Palermo: San Giovanni dei Lebbrosi

San Giovanni dei Lebbrosi.

From Palermo’s railway station it is still quite a long walk to the small church of San Giovanni dei Lebbrosi. The route is very simple, but those who take it will not cross the most interesting parts of the city. Just follow the Corso dei Mille, named after the Thousand (in reality 1,162) soldiers of the great revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi, for about a kilometre and a half, pass by the Ponte dell’Ammiraglio and then enter the Via Salvatore Cappello. There the church stands quite isolated in a green garden with date palms. In terms of architecture and art, the San Giovanni dei Lebbrosi is not that special, and the church is not included in the UNESCO list of world heritage either. On the other hand, the church is strongly associated with the Norman conquest of Sicily and therefore certainly worth a visit.

The Normans on Sicily

The Duchy of Normandy in present-day France was founded in 911 when the Norman leader Rollo concluded a treaty with the Frankish King Charles the Simple. The Normans were then quickly assimilated. Henceforth they spoke Norman French and were devout Catholic Christians. As Christians the Normans had close ties with Saint Michael the Archangel, who was said to have appeared to Saint Aubert, the bishop of Avranches, in 708. The bishop subsequently founded the famous abbey of Mont-Saint-Michel on a tidal island off the coast of Normandy. Italy too had a famous sanctuary dedicated to the archangel, which was to be found in Monte Gargano, Apulia. Ever more Norman pilgrims were sighted here in the tenth and eleventh centuries. In 1016, according to tradition, they were approached by a certain Melus of Bari, a Longobard who sought military support against the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire. The Normans had a reputation for being fierce warriors, and plenty of them were prepared to come to Italy as adventurers and mercenaries.

San Giovanni dei Lebbrosi, side view.

Soon there were Normans fighting against, but also in the Byzantine armies in Southern Italy. It was clear that they were there to stay, and in 1030 one Rainulf Drengot was appointed Count of Aversa by the Duke of Naples. About five years later three brothers from the town of Hauteville in Normandy arrived in Southern Italy. Together with some 300 other Normans they enlisted in a Byzantine army commanded by the general George Maniakes that had been raised to recapture Sicily from its Muslim rulers. The island had been part of the Byzantine Empire since the sixth century, but in the ninth century it had been conquered by the Muslim Aghlabids of Northern Africa. The Aghlabids had actually been invited by Euphemius, a rebel Byzantine commander on the island. Between 827 and 878 the Muslims took over most of Sicily[1] and founded an emirate there.[2] The Aghlabids introduced new agricultural techniques on the island (including irrigation works), as well as cotton, papyrus, melons, pistachios, citrus fruit, date palms and sugar cane. Sicily, and especially the city of Palermo, now acquired an important position in the Mediterranean trade network.

The church has three apses.

However, the island was also used as a staging point for attacks on the Italian peninsula, attacks that left coastal areas in ruins and saw the inhabitants taken away as slaves. George Maniakes therefore had more than enough reasons to invade Sicily. Between 1038 and 1040 he managed to capture the entire east of the island. His campaign was helped by the fact that this was a part of Sicily which still had a large Greek-Orthodox population, that saw Maniakes as a liberator. The Norman knight William de Hauteville, the eldest of the three brothers from Hauteville, distinguished himself during the siege of Syracuse by single-handedly killing the enemy Emir. Because of this deed he was given the nickname Bras-de-Fer or Iron arm. Unfortunately George Maniakes then got into a conflict with his admiral, who quite regretfully happened to be the brother-in-law of the Byzantine Emperor Michael IV (1034-1041). As a consequence, the general was recalled from the island and the east of Sicily fell into Muslim hands again.

Robert Guiscard and Roger de Hauteville

In the meantime the Normans in Southern Italy were growing ever more powerful. In 1042 William de Hauteville became Count of Apulia. When Bras-de-Fer died in 1046 he was succeeded by his brother Drogo, who in 1047 was promoted to Duke by the Emperor Henry III. Drogo was murdered in 1051 and succeeded by the third brother, Humphrey de Hauteville. And by this time more adventurers had arrived from Normandy. One of them was Richard, a nephew of Rainulf Drengot, who in 1049 became Count of Aversa, another was Robert Guiscard. Robert (1015-1085) was the eldest son of Tancred de Hauteville from his second marriage. This made him a half-brother of William, Drogo and Humphrey, and his nickname Guiscard can be translated as “the cunning”. Pope Leo IX (1049-1054) was alarmed by the growing power of the Norman freebooters and decided to send an army against them. However, Humphrey, Richard and Robert Guiscard annihilated this army in 1053 at Civitate and even managed to capture the pope himself. Upon his release on 12 March 1054 Leo was forced to formally recognise the Norman conquests in Southern Italy.

Arabic dome of the church, with Arabic windows.

Pope Nicholas II (1059-1061) did not see the Normans as a problem, but as part of the solution. They were good Catholics and ferocious warriors, so he was happy to accept them as allies. The 1059 Treaty of Melfi confirmed Richard of Aversa as Prince of Capua and Robert Guiscard as Duke of Apulia, Calabria and Sicily. None of the latter territories were fully in the hands of the Normans yet. The Byzantines still controlled parts of Apulia and Calabria (the city of Bari held out until 1071), while Sicily was again firmly in the hands of the Muslims. But the Muslims were now hopelessly divided, and at least three different Emirs were at each other’s throats. And so it happened that an Emir named Ibn at-Timnah invited Robert Guiscard to invade Sicily. Guiscard subsequently sent his younger brother Roger de Hauteville (ca. 1031-1101) with an army. In May of 1061, after initial setbacks, Roger managed to capture the city of Messina in the northeast of the island. The Normans had now secured their first bridgehead on Sicily.

In the years after 1061 Robert Guiscard and Roger de Hauteville extended their power on Sicily. They won several victories and took multiple cities, brandishing the papal banner that Pope Alexander II (1061-1073) had given them. Nevertheless, the Norman conquest of Sicily came in fits and starts. A first attack (or raid) on Palermo was launched in 1063, but in spite of assistance by a Pisan feet (see Pisa: The Duomo) the Normans failed to take the city. In 1064-1068 Robert Guiscard was moreover constantly recalled to the Italian mainland to crush rebellions. But then in 1068 at Misilmeri, southeast of Palermo, Roger won a major victory over the army of Prince Ayub from the Zirid dynasty (a Berber dynasty from present-day Algeria). In 1071 the Normans followed up on their victory by taking Catania in the east of Sicily, before shifting their attention to Palermo again. It is here, according to tradition, that the history of the church of San Giovanni dei Lebbrosi commences.

Sicily in Norman hands

San Giovanni dei Lebbrosi in the green garden.

In 1071 Robert and Roger advanced on Palermo, a city that was said to have had 250,000 inhabitants and 300 mosques.[3] These numbers are likely inflated, but there can be no doubt that Balarm – as Palermo was known in Arabic – was the most important city of Muslim Sicily. The southeast side of the city was protected by a castle called Yayha, the Arabic version of John. Yayha moreover dominated the river Oreto, which was later bridged by the aforementioned Ponte dell’Ammiraglio. The Normans almost effortlessly defeated the garrison of Yayha and destroyed the castle, following up on their victory by building a church dedicated to Saint John the Baptist on the ruins. This is the story as it is usually told, and it just sounds a little incredible. Robert and Roger were about to start the siege of Palermo and surely had other things on their mind than building a church. Furthermore, as they were operating deep inside enemy territory, where on earth were they going to find the workmen? Perhaps it is better to assume that part of the castle of Yayha was converted into a Christian sanctuary, and that the construction of a proper church did not start until after the Norman army had captured Palermo. It is even conceivable that, bivouacking in their camp between the date palms, the brothers merely promised to build a church dedicated to “Yayha” if they managed to take Palermo.

On 5 January 1072 the Normans launched their attack on Palermo. They quickly overran the Al Khalesa district, now known as the Kalsa. The Muslims entrenched themselves in the higher part of the city, which was known as Al Qasr or “the fortress”. On 10 January of the same year they surrendered, after which Robert Guiscard made his entry into the city and celebrated mass in the cathedral (formerly the great mosque, and before that a Christian church). Guiscard disappears from the stage not long after that. The restless adventurer spent the last thirteen years of his life on quelling rebellions on the Italian mainland and on his complex relationships (to put it mildly) with Richard, Prince of Capua, and Pope Gregorius VII (1073-1085). He also crossed the Adriatic Sea for a war against the Byzantine Empire. The Duke left the conquest of the rest of Sicily and the administration of the island to his brother, who was granted the title of “Great Count of Sicily” and thus became a vassal of Guiscard (who was himself a vassal of the pope).

Dark interior of the church.

After the capture of Palermo Count Roger continued the war against the Muslims. This war was, however, definitely not a crusade, for at the same time Roger built a tolerant state with multiple official languages (including Arabic and Greek) and room for Jews, Muslims and Greek-Orthodox Christians. In a way, Roger’s policies were born from necessity, as the Great Count knew very well that the Catholic Normans were just a tiny minority on the island, although the Catholic population of Sicily was certainly increasing due to immigration from Southern Italy. The conquest of the rest of Sicily took another nineteen years. In 1077 Trapani and Erice fell into Norman hands, with Taormina following two years later. In 1081 the Emir of Syracuse briefly managed to occupy Catania, but the next year the city was retaken by Roger’s army. In 1085 this army began the siege of Syracuse and the Emir was killed in the fighting. A couple of months later, the city surrendered. The next year Roger conquered the city of Agrigento, and in 1087 he took Enna, which until then was thought to be impregnable. The Emir of Enna capitulated and converted to Christianity. With the fall of Noto, in the southeast of Sicily, in 1091 the entire island had fallen into the hands of the Great Count.

Count Roger I died in 1101, aged seventy. He was lamented by all his subjects. Roger had been married three times, and his third wife Adelaide del Vasto had borne him his sons Simon (1093) and Roger (1095). Simon succeeded his father as Great Count, but he died young in 1105. That made Roger II the new Great Count, initially under the regency of his mother. He would go on to become the most successful Norman monarch ever to rule Sicily. The second Roger was anything but a warmonger. Yes, he went to war if it was necessary, but Roger preferred being a diplomat, administrator and scientist. Under his rule the Sicilian territories were extended far beyond the island itself. Via his cousin William, a grandson of Guiscard, he claimed Apulia, and in 1128 he forced Pope Honorius II (1124-1130) to recognise him as Duke of that region (thus becoming his own lord). Thanks to an alliance with Antipope Anacletus, Roger was subsequently even crowned King of Sicily in the cathedral of Palermo on 25 December 1130.

Capital of one of the columns.

However, the legitimate Pope – in retrospect – Innocentius II (1130-1143) refused to recognise Roger as King. At the Second Lateran Council in April of 1139 he deposed anyone who had been ordained by Anacletus and excommunicated Roger. Innocentius then invaded Roger’s territories in Southern Italy, but on 22 July 1139 he was ambushed at Galluccio in Campania and taken prisoner. Three days later the Pope signed the Treaty of Mignano, acknowledging Roger as the rightful King and Ruler of all of Italy south of the river Garigliano. King Roger died on 26 February 1154, aged 58. Because his eldest sons Roger (III), Tancred and Alfonso were already dead, the Sicilian crown passed to his fourth son, William, who somewhat undeservedly acquired the nickname “the Bad” and sat on the throne until his death in 1166. He was succeeded by his son William II “the Good” (whose nickname was equally undeserved). This William died childless, and ultimately Sicily passed into the hands of the German Hohenstaufen (see below).

San Giovanni dei Lebbrosi

Although tradition claims that there has been a church (or at least a sanctuary) of San Giovanni at this location since 1071, the link with the lepers has only existed since 1119. In the latter year Roger II was said to have founded a hospital (lebbrosario) where people suffering from leprosy could be nursed. Roger may have had a personal reason to found the hospital. He had an older half-brother named Geoffrey, who according to the Norman chronicler Gaufridus Malaterra suffered from the morbus elephantinus, which is presumably a reference to leprosy. This obviously ruled out Geoffrey to succeed his father as Count, and the fact that he was very likely an illegitimate child was not very helpful either. His exact date of death is unknown, but it may very well have been around 1119, the year that his half-brother founded the lebbrosario. The church is a fine example of Arab-Norman architecture, built in the shape of a basilica, with three apses and two little Arabic domes painted red. The similarities with the church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti elsewhere in Palermo are perhaps a clue that the San Giovanni dei Lebbrosi only acquired its present appearance under Roger II.

Crucifix, fifteenth century.

In 1221 King Frederick II of Hohenstaufen – who had also been Holy Roman Emperor since 1220 – granted the church and hospital to the Teutonic knights of the collegiate church of Santissima Trinità del Cancelliere, more commonly known as La Magione. This Frederick was the son of Constance of Sicily and the German Emperor Henry VI. His mother was a posthumous daughter of King Roger II, and it was through her that the kingdom was passed on to the Hohenstaufen, the dynasty of which her husband was a member. At the end of the fifteenth century the Senate of Palermo took control of the church and hospital. The hospital became part of larger hospitals in the city and remained in use until 1825. The church, in its turn, was restored in the twentieth century by the architect Francesco Valenti (1868-1953). Between 1920 and 1934 Valenti removed all later Baroque additions and did his best to give the church back its original medieval appearance.

If you want to visit the church of San Giovanni dei Lebbrosi, please keep in mind that you are doing this for its history, not for its art. The church has two nice little red domes (one on the church itself, one on the tower) and the windows have artistic latticework, but that about sums up the external decorations. Visitors enter the building through some kind of narthex (rebuilt by Valenti). The interior of the church is very dark. The decorations inside include a statue of the Madonna and Child and a crucifix from the fifteenth century. We do not know who made the crucifix and the object is definitely not of exceptional quality, but in a church such as this every tiny bit of colour is more than welcome. The church furthermore has a couple of nice capitals, some of which still have Arabic inscriptions in the Kufic script. Do not forget to go for a stroll in the beautiful garden surrounding the church before or after your visit to the San Giovanni. It is very pleasant there and the smells are just wonderful. There is no need to be fearful of hordes of tourists: tourists are usually wholly absent here.



[1] Rometta held out until 965.

[2] The Aghlabids were replaced by the Fatimids in 909, but in 948 became an independent emirate under the Kalbids.

[3] See John Julius Norwich, The Normans in the South, p. 177.


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