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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Revisiting the Past

The last morning in Rome of my honeymoon was spent in Santa Maria Maggiore (due to its proximity to our hotel) and then, to kill time until we had to leave, people watching from the steps outside. The memory is one that has long outlasted the marriage, but coincidentally I spent my last morning in Rome on my more recent trip visiting the same church.

Not so convenient this time; an early morning metro across town was needed this time, but soon I was at those steps again. (Along with signage prohibiting their use as seats by those with inclinations similar to mine from all those years ago).

There are so many things I could write about his basilica; from one side it is plainly Romanesque, from the other extravagantly Baroque, the maggiore of the name because it is the largest dedicated to Mary in the city and not because it has the tallest campanile in town, or about the relics and burials beginning with B (The Bethlehem Crib, a Borghese, a Bonaparte, and the sculptor Bernini).

Yet there was something else here that made a greater impression on me.  That Romanesque apse is genuinely Roman for the church was constructed in the 5th century a few decades before the city fell to invaders and the last Western Roman Emperor was deposed (ironically called Romulus Augustulus).

The marble pillars in the church may date back to an earlier basilica but much of the building dates back to this period, including the archway between nave and choir that has become known as the Triumphal Arch.   Much of the church is decorated in mosaic (a good preparation for my Sicilian journey) but here they are particularly important because of the insight they give into Roman life at the time, including wardrobe.  The depictions here are arguably the most accurate views of how the characters from bible stories may have appeared since they were created by the same Romans responsible for the crucifixion.

Of course I’m not really suggesting that they are accurate; look at the seated Mary at the top of the arch and she resembles a Roman empress, and of course four centuries had passed between her life and her depiction here, but it did make me think: “If the artists of the Renaissance supposedly took their inspiration from antiquity and the remains in Rome, why did they persist in dressing their subjects in medieval garb rather than take inspiration from the evidence here?”

All of which just left me time to lap up the baroque elements, jump on my return metro and kill time before leaving the city on some other notable steps when I left the station.

In Piazza di Spagna.

 

Postscript – I almost forgot to mention one other detail that stood out for me.  Amongst the marble popes there was an African face, one carved by Bernini no less.  A reminder that the countries of that continent that were colonised and raided by Europeans were not the savages we have portrayed them as through history.  Antonia Manuele was sent from what is now Angola as an Ambassador to Rome in 1604.  Weakened by a terrible journey he died in the city and was granted his last rights by the Pope himself.  Treated with respect and importance rather than as human cargo as his countrymen would be in the centuries that followed.