Among the multiple locations that form the UNESCO World Heritage Arab-Norman site is of course Palermo Cathedral. or Cattedrale metropolitana della Santa Vergine Maria Assunta to give the church its full title. It has every right to be on the list; it was erected in 1185 during the reign of the Norman King William II and the tombs of some members of the royal family are here (others being in Monreale). Built on the site of an earlier basilica that had in turn been used as a mosque it boast the right multi-cultural credentials too. And yet my reaction to it was largely unenthusiastic.
Blending styles and cultures can be a source of creativity, but it’s not an automatic source of success and the proof of that is to be found in Palermo.
That blending didn’t end with the Arab-Norman period, it continued with major alternations up until the 18th Century. Nothing wrong with that per se so long as you’re able to find the right answers to four questions. Jason Clarke refers to these in his TED talk Embracing Change as The Renovators Delight and they are as follows;
What do you keep? What do you chuck?
What do you change? What do you add?
One of the additions is the Gagini portico, designed by a pupil of the great Bruneslleschi in the 15th Century and which incorporates a pillar inscribed with a passage from the Qu’ran that was once part of that earlier basilica/mosque and which leads you to the incredible carved doorway by Gambara. Shame that such a magnificent entrance should so whet the appetite and yet the interior should then be so disappointing. I wonder what they chucked?
Yes there’s more Gagini within, and beautiful light from a series of baroque cupolas that flank the nave, a meridian line similar to that in the duomo at Bologna, and of course those sarcophagi in red porphyry are hard to ignore. A chapel of silver might be your thing but to my eye it was just too much. Perhaps my senses had been overloaded by the mosaics of Monreale and the Palazzo dei Normanni but I was completely underwhelmed.
A trip to the roof did little to change my mind; the great dome was not really so great and the bell tower seemed too muscular for its setting.
All was not quite lost however. As I left the cathedral to continue my exploration of the city I deliberately chose a route that would take me to a less visible part of the exterior, where the triple apse so typical of the original Arab Norman style remained.