The Arab-Norman heritage of Palermo, Sicily.


On my last day in Palermo, the capital of Sicily, I decided to go visit the UNESCO heritage sites of the city, listed under the title “The Arab-Norman sites of Palermo, Monreale and Caflù”. In fact it’s not a single site but a complex of buildings located in 3 different cities, all of which dating back to the Arab and the Norman domination of the Island.

My hotel was very centrally located along the main pedestrian street, named after Vittorio Emanuele II, the first king of Italy, thus it took me just 4 blocks before entering the square where the Norman Cathedral is located.

I had seen it many times on books, tv shows and photographs but nothing can be compared to seeing it right in front of you: it’s not the biggest, nor the tallest neither the most massive Cathedral of the world. It’s simply unique.

The Arab-Norman Cathedral of Palermo. Photo by Matteo Gazzarata

I wrote already in my post about Monreale, that this church was built by the bishop Walter of the Mill (Gualtiero Offamilio) to duel with the Normans’ king who was building Duomo di Monreale. Although the church was erected during the Normans’ domination of Sicily, the style is reminescent of the previous Arab style, thus the churh’s structure is something in between the northen european gothic arcitecture and the Arab tradition, making it a very unique example of this art. The dome was added at a later stage and to me it doesn’t match the general style of the building, however it contributes to the unicity of the place.

The Arab Norman Cathedral of Palermo. Photo by Matteo Gazzarata
The Arab Norman Cathedral of Palermo. Photo by Matteo Gazzarata
The Arab Norman Cathedral of Palermo. Photo by Matteo Gazzarata
Cathedral of Palermo. Photo by Matteo Gazzarata

The beauty of the church is all on the outside thanks to its intricated net of Arab decorations and the gothic structure. The interiors didn’t speak much to me as a number of renovations made it look like a traditional light baroque church, pretty similar to many others you will see in Italy and abroad. There is just one item which captured my attention: the reliquary of Santa Rosalia (the so called “Santuzza”). It’ a big carved silver ark, kept in a chapel close to the altar.

The Reliquary of La Santuzza. Photo by Matteo Gazzarata

The people of Palermo are seriously devoted to Santa Rosalia as she is believed to have saved the city from the black death in 1625. She actually died in 1170 in a grotto on a mout just outside the city because she spent most of her life as a hermit. In 1625 a women found her remains trapped into a cristal clear rock out of the grotto and brought them in town. That is when the epidemic stopped and the cult of Santa Rosalia replaced that of the previous patron saints.

Walking out of the Cathedral, I headed to the so called “Norman Palace” or Royal Palace. The place, which also is listed by Unesco as world heritage, is nowadays home to the regional council of Sicily, although it has been home to Arab rulers and then the Norman kings. Architectural modifications happened through the centuries, however its orginal shape is still visible and the mos important treasure of the norman crown is still kept and visible in its integrity: “Palatine Chapel”.

Palermo, the Normans Palace. Photo by Matteo Gazzarata

Every Royal Palace of Europe has an inner chapel, some of them are small, others are well decorated, and others were built just as on obligation. In the case of the palatine chapel, this was built with the aim of making it the most impressive chapel on earth.

All that glitters is solid gold, same as per the Cathedral of Monreale but on a smaller scale. The Chapel is a mosaic-made chronicle of the bible, meant to impress and to instil respect.

The Palatine Chapel, Palermo. Photo by Matteo Gazzarata
The Palatine Chapel, Palermo. Photo by Matteo Gazzarata
The Palatine Chapel, Palermo. Photo by Matteo Gazzarata
The Palatine Chapel, Palermo. Photo by Matteo Gazzarata

You can spend hours inside the chapel and still can’t make it to see all of the mosaics and the scenes represented on its walls. It’s such a squander of gold that makes you believe the wealth of the donor was unlimited.

Within the context of the Norman Palace there are few rooms that have been available for the public to visit, while the large majority is now occupied by the administrative offices of the regional counsellors of Sicily. Among the several rooms there is one which also is decorated with golden mosaics, each one depicting wild animals such as leopards, lions, eagles and so on…There is a famous perfum brand from Sicily, called Ortigia, who choose to print pictures of these mosaics on the boxes of its products.

Palermo, Royal Palace. Photo by Matteo Gazzarata
Palermo, Royal Palace. Photo by Matteo Gazzarata
Palermo, Royal Palace. Photo by Matteo Gazzarata

I walked down Via Vittorio Emanuele II until I reached the so called 4 canti, the very heart of the old town, then I took a right and ended up in fron of the church of St. Cataldo. Together with the Cathedral this is probably the most common picture of Palermo. It’s a very small rectangular church topped by 3 unique small domes of Arab reminescence, painted in red. Internally the church is very simple and reflect the military formation of the Normans, who built it. It’s a very singular place of quiet in the middle of a pretty hectic city.

Church of St. Cataldo, Palermo. Photo by Matteo Gazzarata
Church of St. Cataldo, Palermo. Photo by Matteo Gazzarata
Church of St. Cataldo, Palermo. Photo by Matteo Gazzarata
Church of St. Cataldo, Palermo. Photo by Matteo Gazzarata

Practical info to visit the Arab- Norman Palermo:

  • The early morning sunlight hits the Cathedral from the correct side, thus you will enjoy a better overview if your visit happens before 11.00 am. The entrance is free
  • The Norman Palace (Royal Palace and Palatine Chapel). There is an entrace fee to pay. To avoid long queues you should better book your tickets online . The price is 10 euro + 1 euro as a booking fee. Allow at least 1.30 minutes for independent visits and at least 2 hours if you hire a local guide.
  • The Church of St. Cataldo: better seen in the afternoon when the sun illuminates the 3 red domes. There is a small fee to pay right at the entrance. 4 Euros.

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