This is the place of the first urban settlement that will later become the city of Palermo. The earliest remains of structures are parts of the Punic city walls discovered during recent archaeological explorations under the “Duke of Montalto halls” (Sale Duca di Montalto), and now visitable.
During the 9th century, the Fatimid emirs placed here their palace, profiting from its elevated and easily defensible position. From that moment on the main way of the city (the modern Corso Vittorio Emanuele), linking the sea with the Palace, took the name of Cassaro, from the arabic al-Qasr (=Palace).
After the Norman conquest of Sicily, Palermo was selected to be the capital of the new kingdom, and this building became the Royal Palace in 1072 and gained his unofficial name of Palazzo dei Normanni (“Palace of the Normans”). From the time of Roger II the Palace starts to be enlarged through the addition of new buildings and a Royal Chapel (Cappella Palatina in Italian). The defences were enhanced, adding four towers: the Torre Greca (“Greek tower”) to the south; the Torre Pisana (“Pisan tower”) to the north; the Torre Gioarìa and the Torre Chirimbi in the middle. The palace was not only a residence and a stronghold, but hosted also a series of laboratories for high-end manufacture of precious metals and textiles (called Nobiles Oficinae in the latin documents).
The Cappella Palatina, whose construction began following the coronation of Roger II as king of Sicily in 1130, is a veritable jewel of Fatimid art, combining harmoniously the Latin-cross plan in the naves with the centric plan of the sancta sanctorum. The whole upper part of the church is decorated with gold-background mosaics, spanning over walls, apses, arches and the dome. They were skillfully crafted by byzantine masters, helped by local craftsmen under their direction. The message they are meant to convey is centered on the power of the Christian church, the imperial position of Christ (with a clear hint to the political ambitions of king Roger) and the hierarchical political and religious system of that time. The famous Christ Pantocrator (“who rules all”) depicted in the dome, sends his blessing from above in a Greek manner, surrounded by four archangels and four angels, symbolising the heavenly kingdom. The rest of the mosaics deals with scenes of the life of Jesus, the deeds of saints form the Acts of the Apostles and some scenes from the Genesis. The overall meaning of the choice of the scenes is that the royal power is one of divine origin, a message dear to Roger who was made king by the Pope and was his personal representative in Sicily. The floors in Cosmatesque style, made of rare marbles, were placed in the years 1143-1149.
Very interesting is the treasure of the Chapel (“Tesoro”), located in the sacristy on the west wing of the complex and displaying elaborate silverware, liturgic vestments, byzantine and arabic jewelry boxes. The collection encompasses also some Greek, arabic and latin parchments ranging from the 11th to the 18th century. The Chapel was also connected to the royal quarters on the first floor of the Palace through a complex system of corridors.
From the reign of Emperor Charles V of Spain, the Royal Palace was briefly used as a seat for the Court of the Spanish Inquisition, during the years 1516-1553. Then the spanish Viceroys, and rarely also the Kings themselves during their visits to the island, used the complex again as a residence, adapting it to the defensive and state display needs of the period. Some of the towers were demolished or downsized, the courts were built, and the south facade was built to give the complex amore unitary and modern look when the new apartments were built in 1565-1575. These new state halls, on three levels, hosted from 1560 on also the meetings of the Sicilian Parliament in the Sala d’Ercole (“Hall of Hercules”, called this way because of the monochromatic frescoes by G. Velasquez depicting scenes of Hercules). This stately display was reinforced with the redecoration of the apartments in 1735, including the creation of the monumental staircase in red marble that nowadays constitutes the main access to the upper levels of the palace from the courtyard.
Between 1647 and 1648 two bastions were built on the south side, named after S. Mary and St. Michael, in order to protect the castle from the frequent risings of the population. These bastions were extremely unpopular, and were later demolished after the revolution of 1848.
In 1791 was added the Specola or astronomic observatory, where in 1801 the astronomer G. Piazzi discovered the dwarf planet Ceres, and that now hosts a nice collection of astronomical instruments from the 18th and 19th century. The activities of the observatory are nowadays continued by the modern Observatory “G. S. Vaiana”.
In the second half of the 19th century, following the neo-gothic taste of the time, the north facade with the two norman towers and the “political prisons” were re-arranged.
The palace continues to serve as seat of the Sicilian Regional Parliament (“A.R.S.”).
When to go: Monday to Saturday 8.15 am – 5.40 pm (last admittance 5 pm); Sunday and bank holidays 8.15 am – 1.00 pm (last admittance 12.15).
Note: the Royal Apartments are closed during Parliament meetings, from Tuesday to Thursday; the Palatine Chapel is closed to tourist during Mass, from 8,30 am to 9,00 Mon-Sat and from 9,45 to 11,15 on Sunday.
Price: € 10.00 (Royal Apartments, Palatine Chapel and Temporary Exhibition)
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