Palermo: La Cuba

La Cuba.

Together with the palace of La Zisa, discussed previously, La Cuba is one of the summer residences of the Norman kings of Sicily outside Palermo. The palace was built in 1180 by King William II “the Good” (1166-1189). The name of the Arab-Norman building is obviously not related to the country of Cuba, nor to a cube (the palace is, in fact, rectangular in shape). La Cuba derives from the Arabic word qubba, which means “dome”. The name is remarkable, as the palace does not have a dome, or at least no longer has one. This may have been different in the past, as we can see La Cuba with an imposing Arabic dome on the roof in some reconstructions. Half a kilometre to west of the former palace is a small building that is usually called La Cubula (little Cuba). This building does still have its dome.

La Cuba was situated on the royal estates outside the city. The older summer residence of La Zisa had been built on the orders of the father of William II, King William I (1154-1166), but it had been completed by William II himself. Apparently the young king, who was only twelve years old when he ascended the throne, felt the need to have his own summer residence built. It is assumed that La Cuba arose in the middle of an artificial lake, which must have had a cooling effect during the hot summers. That lake dried up long ago; the remains of the palace are now in a slightly dreary courtyard. In the fourteenth century the famous poet Boccaccio set one of the stories of his Decamerone in the palace, but in the centuries that followed the place fell into disrepair. The terrain was used as a hospital for plague-sufferers, as a barracks for mercenaries and lastly as stables for the cavalry of the Sicilian-Neapolitan kings. Nowadays the region of Sicily owns the terrain and the buildings.

Model of La Cuba in the artificial lake.

The palace in the courtyard.

Interior of La Cuba.

After buying a ticket, visitors of La Cuba first enter an exposition space which, among other things, has a model of the palace. This model shows us the artificial lake, but the dome mentioned above is absent. Apparently the makers of the model preferred an alternative interpretation of the palace, in which it has an open inner court. The most interesting object in the room is an Arabic inscription, discovered in the nineteenth century, which was once attached to the façade of the palace (photo here). The man responsible for the discovery was the famous Arabist and historian Michele Amari (1806-1889). The inscription explicitly mentioned “William II, Christian King”, so that there could no longer be any uncertainty regarding the identity of the founder of the palace. The use of the Arabic (Kufic) script for the inscription should not come as a surprise. Ever since the conquest by the Muslims in 831 Palermo had been a culturally Arabic city. The conquest by the Normans in 1072 did little to change that, and more than one hundred years later Arabic culture and architecture were still very much alive and kicking in the city.

In its golden age the palace of La Cuba must have been beautiful. Nowadays it looks a bit sad, partly because of its rather desolate surroundings, and I personally thought the palace of La Zisa was more beautiful and impressive. With regard to the exterior of La Cuba, the large blind pointed arches catch the eye, into which smaller blind windows have been created. A staircase then allows visitors to enter the building, and they can use a walkway to explore it. Art is notably absent inside, except for the nice muqarnas, the Arabic vaults that look like honeycombs.



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