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Palermo

 

7Historical capital of Sicily, from the Arab period, it’s one of the most fascinating cities in Italy, as far as history, culture, traditions and richness of monuments are concerned (covering all periods of Sicilian history and giving a clear idea, difficult to find elsewhere, of European and Muslim history of art).

 

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 Founded by the Carthaginians in the VIII cent. b.C., it saw the wars against the Sicilian Greek colonies. Conquered by Rome after the First Punic War (III cent. b.C.), it remained the second most important city in Western Sicily after Lilibeo (today Marsala).

2Under byzantine rule, Palermo became the main city in Western Sicily: it had an important administrative role, always depending, anyway, by the capital, Syracuse. The golden period for the city began with the Arabs. After their conquest in 831, they made Palermo the capital of Sicily, but first of all one of the most impressive, flourishing and culturally important cities in the Mediterranean Sea. Palermo was told to have then more than 300 mosques and to be the most important city, after Cordoba –in Spain-, of the entire Muslim West (Maghreb included). The Golden Age went on with Norman kings, who recognized the superiority of Arab culture, being their Court full of Muslim scholars and accepting all rituals of the Court of Sicilian Emirs. Sources tell that Normans took with taxes more from the city of Palermo than from the entire Kingdom of England. The buildings of that period remained testify city’s richness and greatness. But the most beautiful period was still to come for the Kingdom of Sicily, with its capital in Palermo: under the Swabian Emperor, Frederick II, the city flourished, and at the Court the Sicilian Poetic School developed, the first event in Italian literature.

3But, when the Angevins got the power, Sicily lost its importance: in fact, they transferred the capital from Palermo to Naples, and that provoked Sicilian anger: so, the Vespers’ War broke out, in 1282 (beginning in Palermo). After the war, the French were driven out of the island, and the Aragonese were called: so, the Iberian rule of Sicily began; it will last many centuries, ending only in 1713. The Aragonese kings very often preferred to stay in Eastern Sicily (in Catania and, for less time, in Messina) than in Palermo. In the same period, the real power went to the great Sicilian feudal families, the so called “Baroni”-Barons, who, from then on, managed to determine the entire course of Sicilian history. Throughout all Spanish Viceroyalty, Palermo remained the Capital of Sicily and was the preferred place of residence for Spanish and for Sicilian provincial aristocracy. Between the XVI and XVII cent., there were new achievements in city planning and, the building of many Churches and Oratories, giving still today the Baroque look to the historical city centre. At the end of the XVIII cent., the Bourbon dynasty realized important achievements in city-planning: the realization of Via della Libertà (when Palermo first went out of the historical city walls), and the big Parco della Favorita. In the XIX cent., Palermo took part in 1820-21 revolts and even began, on January 12th, 1848 revolts; afterwards, it participated to the enterprise of Garibaldi, ending with Italian Unity. But it was only the institution of the Sicilian Region, in 1948, which gave back to Palermo the title of “Capital”; in fact, the city received important administrative functions for all Sicily. That led to a major coming of people from other Sicilian provinces, so that Palermo grew in population, becoming the fifth city in Italy.

4Its most important monuments date back to the Norman era, when three different cultures met: the Arab, the Byzantine and the European ones. That was the highest cultural period in Sicilian history.

The place of present Palace of Normans (Royal Palace) had to be occupied by Punic and Roman strongholds. The Arabs were the first to build a palace, afterwards a royal palce with the Normans and with the Swabians. Here, at the Court of the Emperor Frederick II, the Sicilian Poetic School took place.      

6Then, the palace gradually decayed, especially when the capital of the Sicilian Kingdom moved to Naples, but in the XVI cent. The Spaniards restored it, deeply modifying its structure. The palace became then seat of Viceroys in Sicily and, sometimes, seat of Kings too. From 1947, here stands the Sicilian Regional Assembly. The two Normans towers are remarkable: Joaria Tower and Pisana Tower: they are both visible from outside. Inside the Joaria Tower, there’s the wonderful Room of King Roger, dating back to the kingdom of that same king, offering some wonderful mosaics with animals, remembering Persian art. 

Extremely precious is the internal courtyard too. 

Anyway, the real Palace’s jewel is the Palatine Chapel.                                           

Built just after the royal coronation of Roger in 1130, it offers in the interior some magnificent mosaics, occupying, in addition to the apses and dome, all arches and walls, with the predominance of that golden background, typical of byzantine mosaics. They represent the life and death of Jesus, some Church Fathers, Histories from Genesis and Histories of Saints Peter and Paul. Extremely remarkable are the ceilings (realized by artisans of Fatimide Muslim school), with muqarnas decorations, representing scenes of daily life, but also symbolic ones. 


The Cathedral

 

7Before the coming of Muslims, a Church was here; they transformed it into a Mosque. The Normans gave it back to Christianity, realizing in 1184 the present building, but architectonical style comes from the Fatimide Muslim school, carried out by Muslim workers. The bell-towers were made later, in the XIV cent. But, in the XVIII cent., there was a deep change in the building: the interior was totally modified, while the exterior was heavily altered. What remains of the original Norman building are the apses, the highest parts of nave’s walls and the lowest parts of corner towers.

In the interior, one can admire, in addition to fine paintings and sculptures, above all the Royal Tombs.

9 Here, in fact, there are sarcophagi of Norman kings (Roger II and Constance of Hauteville), of Swabian kings (Frederick II and Henry VI) and of Aragonese kings (William, son of Frederick II of Aragon and Constance II of Aragon). In the XVIII cent., inside Frederick II’s sarcophagus, the body of Peter II of Aragon was found. 


Frederick II’s sarcophagus is remarkable, with sculpted representations of Christ and the Virgin, and on the sides a Bull, an Eagle, an Angel and a Lion, symbols of four evangelists. The sarcophagus lies on two couples of lions.

The city offers much more monuments: the Palace of ZISA, built in Norman times; above all, the many baroque churches, very rich in decoration, first of all the Church of S. Domenico; there are also different gardens, many of them finding inside gentry houses, the most important and beautiful being the “Giardino Inglese” ( The English Garden).

 

 

 

 

 
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