Known in Arabic as Madina al-Siquilliya, Sicilian city per excellence, the city of Palermo began as a Phoenician-Punic emporium. Passing through Roman, Vandal and then Ostrogoth domination, it first became Byzantine (535) and then Islamic (831-1071), known by the name Balàrm until the Norman conquest (1071-72).
The impact of a new culture of Nordic tradition on Sicily in the 11th-12th century led to a new architectural style: Palermo’s Arab-Norman architecture introduced innovative elements from the north of Europe, such as an accentuated verticality and the use of towers at the sides of façades, within Byzantine layouts, such as the Greek-cross plan inscribed in a square, and structural or decorative details of Islamic origin, such as pointed arches and beautiful polychrome inlays.
Between the first and the last decade of the 19th century, Palermo became an essential destination for travellers on the Grand Tour, who left evidence of their passing through the city in the drawings, letters and notes produced during their stay in Sicily. Medieval Sicily immediately attracted the interest of travellers from northern Europe, who arrived there with eyes filled with wonder.
In 1150, the church became a leper colony and the Swabian Frederick II transferred ownership of the church to the Order of the Teutonic Knights of the Magione, under whose control it remained until the 18th century. Some remnants of the Islamic era found near the church confirm the tradition associated with its foundation.
Its structure seems to have originally consisted of towers linked by wings, porticoes and gardens, of which only the so-called Torre Pisana still remains today. The Norman Palace remained the residence of the king until the end of the 14th century, when the Aragonese, who succeeded the Normans, decided for reasons of safety to transfer their residence to Palazzo Chiaramonte, known as “Palazzo Steri”. The complex thus became a fortress until the period of Spanish rule, when the Viceroy of Sicily took up residence there.
The arrangement of the piazza in front of the Norman Palace dates back to the second half of the 17th century. The “Teatro Marmoreo” (“Marble Theatre”), a sculptural group erected in 1662 in honour of Philip IV, stands in the centre of the piazza. Figures representing the parts of the world known at that time (Europe, Asia, Africa, America) are arranged around the pedestal, on which stands the statue by the sculptor Carlo d’Aprile.
The most important rooms of the Norman Palace are the Sala del Duca di Montalto, where exhibitions are regularly held, and the Sala Rossa and Sala Gialla, which are institutional headquarters. The Sala d’Ercole, so-named because its frescoes depicting Hercules, houses the meetings of the Sicilian Regional Assembly.
The English writer Frances Minto Elliot writer describes San Giovanni degli Eremiti in her Diary of an Idle Woman in Sicily (1881): “A Norman church close to the palace and the Porta di Castro [...] sheltered in a recess. It is entirely oriental and, with its five domes, would look perfect in Baghdad or Damascus. Next to it, the Gothic bell tower with four orders of porticoes is surmounted by another dome, a unique adaptation of Arab construction to a Christian custom.”
The site where San Giovanni degli Eremiti stands was considered a sacred place throughout the centuries and under various rulers as, according to tradition, a spring of water and an underground cave were found there. The plan of the Church has a single, tau-shaped nave with a single, protruding central apse. The exterior is arranged in accordance with the spacing of the hemispherical domes and the interconnection of the structural bodies, which are distributed on various elevation levels, following the natural topography of the terrain.
For those trying to find this church, it should be noted that it is known to all simply as the Martorana, named after the nearby Benedictine monastery founded by the noblewoman Eloisa Martorana in 1194. An interesting fact: this is also name given to the famous marzipan fruits, a typical Palermo confectionary made from almond paste and eaten on All Souls Day, which were originally prepared by the Benedictine nuns.
The interior and the dome were radically transformed in around 1767 by the architect Ferdinando Fuga, leaving the original Arab-Norman style preserved mainly in its façades. The statues placed on the pillars dividing the naves were originally part of a grandiose altarpiece by the sculptor Antonello Gagini (1478-1536), placed in the tribune and dismantled in 1797.
The Sala della Fontana is the nerve centre of the entire building, decorated with mosaics and opus sectile marble inlays, niches with muqarnas vaulting and a rare Byzantine mosaic panel with secular themes and Islamic iconography. The hall was used by the sovereign to receive the court during the turbid Palermo summers.
Zisa now houses the Museum of Islamic Art, which preserves artefacts from the Maghreb area, including Musciarabia floors, wooden latticed screens, furniture and brass utensils decorated with engraving and inlays. A shaded pathway has recently been created, with a metallic structure that incorporates the geometric patterns of Islamic art.
Boccaccio uses the Cuba as the setting for one of the stories of the Decameron, describing the romance between Gianni di Procida and Restituta, who was kidnapped by Sicilian mercenaries in Ischia and given to Frederick, King of Sicily. After various adventures, the two lovers end up at the stake, but are saved by the king’s admiral, who recognises the youth as the nephew of a great commander instrumental in the political ascent of King Frederick.
Comitato Giovani della CNI Unesco - Regione Sicilia:
Rappresentante: ing. Elvira Nicolini
Referente Progetto: dott. Giuseppe Milazzo
Soci: arch. Giorgio D'Anna, dott.ssa Iolanda Di Natale, dott. Alessandro Romano, dott.ssa Irene Salvo