A Guide to Norman Art and Architecture in Southern Italy and Sicily

Once again, I am doing a runner back to my roots. When I graduated from University, I had done more work on art history and the Normans that there were modules available, I swear – probably because that it what my dissertation was about, but regardless, Norman art and architecture, the peak of the Romanesque, the Bayeux Tapestry, you name it. My parents even took me to Normandy to experience the glory of the old great duchy in real life. Now, another thing you may all well know me for is for anything that involves intercultural syncretism ideas. And what best to put them both together than a post on the artistic works of the Normans during their rule in Italy, and particularly Sicily? Well, get ready then, because I am about to get technical with this stuff!

If you are jumping on the boat of Norman studies, ditch Caen and Rouen, forget the British Isles and take a trip to the Mediterranean. Why? Because despite the field is evolving, there is still a lot of research to do in their rule over Italy and Sicily, due to the great cultural exchange and the intrinsic political and social dynamics of their reign.

So lets start with the architectural side of things. The Normans arrived nicely to the shores of the Mediterranean, most of the second and third sons of Norman lords, who had not a plot of land for themselves and that perhaps could not be bothered to make it all the way to the Middle East. Everyone knows that buildings are sign of power and lordship, therefore they then start erecting new structures, both for secular and religious purposes. As Norman builders were masons, stone was normally their main resource for construction. However, once they got used to the surroundings its materials and traditions, they incorporated the use of brick and mortar for the creation of vaults, and also rubble for the thick walls, creating different textures and polychromatic effects. They used two different types or arches. The rounded arch was used for small openings, window-frames and decorative purposes, while the pointed arch, which was adopted from the Islamic population, had its uses in the major openings of the buildings. Another common characteristic is the use of regional motifs. Instead of getting rid of the old decorative elements of each region and imposing prototypical Norman patterns, they actively promoted these ornaments and integrated them in their constructions, allowing to prevail the distinct character of the local artists. This is the reason why even nowadays interlaced arches, string courses and rose patterns can be distinguished in many churches, like in St.Maria la Nuova (Monreale).

From WikiCommons Inside of the cloister of Monreal Cathedral

The mesmerising architecture can be found all across the area. For instance, there is a large collection of domed basilicas in the zones of Valdemone and Calabria, dating from c.1091-1130 which are believed to have been, at least originally, orthodox churches for the large Greek population of the realm. A common feature of the Apulian churches, which is very well represented by the one in Trani, is that their apse is directly projected from the transept. Also, there are some evidences of Moorish architectural influence. An example of this could be the tower of the cathedral of Cefalù, which K.J.Conant described as “North-African minarets in design”. Islamic influence can also be seen in Sicilian Norman castles, like La Zisa. Apparently, the Normans ‘recycled’ these very appealing and elegant Muslim castles, rather than building their typical motte and bailey ones, although there are few examples of the latter, like the one in Petralia Soprana, and even one carved in the rock in Sperlinga. Last but not least, there is even the strange case of a church in Venosa (La Trinità), that was never finished, but its layout suggest that otherwise, it would have been one of the few Norman churches in Italy to have a stereotypical French ambulatory and radiating chapels. It has been suggested that the reason why the project was abandoned had something to do with the moving of patronage influence from Apulia to Sicily.

In what concerns the art, the influence of the Byzantine civilization is quite pronounced, as the Atlantes of the cathedral of San Mateo (Salerno) represent. Also,this is clearly seen in the use of mosaics for wall decoration in practically every single church of the area. Mosaics present a great advantage for ornamental purposes as the colour does not fade away, it is elegant, and both geometrical and figurative patterns can be created with no problems, as it can be seen in those about Geoffrey of Antioch in the church of la Martorana. The mosaic skills got mixed with the Norman traditions to create wonderful pavements such as those made by the monk Pantaleone in the cathedral of Otranto, representing scenes from the Bible. Despite of the use of mosaics, the fresco tradition was not left behind. The best specimens are found in the church of San Angelo in Formis (near Capua). L.I.Hamilton has the theory that the meaning behind this work commanded by abbot Desiderius is linked with his reforming character, and these would be the images that reflected his religious dominance in Capua.

Modern copy of the Tabula by Al-Idrisi

On Islamic influence, the most relevant work to be mentioned, without considering the planisphere from ‘The Book of Roger’, by the Arab geographer al-Idrisi, would be the honeycomb ceiling of the Capella Palatina (Palermo). This wonderful ceiling is covered with painted stalactites, which work has been attributed to Muslim artists working shortly after the consecration of the chapel (c.1140). There was a great deal of ivory work within their culture. Ivory was a very precious material, and because of its rarity, it was used for very special and important artefacts. The best example of this could be one of the caskets found in the Treasury of the already mentioned Capella Palatina that is meant to contain the privileges of chapel, which is quite rare and likely the reason why it was kept in this ivory box. Furthermore, it would be a crime if i did not mention the metal work produced at the doors of the cathedral of Trani made by the local artist Barisano. Finally, a quick mention to manuscript illumination, as it differed from what is known elsewhere about the Normans. Oddly enough, considering the great Anglo-Norman tradition of manuscript keeping and decoration, there are not many from the southern lands. There is notice of a copy of the Homilies in the area of Troia, and an epistolarium of marked muslim influence from Palermo. But, the most important is the Expositio Orationis Dominicae, by Maio de Bari (12th C), which is the only Sicilian manuscript preserved from this period that also contains some traces of illumination.

But perhaps the most important aspect of everything the Normans created in the south had to do with their identity. R.H.C Davis questions if these were the same Normans than those from Normandy or England, as he supports the theory that they were trying to portray themselves as new Byzantine emperors rather than anything else. It has to be considered that these Normans left their home-land some years before it reached the glory days of William the Conqueror, and even though they kept in touch, something was changing. The feeling rises that when the Normans established themselves in the Mediterranean their drive was not one of simple conquest but of ‘new found land’, a whole new place to start with their lives again, to make a difference…to take a chance. And that is precisely what they did. They did not just brought together several different cultures and make a Norman version of it. They adapted and bent them in a way it was understandable for everyone, it did not matter if your origin was Greek, Moorish or from up north. And this is reflected in their art. It was not a new Romanesque…it was not even Romanesque any more. It was something different, something unique from those lands. Art was the instrument these Normans used to create a whole new identity for the population of these territories, to preserve their diversity, to create a strong and united kingdom.

On a final note, I’ll give you a sample of the bibliography one can dig from the Martial Rose library at the University of Winchester in order to find anything of use on this subject (this is not including the generic art books…sad but true)- note the old dates – remember my comment on the field that needs to improve? Get on it!

-Browne, E.A., Great Buildings and How to Enjoy Them: Norman Architecture (London, 1907)

-Buchthal, H., ‘The Beginnings of Manuscript Illumination in Norman Sicily’, Paper of the British School of Rome, Vol. 24, (1956), pp. 78-85

-Conant, K.J., ‘The Two Sicilies’, Carolingian and Romanesque Architecture, 800 to 1200, (Harmondsworth, 1973), pp. 214-224

-Davis, R.H.C., The Normans and Their Myth (London, 1976)

-Diringer, D., ‘Italy: Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries’, The Illuminated Book; its History and Production, (London, 1967), pp. 294-307

-Hamilton, L.I., ‘Desecration and Consecration in Norman Capua, 1062-1122: Contesting Sacred Space during the Gregorian Reform’, The Haskins Society Journal, Vol. 14, (July, 2005), pp. 137-150

-Matthew, D., The Norman Kingdom of Sicily (Cambridge, 1992)

-Nicklies, C.E., ‘Builders, Patrons, and Identity: the Domed Basilicas of Sicily and Calabria’, Gesta, Vol. 43, No. 2, (2004), pp. 99-114

-Norwich, J.J., The Normans in Sicily: The Normans in the South 1016-1130, and, The Kingdom in the Sun 1130-1194 (London, 1992)

-Pinder-Wilson, R.H., and Brooke, C.N.L., ‘The Reliquary of St. Petroc and the Ivories of Norman Sicily’, Archaeologia, Vol. 104, (1973), pp. 261-305

-Ville de Caen, ‘Les Normands, peuple d’Europe’, www.mondes-normands.fr


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