A Site for Sore Eyes? (Pt I)

When I think of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, I tend to think of a single location such as Palace Green in Durham, where both Castle and Cathedral are found, or Studley Royal in Yorkshire, where John Aislabie added his estate and water gardens to the existing ruins of Fountains Abbey.  In Sicily though, I found the word “site” stretched to breaking point, for here UNESCO have granted World Heritage status, to what they call

Arab-Norman Palermo and the Cathedral Churches of Cefalú and Monreale

That trips off the tongue doesn’t it?  What’s more the description that might suggest three locations actually relates to nine; for the elements located in Palermo include the cathedral, three other churches, a pair of palaces… and a bridge!  Furthermore, though Monreale is contained within the urban sprawl of Palermo it is a separate town,  and Cefalù is over 60km away as the crow flies.

So what were UNESCO thinking?  Well this scattering of locations are united by unique evidence of intercultural cooperation, describe by UNESCO as:

…the fruitful coexistence of people of different origins and religions (Muslim, Byzantine, Latin, Jewish, Lombard and French).

If you’ve read my previous posts from Sicily, then this multiculturalism will come as no surprise, but what surprised me was the impact that some of these structures (I didn’t visit all nine) had on me, and two in particular.

Bay of Palermo viewed from Monreale

From my brief visit to a cold and grey Cefalù I headed straight to Monreale where heavy rain and the fact that the Cathedral was closed made me question the value of a visit.  I persevered, killing time with a quick lunch and a when the rain stopped, a walk around the wet streets nearby (rarely great conditions for photography).  As I wandered I caught glimpses of a style I was to become familiar with on my travels around the island but I had no idea what was in store.

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When the doors opened once more people materialised from all directions, and with good reason.  I was immediately reminded of Howard Carter’s words on entering the Tomb of Tutankhamun; everywhere the glint of gold.  Not the gilt statuary and picture frames that you might expect in a catholic cathedral; here it was in mosaic and roof timbers, pictorial and abstract, above you and below.  With too many people around to deploy a tripod, and works too delicate to even consider a flash,  I wedged myself between pillars and into corners in an attempt to get the stability to produce decent pictures.  These don’t even begin to do justice to a building whose beauty literally brought tears to my eyes.  The nave shone with the Byzantine and the Muslim (those geometric patterns produced by a religion that shuns figurative representation), but beyond the altar the style changed.

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Here Baroque chapels revel in marble craftsmanship that anywhere else would be with a visit in themselves but of course the return journey to the exit doors was by way of that magnificent nave that would form my abiding memory.

Time to dry my eyes and return to the real world.

 

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Le Pareti di San Lorenzo

The shrine at San Lorenzo in Lucinain Rome con...
The shrine at San Lorenzo in Lucinain Rome containing the supposed gridiron used to grill Saint Lawrence to death. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Trans: The Walls of Saint Lawrence

If, as a significant proportion of we tourists do, you head from the fountain, opera house and economic muscle of Piazza Ferrari down towards the old port, there’s a reasonable chance that you’ll pass the Cathedral of San Lorenzo along the way as Via San Lorenzo is the widest and most direct of the routes leading from the harbour.  And yet, if you take this route, named after la cattedrale, you could easily pass the great church without realising it.  Approach it from the opposite direction and you can’t miss it.

This is because whilst Via San Lorenzo is broader than the narrow alleys of Maddalena, it’s still far from spacious, and so the towering walls of the cathedral become just a sea of greyness towering above you to the right, whilst a range of colourful shops and cafés draw your eye to the left.  What decoration there is is high above your head and so for many goes unnoticed, and because the piazza at the grand western entrance is quite small, you could well be past without further thought.

Perhaps it is fair that those toiling up the hill should have the greater reward.  From this direction the façade is unmissable with its bands of grey and white striped marble.  Whether true or not, I overheard a guide explaining that the use of this pattern was closely regulated by the city’s government so only those with real wealth and influence were permitted to use it.  No problem for the church then!

Striking as it is when standing back (as far as that small piazza allows), the true beauty is discovered when you get closer.  The masons who fashioned this marble in the 14th century seem to have believed it was a sin to leave the stone with a smooth surface, for there are carved flourishes wherever you look.

And then you start to notice more, at least if you’re facing the right way!

The side walls have interesting features too, yet these seem more randomly placed, as if they weren’t intended to be where they ended up.  Perhaps these pieced weren’t good enough for the facade, or were moved to their current locations when something better came along!  There’s an interesting parallel between this loose approach to the construction and the story of St Lawrence’s martyrdom.

He is usually portrayed with a gridiron, representing his supposed fate when martyred in 3rd century Rome, where he was one of the seven deacons of the city.  As such, his status would normally have meant his execution would have been by beheading (Latin passus est).  Some scholars believe that a slip of the pen rendered this as assus est, meaning “he was roasted”.   Like Magdalene the harlot, a legend was born.

But I digress.  As you look at these misplaced elements you realise that even the textures of that grey marble are beautiful, but then no one would ever pay sufficient attention to a grey church would they?  Back to the masons and their decorative façade then.