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Royal Palace of Palermo, Sicily - Priceless Palaces
246    Dibyendu Banerjee    24/02/2022

Located on a plateau, just above the first Punic settlements and the highest point of the ancient centre of the City of Palermo, the Royal Palace of Palermo or Palace of the Normans, locally known as Palazzo dei Normanni, represents original and rare combinations of Islamic and Romanesque styles and is considered as the oldest royal residence in Europe. Initially, it was the seat of the Kings of Sicily with the Hauteville dynasty in the 11th and 12th centuries, who contributed to a steady reduction of Muslim and Byzantine power in the region.

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Subsequently, it served as the main seat of power for the subsequent rulers of Sicily and since 1946, it has been the seat of the Sicilian Regional Assembly, while the west wing of the palace became the seat of the Italian Army and the Southern Military Region. Apart from that, the palace also houses the Astronomical Observatory of Palermo.

royal palace of palermo sicily

The Palace has its origins in the 9th century Arab building, called the al-Qasr, which stands for castle or palace, started by the Emir of Palermo, remaining parts of which can still be found in the foundations and in the basements, where typical Arabian vaults are present. Six years after the Norman conquest of England in 1066, when they conquered Sicily in 1072 and established Palermo as the capital of the new Kingdom of Sicily, they selected the palace as the main residence of the kings.

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However, the former Arabian palace was transformed into a multifunctional complex by the Norman kings, equipped with arrangements both for administrative and residential purposes and all the old buildings were connected with each other through arcades, enclosed by gardens, designed by the best gardeners of the Middle East.

royal palace of palermo sicily
La Sala d’Ercole or the Hall of Hercules

Nevertheless, the palace was embellished in 1132/1132 by Ruggero II, also known as Roger the Norman, who was involved in the construction of the most representative and impressive parts of the palace, namely the Greek Tower, which was reconstructed in the Renaissance period, the Pisan Tower and the Joharia Tower. Apart from that, he also added the famous Cappella Palatina or the palatine Chapel to the complex, the most stunning part of the palace, representing an expression of the cultural syncretism that distinguished the Ruggerian era, and one of the best-preserved medieval monuments both in the decorative architectural and historical sphere.

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However, the Sala dei Venti or the Hall of the Winds and the Stanza di Ruggero or Ruggero’s Hall, with its Byzantine mosaics, belong to the age of the Bad or the Wicked William I and William II. The additional reception rooms, namely la Sala Rossa or Red Room, la Sala Gialla e la Sala Verde and la Sala d'Ercole, were added much later, by the Spanish Bourbons. La Sala d'Ercole or the Hall of Hercules, named after its decorative frescoes depicting the mythological hero, is the place where the deputies of the Sicilian Regional Assembly have meet since 1947.

royal palace of palermo sicily

During the reign of the Swabian emperors, when Sicily was ruled by the Hohenstaufen dynasty, lasting from the accession of Henry VI to the island's throne in 1194, the Royal Palace of Palermo served as the place for functioning administrative purposes. At that time, it was also the centre of the Sicilian School of poetry. But it was rarely used as a permanent seat of power during the later period, especially during the reign of Frederick II. However, after the end of the rule of the Angevin and Aragonese kings, the palace got back its earlier glamour to play an important administrative role in the second half of the sixteenth century, when the Spanish governors decided to use it as their official residence.

royal palace of palermo sicily
Cappella Palatina

However, the beautiful chapel dedicated to St. Peter, built in the castle by Ruggero II and named Cappella Palatina, is the best example of the so-called Arab-Norman-Byzantine style that prevailed in Sicily during the 12th-century. For the decoration of the chapel, Arab and Byzantine artists were summoned and the effect is stunning. It consists of three naves, divided by granite columns with Corinthian capitals. While the first nave is equipped with three apses and a dome on a Byzantine square base, the second is distinguished by the presence of acute arches on high piers, supported by columns and bare capitals. The wonderful mosaic works on a golden background, depicting Christ and the illustrations of different stories from the New and Old Testaments, are simply masterly pieces of craftsmanship, in whichthe beautiful Byzantine images and decorations are artistically blended with Arabic designs. The roof of the chapel is a unique structure with upside-down wooden pyramidal structures, suspended from the ceiling, resonated with Islamic images, creating a universal fusion of Catholic, Islamic and Byzantine cultures under one roof.

royal palace of palermo sicily
Interior of Cappella Palatina

Interestingly, a Room of Treasures was found in a tower, protected by a double door and surrounded by patrol walkways, during an archaeological survey in the 1900s. It contained huge jars, piled up from the floor to the ceiling, filled with gold coins. Invaluable decorations in stucco and mosaic were also uncovered in another room. Apart from that, the castle was also equipped with defensive arrangements, comprising of secret stairways and tiny hidden doorsin the base of the castle wallsto facilitate escape, camouflaged traps on the floor, along with the necessary arrangements for the accurate dispensing of boiling oil to the invaders, over the walls of the castle.

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Author Details
Dibyendu Banerjee
Ex student of Scottish Church College. Served a Nationalised Bank for nearly 35 years. Authored novels in Bengali. Translated into Bengali novels/short stories of Leo Tolstoy, Eric Maria Remarque, D.H.Lawrence, Harold Robbins, Guy de Maupassant, Somerset Maugham and others. Also compiled collections of short stories from Africa and Third World. Interested in literature, history, music, sports and international films.
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