Sailing to Palermo (part 2)

by Mark Russell

First part is here
But what truly confirms Palermo’s significance as a city of international art-historical importance is its Norman architecture. The Normans came to Sicily in the eleventh century and their architectural achievements are dotted around the city. San Cataldo, the church of La Magione, and San Giovanni degli Eremiti, with its romantic garden, are impressive and atmospheric expressions of their taste for simple, but elegant spatial configuration. Their masterpiece is the cathedral at Cefalù, less than an hour’s train ride east of Palermo. It is an outstanding example of the expansive and uplifting sense of light and space Norman architects were capable of creating before the full flowering of Gothic architecture in France.
And yet, like many things in Palermo, it is the eclecticism of these monuments, and the way they embody a layering of cultures that makes them so fascinating. The style of this architecture is not Norman per se, but Arab-Norman. In the ninth century, Palermo became the seat of an Arab emirate which, in terms of artistic production, was surpassed only by Constantinople. The city’s cathedral was once a mosque and a column in the southern porch still bears a verse from the Koran in Arabic lettering. Not only is Arab influence visible in the spatial configuration and decoration of Norman buildings, but much of it was constructed by Arab craftsmen. The ceiling of the Palatine Chapel in the Norman Palace is a splendid example of Arab workmanship in carved and painted cedar from Lebanon. Inscriptions integrated into the mosaic decoration are in Latin, Greek, and Arabic, reflecting the multi-ethnic character of Sicily in the Middle Ages. They testify to its nature as a place of cultural and religious diversity and tolerance under Norman governance and the legendary emperorship of Federico II. Today, Arabic influence can also be found in the Sicilian language and in its cuisine; the island’s couscous is delicious.


What makes Arab-Norman architecture truly stunning are the mosaics that decorate its interiors. Probably designed and even executed by Greek craftsman from Constantinople, these incredible works of art can be appreciated at La Martorana, and in the Palatine Chapel. But they are just a prelude to what awaits visitors to the cathedral at Monreale in the hills west of Palermo, just a short bus trip from the city centre. Covering a surface of over 6400m square, and relating episodes from the Hebrew and Christian Bible in glittering and colourful scenes, the mosaics are at once monumental, sophisticated, and charming. They are among the most impressive and important artworks ever created anywhere on earth.
There is no greater contrast to such divine beauty as at one of Palermo’s most popular attractions: the Catacombs of the Capuchin monastery. Fortunately, visitors no longer have to descend into this realm of the dead with only a hand-held lamp! Long corridors are lined with over 1,000 mummified bodies of clergymen, aristocrats, and wealthy citizens in period attire. Much more edifying are the tombs of eminent Sicilians in San Domenico, especially that of Giovanni Falcone, the magistrate who challenged the Sicilian mafia and was murdered in 1992.
But Palermo is much more than a city of monuments and tombs. It is a living, changing city that continues to be a meeting place of different peoples and cultures, be they African, Indian, Pakistani, Chinese, or Romanian. The city’s energy is perhaps best appreciated in its street markets such as the Mercato di Ballarò. Active since Arab times, its noise, colour, smells, and souk atmosphere are a more visceral assault on the senses than the city’s Baroque churches. Delightful sound and colour also feature as part of one of Palermo’s great living traditions: the puppet theatre operated by Mimmo Cuticchio. On Saturday and Sunday evenings, patrons crowd onto carved wooden benches in a small, almost claustrophobic hall, its white-washed walls decorated with banners in bright, folksy colours. In front of the small stage, one member of the company operates an old, hand-cranked barrel piano that fills the room with staccato energy. The curtain rises and the marionettes, works of art in themselves, come to life as they enact chivalric tales from Charlemagne’s court. The performance is loud, action-packed, full of ardent declamation and emotion, and much foot stomping; UNESCO recognizes it as part of humanity’s oral and intangible cultural heritage. At the end of what must be an exhausting performance for the pupari, they poke their heads below the proscenium arch to enthusiastic applause.
After such drama, Palermo’s gardens are pleasant places to relax amid Mediterranean flora. There are several of these, including the Giardino Inglese. The Villa Bonanno is both elegant and exotic with its tall palm trees, while the Giardino Garibaldi offers an air of quiet relaxation and is home to enormous Moreton Bay figs that lend the space a sheltered feel. Running along the seafront, the Foro Italico is a broad and popular lawn offering a scenic walk and wonderful views of Mount Pellegrino. And Palermo will cure anyone of the notion that Italian cuisine consists solely of pasta and pizza! Numerous trattoria and restaurants tucked away in small streets, especially in the Mondamento Tribunali, offer an array of Sicilian cuisine from arancini and caponata, to pasta with sardines, grilled sea bass, swordfish and, of course, cannoli. Choose the right spot and you will eat as well as Montalbano, Andrea Camilleri’s much-loved police inspector who, thanks to television, seems to have become one of Sicily’s principal promoters.


It is a shame to travel to Sicily and see only Palermo. Despite problematic development, the island is one of great natural beauty and boasts a cultural legacy of international importance, from the ancient Greek temples of Agrigento to the Baroque urbanscape of Noto. Goethe claimed that to have seen Italy without travelling to Sicily was not to have seen Italy at all. And yet, eager to enjoy everything the island has to offer, it is equally unfortunate to bypass or rush through Palermo. It is not “just another big city” as one acquaintance dismissively described it.
It is eight o’clock in the evening once again and the night ferry will soon cast off for Naples. Across the stern, Palermo’s particular features are fading as the light falls and we glide across the water. Before long, all that remains are lights flickering against the contours of the landscape that the Phoenicians saw when they settled here around 750 BCE. To the west, the sun has dropped below the horizon in a beautiful display of delicate, yet fiery colours reminiscent of Turner’s seascapes. And then our ship is swallowed up by the night. In the morning, disembarking from the stern through the truck deck, we are swallowed again by Naples.
Mark Russell

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