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Artistic Vestiges

There are few monuments dating from the period prior to the Norman domination and very few finds have been made in the course of rather sporadic digging campaigns carried out over the years. Only a few remains of walls under the San Cataldo chapel remind us of the Punic past, while the remains of a patrician villa inside Villa Bonanno document the Roman presence. Diggings carried out in the area known as "Castello San Pietro" have led to the finding of some tombs and remains of human settlements, but studies are still going on. The most important vestige of the Arab period, which has remained more or less intact over the centuries, is the language. The Sicilian dialect is very rich in Arabic influences and likewise there are numerous names which appear to be of Islamic origin (in Palermo, for example, Cassaro, Kalsa, Kemonia, etc.) The Palermo markets also have an Islamic impress which is further seen in almost all monuments from the Norman epoch, built by Arab workers.

Norman Palace - On the little hill where the palace now stands, probably both the Phoenicians and the Romans built a fortified citadel dominating the whole area of the city. However, nothing remains of these earliest constructions. The Arabs, after building a castle there, abandoned it, because the emir preferred to move with all his functionaries and troops to the seaside in Al-Halisah district. The Normans restored the building and transformed it into a splendid palace. Its heart consisted in a very spacious royal room, also known as the green room, where the king held assemblies and banquets. The residential suites, the services and servants' quarters, were in different wings, connected by terraces, loggias and gardens rich in greenery and ponds, which already revealed the Arab-like taste of the sovereigns, who, here as elsewhere, referred themselves to Islamic architects. From the stylistic point of view the palace is one of the high points of Fatimite palatial art in the west, because of both the architectural qualities and the abundant decorations, that the artists did in the various rooms. After the death of Frederick II in 1250, began the decline of the palace, which went on for about three centuries, until the Spanish viceroys made it their residence. However, though they saved the palace from complete abandon, they also modified it in accordance with their own taste. Hence few of the rooms have maintained their original Norman look. Nevertheless, among these there are two authentic jewels: Roger's Room and the Palace Chapel. Roger's Room was originally a bedroom. It is a belvedere room looking out over the Gulf of Palermo. The walls are elegantly decorated with mosaics showing hunting scenes enlivened by stylised plants and figures. This is a rare example of mosaic art from the period, with roots in the Persian east and North Africa.
Sito web della Fondazione Federico II (nuova finestra)


Something, which by itself makes a visit to Palermo worthwhile, is the Palace Chapel. Begun in 1130, the year of Roger's coronation as the first king of Sicily, it was completed in 13 years and consecrated, as we know from an inscription in the cupola, in 1143. In this church, defined by Maupassant "the finest religious bijou dreamt of by human thought", you see the fusion of the multiple different characters that formed Sicily: European, Sicilian, Byzantine and Arab. The chapel has the shape of a western basilica with three naves, divided by granite columns with rich gilded Corinthian capitals; also in western style, though influenced by southern taste, are the decorated floors and the inlays in the steps, the balustrades and the lower part of the walls, as well as the gigantic ambo, studded with gold, malachite and porphyry, and the Easter candelabrum, a true bestiary in marble, donated by Archbishop Ugo of Palermo for the coronation of William, the son of Roger II. The mosaics are among the finest products of Byzantine art, unrivalled in any Constanti-nople church. Among them we see Christ Pantocrator in the cupola, the Angels surrounding him and the Evangelists engrossed in their studies, which are the oldest mosaics. Lastly, the Islamic tradition is represented by the wooden ceiling with 'muqarnas' (stalactites), a most surprising ceiling for a Christian church. It is the classical ceiling that we would expect to find in the biggest and most elegant mosque, but never in a church. Intricate decorations adorn the stalactites and, something that is extremely rare in the history of Islamic art, the decorations comprise human figures. The Arab artists, in the tolerant atmosphere of Norman Palermo, decided to risk this type of design and thus, with the help of binoculars, today we can make out realistic scenes of daily life of dignitaries and busy maids.
St. John of the Hermits - It was founded at the behest of Roger II in 1142, and in the most splendid years of the Norman domination the annexed monastery was the richest and most privileged in Sicily. The church, now no longer consecrated, is very small and, despite traces of tiles, mosaics and frescoes and the stalactite ceiling of the mosque on which it was built, it has no particular elements of interest to the laymen. What is fascinating, instead, is the exterior of the building. The five red cupolas are a characteristic element of various Arabic-Norman buildings. Then there is the garden: the construction is immersed in greenery and the colours of citrus fruit trees, agaves, bougainvillaeas, roses, pomegranates and other flowering shrubs. The luxuriant plants climb up the walls, wind round the white columns of the little cloister, daze one with their scent. This is one of the most characteristic monuments of Norman Palermo, and is often chosen as a symbol of the city.
The Cathedral (Madonna Assunta) - It is in the oldest sacred part of Palermo, where the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Byzantines and the Arabs put up their own places of worship. After getting to power, the Normans were at once concerned to replace the Muslim mosque with a Christian church. Then in 1184 the archbishop of Palermo, Walter of the Mill, had the building demolished and started the construction of a splendid new cathedral, a symbol of religious power in the city. After just a year the church was consecrated and dedicated to Maria Assunta. In the ensuing centuries additions and restoration modified the original look. The picturesquely incongruous union of styles gives life to a grandiose and on the whole not unpleasant overall effect. The fašade, closed in between two high towers with mullioned windows and little columns, is linked by two ogival arches to the campanile at the front of it. In the fašade there is a big fourteenth-century portal with bronze wings. A picturesque portico in fifteenth-century Gothic-Catalan style, under which there is an ornated portal of the same century, that decorates the long right side. Lastly, particularly beautiful and charming is the apse part, the only one which has maintained the original twelfth-century shapes. The interior, though big and bright, appears cold compared to the exterior. Along the walls there are Gagini statues of saints in marble. In the first and second chapels in the right nave there are royal and imperial tombs, including those of Roger II, Henry VI of Hohenstaufen, Constance de Hauteville and Frederick II of Hohenstaufen, all imposing porphyry sarcophagi: in the family tomb we thus find the founder of the Norman kingdom of Sicily, its destroyer, the involuntary cause of its end and its last beneficiary. Among the numerous chapels we must mention the one known as Santa Rosalia's, where, in a silver urn, done in 1631, the ashes of the patron saint of Palermo are kept. Lastly there is a very fine treasure, including precious objects and embroideries found in the royal and imperial tombs (particular mention must be made of the golden tiara of Constance de Hauteville), sacred vestments, chalices, censers, etc.
sito della Cattedrale di Palermo (nuova finestra)

Santa Maria dell'Ammiraglio or Martorana Church - It was completed in 1143 thanks to a generous donation by Admiral George of Antiochia. An Arab traveller, lbn Giobair, who visited it in 1184, defined it "the finest work in the world". Today, just restored, it remains one of the finest religious edifices in Palermo and indeed in all Sicily. In 1436 it was ceded to the nuns at the nearby "Martorana" convent, from which it takes its second name, as the chapel of the convent. In 1588, in order to contain the ever-increasing number of nuns, the edifice was enlarged: knocking down the original fašade (replaced by a Baroque one) lengthened it, and the atrium and narthex were incorporated in the new construction. In 1683 the apse was demolished and replaced by a big chapel with frescoes. Intact in its splendid proportions remained only the Romanesque campanile, raised over the entrance to the original church, though unfortunately deprived by the 1726 earthquake of the little cupola surmounting it. Entering the church you can still make out the original Greek cross layout which so struck Ibn Giobair. The mosaics at the Martorana, like those at Cefal¨ and the finer ones at the Palace Chapel, were done by a group of artists who were brought on purpose from Constantinople to Palermo and worked here between 1140 and 1155. However, unlike those at Cefal¨ and the Palace Chapel, no later additions have been made to them. At the entrance, on the northern side of the nave, there is a dedicatory mosaic in which George of Antiochia is portrayed at the feet of the virgin Mary - the latter has come down to us in a perfect state of conservation. On the other side we find what is perhaps the most precious treasure of the Martorana: a mosaic of Roger II symbolically crowned by Christ.

Zisa - The construction of this "sollatium" (place of pleasure) was undertaken in the last years of his life by king William I and completed by his son William II. Hence it dates from between 1165 and 1167. Its name derives from the Arabic Al-Aziz, i.e. "splendid", and indeed still today it is one of the most magnificent Arab-Norman civic edifices in the world. According to Romualdo of Salerno, the king had the palace built in the Genoardo park and "surrounded it with magnificent fruit trees and beautiful gardens which he rendered pleasant with various watercourses and big fish-ponds". Over the years the Zisa has been restored and altered, not always with very good results, and it is only recently - as far as possible in its integrity - that it has been made available to the public once  again. The castle has been transformed into a "Museum of Islam" and brings together interesting items from the Arab civilisation in Sicily. Moreover, as in the course of the restoration work an endeavour was made to respect the original structure of the building as far as possible, a visit to the interior makes it possible to learn something about the architecture of medieval Islamic palaces. Of particular interest is the system for airing and cooling the rooms and, among the latter, the so-called Fountain Room, decorated with mosaics.
Quattro Canti (Four corners) - This is the better known name of the little Piazza Vigliena, which is the centre of the oldest part of the city. The project for the layout of the square was made in 1608 and works began in the same year. Once the architectural work was done, it was possible to move on to the decoration of the four walls on three levels: at the bottom, four fountains, surmounted by statues each representing one of the four seasons; above them the statues of the Spanish monarchs Charles V and Philip II, III and IV; at the top, the four saints protecting the city: St. Christine, St. Olive, Santa Ninfa and St. Agatha. The square was for a long time the centre of the city, a place for elegant promenades, exchanges of news and gossip, a market for servants seeking masters. It was also a symbol of the Spanish town planning reform, which sought to give magnificence to the two main streets in the city, Via Maqueda and the Cassaro, now Corso Vittorio Emanuele, by opening up a square at their intersection.
The Oratory of the Rosario of San Domenico - This little chapel was built in 1578 at the expense of the Rosario company, which was founded ten years earlier and brought together the richest traders and artists in the city. Giacomo Serpotta entirely decorated it during the second decade of the eighteenth century, producing a work of exceptional beauty. Along its walls bright sculptures, enlivened here and there by touches of gilding, present themselves to the admiration of the visitor, whose attention is drawn above all by the fine female figures - not exactly ascetic! -which portray the  Virtues, surrounded by a myriad of putti. Among the statues there are pictures showing the Mysteries, and the ceiling is decorated with a fresco by Novelli. The altar is decorated with a fine painting by Van Dyck, showing the Madonna del Rosario.
San Lorenzo Oratory - It was built around 1569 by the San Francesco company, near the church dedicated to the saint from Assisi. In 1699-1706 it was decorated by Giacomo Serpotta, who here achieved great formal perfection, creating his masterpiece. The artist's fantasy, free from all constraints, showed great creative capacity. An uninterrupted flow of joyful little putti frames reliefs with scenes from the lives of St. Laurence and St. Francis and allegorical statues, giving life to an overall effect of great beauty.
Palazzo Chiaramonte or Steri - This is the finest monument which has come down to us commemorating the powerful Chiaramonte family, which starting from the fourteenth century had a very important role in the political and economic history of Sicily. The historical head of the family was Manfred I, who also decided to show all his power through the construction of a big and magnificent fortified palace, a "Hosterium", the first stone of which was laid in 1307. Construction was continued by his son Manfred II and his grandson Manfred III. After the decline of the Chiaramonte family, the building became the court of King Martin and then was used for the tribunals of the various governments that followed one another in Sicily, as well as the tribunal of the Inquisition. At present in the building there is the office of the rector of the Palermo University. From a stylistic viewpoint the Steri is the main example of fourteenth-century Sicilian architecture in the socalled Chiaramonte style, which showmarked Islamic and Norman influences.
Sito web del Palazo Steri (nuova finestra)
San Francesco d'Assisi Church - Built in the thirteenth century, it was several times enlarged and modified in the ensuing centuries. After the bombardments of World War II, radical restoration work was undertaken, this gave back to the church its thirteenthcentury appearance. In the austere and high fašade there is a magnificent Gothic portal surmounted by a big rosette. The vast interior, which shows the influence of the late Romanesque, has three naves, with big Gothic arcades. There are numerous works of art by famous sculptors and painters, including the Gaginis, Pietro Novelli, Francesco Laurana and Giacomo Serpotta.
Praetorian Fountain - It was originally created for the Florence villa of Don Pedro of Toledo by the mannerist architect Francesco Camilliani. However, Don Pedro's son preferred to sell it to the Palermo council, and was paid an exorbitant sum for it. In 1574 it was brought to Palermo in 644 pieces and the sculptor's son, Camillo Camilliani, was called on to put it together again. The whole square, in which there are several elegant edifices, including Palazzo delle Aquile, the town hall, was laid out in a different way in relation to the fountain, which from then on became the boast and glory of the city. Circular in layout, the fountain is made up of superimposed tubs on which there are allegories, divinities, animals' heads, all enlivened by the pleasant playing of the water. The iron railings around it were designed by Giovan Battista Basile and put up in 1858.
Casa Professa Church - It stands on a rise full of dark crannies in which, according to the tradition, hermit saints once took refuge and where there are still early Christian tombs. The first construction on the rise was a monastery of the order of St. Basil, built in the ninth century. Starting from this date, various edifices were built in this place, including five churches which were all absorbed by the first Jesuit church, founded in 1564. This church in turn was engulfed by another one, which was begun in 1591 and completed in 1633. In 1943 a violent bombardment destroyed a large part of the prestigious monument. However, almost all the stuccoes and frescoes have been restored, giving the church its original look back. The interior blends late Renaissance rigour with new Baroque spaciousness. Everywhere there is an uninterrupted covering of decorations, made up of the most diverse elements: flowers, fruit, leaves, animals, little putti, in an extremely lively and graceful inlay showing an almost infinite range of colours.
Massimo Theatre - It is one of the biggest and most magnificent theatres in Europe, designed by G.B. Basile, under whose direction the project began (1875), it was completed by his son Ernesto(1897). It stands in Piazza G. Verdi, a square made by demolishing a lot of Baroque buildings, some of great value. The theatre, with noble architecture inspired by neo-classicism, occupies a surface area of 7730 square metres and fully satisfied the desire for decorum and balance of the bourgeoisie in the last century.
Sito web del Teatro Massimo di Palermo (nuova finestra)