I mentioned some of the different ethnicities that have ruled and influenced Sicily through out its history in an earlier post but it’s worth adding a little more as context for this piece, though volumes could be (and have been) written about European royalty during the middle ages. Suffice to say that borders were fluid, wars were common and religious schism added to the mix.
Palermo’s Royal Palace is more generally known as Palazzo dei Normanni, the Palace of the Normans, and Roger I, Count of Sicily and father of Sicily’s first King Roger II, was a Norman, which nowadays we think of as meaning he was French, though of course of Norse origins (Norman/Norseman). Let’s not quibble too much though; they were of the house of Hauteville which sounds distinctly French. Meanwhile the Holy Roman Empire was ruled by a German (House Hofenstaufer), Frederik I, known as Barbarossa.
When Roger’s daughter Constance married Barbarossa’s son Henry VI, their son Frederik II became a German King of Sicily. His lineage died out, but this was the period when the House of Habsburg (Austrian) was beginning its domination of Europe. (Is this starting to sound like George RR Martin yet?) Over time the Habsburgs coalesced into two branches, Austrian and Spanish, and the successive rulers of Sicily being related to the Spanish branch inevitably lead to a period of Spanish rule via a series of Viceroys.
I’ll save the jewel of the Palace for a post of its own, but even so you can see a whole range of influences beyond the medieval walls.
When Italian unification took place it was under the House of Savoy, ostensibly Italian, but with origins in Saxony and a base of operations that straddled the Alps in France, Switzerland and Italy.
All of this plays a part if you should happen to visit the palazzo of Conte (Count) Federico in Palermo. (Yes, despite being a republic, Italy still has nobility). Your guide for such a visit is Federico himself, who despite the name retains distinctly German genes and is fluent in multiple languages.
His palace is well hidden at the corner of a typically Sicilian alleyway, but for the car that sits beyond the open gates; a vintage racing car that Federico’s father once raced in (his mother was an international sports star too).
Step past this into the courtyard and the history lesson begins; the Count’s home was once a defensive tower on the perimeter wall defending Palermo, and his ancestors were rewarded for their role in the city’s defence by being granted residence here. In time the bay that the wall ran alongside was filled in and the city expanded beyond the original boundary so that now the tower is located in the centre of Palermo.
Federico is a fantastic host pointing out the historic elements of his home and how they tell the story of the city (including a visit by Garibaldi to his kitchen). Perhaps though the most telling artefact on display here amongst a story full of Europeans is a set of ceramic items that date back to the earliest occupation of Federico’s family’s tower. In contrast with the rest of the story, these are distinctly Arabic. It’s worth comparing the decoration to the Bayeux Tapestry since that depicts the same Normans who ousted the Arabs. Who do you think showed the greater artistry?