The route leads to the discovery of the great Norman cathedrals of the UNESCO Site of Palermo, Cefalù and Monreale. Through dynastic and cultural intertwining, each cathedral is a symbol of one of the great protagonists of the Hauteville dynasty and of a stylistic moment that looks to local, oriental and transalpine art. Each route, divided into several stages, explores the majestic buildings on different levels, from an architectural and artistic standpoint, without neglecting the historical, social, philosophical and cultural context..
The Cefalù Cathedral was King Roger’s dream: it stands at the foot of a majestic rock and overlooks the crystal clear sea. A landscape that also fascinated Idrisi, the Arab geographer who, in 1145, was called to Palermo by Roger II to write the famous Libro di Ruggero (Book of Roger) and work on the construction of a new building.
Idrisi wrote about Cefalù: “Gaflùdi (Cefalù), a city-like fortress, lies on the seashore, a short day’s journey from Sahrat ‘al ‘hadid, with its markets, baths and mills, situated in the same town, overlooking water that rises [from the rock], sweet and fresh, giving its inhabitants something to drink. The fortress of Cefalù [is built] on rocks, washed by the sea.”
The temple of Cefalù, begun by Ruggero II in 1131, is the one with the most Nordic influences. Architecturally, especially in its original design, it takes the form of a real fortress. Even its location is strategic: the Cathedral is at the eastern end of the town, under the fortress that dominates the surrounding area. With its imposing structure, built within two towers, it was created with a precise dynastic purpose, since it was intended to house the remains of King Roger.
On the other hand, at the Monreale Cathedral, the burial place of William I and William II, there is a stylistic balance of forms between decoration and architecture. The monumental complex, begun by William II in 1172, consists of the church, the Benedictine monastery and the royal palace. Inside, the centrepiece of the mosaic cycle depicting stories from the Old and New Testaments, created by Byzantine craftsmen, is the grandiose Christ Pantocrator in the apse basin. The King of kings has a stern but loving gaze, and with his embrace he blesses and welcomes the faithful who, once having passed through the bronze door, known as the Gate of Paradise, created by Bonanno Pisano, set off on an upward journey towards salvation. The Benedictine monastery cloister is also from the same period. The capitals of the cloister are of Romanesque origin and are richly decorated with zoomorphic, phytomorphic, fantastic and symbolic motifs.
The last stop is the Palermo Cathedral. Previously, during the period of Muslim rule, this was the Gami Mosque, connected by a passageway to the Emir’s palace. It was then converted into a church when the Normans arrived in Sicily and was entrusted to the care of Bishop Nicodemus. During the reign of William II, the old church was restored at the behest of Archbishop Gualtiero, the King’s Proto family member. In the Chapel of the Royal Tombs, inside the ancient Cathedral, lie Roger II, first king of Sicily; Queen Constance of Aragon; Empress Constance of Hauteville; Emperor Frederick II and Emperor Henry VI.
The canopied sarcophagi of Frederick and Henry VI were ordered by Roger II, before 1145, and were intended for the Cefalù Cathedral. It was the grandson Frederick who transferred them to Palermo, not respecting the wishes of his grandfather. According to the first king of Sicily’s designs, there was supposed to be two sarcophagi: one to house his remains and the other for the greater glory of God.