Palermo: Celebrating Cultural Diversity in Medieval Sicily
Sadly the archaeological museum in Palermo remains closed after many years, so we were unable to visit the wonderful architectural sculpture from the temples at Selinunte among other treasures. Instead, we used our time in Palermo as an opportunity to explore post-antique Sicily and how it was influenced by its Greco-Roman heritage. The island’s strategic location made it highly desirable to many groups of people over time because it allowed for control over much of the Mediterranean. In 486 A.D., as the western Roman Empire collapsed, the Vandals took control of the island, only to be pushed out about half a century later by the Byzantine Empire, which made Syracuse the island’s main city and introduced the rearing of silkworms. The Byzantine governor invited Arabs to Sicily in 827, and within 50 years, they had taken over governance of the entire island, bringing with them skilled craftsmen, both Jewish and Muslim, and new agricultural products including rice, cotton, pistachios, and oranges. By the 10th century, Sicily was one of the most prosperous countries in Europe, and Palermo, its capital, was a great center of learning and art, rivaling places like Constantinople, Cordoba, and Cairo. The island’s riches made it a tempting target for Norman knights who served as mercenaries for the Arab leader of Catania, Ibn at-Thumnah. Among these mercenaries was Roger Hauteville, who controlled all of Sicily by 1091. The Normans adapted Arab, Jewish, Byzantine, and Roman traditions extant on the island and respected all different faiths and customs. Norman rule reached its apogee under Roger II and his son William I, who actively built a series of extraordinary churches and chapels decorated with elaborate series of mosaics executed by Byzantine artisans, many of which are in the Palermo area.
We began with a visit to the Palermo cathedral, built by the Norman rulers of Sicily, but preserving little of its original decoration, particularly in the interior, which was given a major overhaul in the 18th century in Neoclassical style. It is here that Roger II and the later Aragonese leaders of Sicily are buried. On the northern exterior is the entrance most commonly used today, consisting of an elaborate Gothic porch of the 1400s in which there is a column preserved from the earlier mosque that stood on the same spot.
However, the greatest Norman architectural treasure in Palermo is found in the Arab palace enlarged by Roger II, which now serves as the seat of the Sicilian regional assembly. The chapel inside, known as the Cappella Palatina, is a marvelous example of the beauty and brilliance that emerges within a society tolerant of all faiths and traditions. The chapel combines the architectural structure of a western-style basilica seen in the rectangular nave, and a centrally-planned Byzantine church, which makes up the sanctuary in the east. The upper walls and vaults are decorated with lavish mosaics, probably the handiwork of Byzantine Greeks, and it is significant that this form of decoration should have been selected by a Western European dynasty that was in almost perpetual conflict with the Byzantine Empire less than a century after the Great Schism (1054) that separated Western Catholicism from Eastern Orthodoxy.
Arab craftsmen also contributed to the project, building a magnificent cedar ceiling in the muqarnas technique covering the nave and side aisles in the western part of the chapel. The ceiling is covered with paintings of figures including drinkers, dancers, and musicians, as well as Arabic inscriptions that appear to be royal qualities like “power” and “magnificence.” The opulence continues with the pavement and lower part of the walls decorated with white marble inlaid with red, green, and gold tesserae in varying geometric patterns. The overall effect is almost overwhelming as one’s eyes hardly know where to look first.
To get a better understanding of the ancient Greeks’ colonial experience in the western Mediterranean, I decided that we would travel from Sicily to mainland Italy by sea on an overnight ferry from Palermo to Naples. The ferry is essentially a cruise ship that also carries cars, buses, even 18 wheeler trucks!
Standing on the top deck and watching the coastline of Sicily silhouetted by the setting sun disappear behind us, I think all of us felt a little lump in our throats as we headed off into the unknown of the open sea, despite knowing that we were perfectly safe. I knew that the students would really enjoy Sicily and its wonders, many of which are unknown to most Americans, but I was surprised and touched by how attached they became to the island. In fact, I think many members of the group would have been very happy to stay there for the remainder of the program, and they could readily understand why Sicily was seen as a blessed land to our Greek predecessors, who believed that the island was the home of Demeter, the goddess of agriculture.