Not that long ago, we were visiting Bayeux in northern France. The Bayeux Tapestry tells the story of William the Conqueror — the Norman prince — during his campaign in England in 1066. The Normans, or North-men, descendants of earlier Vikings, had assimilated and added and conquered through much of northern Europe. That much we knew. 

Then we arrive in Palermo and immediately come face to face with the Norman cathedral and the Norman Palace. The cathedral dates from around the same period when William was conquering up north. How can this be? The 11th century wasn’t an era of Ryanair for holiday hops from north to south.

In the 11th and 12th centuries, some Norman knights, especially those that weren’t the eldest sons, looked far afield for fortune.

During the 11th and 12th centuries, Normans were active in Spain, Italy, Greece, Anatolia, North Africa and even the Levant. The difference was that, whereas the Conquest of England was undertaken by the Duke of Normandy, his army and allied armies as a concerted operation, Norman activities in southern Europe were intermittent and piecemeal, often led by individual knights as part of ad hoc mercenary groups. (source)

At this time, Sicily was ruled by the Arabs. The Arabs had been in Sicily since the 9th century when had taken the island over from the previous imperial power, the Byzantine Empire. At the time of the arrival of the Normans, there were around 300 mosques in Palermo. 

Under Muslim rule, the island became increasingly prosperous and cosmopolitan. Trade and agriculture flourished, and Palermo became one of the largest and wealthiest cities in Europe. Sicily became multiconfessional and multilingual, developing a distinct Arab-Byzantine culture that combined elements of its Islamic Arab and Berber migrants with those of the local Greek-Byzantine and Jewish communities. (source)

During the last 30 years of the 11th century, brothers Robert and Roger, sons of the Norman Duke of Apulia and Calabria, wrested Sicily from the Arab rulers. By 1101, Roger was in charge of Sicily and the whole of southern Italy; he was one of the most powerful rulers in the Christian world. 

Norman Sicily was renowned as a successful cosmopolitan kingdom, where Normans, Greeks, Jews and Moslems lived peaceably alongside each other and were all involved in the process of government. The results of this diversity can be seen in the magnificent Siculo-Norman cathedrals that survive in Palermo, Monreale [in the next post] and Cefalu, as well as the Palatinate chapel in Palermo [also in the next post]. These 12th century buildings successfully incorporate a mixture of Byzantine, Moslem and Northern European architectural styles. The cathedral at Monreale has the finest late-Byzantine mosaics to be found anywhere in the world. (source)

Roger and his cohort brought their own religious culture, including the compulsion to build big Christian churches — just like the ones back home in chilly northern Europe. But the numbers of conquering Normans were much less than the numbers of conquered residents. Most of the available builders and craftsmen came from the Arab community; after all, they had been in Sicily for over two centuries already.  For their churches, the Normans brought experience with stone-heavy Romanesque architecture and the first breaths of the gothic style. 

But the Arabs and Sicilians lived in a world of stone polychromy, including indigenous black lava stone, overlapping ogival (pointed) arches, and a passion for abstract patterns and screens. The two worlds smashed together and produced unique and wonderful design and architecture.

Here’s an example of Norman construction in Palermo, where you can clearly see the mixture of Sicilian influences. This is the Church of San Cataldo, erected in 1154. The interior is austere like the Romanesque precedents which which the Normans were familiar. But the forms — with arches and domes — come more from Byzantine heritage.

On the outside, the influence of Arab architecture is evident, with slightly pointed arches, decorative crenelation, and that red dome. 

The most dramatic — and beautiful — example of this rich Norman / Byzantine / Arab mash-up that we experienced is the Cathedral of Palermo. As you’d expect by now, the cathedral is rich jumble. What we see today was, before the Normans arrived, a mosque. The Normans transformed and amended what they found. In succeeding centuries, their successors added towers and entrance porches, and completely remade the interiors. So you have to know where to look to find the parts the come from the Norman Arab synergy.

Walk around the outside of the cathedral to the eastern apse (the curved part of the building behind the main altar). Here we see the lovely profusion of interwoven forms and patterns. Like exuberant textiles draped on the building. You most certainly would not see this design in France, England or elsewhere in Italy.

During our visit, we were disappointed to learn that the interior of the cathedral does not date from the Arab-Norman time. In the late 18th century, the archbishop commissioned a wholesale renovation. He erased Arab-Norman interior and replaced it with trendy (at the time) neoclassical elements. 

There is, however, one little detail from this time that is fun and interesting. It’s the heliometer. A heliometer is a “solar observatory.” Why would a cathedral need a solar observatory? The answer has to do with the definition of a day and with St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

The purpose of the instrument was to standardize the measurement of time and the calendar. The convention in Sicily had been that the (24-hour) day was measured from the moment of sun-rise, which of course meant that no two locations had the same time and, more importantly, did not have the same time as in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. (source)

So what exactly is this heliometer? It is more accurately a meridian, rendered in stone and bronze on the floor of the cathedral. This line of the meridian runs precisely north/south.

A tiny hole in the dome overhead sends a beam of sunlight to the floor below.

At different times of the year, at noon, the dot of light touches different locations on the meridian.

The dot of sunlight reaches the ends of the line on the solstices. Symbols of the (pagan!) zodiac illustrate the passages between months. Measurements of the size of the sunlight disk can reveal the sun’s relative distance from the earth, which can be compared with the results of Ptolemaic and Copernican predictions. A constructive mashup of scientific humanistic thought with doctrinal Catholic beliefs!

Next (blog post) stop: Norman golden mosaics…

Ristorante Bebop

Most of our dining choices while in Palermo were traditional and local. Bebop was the exception. The ingredients were hyper-local, and the preparations creative and fresh. A delightful meal.

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