Sunday, October 23, 2016

Stormin' Normans

In order to understand Sicily a little better, I downloaded a book on its history and dutifully read up over lunches and dinners while in Palermo. Turns out its history is a lot more turbulent than I knew. Due to its strategic location in the Mediterranean, it seems just about everyone had a go at conquering it (or at least ruling it, conquering often not required due to dynastic entanglements), from Phoenicians to Greeks to Romans to Arabs to Normans to French to Spanish. I got to the 18th century before I left Sicily and abandoned the book, which was disappointingly light on any information about the daily lives of ordinary people, and heavy on a parade of mostly indistinguishable foreign rulers.

However, I did enjoy the earlier parts of the book, including learning about the Norman rulers. It seems strange to think of the Normans, North-men, ending up in control of southern Italy and Sicily, but in the 11th century, that's what happened. Much of the motivation was religious - Sicily had been under Arab control, so a war of conquest also conveniently had the blessing of the Pope as a sort of crusade.

However, although the Normans took control, it was not a brutal war of conquest and repression against the Muslim population. I walked past a guide in one cathedral or another explaining to his group that the Arab-Norman sites of Sicily are World Heritage sites because they represent "the only time Muslims and Christians have lived together in harmony". One hopes that is an exaggeration, but for its time, the kingdom of Sicily was certainly enlightened. The Normans built upon many existing Arab institutions and employed Arabs in high positions, with a general ethnic and religious tolerance (encompassing not only Muslims and Western Christians, but also Orthodox Christians).

While, certainly from an Anglo-centric point of view, one would say William's conquest of England was a more significant historical event, the near-contemporaneous conquest of Sicily by the Norman de Hauteville brothers was, at the time, a more valuable prize. The city of Palermo alone brought in more revenues than all of William the Conqueror's English realm.

The lasting legacy of this cultural mix and of the great wealth to be had is the beautiful Arab-Norman architecture, best represented by three sites in and around Palermo - the Norman Palace and Palatine Chapel in Palermo itself; the cathedral of Monreale, now virtually a suburb of Palermo; and, a bit further afield, the cathedral of Cefal├╣.

My last post focused on the Palatine Chapel, which is far and away the most beautiful and interesting part of the Norman Palace. However, if you have the time and it's open, it is worth having a look around the rest of the palace. Most of it was extended and rebuilt under Spanish rule, but there is still a wing that dates back to Norman times. One cool fact is that it has been used as a seat of rule and government from the Norman period, with some breaks, up to the present day, as it now houses the Sicilian Regional Assembly.

Inner courtyard

Ceiling next to the Sala di Ruggero

The Chinese room

The Pompeii room

Ceiling of the Sala di Ruggero, the salon of Roger II, who despite his name, was the first King of Sicliy

A much more secular theme than the Palatine chapel, with hunting scenes and symbolic animal decoration

Poor bunny!

Sunday, October 02, 2016

Symphony in gold

I have, like, A Thing for being in popular tourist destinations alone or nearly so. Maybe everyone else shares this, but judging by the hordes of cruise ship tourists traipsing about after guides holding up umbrellas I saw in Sicily, the force is not so strong in everyone. If anyone wants to get me an amazing gift, something like the after-hours private tours of the Vatican you can do would be a pretty good place to start (*cough* *hint hint Jules*).

So on Sunday, when I walked past the Norman Palace, home of the Palatine Chapel, on the way back from the Capuchin Catacombs and saw there was a line to get in even though the chapel itself would not be open for another hour, I decided to get up early the next day in the hopes of beating the crowds. So, at 8 am I was already waiting in front of the gates ahead of the 8.15 opening time. I was joined shortly afterwards by two other tourists and spent the next 10 minutes impatiently waiting, hoping I wasn't somehow in the wrong place and that no-one else would turn up. Just before 8.15, one of the other girls waiting drew my attention to a sign under perspex hanging next to the gate that said the chapel was not open today. My heart sank, but with just a couple more minutes to wait till opening time, we all hoped it was a mistake and kept waiting. Sure enough, the gate opened more or less on time and the first thing they did was change the sign to the day's proper opening hours.

The three of us charged straight to the empty chapel. It's absolutely breathtaking. Small in scale, but with every inch covered by golden mosaics, intricate tiling, carved wood or elegant stone. It is such an amazing privilege to see a place like this in piece and quiet and to really have the chance to examine all of it. We were able to go up the steps into the area in front of the altar, which it turns out is normally roped off, because it turned out morning Mass was about to start. After we had been in there for 10 minutes or so, a priest swept in to say 8.30 Mass to a handful of people who had also trickled in to the chapel. I stepped down from the altar area, and one of the attendants came and told the other two tourists to do the same.

I spent about another 15 minutes admiring the chapel and taking a billion photos (a million of which are below, I really couldn't winnow them down any further), during which time the other two left so I really did have the main body of the chapel to myself. Then a female guard came in and said something to me in Italian about the Mass. I thought she was saying "no photos during the Mass", so I said okay but stayed put. Dissatisfied, she went and grabbed an English-speaking colleague, who told me I had to leave and "respect the Mass". Which annoyed me because they could have a) not let us in there when they knew the Mass was about to start (glad they didn't though) or b) told us to leave when they came in and told them not to stand in the altar area. But whatever, I had half an hour in there and when I left I realised they weren't admitting anyone else, so I was really lucky to have that experience. I left and looked at the rest of the palace (there is not so much to see) and when I came back down the chapel was full of people and a completely different atmosphere. So my top tip is to try to sneak in at opening time!

I feel like it's maybe not as well-known as it deserves to be? I had come across it before, but only fairly recently, and I don't think I've ever really heard people mention the Palatine Chapel as somewhere they are dying to visit. Later on the trip, I visited Monreale Cathedral, which is basically the same sort of thing but on a larger scale. I loved it too, but my favourite is the Palatine, precisely because its smaller scale really allows you to be immersed in the beautiful mosaics and see all their detail. It is a blend of Western, Byzantine and Arabic styles which came about due to the history of Sicily (more on that next time) and which is apparently unique in the world, earning the Arab-Norman architecture of Palermo and nearby Monreale and Cefalu World Heritage status. If it's not on your bucket list, it really deserves to be!

The creation of Adam, via laser eyes

Rebecca and her camels

Looking up at the dome above the altar. This was a no-go area when I went back in the afternoon

The Arab-influenced wooden ceiling

Crowded with people when I came back

The drunkenness of Noah

Wall tiles

Weird horse. Adam and Eve covering their nakeness above

Jacob's ladder

Jacob and Esau, with Cain and Abel above

Friendly camp lion

What's with people who insist on taking photos at waist height?

Angry camp lions

Emperor Nero with Sts Peter and Paul and Simon Magus
Naughty Simon Magus gets carried off by devils
Noah's ark

Less than amazing panoramas, but just to give a vague idea

The pulpit with elaborately-carved candlestick to the right

Ceiling in the side aisle

Alcove next to the altar

Someone in a basket and St Peter