Palermo: Palazzo dei Normanni

The Palazzo dei Normanni, with the Torre Pisana on the right.

The Palazzo dei Normanni is the royal palace of Palermo. The name “palace of the Normans” dates from the twentieth century. It is a name that is not necessarily incorrect – the building was indeed a residence of the Norman kings of Sicily – but it does ignore that many other civilisations have left their mark here. If we take a closer look at the palace, we will see a complex that is not very harmonious in terms of style. John Julius Norwich once described it as “an architectural hotch-potch which fails to impose any overriding personality”.[1] The northern part, which includes the city gate called the Porta Nuova, cannot be visited, as it is in use by the Italian army. Many of the other spaces in the complex have fortunately been opened to the public, and the highlight is without a doubt the Cappella Palatina, the royal chapel built by the Norman-Sicilian King Roger II (1130-1154). The chapel deserves a separate post; in this post I will discuss the other things to see in the complex, which is included in the UNESCO list of world heritage.

Antiquity

Palermo was originally a Phoenician settlement. In the eighth century BCE the city was founded by Phoenician colonists who called it Ziz (“flower”). Greek colonists who founded their own cities on Sicily had a different name for Ziz: they spoke of Panormos, which means “complete harbour” and suggests that ships could dock safely here. The name was far from unique: there was for instance also a town called Panormos on the Greek island of Samos. The Phoenician cities on Sicily were ultimately united under the authority of Carthage, a Phoenician city in North Africa. Carthaginians and Greeks then fought each other for centuries for control of the island, with shifting fortunes. In the third century BCE a third actor entered the stage: Rome. At the time the Romans had annexed the Italian peninsula from the river Arno in the north to the Strait of Messina in the south. In 264 BCE both Rome and Carthage intervened on Sicily, which led to the conflict that is commonly known as the First Punic War (264-241 BCE).

Punic walls of Panormus, fourth century BCE.

In 254 BCE a Roman army managed to capture Panormos. According to the historian Polybius the Romans first took the lower city before starving the defenders of the citadel into submission. The citadel of the Phoenician city must have been located about where we now find the Palazzo dei Normanni. This was the oldest part of Ziz. In the basement of the complex the remains of Phoenician walls and a so-called postern (secondary gate) have been excavated. Both date from the fourth century BCE. In the basement one can also admire several archaeological finds, the result of excavations carried out in the second half of the twentieth century.

After the Roman conquest Panormos got the very similar Latin name Panormus (with a “u” instead of an “o”). The city remained in Roman hands for more than seven centuries, but does not seem to have been very important in the Roman age. In 468 Sicily was conquered by the Vandals, who in 476 sold the island to Odoacer, the Germanic commander who had deposed the last Western Roman emperor. Odoacer was in his turn defeated in a war against the Ostrogoths led by Theoderic, after which Sicily was added to the latter’s kingdom in 493. Upon the death of the great king in 526 that kingdom quickly disintegrated. In 535 the famous Eastern Roman or Byzantine general Belisarius captured Sicily without much effort, only encountering organised resistance in Panormus. The island was subsequently part of the Byzantine Empire for several centuries, but in the ninth century it was conquered by the Muslim Aghlabids from North Africa. The Aghlabids took Panormus in 831, and in Arabic the city became known as Balarm.

The Palazzo dei Normanni.

Muslims, Normans and Hohenstaufen

On the spot of the Palazzo dei Normanni a palace was built where the Aghlabid governor of the city resided. This palace was, however, certainly not the only palace in Balarm. Near the sea was the Castello a Mare, and southeast of the city the governor made use of the Castello di Maredolce. The remains of both buildings can still be admired today.

In the tenth century the Aghlabids were replaced by the Fatimids, who in their turn had to make way for the dynasty of the Kalbids in 948. Under Kalbid rule Muslim Sicily fell apart into bickering little emirates. This made the Norman conquest of the island between 1061 and 1091 much easier. The protagonists of this conquest were the brothers Robert Guiscard (1015-1085) and Roger de Hauteville (ca. 1031-1101). A first Norman attack on Balarm in 1063 was unsuccessful, but in 1071 the Norman army was back before the walls of the city. On 5 January of the next year the brothers launched their attack and their troops quickly overran the lower city, known as Al Khalesa (now La Kalsa). Five days later the defenders of the higher part of the city, which was called Al Qasr (“the fort”), surrendered. Palermo – as we will henceforth call the city – was in Norman hands.

The Palazzo dei Normanni, seen from the cathedral.

Maqueda courtyard.

Robert Guiscard had been appointed by Pope Nicholas II as Duke of Apulia, Calabria and Sicily in 1059, well before he had set foot on the island for the first time. In his capacity as Duke, Guiscard appointed his brother Roger as Great Count. It was Roger who was entrusted with the job to complete the conquest of Sicily, and it was Roger who took it upon him to remodel the Muslim palaces. The Great Count therefore dedicated himself to the complex that we now know as the Palazzo dei Normanni and, among other things, had a tower built for it, the Greek Tower, now demolished. His son Roger II, who in 1130 was crowned King of Sicily, made Palermo the Norman capital. He was responsible for the construction of the Sala di Ruggero (which is named after him), the Cappella Palatina and the Joharia tower, which is still extant. The Pisan tower is probably an addition by Roger as well. His son William I (1154-1166) and grandson William II (1166-1189) both enlarged the palace, for instance with the Chirimbi tower, which was demolished in the sixteenth century. In March of 1161 there was a coup against William I. The king himself, his wife Margaret of Navarre and his children were held hostage in the royal palace. The coup was ultimately a failure, but the palace was thoroughly looted.

King William II died childless in 1189, his death prompting a power struggle on the island. Three factions fought against each other. The first faction was led by Constance, a posthumous daughter of King Roger II. She was married to the German emperor Henry VI and received support from the powerful Archbishop of Palermo, the Englishman Walter of the Mill. A second faction was led by Roger of Andria, a nobleman who had the support of most of the Norman barons on the mainland. Lastly there was Tancred of Lecce, an (illegitimate) grandson of Roger II, who was supported by the chancellor Matthew of Ajello and Pope Clemens III (1187-1191). The conflict lasted five years, and in 1194 Constance and Henry VI emerged victorious. The latter became the new King of Sicily, ushering in the Hohenstaufen era. Henry (who died in 1197), his famous son Frederick II (1194-1250) and Frederick’s successors still resided in the Palazzo dei Normanni, but when the Hohenstaufen dynasty became extinct, the palace fell into disrepair.

Aragon, Spain and Italy

Meeting hall of the Sicilian regional parliament (Assemblea regionale siciliana).

In 1268 Frederick’s grandson Conradin was defeated and executed by Charles of Anjou, the younger brother of the French King Louis IX. Charles also took control of Sicily, although he preferred to reside in Naples and visited the island just once. In 1282 he was confronted with a popular uprising that became known as the Sicilian Vespers. The rebels received military aid from King Peter III of Aragon, who was married to Constance II of Sicily. She was the daughter of Manfred, an illegitimate son of Frederick II and the founder of the city of Manfredonia in Apulia. The war between Aragon and Anjou was temporarily ended in 1302 with the signing of the Treaty of Caltabellotta, after which there were henceforth “two Sicilies”, the kingdom on the island of Sicily itself and the kingdom in Southern Italy with Naples as its capital. In 1442 Alfonso V of Aragon, who was already King of Sicily, also became King of Naples, but upon his death in 1458 the kingdom was split again. This situation lasted until 1504. Aragon and Castille were by now united in a personal union, so that we can now speak of the Spanish (and Habsburg) era. Sicily and Naples both belonged to the Crown of Aragon and were ruled by the same monarch, although his “number” differed from kingdom to kingdom. The emperor Charles V was for instance Charles I of Spain, Charles IV of Naples and Charles II of Sicily. History was never easy…

The Kings of Aragon no longer lived in the Palazzo dei Normanni. They preferred the Hosterium Magnum (“Steri”), currently the Palazzo Chiaramonte. As a consequence, the royal palace was neglected. It was revived again in the second half of the sixteenth century, when the Spanish viceroys of Sicily took up residence in the palace. The long façade facing the Piazza del Parlamento for instance dates from 1616. In 1713 Sicily was acquired by the House of Savoy, then in 1720 it became Austrian territory, but in 1735 it was returned to Spanish (now Bourbon) rule. King Ferdinand IV of Naples, who ascended the throne in 1759, was also King Ferdinand III of Sicily. Although he much preferred Naples over Palermo, he was forced to spend a lot of time in the latter city because of the French occupation of Naples. For the Palazzo dei Normanni his presence resulted in a new golden age. The building lost its function as a royal palace in 1861, when Sicily became part of Italy. The palace was pillaged during the revolutions of 1848 and 1866, but fortunately the precious Cappella Palatina was spared. In the 1930s restorations took place which were led by the architect Francesco Valenti (1868-1953). In 1943 the American general Patton moved into the Palazzo dei Normanni and the palace has been the seat of the Sicilian regional assembly (Assemblea regionale siciliana) since 1947.

Teatro marmoreo with King Philip IV of Spain.

A tour of the Palazzo dei Normanni

A visit to the palace starts on the big square in front of it, the Piazza del Parlamento. Here we find a conspicuous monument from 1662 that is called the Teatro Marmoreo. The central figure of the monument is King Philip IV of Spain (1621-1665), who was also Philip III of Naples, Sicily and – indeed – Portugal. His nickname was il Re Pianeta (“King Planet”), because of the immense size of the Spanish empire. The four statues below the king represent the continents Europe, America, Africa and Asia.

After a ticket inspection and a security check the visitor enters one of the two courtyards of the palace, the Maqueda court. From here the Palazzo dei Normanni can be explored further. The Sala Duca di Montalto is used for temporary exhibitions and this hall also gives access to the archaeological excavations underneath the complex which I have already mentioned above. North of the courtyard are the Cappella Palatina and the Sala d’Ercole, which is used by the Sicilian regional assembly. The hall (image above) is famous for its frescoes about the life of Hercules, painted here in 1799 by Giuseppe Velasco (1750-1827) on the orders of the aforementioned Ferdinand IV/III (who by the way, in 1816 simply became Ferdinand I of the Two Sicilies). The ceiling is adorned by an impressive fresco featuring the apotheosis of the Greek hero (image below). Visitors are generally not allowed to enter the meeting hall, but usually its interior can be admired through one of the doors.

Sala d’Ercole, Apotheosis of Hercules by Giuseppe Velasco.

Interior of the Torre Pisana.

Of the four original towers of the palace two were demolished as early as the sixteenth century, i.e. the aforementioned Greek tower (Torre Greca) and the Chirimbi tower (Torre Chirimbi). The Joharia tower (Torre Joharia) is still there and it is part of the percorso in the palace. The name of the tower derives from the Arabic word yawhariyya, which means “precious” or “jewelled”. This tower housed the textile workshops of the Norman kings of Sicily, which were known as the tiraz. Unfortunately very little is left of all the splendour and opulence of the Middle Ages. The Pisan tower (Torre Pisana) is equally unimpressive. The tower probably dates from the reign of Roger II, who employed Pisan workmen to have it built, which explains the name of the structure. The alternative name of the tower is Torre Santa Ninfa, with Ninfa (or Nympha) being a local female martyr and one of the patron saints of Palermo. During the Norman and Hohenstaufen eras the tower was the central keep of the complex. It also had a throne room, of which the walls were entirely covered in mosaics. Regretfully only a few fragments of these have been preserved.

We may count ourselves lucky that we still have the Sala di Ruggero. Together with the Cappella Palatina this room is the true highlight of the royal palace. As the name of the Sala di Ruggero indicates, it was built on the orders of King Roger II. However, the splendid decorations were made (though perhaps not completed) during the reign of Roger’s son William I, nicknamed “the Bad” (1154-1166). The lower parts of the walls are covered in marble, while the door frames have nice Cosmatesque decorations. Truly spectacular are the wall mosaics. These were made in the Persian style and feature scenes from the royal estates outside the city where hunting parties were held. We see leopards, centaurs, deer, hunters with bow and arrow, dogs, lions, peacocks and several other birds. Similar mosaics can be found in La Zisa, the palace that King William I had erected outside Palermo. The ceiling mosaics are a little younger than the wall mosaics. These were made during the reign of Frederick II, with the crowned eagle probably referring to the Hohenstaufen dynasty.

Sala di Ruggero.

Sala di Ruggero.

Sala di Ruggero.

Sala di Ruggero.

Visitors with a ticket for the Palazzo dei Normanni can also enter the royal gardens behind the palace. It is very nice to go for a stroll here between the special trees and plants. When walking around in the garden the hustle and bustle of Palermo are suddenly far, far away.

Royal gardens of the Palazzo dei Normanni.

Sources

  • Capitool travel guide Sicily (2019), p. 68;
  • Information panels in the palace;
  • John Julius Norwich, Sicily;
  • John Julius Norwich, The Kingdom in the Sun, p. 73 and p. 241-242;
  • Palazzo dei Normanni – Wikipedia

Note

[1] John Julius Norwich, The Kingdom in the Sun, p. 73.

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