The Cattedrale di Palermo is a chimaera of architectural styles and periods. If someone had drawn it from their imagination, the well-informed viewer might accuse them of anachronism, but this building is certainly not ‘without time’; it’s more ‘panchronic’, or ‘polychronic’. The current structure begins with a Norman foundation in 1185, although some elements are re-used from the earlier Byzantine basilica, which later served as a mosque. Externally, the most prominent stylistic signals are later, from the Catalan Gothic western facade to the Renaissance portico and the Baroque dome. The interior contains a similar profusion of historical architectural practice, but it is unusual for its plainness, its frescoes, usually so ubiquitous in Sicilian churches, having been lost. Even the ceiling, from which the bizarrest fantasias often look down on congregations in Sicily, is painted a plain off-white.
Aside from the striking impression it gives of straddling centuries, as though the visitor entering at the apse could exit via the narthex into an earlier era, this grand church doesn’t promote any particular intensity of experience. It encourages a perhaps more intellectual reflection, on the way in which the past, which by definition is not present, nevertheless has a kind of immanence in Palermo, its accreted layers of periodic style and practice somehow surviving in its architecture in a way that permits them to be distinguished, despite the huge destruction that has been wrought on the city over the last century. Many of those who knew the old Palermo have mourned its irretrievable loss, the erasure of its manifest past, which must indeed have been astonishing if the incredible architectural wealth that remains is no more than a diminished fragment.
Buildings can embody not only stylistic conventions and architectural practices, but epistemologies, ways of knowing. In the same way that you can traverse Palermo’s architectural history on an eastward trajectory through the cathedral, I found myself imaginatively traversing its intellectual history, moving from one episteme to another, from the defensively perfected given knowledge of the Gothic, through the acquired scholarly knowledge of the Renaissance, to the constructed humanistic knowledge of the Baroque. As if to mark the epistemological distance that exists between the facade and the transept, at the edge of the crossing the church has been turned into an astronomical instrument, a heliometer which was installed in 1801 by Giuseppe Piazzi, founder of the Observatory of Palermo, and discoverer of Ceres. A small aperture has been made in one of the minor domes, which allows an image of the sun to project onto the floor, where a north-south ‘meridian’ has been inlaid in brass. The position of the solar image along the meridian, which it crosses at solar noon each day, indicates the date, which is marked with zodiacal signs, the ends of the line coinciding with the positions of the winter and summer solstices.
Such devices were not only of scientific interest, but of practical importance, at a time when the liturgical day was governed strictly according to local solar time. This must have been one of the last meridiane installed, just at the dawn of the era of universal time and scientific standardisation. It marks both a liminality between scientific and religious worldviews, and the transition from the generalist Renaissance man to the specialist professional scientist. The point at which that specialised rational methodology is applied to the humanities (which is to say roughly the middle of the twentieth century) is the point at which we are able to see these epistemological differences as historical aspects of our cultures and societies – although the scholarship in which such taxonomies of knowing have been analysed is by no means universally accepted. Those who react against such analyses most virulently (usually, it appears to me, because their own interests are threatened by them), might do well to contemplate the Cattedrale di Palermo, and the successive perspectives that are juxtaposed in its architecture.