The Norman kingdom of Sicily was born with the coronation of Roger II of Hauteville on 25 December 1130 in the city of Palermo. The sovereign, king of Sicily, Apulia, Calabria and Capua, strengthened royal authority, guaranteed a period of peace and prosperity and promoted culture, art and architecture. His reign, undoubtedly inspired, was a blend of different cultures: Arab, Latin, Greek and Byzantine. Immediately after his coronation in 1131, the king ordered the construction of the Cefalù Cathedral, the renovation of the Royal Palace, the former seat of the Emir, and the construction of the Palatine Chapel. The interest in culture, philosophy and science continued during the reigns of his successors, William I and William II. In just a few years, the city of Palermo was enriched with new buildings, such as the fascinating Zisa.
The route winds its way through places symbolic of the intertwining of knowledge in Arab-Norman Palermo: the Palatine Chapel, the Church of Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio, known as the Martorana, and the Zisa. Each route, divided into several stages, explores the buildings on different levels, from an architectural and artistic standpoint, without neglecting the historical, social, philosophical and cultural context..
The Palatine Chapel is located inside the Royal Palace of Palermo. Commissioned by King Roger II, its construction began in 1130 and was consecrated on 28 April 1140 as the private chapel of the sovereign and the royal family. The church, with a central layout and three aisles, is characterised by the Byzantine-style mosaic cycle, created by Byzantine and Sicilian artists, which covers the entire perimeter of the church walls with stories from the Old and New Testaments, representations of Saints, Angels, Archangels, Prophets, Evangelists, Apostles, Patriarchs and the majestic Christ Pantocrator. The mixture of styles and cultures, typical of the Norman period, can also be seen in the ceiling decoration, with typical muqarnas of declared Islamic origin.
The Church of Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio, known as the Martorana, was built at the behest of the admiral of Roger II, George of Antioch, around 1140.
Given the mixture of styles that characterise both the exterior and interior of the church, it is assumed that several craftsmen, both Byzantine and local, worked on it, at least until 1185, when the narthex and bell tower were completed. Inspired by the richness and splendour of the Palatine Chapel, the mosaic cycle of Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio is meticulously studied from an aesthetic and symbolic as well as an ideological perspective. The Syrian-style Byzantine Orthodox dome stands in the centre of the church, on a high octagonal drum, with cylindrical corner niches embellished with concentric rings.
The Zisa, from the Arabic word for ‘splendid’, is now located in a residual area of what was once the grandiose Genoard park. The construction of the palace began with William I and was completed by his successor, William II, although the layout is typically Islamic. The Zisa was a royal pavilion, one of the loca solatiorum that adorned the royal park. The magnificent reception room, known as ‘the fountain room’, is an expression of different cultural backgrounds. The hall, built according to the Islamic style iwan, projects outwards, in ideal connection with the surrounding park, in axis with the main entrance in a predominant position compared to the other rooms. The hall’s interior is cruciform in shape with large decorated and vaulted niches with muqarnas. The entire room is decorated with mosaics and marble inlays in opus sectile and columns with capitals of Islamic origin. The fountain is located on the wall opposite the entrance, from which water once flowed over a decorated slab, through a channel and into the large fish pond outside.