Arab-Norman architecture in Sicily


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From first glance, it would seem that the Arab and Norman rulers of Sicily could have had very little in common. The former had arrived from North Africa and were part of the Golden Age of Arab civilisation that had made such huge strides in the fields of mathematics, economics, agriculture, science, poetry and architecture. The latter were an offshoot of the Vikings from the frozen north of Europe, adventurers and hardened warriors.

When the Normans ousted the Saracen forces from Sicily in 1090, however, there was to be no obliteration of all things Arabic. Indeed, the men from the north were hugely impressed by what they found, and rather than destroying Arabic culture, they embraced it.

Many institutions were retained, Islam was tolerated, and Saracen landowners were allowed to keep their estates. North African habits were adopted by many Normans as they acclimatised to life in the middle of the Mediterranean. Souks prospered, cool Arabic internal courtyards were de rigueur and many Normans, including some of the sovereigns themselves, lived more like Emirs than like knights.

Where the fusion of cultures really stood out, however, is in the architecture. Palermo was the capital of Sicily under both the Arabs and the Normans, and it is here that the new architectural style was mostly forged.

The Normans were eclectic, and their fascination with Arabic architecture was matched only by their passion for Byzantine mosaics. They expanded, altered and added to many existing buildings, and, as often as not, used Arab craftsmen for the work.

The Palazzo dei Normanni in Palermo, is a prime example of this. Originally an Arab Castle, the Normans turned it into a palace fit for a King, adding towers, levels and, most famously, the Cappella Palatina, a delightfully ornate chapel that was completed in 1143 by Roger II. Its basilica layout is home to rich golden mosaics, redolent of Byzantium, wooden Arabic honey-combed ceilings, Saracen arches and arabesque flourishes.

The Normans were eclectic, and their fascination with Arabic architecture was matched only by their passion for Byzantine mosaics. 

The Cathedral of Monreale, built in 1174 is another supreme example of this style. The Norman façade gives way to large expanses of glittering Byzantine mosaics and Islamic decorative art that covers all available wall and floor space. The adjoining cloisters are also decorated in Arabic style, and once more, North African craftsmen were largely responsible for the work.

Other buildings in Palermo were even more obviously influenced by Arabic architecture. The churches of San Giovanni degli Eremiti and San Cataldo, for example, are crowned with a series of red domes mounted on cubic towers, an evident reference to the Arabs’ preoccupation with squaring the circle. The Zisa, built by William I, and the Cuba, built by his son William II, were evidently inspired by Fatimid period buildings in Cairo.

While these are all in Palermo, there are many other splendid examples throughout the island, including Palazzo Corvaja in Taormina and the Duomo in Cefalù. Indeed, wherever you go, you might have a strange sensation that North Africa is rather closer than you had imagined.

In 2015, Arab-Norman Palermo and its neighbouring cathedrals were granted status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Spread over a combined 6,235 hectares and including nine monuments - the Royal Palace and Palatine Chapel, the Zisa Palace, Palermo Cathedral, the Palermitan Churches of San Giovanni degli Eremiti, Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio and San Cataldo, the Admiral’s Bridge, and the cathedrals of Monreale and Cefalù - the site provides, in UNESCO's words, "an outstanding example of a socio-cultural syncretism between Western, Islamic, and Byzantine cultures. This interchange gave rise to an architectural and artistic expression based on novel concepts of space, structure, and decoration that spread widely throughout the Mediterranean region... The innovative re-elaboration of architectural forms, structures, and materials and their artistic, decorative, and iconographic treatments – most conspicuously the rich and extensive tesserae mosaics, pavements in opus sectile, marquetry, sculptural elements, paintings, and fittings – celebrate the fruitful coexistence of people of different origins".

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