While being in Palermo, I became convinced that its fascinating and exotic charm was due to its cultural contrasts, due to Sicily’s pre-Italian history. Its position in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea which attracted conquerors from far away lands in waves has contributed to its cosmopolitan atmosphere with its astonishing cultural diverse identity that is unique in Europe.
With this limited knowledge of Sicily’s background, we had a better appreciation for this mesmerizing city as we strolled through all the narrow winding streets with the shops, restaurants, bars, apartments and churches while stopping to tour all the sights marked on our maps. We did get lost more than once but we were never too far from our destination.
So on a beautiful day, we set out on an adventure by going south on the Corso Vittorio Emanuelle from the Quattro Canti landmark. Soon, we found the Cattedrale di Palermo (Palermo Cathedral) on the east side of the street.
The cathedral looks out of place in the midst of apartment complexes. Over the years, it has undergone several transformations. First, it was built in 1184 by Archbishop Gualtiero Offamilio as a basilica, only to later become transformed into a mosque during a period when Palermo was under Arab rule. Finally, it was changed back to a Christian church by the Normans. Each renovation left architectural marks. Within these walls is where the tombs of the famous Norman rulers, King Roger II and King Frederick. II lay.
After we left the Cathedral, we continued south on Corso Vittorio Emanuelle, to eventually reach Palermo’s premier tourist attraction, Capella Palatina which is a chapel where every inch is covered by mosaics and shiny jewels. It was designed by the Norman King Roger II when he ruled Sicily in 1130. This unbelievably stunning chapel is on the middle floor of the Palazzo dei Normanni (Norman Palace) or the Palazzo Reale at Piazza Indipendenza. This complex of castles was built by Arabs in the 9th century. The current Arab-Norman façade was renovated in the 17th century.
The Capella Palatina has tiny marble tiles which are inlaid with gold leaf or painted to appear like lapis and are arranged to depict stories from the Old Testament as well as the history of Sicily. The tiles glitter and the facial depictions are more realistic than what is normally seen on most mosaics. Art historians classify these mosaics as among the best in the world. Other artifacts include the exquisite mosaic covered throne in the nave; the traditionally Islamic maquarna painting on the ceiling, designed by artisans from North Africa in the 12th century.
Part of the Palazzo dei Normanni is now the seat of the Sicilian Parliament. When the officials are in session on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, the public is barred from entering this section.
When you can walk through the premises, you will be escorted by a guide towards the massive main hall with the gilded ornately painted ceilings.
The royal apartments (except the Byzantine Sala dei Venti) are not always open for viewing by the public, but when they are, go see King Ruggerou’s gorgeous bedroom which is surrounded by mosaics of colorful peacocks and leopards.
To the south of the Palazzo dei Normanni is the Chiesa di San Giovanni degli Eremiti on Via dei Benedettini which was founded by King Roger II in 1132. This church is frequently portrayed on post cards with the five red Arab -Fattimite domes. You can’t miss it but you will have to walk up a path lined with citrus streets. It is set in front of a lush green cloister garden which can be an oasis for tired bodies. It is a great place to sit back to take in the aromas from jasmine, orange and pomegranate trees while studying the intricate blending of the Norman and Arab architecture. This beautiful garden was developed by the Benedictine convent which used to occupy these premises.
On the day that we visited the Palazzo dei Normanni/ Palazzo Reale, our ticket also included entry to an art exhibit of the artist, Antonio Ligabue (1899-1965) who was born in Zurich but ended up living in Gaultieri, Italy.
The following is what the art exhibit’ guide pamphlet states:
“He began painting in the late twenties, appreciated by the rare admirers, including Marino Mazzacurati. In 1955 he held his first solo exhibition in Gonzaga, on the occasion of millennial Exhibition; in 1961 an exhibition in Rome marks the national consecration (“the case Ligabue”), but soon paralyzed, he can no longer paint.”
“There are two basic categories which Ligabue is devoted: exotic animals, forests and more generally all those that can be defined as predators; and self portraits.” (He also did rural life and pets.)
“His intense artistic activity (a little less than one thousand paintings, some hundreds of drawings, almost a hundred engravings and almost 10 sculptures), often misunderstood and even ridiculed, that in time, however, aroused the admiration and interest of collectors, critics and art historians.”
There are two major attractions that I did not get to see. One is the Capuchin Catacombs which I avoided because of its macabre nature; however, I did include the link below. The other is the Museo Archeologico because it was closed due to a renovation project. To make up for missing out on the archeological museum, we stopped by the Palazzo Brancifort off the Via Bara all’Olivella which houses an archeological collection on the main floor consisting mostly of Greek artifacts. Within this museum, you can have access to the Monte di Santa Rosalia, a rare example of wooden architecture in the 18th century.