All That Glitters… (Palermo Style)

Scroll down to content

Once again we find our favorite ecclesiastical interiors. Not so much for the religious iconography, but for the glorious golden mosaics. If you’ve been following us, we’ve already subjected you to this obsession: Saint Mark’s basilica in Venice (1094 CE – contemporaneous with these Sicilian masterpieces), and the wonders of Ravenna (5th-6th centuries BCE). Mostly, we just want to share some images of the beautiful art and forms.

Cappella Palatina (Palace Chapel) in the Norman Palace, 1130-43

The Cappella Palatina nestles at the heart of the Norman Palace. During the period between 1132 and 1140, King Roger II built this royal palace on Palermo’s highest ground, probably on the site of an earlier Islamic fortress. Since their arrival in the region 70 years before, the Norman kings “sought to establish themselves as political players on par with their Byzantine, Islamic, and western European counterparts. The commissioning of architecture and works of art that drew upon and imaginatively juxtaposed Byzantine, Islamic, and Romanesque visual sources lay at the heart of this project. Through their patronage, the Norman kings proclaimed the glory of their nascent kingdom and the legitimacy of their role as Christian monarchs.”  

King Roger II used the Capella Palatina as the religious center of the palace as well as the royal audience hall. “In its eclectic combination of Byzantine, Islamic, and Romanesque architectural and decorative traditions, the Cappella Palatina embodies the multicultural cosmopolitanism of Palermo.” The form of the nave and two aisles comes from the Norman’s own European Romanesque churches; Byzantine churches inform the domed sanctuary at the end; and the elaborately carved geometric ceiling — called a muqarnas ceiling — comes from Arab precedents. Gold mosaics coat it all, filled with images of angels, prophets, apostles, saints, and Christ Pantokrator (Christ Almighty in Byzantine terminology).

It’s all delightfully overwhelming! Would it have seemed that way at the time of its first use? Probably not since it was all royal propaganda: 

Although the Cappella Palatina’s architecture and decoration featured styles and crafts culled from across the Mediterranean basin—from Sicily and Southern Italy itself, Byzantium, Fatimid Egypt, the Maghreb, and the Crusader Levant—when seen together, they present a unified royal program. The king’s eclectic appropriation of Byzantine and Islamic royal iconographic motifs served as an integral component in projecting his imperial ambitions to both his subjects as well as neighboring monarchs. (source)

The King Roger’s Hall at the Norman Palace, 1130-1154

The mosaics all represent the Genoard, the Zisa’s big garden, full of trees, animals, and hunting scenes. [Zisa was a 12th-century palace nearby, famous for its “Earthly Paradise” garden from the Arabic tradition.] At the centre of the vault there is an eagle, symbol of power and nobility, killing with its claws a rabbit, symbol of cowardice. All these images are inspired by middle-east models… It is difficult to conjecture how it originally was used: the room was built by the first Norman king, Roger II, and it may have been destined for his leisure activities or as a bedroom or dining room. (from a panel in the hall)

Monreale Cathedral, completed in 1174

The grandson of King Roger II, King William II, commissioned the cathedral church, monastery and cloister of Monreale. (Monreale is about 10 km from the heart of Palermo, on a hill above the city, with vast views of the sea.) Just as at the Cappella Palatina, the forms and iconography of the chapel proclaimed the connection of King William II with God, but also his (hoped-for) stature equal to that of the Byzantine Emperor. We still find a three-part nave, Byzantine mosaics and iconography, and Arab inspired ceilings and patterns. 

The exterior

The interior of the nave

The Baroque Chapel of the Most Holy Crucifix, 1686-1692

Osteria Ballarò

Caponata Cucina & Pizza

This restaurant provides an example of image and accessibility over tastiness. Caponata is a street-front restaurant with some street-side café seating along one of the main streets of historic Palermo. It’s a great place to sit outside, even on a hot day, and watch the world go by.

The wait staff was attentive. Our server arrived with this plate of raw seafood options. The red prawns at the bottom of the image are celebrated Sicilian specialties. Our server recommended the individual local fish, seducing us with the promise of deep frying. He also recommended the red prawns, to be served in a spicy sauce over pasta.

Both dishes arrived hot and attractive. And, as it turned out, almost totally lacking in flavor!

Leave a Reply