The Muslims of Medieval Italy

By Alex Metcalfe | Go to book overview

12
The art of leisure

The modern historiography of the kingdom

As an imposing example of Norman Sicilian art, the church of Santa Maria Nuova at Monreale was one of a number of new constructions which reshaped the architectural landscape of the island over the course of the twelfth century. In many areas where Christian settlement had increased substantially, the character of urban environs had also been visually transformed. As at Troina in the 1060s where the early Normans occupied the higher part of the town, so too, a century later, Christians dominated the upper reaches of the bustling northeastern port of Messina. At Érice, in the far west of the island, Muslims were barred from ascending the lofty stronghold which overlooked Abū l-Qūsim’s Trápani. In 1184, when Ibn Jubayr visited the once thriving Muslim town of Cefalù, long dominated by Roger’s choice cathedral, he noted that the Norman fort on the huge, steep-sided outcrop rising to almost 300 metres was the most impregnable he had ever seen. He also remarked in a casual way that there were relatively few Muslims left in the town below.1 What he may not have known is that many of the estates he had seen from a distance on which Muslims lived and worked probably belonged to the church as well. In some areas, crosses even served as boundary markers.

Apart from external, visual statements of Christian dominance, NormanSicilian art and architecture were also employed to articulate a sense of royal power and authority in a range of less obvious ways. Indeed, one of the most commonly perceived aspects of the kingship was its tripartite nature which drew on, and sometimes combined, elements found in the Latin West alongside those employed by Byzantine and Arab-Muslim dynasties. Internally, Monreale, like Cefalù, the Cappella Palatina and elsewhere, was richly decorated with an elaborate mosaic cycle and a delicately painted ceiling: gems of Byzantine and Islamic art, respectively. Arab-Islamic elements also found expression in the corresponding use of three royal languages: Latin, Greek and Arabic. The implied accommodation and inclusion of such diverse elements by the kings has informed some of the more openly positive verdicts about the kingdom itself. For Francesco Giunta and Umberto Rizzitano, Norman Sicily was a ‘land

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