FROM PIAZZA INDIPENDENZA TO MONREALE
Among the architectural elements that surround the square, the grandeur of the Royal Palace stands out, which forms the southern wing of the square, and the Palazzo D’Aci-D’Orleans, seat of the Presidency of the Sicilian Region.
Towards the end of the year 1000, the Normans enlarged a pre-existing Arab fortress, which was in turn built on the remains of the Roman settlement, and made it their residence.
They were fascinated by Arab culture to such an extent that, for the construction of churches and palaces, they made use of Arab workers and even architects, obtaining that aesthetic result which today is defined as the Arab-Norman style. In a climate where Latin, Arabic and Italian dialects merged together with the cultures they represented, the Arab influence determined not only the style of the decorations but above all the articulation of spaces and volumes. The prospectus on Piazza Vittoria dates back to 1555 when the Spanish viceroys had the entire building completely restructured, because it had fallen into ruin after the decline of the Swabian domination. n the same period, two of the four corner towers were demolished, and the Maqueda courtyard and the hanging courtyard of the fountain were built. Inside, the irregular polygon of the Palace is distributed in apartments, rooms and royal halls, animated by hanging gardens, fountains, waterways, terraces and loggias.
The Palatine Chapel is located on the first floor of the Royal Palace. Dedicated to King Roger and dating back to 1132, it has a plan with three naves with a reduced transept and pointed arches supported by granite columns. Rich in Arab decorations and inscriptions, this Christian temple is the emblem of the Enlightenment spirit of the Norman kings. Among the mosaics that cover the upper part of the walls, depicting subjects from Christian history, the great blessing figure of Christ Pantocrator shines in the main apse, where an inscription in Greek characters admonishes: “I am the light of the world, who follows me does not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life”. This is, therefore, the symbol of the great process of cultural integration operated by the Norman kings which profoundly marked the development of Palermo culture.
SAINT JOHN OF THE HERMITS
King Roger himself had a small church built near the palace which he dedicated to St. John. The name “of the Hermits” is probably due to the hermitic life favored by the Benedictines who administered it. It was close to the Palace and, therefore, considered the second royal church, to such an extent that its abbot was simultaneously a councilor of the royal family and chaplain of the Palatine Chapel where the real ecclesiastical functions took place. Even if the restoration carried out towards the end of the nineteenth century compromised its stylistic continuity, the bell tower and the typical hemispherical domes are still admirable and represent unmistakable elements of the authentic Arab-Norman style. The cloister, which was built later, is of excellent workmanship and is fully integrated into the original architectural organism.
PORTA NUOVA (NEW GATE)
The Porta Nuova, built in 1583 in place of a previous one called Porta del Sole, marks the northern end of the Cassaro and frames it in a perspective whose vanishing point goes beyond Porta Felice and ends at the sea. The construction, deliberated by the city Senate to celebrate the return of Emperor Charles V, fresh from the African victories, recalls the Roman triumphal arches in a late Renaissance style. The external part is decorated with four large allegorical statues depicting captive Moors, two with crossed hands and two with severed arms.
PIAZZA VITTORIA (VICTORY SQUARE)
Going through the door you come to Piazza Vittoria, once called the 2nd floor of the building, the oldest place in the city where the Phoenicians and later the Romans and Arabs settled. Dating back to the beginning of the century are some excavations that have brought to light the remains of three Roman stately homes, probably dating back to the 1st century after Christ. The large space, originally devoid of the thick vegetation that currently adorns it, was obtained from the demolition of entire buildings and already at the end of the 16th century it became the place where all the events involving the city took place: popular festivals, military maneuvers and even capital executions.
Located on the eastern corner, overlooking Piazza San Giovanni Decollato, Palazzo Sclafani represents a rare example of civil architecture in the late Norman style. It is said that it was built in less than a year by the powerful feudal lord Matteo Sclafani, to humiliate his brother-in-law Manfredi Chiaramonte, owner of the imposing Palazzo Steri.
The splendid building finished in 1330 was used as a hospital during the Spanish period and was later transformed into barracks. From what remains of this marvelous work of civil architecture, one can imagine a building with an imposing shape, softened by an elegant inlay worked in the stone, and made harmonious and graceful by the mullioned windows on the upper floor, surrounded by intertwined blind arches, which probably marked the rhythm of all the elevations of the building.
After walking a few meters from the Cassaro, leaving Piazza Vittoria behind us, we find ourselves in front of one of the most significant monuments of Sicilian history and architecture: the Cathedral of Palermo.
The basilica is the tangible result of the union of Muslim workers and Christian minds, the product of the overlapping of centuries of history and culture.
In 1072 the Normans transformed into a Christian temple a mosque, in turn obtained from the modification of a pre-existing Roman temple. After about a century, the church was demolished to make way for the current grandiose monument.
Around the middle of the 15th century the adjacent Archbishop’s Palace was built, the square facing the western facade was created and the two entrance portals were built. The great disharmonious transformations took place in the Baroque age, when a transept and the large dome, now visible from the outside, were added to the basilica in the central area of the roof.
The side elevation facing the square retains part of the original decorative motifs, especially on the upper wall of the central nave. The marvelous entrance porch, built in the second half of the fifteenth century, shows the decorative capabilities of the flamboyant Gothic style. Three large arches support a proportionate tympanum, immersed in a rich sculptural decoration.
The external inlays on the apse have great value, even if they were reworked after the recent restorations. Inside, where the original conception of space has been completely lost after the Baroque reinterpretation, it is important to mention, among the various tombs of the Norman regents, the sumptuous tomb of Queen Constance placed under a canopy supported by four columns. Several other works of art belonging to different periods are arranged in the chapels and in the presbytery, where the original marble mosaic flooring can be admired.
The current town of Monreale was just a countryside in the Palermo hinterland, inhabited mainly by Saracen populations, when in 1172 Guglielmo II wanted an abbey to be built there, which for its splendor and magnificence should have dazzled the Muslims so much as to induce them to conversion to Christianity.
Of the building complex formed by the Royal Palace, the abbey and the church, only the latter is perfectly preserved, even if the main façade was modified in 1770 with the construction of a portico between the two facade towers, which hides the royal entrance to the church and the wonderful original wall decorations.
The façade decorations are also repeated on the apses where the small relief columns enhance the pictorial play of the intertwined arches. Even the portico on the northern side, from which you currently access, is artificial, built around the middle of the sixteenth century by Gagini who recovered columns and capitals from an ancient portico placed in front of the Porta Maggiore.
Also called “Porta del Paradiso”, it is placed in line with the central nave. Entering through this bronze door, the work of Bonanno Pisano, one feels the whole sense of balance of proportions and grandeur of the whole.
Inside, the fantastic Byzantine decoration flaunts above the columns. A gold mosaic that extends along all the walls up to the polychrome wooden ceiling, illustrates biblical facts with sequences of religious images and culminates with the imposing representation, in the central apse, of Christ Pantocrator, universal ruler of the whole church. It was the place where the Norman kings and other figures of the Catholic church were buried. The white marble sepulcher, where the body of Guglielmo II rests, dates back to 1578. The large central cloister of the adjoining convent has a great value: it has a square plan and is circumscribed by a double marble colonnade that supports pointed arches.