San Giovanni degli Eremiti
Palermo is the largest city on the island and surely offers a lot more than we got to see in a few hours. Our group had a guided tour of the city including Monreale, all in the same day. We started at Palazzo Reale and the ancient church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti, then went into the centre to see the Duomo. We had a guided walking tour in the centre but it was a blur – I remember that we walked through some street market (of which Palermo has several) and the greatest worry was not to lose the group among the crowds. No chance to take photos on the way. So my advice for anyone who is visiting Palermo is: Take your time, go with a small party not a large group, carry a street map, and take your time. Take your time!
San Giovanni degli Eremiti is an old site of worship. The first church in this place was built in the 6th century. The present church (photo 1-3) is a work of the 12th century, the Normannic era, with several later extensions and refurbishments. The nave of the church is covered by two small domes, now painted red on the outside. The adjacent cloister is in ruins but has been turned into a beautiful garden. The Normannic Palazzo Reale, once the residence of the Normannic kings, is nearby and can be spotted through the arches of the cloister (photo 3).
Il Duomo Maria Santissima Assunta is the cathedral of the archdiocese of Palermo. The church is huge – the core is a Normannic church from the 12th century that has been extended and refurbished again and again in the run of the centuries. The late medieval extensions show the Sicilian version of the gothic style – I remember in particular the arched portico on the southern transept, which appeared in several lectures on gothic architecture during my studies. The dome, the roofs and the interior were then redesigned in the late 18th century in the then popular neoclassical style.
The cathedral is of special interest to German historians, too, because it contains the tombs of two Emperors of the Holy Roman Empire from the Staufer dynasty, Heinrich VI and Friedrich II., and Friedrich’s spouse, Queen Konstanze of Aragon.
Norman facade of Palazzo Reale
The Normans conquered Sicily from the Arabs in the 11th century. Norman kings ruled over Sicily and the southern part of the Italian mainland until the era of the Staufer in the 13th century. You’d think of blood-thirsty Vikings with neither culture nor manners… but no. They wisely treated with respect what they found. The Norman era was a time of tolerance and religious diversity, highly developed arts and sciences which united the best of Greek-Byzantine, Arab and Western European culture.
The architecture of the Normans has unique features that tell of these mixed influences. The majority of the population, and also the architects and craftsmen, were of Byzantine and Arab descent and learning. Arab-Islamic and Byzantine elements shape the Sicilian Romanesque and gothic architecture. Facades like Palazzo Reale in Palermo (photo 1) and the chancel of the cathedral in Monreale (photos 2 and 3) show the characteristic structure of intertwined pointed arches. Monreale’s ornaments in mosaic-like stone inlays are also typical. Photo 4 shows the interior of a dome in the 12th century church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti in Palermo: note the construction in the corners, an element of Arab masonry.
We had our lunch break in Mondello, before going to the monastery of Monreale. Mondello is a beach resort and suburb of Palermo, close to Capo Gallo. While the group wasted the precious time at a restaurant, I grabbed a panino from the nearest bar and went for a walk on a beach. It was October, so the beach was deserted – no Italian would go swimming in the sea outside August;-) It is a fine sandy beach with shallow, turquoise water. I would have liked to hop into the water but had neither enough time nor swimwear with me.