The beautiful Sicilian capital of both the island-region and the province is now a world heritage site. The charm and splendors of 9 cathedrals, churches, palazzi, and other Arab-Norman sites convinced the UNESCO commission to bestow this honor on Palermo on July 3, 2015. Palermo was nominated for “the cultural syncretism represented by the architecture of the Arab-Norman Palermo and the cathedrals of Monreale and Cefalù.”
Palermo joins six other UNESCO sites in Sicily: the Archaeological Area of Agrigento (1997), Villa Romana del Casale (1997), the Aeolian Islands (2000), Late Baroque Towns of the Val di Noto (2002), Syracuse and the Rocky Necropolis of Pantalica (2005), and Mount Etna (2013). Palermo joins 51 other sites in Italy, the largest number of any country in the world. In a future post, I will discuss the UNESCO selection criteria and list all of the sites in Italy. Below are the monuments of Palermo that together earned this honor.
Palazzo Reale e Cappella Palatina
The Norman Palace of Palermo, also called the Royal Palace, is headquarters of the Regional Assembly. It is one of the most visited monuments on the island. The building is the oldest royal residence of Europe, home of the rulers of the Kingdom of Sicily and imperial seat of Federico II and Corrado IV. On the first floor is the Palatine Chapel.
Chiesa di San Giovanni degli Eremiti
This church is in the historical center of Palermo, near the Palazzo Reale. The building recalls Islamic mosques and similar structures in the East with bright red domes. The origins of the church date back to the sixth century; during the Arab domination, it was turned into a mosque and then was re-consecrated during the cult of Roger II, around 1136. Heavily tampered with over the centuries, it was restored in the 1880s.
Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio
This church, known as the church of the Martorana, was founded on an embankment by the orders of the Grand Admiral of the Kingdom of Sicily under Roger II to thank the Virgin for the protection granted to him. The church was finished in 1185. In 1282 the church was the site where the crown of Sicily was offered to Peter of Aragon. In 1435 it was given to the Benedictine nuns of the adjacent convent, founded in 1194 by Eloisa Martorana, the name by which the church is commonly known.
Chiesa di San Cataldo
This is a Christian church erected in the twelfth century and located in the Bellini plaza in Palermo. Founded by Maione of Bari, in the years in which he was the grand admiral of William I, namely from 1154 to 1160, the structure was subsequently entrusted to the Benedictines of Monreale, who safeguarded it until 1787.
Cattedrale di Palermo
The metropolitan Cathedral of the Blessed Virgin Mary of the Assumption is the main place of Catholic worship in the city. A southern chapel is dedicated to Santa Rosalia, the patron saint of the city. In the fourth century, after the Edict of Tolerance of Constantine had been published, the people of Palermo constructed their first cathedral in the place where many faithful had been martyred. It was destroyed by vandals. In 604 a new large temple was dedicated to the Virgin Mary, of which only the crypt remains today. In 831 the Saracens conquered Palermo and changed the church into a mosque called “Gami.” In 1072 the Normans, having taken Palermo, returned the mosque to Christian worship.
The construction of the new cathedral, commissioned by an archbishop, dates from 1185. An expression of many styles, the church has undergone many changes over the centuries.
Palazzo della Zisa
The Palace of Zisa (which means “beautiful” in Arabic) was built outside the walls of Palermo, inside the royal Norman park. The earliest records indicate 1165 as the beginning of construction in the reign of William I (called “The Bad”). In 1806 the Palace went to the Notarbartolo princes, representatives of ancient Sicilian nobility and heirs of the Ducal House of Sandoval de Leon, who made it their residence and carried out various reinforcement projects.
In 1955 the Palace was appropriated by the State, and restoration works, begun immediately, were shortly thereafter suspended. After 15 years of neglect and abandonment, the east wing, structurally compromised by the works of Sandoval and the restoration, collapsed in 1971. In 1991 structural reconstruction and restoration returned the Palace to its glory. It is one of the most beautiful and evocative structures of Norman Sicilian civilization. Zisa currently houses the Museum of Islamic Art.
The Admiral Bridge has 12 Norman arches visible from the current “Mille” course of Palermo. It was built around 1113 on the orders of George of Antioch, Admiral for King Ruggero II, to connect the city to the gardens beyond the river Oreto. Even today in the square, called Piazza Scaffa, there is a monument symbol of the link between the city center and the periphery Brancaccio.
Il Duomo di Cefalù
According to legend, the Cathedral of Cefalù arose as a result of a vow made to the Holy Savior after by Roger II who had escaped a storm and landed on the beaches of the town. The real motivation, however, seems more political-military given the structure’s character as a fortress. Construction began in 1131.
Cattedrale di Monreale
This cathedral, consisting of the Basilica, the Convent with the Cloister, and the Royal Palace, was built in the twelfth century by the young Norman king William II called “The Good.” The church is famous for the rich Byzantine mosaics that decorate the interior. In 1926 Pope Pius XI elevated the cathedral to that of a minor basilica.