The palace of La Zisa was once one of the summer residences of the Norman kings of Sicily. The construction of the palace started in 1165 during the reign of King William I “the Bad” (1154-1166). Although the King hired competent workmen who built the palace in record time, La Zisa was ultimately completed under William’s son and successor William II “the Good” (1166-1189). The palace stood on the royal estates outside Palermo. The Kings retired to these estates especially during the summer months and enjoyed hunting parties and fishing there. The name of La Zisa derives from the Arabic word al-aziz, which means “splendid”. The palace was situated in the centre of a large park with orchards, brooks and ponds. Unfortunately very little of this once pleasant area survives today. The park is now part of a neighbourhood just outside the city centre. Although the park itself is mildly enjoyable, what really spoils the fun is all the ugly graffiti on the walls.
A closer look at the palace
La Zisa was built in the Arabic style, with two charming square towers on the two sides. The palace had an ingenious water and air ventilation system based on the systems that originated in the Middle East. The three large entrance gates are oriented towards the east and let in the cool sea breeze, which could then circulate freely inside the palace. On the façade we furthermore see big blind arches into which smaller windows were created (which nowadays have modern window sills). These windows kept the heat out of the higher floors. At the front of the palace there was a vestibule, which gave access to the most important room, the Sala della Fontana. Here the King welcomed the members of his court and important guests during the summer months.
The Sala della Fontana is without a doubt the most beautiful room in La Zisa. The name of the room derives from the fountain (salasabil or shadirwan) in one of the three niches. From a hole in the wall water flowed over a ribbed slab of marble into a canal that split the room in two. The canal itself ended in a large fish pond outside. I do not doubt that the presence of water had a cooling effect as well. In the three niches of the Sala della Fontana we see so-called muqarnas, Arabic vaults that have the shape of honeycombs. The walls are decorated with marble, small columns and Arabic stars. The central niche moreover has a beautiful golden mosaic that features trees, peacocks and hunters with bow and arrow. These are exactly the same scenes that we can also admire in the royal palace in the centre of Palermo. In the room we furthermore see the scant remains of frescoes from the seventeenth century, which look out of place and are not very well executed either.
On the other hand, the frescoes do tell us something about the later history of the palace. In the era after the Norman kings La Zisa was converted from a summer residence into a castle. This also explains the presence of battlements on the building. The castle was seriously dilapidated when it was acquired by the nobleman Giovanni de Sandoval in 1635. De Sandoval had the building restored and, among other things, built a large staircase on the right side. Above the central entrance of La Zisa we see the Sandoval coat-of-arms. His family remained in possession of the complex until the beginning of the nineteenth century, when it passed into the hands of the princes of Notarbartolo. In 1955 La Zisa was acquired by the region of Sicily. Much-needed restorations were completed in 1991 and since 2015 the former palace has been included in the UNESCO list of world heritage.
Since 1991 the former palace has housed the Museo d’Arte Islamia, the museum for Islamic art. At least, that is what all of my travel guides claim. But when I was on the spot, I had to conclude that the museum is never specifically mentioned at all there. Has it been closed down or has it perhaps moved to a different location? In the various rooms of La Zisa we do find several objects that have been put on display. However, the most interesting object here is not Islamic, but Christian. The object is the marble tombstone of Anna, the mother of the priest Grisanto. She died in the year 1148 and was initially buried in the cathedral of Palermo. A year later she was exhumed and taken to a chapel in the church of San Michele which had been commissioned by her son. In the centre of the tombstone we see a Christian cross for which, among other materials, red porphyry and green serpentine were used. Surrounding the cross are the Greek letters IC XC NIKA (“Jesus Christ triumphs”). Quite special is the fact that four different languages were used on the tombstone. Clockwise these are Jewish-Arabic, Greek, Arabic and Latin. Thus the tombstone gives us a unique glimpse of the multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multicultural character of the Norman-Sicilian kingdom, where Jews, Muslims and Greek and Latin Christians could live together in peace.
Just north of the former palace stands the Cappella della Santissima Trinità alla Zisa, which was once the palace chapel of the complex. The history of the edifice goes back a long way. The chapel started as the refectory of a Greek monastery. After the conquest of Palermo by the Muslims in 831 this dining hall was converted into a mosque. When King William I started the construction of La Zisa in 1165, he in his turn had the mosque converted into a Christian palace chapel. It is plausible that the chapel was completed during the reign of King William II. The chapel was connected to the palace by means of a covered corridor (which no longer exists). In the second half of the eighteenth century a new church was built next to the chapel, that of Gesù, Maria e Santo Stefano. The new church was completed in 1803 and for a long time the old chapel served as the sacristy of the building. The two religious buildings are now deconsecrated and should be open to the public (a gift is highly appreciated).
Chapel and church form a remarkable ensemble. The apse of the chapel is oriented towards the east, while the adjacent church is oriented towards the west. In terms of architecture, the church is not very interesting. The former palace chapel, on the other hand, still has an original Arabic dome, which was apparently never painted (like the domes of the churches of San Giovanni degli Eremiti and San Giovanni dei Lebbrosi). Inside we can again see a number of muqarnas below the dome. The best part of a visit to the former palace chapel is the wonderful view from the first floor. If you look through a window towards the south, you will see the flank of La Zisa. West of the chapel the remains of an aqueduct are visible, which may have been used to supply the complex with water. Lastly, east of the chapel there is a courtyard with a strange little pavilion with a dome for a roof. Unfortunately I have not been able to obtain any further information about this building.
- Capitool travel guide Sicily (2019), p. 78;
- John Julius Norwich, Sicily, chapter 4;
- John Julius Norwich, The Kingdom in the Sun, p. 239-241;
- La Zisa – Wikipedia