Islamic and Norman Palermo

The Arabs

Palermo was conquered by Arab troops from North Africa in 830 AD, three years after they officially entered the catalogue of foreign dominations capturing Mazara.

Their first headquarter was the high ground of the Paleapolis, with its easily defendable walls. They called this area al-qasr (“the castle”), a name that survived the centuries till today, preserved in the popular denomination of the main road of the city connecting the castle with the sea: the Cássaro (modern day Corso Vittorio Emanuele). Palermo, now named Balarm, was a very prosperous city and with prosperity came also the rise in the population. Outside the walls two new quarters were created, one beyond the river Kemonia, inhabited by Muslims and Jews; the other one beyond the Papireto, called quarter of the “Schiavoni” (from the collective name given to the mercenaries coming from slavic countries of the Dalmatian coast).

Following this rapid growth in 937 the Emirs of Sicily decided to create a new directional center, a new citadel for the court and the troops located in the plain between the port and the sealine, in the area around modern-day Piazza Marina. This citadel, called al-khalisah (“the elected”, name survived until today as Kalsa) featured the Emir’s palace, a magnificent mosque, baths, a garrison and a prison. The prosperity brought by the introduction in Sicily of new coltures (oranges, lemons, sugarcane) and the improvement of irrigation techniques (e.g. with underground canals, the qanats), made Balarm the second most populated city of Europe around the year 1050, with a population of ca. 350000 inhabitants, second only to another islamic state’s capital: Cordoba.

The capital is endowed with two gifts, splendor and wealth. It contains all the real and imagined beauty that anyone could wish. (Ibn Jubair, who visited Balarm in the 12th century)


The Normans

This splendid city, the “city of the 300 mosques” as it was once called, is the same city -although somewhat diminished in population- conquered in January 1072 by the Normans led by Robert and Roger d’Hauteville.

The new conquerors re-established the headquarters in the site of what was to become the Royal Palace or Palazzo dei Normanni. They also razed to the ground the big mosque the Emirs had built on the site of a preexisting Christian church, and reinstated the Archbishop in his Cathedral.  The Muslim population was evicted from the old part of the city and was transferred in the quarter of the Schiavoni, now emptied of the mercenary troops once employed by the Emirs.

In many parts of the city flourished areas populated by foreign merchants, whom the new Count and Kings of Sicily granted privileges and permits. These merchants, mainly coming from the 4 maritime republics of Genoa, Pisa, Venice and Amalfi, settled in the new areas created by the progressive interment of the harbour, usually around their “national” churches (e.g. the church of St. George of the Genoans but also St. Eulalia of the Catalans).

Under the Normans, as it was the case under the previous Islamic domination,  people of all sorts of different ethnic origin used to live and commerce together: Latines, Byzantines, Muslims and Jews. And the same happened to the languages and cultural traditions of these peoples, used often at the same time and mutually influencing each other in a particularly proficuous exchange that is clearly visible in the many examples of the monumental art and minor craft.

Quadrilingual inscription from Palermo -
Quadrilingual inscription in the Museum od Ismalic Art, Palermo (photo: Wikipedia, G. Dall’Orto)

This constant misture of elements coming from the Latin, Byzantine and Islamic traditions is the trademark of what is often called Arab-Norman or, better, Siculo-Norman art. The Normans were essentially wandering warriors and once they settled in Sicily with a royal crown on their head they needed an official iconograhic language that was capable of conveying their views and aspirations. Even though they had no developed artistic sensibility and certainly no court-art, they were ready to make the best of what they had available, combining elements from all the different artistic traditions represented in Sicily in an authentically original expression that has no parallels.

The heritage left by the Normans is witnessed by palaces like the Royal Palace and the summer residences of the Zisa Castle, the Cuba, the Castles of Maredolce and Uscibene, always enshrined in beautiful hunting reserves and wide parks. Along with the palaces, many are the churches that proclaim the success of the multicultural formula employed in the Siculo-Norman art: from the Cathedral to the Cappella Palatina, from the church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti to that of San Cataldo.