Palermo: Santo Spirito and the Sicilian Vespers

Church of Santo Spirito.

“Signore, fiori?” On my way to the famous church of Santo Spirito in Palermo I was asked that question at least five times: whether I wanted to buy flowers. The question is not that odd, as the church is situated in one of the largest cemeteries of the city, that of Sant’Orsola. One enters the cemetery from the north side, in the Via del Vespro. From there it is a three minute walk to the church of Santo Spirito. The church has no great art to boast of; Santo Spirito is mostly interesting because of its history. The church is inextricably linked to a great revolt against French or Angevin rule that broke out on 30 March 1282, the famous Sicilian Vespers.[1]


The church of Santo Spirito was built between 1173 and 1178 by Walter of the Mill, the English archbishop of Palermo (1168-1191). Funds for the construction were provided by King William II “the Good” (1166-1189) and his mother Margaret of Navarre. The church was part of a convent of Cistercian monks, which is no longer extant. It was demolished in 1782 to make room for the cemetery of Sant’Orsola. The church itself was spared and was restored in 1882 by the architect Giuseppe Patricolo (1834-1905). The building is a fine example of Arab-Norman architecture. See for instance the pointed arches with stones in alternating colours, the latticework of the windows and the three apses of the building.

Side view of the church.

In terms of decorations the Santo Spirito is not that interesting. The façade is rather roughly built, with a modern rose window in which we see the dove of the Holy Spirit. The interior is extremely simple, a wooden crucifix from the first half of the fifteenth century serving as the most important work of art. It will not always be possible to get inside the church. As it stands in the middle of a cemetery, it will often be used for religious services that are connected to funerals. In the past the Santo Spirito must have had more internal decorations. In the Palazzo Abatellis one can still admire a large fresco fragment that represents Pentecost (the descent of the Holy Spirit). We see the Virgin Mary with folded hands and surrounded by six apostles. Like the aforementioned crucifix, the fresco dates from the first half of the fifteenth century. The name of the painter is not known and the quality of the work is rather mediocre (image below).

The Sicilian Vespers

Fresco of Pentecost from the Santo Spirito (Palazzo Abatellis, Palermo).

After the death of the aforementioned King William II “the Good”, the Norman-Sicilian kingdom was struck by a succession crisis. William had died childless, and after a struggle that lasted five years the crown passed to Constance of Sicily, a posthumous daughter of William’s grandfather King Roger II. Constance was married to Henry VI, Holy Roman Emperor, who now also became King of Sicily. With Henry starts the rule of the Hohenstaufen dynasty on Sicily. The greatest monarch from this dynasty was Henry’s son Frederick II, also known as stupor mundi, “astonishment of the world”. During his long reign Frederick was constantly at loggerheads with the popes Gregorius IX (1227-1241) and Innocentius IV (1243-1254). In 1250 the great prince breathed his last breath, his son Conrad following him to the grave just four years later, at the tender age of 26. The crown then passed to Conrad’s two-year-old son, also named Conrad, but usually called Conradin. The true power behind the throne, was however, a man called Manfred, Frederick II’s favourite illegitimate son. As of 1258 he began officially calling himself King of Sicily.

In doing so he incurred the wrath of the popes Alexander IV (1254-1261) and Urbanus III (1261-1264). These popes had never been great friends of the Hohenstaufen dynasty, and as far as they were concerned the throne of Sicily was simply vacant. In his search for a suitable heir to that throne Urbanus – whose real name was Jacques Pantaléon – found his compatriot Charles of Anjou (ca. 1226-1285), the younger brother of the French king Louis IX. Charles decided to take up the cause and, on 5 January 1266, was crowned King of Sicily by five Roman cardinals (Pope Clemens IV, Urbanus’ successor and also a Frenchman, resided in Viterbo). Freshly crowned, he took the field and on 26 February 1266 defeated Manfred’s army at the Battle of Benevento. Manfred was killed and Charles became the new King of Sicily, which comprised not just the island, but also all of Southern Italy. Young Conradin tried to win back control of the kingdom, but on 23 August 1268 he was defeated at Tagliacozzo. Conradin was taken prisoner and later decapitated. At the time of his death he was just sixteen years old.

With Charles of Anjou starts the Angevin period. The new king was more interested in Southern Italy than in Sicily and seldom visited the island. On Sicily there was great unrest about the king’s tax policy and his predilection for appointing French and Provençal noblemen in high positions. On 30 March 1282, Easter Monday, tensions boiled over at the church of Santo Spirito. A French sergeant – usually called “Drouet” or “Droetto” in the stories – molested a Sicilian woman who was about to enter the church. The man was subsequently killed by her husband, after which the rebellion spread across the island like a wildfire. As it had started just as the bells were tolling for evening prayers in Santo Spirito, the revolt is called the Sicilian Vespers (vesper is the Latin word for evening). In just a few weeks thousands of French men and women were killed all over Sicily and Charles of Anjou lost control of the island. Sicily was then occupied by Peter III of Aragon, the husband of Constance II of Sicily, the daughter of the slain Manfred. On 30 August 1282 King Peter landed on the island and quickly captured it. Charles for his part held on to the mainland, which he ruled from Naples. The “Two Sicilies” were born.

The Sicilian Vespers – Erulo Eroli (Galleria d’Arte Moderna, Palermo).

In the Galleria d’Arte Moderna one can admire a nice painting from 1890-1891 by the painter Erulo Eroli (1854-1916) which depicts the events that happened at the Santo Spirito. I have my doubts whether Eroli depicted the church accurately; the pointed arches in alternating colours are immediately recognisable, but on the canvas the church has a portal that is absent in the real world (it is also absent on old photos). The aforementioned museum, by the way, faces the Piazza Croce dei Vespri. A plaque on a wall reminds us that, according to tradition, this was the site of the house of Giovanni di Saint-Remy, a high-ranking official (gran giustiziere) of King Charles. Judging by his name he must have been from the town of Saint-Rémy in the Provence. During the rebellion he fled to the castle of Vicari, southeast of Palermo, where the rebels surrounded him. During the siege Giovanni di Saint-Remy was killed by a well-aimed shot from a crossbow.

Piazza Croce dei Vespri.


  • Capitool travel guide Sicily (2019), p. 79;
  • John Julius Norwich, Sicily, chapter 7.


[1] For a more detailed discussion, see John Julius Norwich, Sicily, chapter 7.

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