Magazine article The Spectator

Arts Feature: The Rise and Fall of Sicily

Magazine article The Spectator

Arts Feature: The Rise and Fall of Sicily

Article excerpt

There are lessons to be learned from the disintegration of this once majestic multicultural Norman kingdom, says Martin Gayford

A few weeks ago, I looked out on the Cathedral of Monreale from the platform on which once stood the throne of William II, King of Sicily. From there nearly two acres of richly coloured mosaics were visible, glittering with gold. In the apse behind was the majestic figure of Christ Pantocrator -- that is, almighty. The walls of the aisles and nave were lined with scenes from the Bible. In another panel, just above, Christ himself crowned King William.

It was a prospect of the greatest opulence and sophistication stretching in every direction from this regal vantage point. The mosaics are in the manner of Byzantium, and probably executed by Greek artists, but the architectural plan and inlaid floors are derived from medieval Italy. This then, Padre Nicola Gaglio, the priest who was escorting us pointed out, was a building in which the Christian traditions of East and West, Rome and Constantinople, were combined and contrasted.

That's true. But what is extraordinary is that that list does not by any means exhaust the interaction of civilisations that took place in 12th-century Sicily, soon to be explored in an exhibition at the British Museum. For a century after the conquest of the island by Norman forces in the 11th century, Sicilian society deserved the contemporary term multicultural.

The island was also quadrilingual, as an inscribed stone from 12th-century Palermo demonstrates. This inscription recorded the transfer of the remains of one Anna, mother of a priest called Grisandus, to a private chapel. It does so, however, in Latin, Greek, Arabic and Judaeo-Arabic (an Arabic dialect written in Hebrew characters for an Arabic-speaking Jewish population). Each text is slightly different, since -- for example -- the stone is dated 1149, according to western Christian chronology, 6657 according to the Byzantines, who began at the creation of the world, and 544 by Islamic reckoning.

Norman Sicily even had an English connection. At Monreale, on the wall beneath the colossal figure of Christ -- his right hand alone, according to John Julius Norwich, is six feet high -- is the unexpected figure of St Thomas Becket of Canterbury. Perhaps Becket's image was put there among other sainted bishops in an apologetic spirit, since St Thomas had been hacked to death at the instigation of William II's father-in-law, Henry II of England. Becket's murder took place in 1170, or at most two decades before the mosaics were created.

There was an intimate connection between Norman Sicily and Norman England, both of which had been conquered by Viking-descended soldiers from northern France. The rulers of Norman Sicily had begun as mercenaries and freebooters, the sons of a minor noble called Tancred de Hauteville. The youngest of these, Roger, ended up as Count of Sicily; while his older brother, Robert Guiscard, ruled much of southern Italy. Their Italian wars took place at much the same time as William the Conqueror's invasion of England.

The first Norman incursion into Sicily was in 1061, though the process of subduing the entire territory took decades. Before the Norse buccaneers arrived, Sicily had been under Islamic rule for more than a century; most of the population at that point was probably Muslim. Until the Islamic invasion, the island had been part of the Byzantine empire and culturally Greek.

Norman Sicily was therefore a jigsaw of cultures. Its full complexity is made clear inside the Cappella Palatina of the Royal Palace in Palermo, which I visited the following day in company with Dirk Booms, one of the British Museum curators. …

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