.  On this trip, the shore excursions staff of Voyages to Antiquity arranged for us to call at the Palazzo Gangi, the home of the Prince and Princess of the Gangi family.  The princess guided us through her home (she requested that we take no photographs due to security concerns), which includes an incredible ballroom used as the setting for several scenes in Luchino Visconti’s classic 1963 film The Leopard (Il Gattopardo).  Proceeds from the donations we made during our visit went toward the upkeep and restoration of the gorgeous home and its priceless artifacts.  Travelers visiting Palermo in small groups may find it worth their while to contact the Principesa, who runs the foundation that takes care of her home, to inquire about a tour.  She is a most gracious hostess, and where else can you be served coffee by a Princess?

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