‘Palazzo’ is a term that is bandied about quite casually in Italy, and although it is technically cognate with ‘palace’, it refers to any kind of grand residence, from the substantial townhouses of the prosperous bourgeoisie to the vast combined residences and governmental seats of dukes and bishops. The principal seat of Sicily’s Norman monarchy is clearly a palace in the English sense, an impressive Arabo-Norman edifice of considerable size, that has been extended, remodelled and modernised on many occasions throughout its long history. The Palazzo dei Normanni has been the seat of Aghlabid and Fatimid Emirs (although this phase of its architecture has largely been effaced), Norman Kings, Holy Roman Emperors and Spanish Governors, and has been the home of the Sicilian Regional Assembly since nineteen forty-six. Its architecture reflects its long and varied existence, but there is still a great deal of the characteristic Arabo-Norman facade to be seen, with its unique stylistic fusion, born in a fundamental aesthetic compatibility between Northern Europe and the Islamic Mediterranean rim.
The building contains a substantial exhibition space, which was given over during our visit to a fascinating, well-curated exhibition on Sicily’s Norman period. There were many extraordinary objects on display, demonstrating the decorative style which flourished in this brief period, effacing the visible cultural difference between the two relatively distant intellectual domains of Christian Europe and the Islamic Levant. The exhibition, as with the rest of the palazzo, demonstrated a considerable funding differential with many of the other sites we visited in Sicily: cash is clearly not in short supply here, and given the scale on which its excellent conservation standards are implemented, this place has the look and feel of a national institution. Extensive interpretative materials are to be found throughout, mostly translated to English in full, and a good deal of thought has been given to graphic design, pedestrian flows and other aspects of museological practice that can suffer in the absence of adequate resources.
The Arabo-Norman decorative style reaches an apotheosis in the Capella Palatina, the private chapel of the Norman monarchs, which has miraculously survived since the twelfth century without any subsequent resident deciding to redecorate it in their contemporary manner. In the astonishing, refulgent interior of the Capella the collision of Norman and Arab artistic motifs becomes subservient to the Byzantine; the Byzantine Empire ruled Sicily before the Arabs, and what Christian practice remained under the Emirate looked to Constantinople rather than nearby Rome for guidance. The rudimentary mimetic techniques, the extensive gilding, the bright polychrome painting, are all applied with decorative, tesselative thoroughness, emphasising the surfaces rather than constructing any sense of pictorial depth. Some areas are actually covered with arabesques, but elsewhere those repeated geometric and floral patterns are evoked by the plenitude of interlocking forms. The effect could be described as psychedelic, but a more culturally specific notion of the spiritually transfigurative potential of such motifs might describe it better: one can imagine an ecstatic Orthodox mysticism finding succour in such a space. For me, a preponderance of fellow tourists kept me rooted in the prosaic, but there was more than a hint of transcendence in the disorientating visual experience the chapel afforded. It was especially striking to see such a riot of colour adorning Norman architectural forms that I’m used to seeing in post-Reformation monochrome.
The Palazzo dei Normanni is also home to a complex of royal apartments, but these were closed on the day of our visit; and the Royal Gardens adjoin the building. These don’t appear to be a restoration, so much as a small park attached to the site. In common with many such spaces we saw in Palermo there is something of an air of neglect about the plantings, although it was a more verdant place than most. Classical music was piped through the gardens, leaving one in little doubt regarding the preferred socio-economic class of the visitor! We were required to show our tickets again to visit the gardens, and I seem to recall that separate garden tickets were available, which would represent poor value however cheap they were, because there really wasn’t anything much to the park, other than an unexpected display of four works of large scale illustrative art. As an experience, our visit felt somewhat incoherent, and architecturally I would suggest that the Anglo-Norman style is best seen at the Zisa, where it is stripped bare, and displayed in isolation. History is already mediated, a narrative of the past constructed from documents, buildings and other traces. It is in abundance here as almost everywhere else in Palermo, but this location has been re-mediated rather more heavily by the heritage industry, as well as by the succession of occupants. Two of the three facets of the site that we saw were well worth seeing, however, and if the experience was somehow less visceral than many, it was also far more specifically informative than at most of the other sites we visited.