Palermo: The Medieval Era

During the Roman era (about 250 BCE to 476 CE), Sicily became the "bread basket" for the empire, supplying the city of Rome and other regions with agricultural products. The Roman heritage in Sicily is obvious. When most of the empire fell, Sicily remained part of the Eastern Roman Empire, also called the Byzantine Empire. The Greek dominance in this eastern empire also contributed to Sicily's legacy. In the ninth century, Arabs from North Africa conquered the island, and gave Sicily yet an additional cultural legacy. Then, in the eleventh century, the Byzantine emperor decided to retake the island and invited a group of mercenaries from Normandy in France help him in his military campaign. That campaign was successful, but the Norman leader, Roger de Hauteville, decided to make himself the first king of an independent Kingdom of Sicily. The Normans provide another layer to the Sicilian heritage.

You can see this cultural mixture in the oldest buildings that survive in Palermo.

The church called Santa Maria dell'Ammiraglio or La Martorana (below) is a perfect example of this blending. It combines a French-style bell tower with a Greek-style interior.

A set of mosaics at the back of the church shows (left) Christ crowning Roger II (the second Norman king) as King of Sicily and
(right) the Virgin Mary receiving the church dedicated to her from George of Antioch, a Greek who was admiral of Roger II's fleet.

Right next door to this church is another, called San Cataldo, that was also built in the twelfth century but in a
mixture of Arab and Norman styles, with the outward appearance of a mosque but the interior of a French church.

Outside of medieval Palermo (but surrounded by the modern city) is the palace known as La Ziza (from the Arabic "aziz," meaning "splendid").
It was built by a Norman king in the 1160s in a real mix of styles: Greek mosaics with French columned arches and Arab "honeycomb" niches.

Set on a hill and intended as a summer palace, it used tall windows and long hallways and ducts under
the floor to send the breezes through the building on hot Sicilian days. Fountains also helped to cool the air.

It was originally surrounded by a large garden park, but only a small portion remains.

A similar second palace, called La Cuba ("The Cube") was built in the 1180s. It is still mostly in ruins.

It was also a summer palace, and was originally surrounded by a large artificial pond to keep it cool, as this model shows.

A similar mix of styles is apparent in the church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti ("Saint John of the Hermits"), built in 1132--and one of the few tranquil corners of Palermo.

Also from the twelfth century is the church known as La Magione ("The Mansion"), which housed a Crusading order called the Teutonic Knights.
(Sicily was often a rendezvous point for Crusaders making their way from western Europe to the Holy Land.)

The most magnificent of the buildings begun in the Norman era is the Palace of the Norman kings. It was begun as an Arab fortress in the ninth century,
then converted to a royal palace in the eleventh. It wasn't much used after the twelfth century, since later kings of Sicily preferred to reside elsewhere
in their domains, though it was refurbished in later centuries as an administrative center. Today it is the seat of the regional parliament of Sicily.

In 1132 the Norman king Roger II had an elaborate chapel built within the palace, with colorful mosaics on a gold background throughout.
This is the only part of the palace open to the public, but the sight of all of these mosaics covering all the interior space is truly impressive.

Roger II is buried in the cathedral of Palermo.

Though the cathedral was built in the Norman era and begun in 1179, it was later renovated and so only the exterior walls
(not including the dome or towers seen below) and one small exterior mosaic remain from the medieval period.

The crypt of the cathedral contains some ancient Roman, early Christian, and medieval sarcophagi.

The Normans ruled Sicily from 1071 until 1194, when the last Norman king died without a son. His daughter Constance was married to the Holy Roman Emperor,
Henry VI of the Hohenstaufen dynasty, who ruled Sicily along with his German lands. Though the emperors often lived elsewhere, Henry VI, his wife Constance, and
their son, Frederick II, who was also both Emperor and King of Sicily, are all buried in the cathedral of Palermo (Henry, below left, Constance, middle, and Frederick, right).

When the last Hohenstaufen died in 1266, the throne again passed to his daughter, who was also named Constance. She was married to the King of Aragon, Peter III,
who joined Sicily to his Spanish lands. The Spanish ruled Sicily for half a millennium, from 1282 to 1713, and left much more of a mark on Palermo and Sicily.

Gothic mansions around the Piazza Marina date from the Aragonese era.

Not far away is the church of San Francesco d'Assisi (Saint Francis of Assisi), from the thirteenth century. Like many of the old buildings of Palermo, the church was bombed during
World War Two by Allied forces trying to drive out the Nazis, and so is mostly rebuilt. In this case, later changes were undone and the church was restored to its original appearance.

The Gothic church of Santa Maria dello Spasimo was bombed but not restored, and is now a space for cultural activities.

One of the mansions from the Aragonese period, in Catalan Gothic style, called the Palazzo Abatellis, houses a fine gallery of medieval and renaissance art.

This fresco represents the arrival of the Black Death or Bubonic Plague as an armed skeleton on horseback, shooting arrows at his victims.

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