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Palermo and the Normans

Palazzo dei Normanni, San Giovanni degli Eremeti


Capella Palatina     La Martorana


The Normans and the Hohenstaufen Kings of Sicily and Southern Italy 1000 - 1266


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On the 5th of January 1072 (less than ten years after that other Norman, William, had conquered England in the Battle of Hastings,  and more than 20 years before anyone would think of crusading), the Norman Count of Sicily Roger I (1031 - 1101), the youngest son of Tancred of Hauteville and brother of Robert (Duke of Apulia), entered Palermo and took control of the city from the Saracen forces of the Sultan of Tunis (the Saracens / Arabs, but not always those related to the Sultan, had been there since 831).


The Saracens were allowed to retain most of the administrative functions, though the systematic destruction of mosques must have made life a bit tense.  The Normans had by then been a significant force in Southern Italy for over 40 years, and had been given feudal rights over Southern Italy by the Pope in the Treaty of Melfi in 1059.


The Norman dynasty in Sicily only lasted for four generations (122 years) from 1072 to 1194 (Roger I and II, and William I and II), with the Hohenstaufens (including Frederick II) taking over for a further 130 years until 1266.




The Early Normans in Southern Italy, the Norman Kings of Sicily, and the Hohenstaufen Kings of Sicily, has


Moved to a new page - Link








Roger's son, Roger II (1093 - 1113 - 1154 (61)) (below in a mosaic in La Martorana), ruled Sicily and Southern Italy (and latterly Naples ) as King from 1113 -  41 years which embraced among other things engineering the title of King (he was crowned on Christmas Day 1130),  the building of the Capella Palatina and the development of the surrounding Palazzo dei Normanni (above and right), the Cefalu Duomo, and the Chiesa dell Ammiraglio (aka La Martorona).  "Growing up with Arabs and surrounded by Greeks and Byzantines, Roger .... was a man of great cultural curiosity, and gave hospitality to many scholars and scientists, making Palermo one of the great cultural centres of its times." 


Link to the Early Normans in Southern Italy

The Norman and Hohenstaufen Kings of Sicily





One of the scholars that Roger II lured to Palermo was the Cordoban Arab Botanist and Geographer al-Idrisi (1099 - 1166), who amongst other things added significantly to the codified knowledge of medicinal plants, and wrote two geographical encyclopaedias embracing all the geographical knowledge of the time about Asia, Africa and the West.  The first of these encyclopaedias was called Al-Kitab al-Rujari (Roger's Book) or alternatively Nuzhat al-Mushtaq fi Ikhtiraq al-Afaq ("The delight of him who desires to journey through the climates") - now that's a title all of us travellers should remember!  The information contained in Roger's Book was also engraved on a silver planisphere, a disc-shaped map that was one of the wonders of the age.


Below is one of al-Idrisi's his world maps, which shows very clearly the medieval paradigm of world geography - the centrality of the Mediterranean, with the rest to the east, accessible over land (eg the Silk Road) or latterly by sea around Africa.  There was a general acceptance that the world was spherical, but no idea of its diameter and hence the potential distance from the western tip of Spain to the Eastern edge of China and the East Indies.  Nor, of course, was there any idea that the continents of the Americas were in the way, until Columbus bumped into them (almost) 500 years later in 1492. 


Insight Page on Travellers Traders and Explorers


Maps from the Middle Ages


Link to an excellent web page about Roger's Sicily and al-Idrisi's work



Image source unknown



The Palazzo dei Normanni in Palermo, then and now the seat of Sicilian government, was built by the Saracens, enlarged by Roger II, and later restored by the Spanish Bourbons.  This was where the splendid court of Roger II was the happening place in Europe, as a bit later was the court of the Swabian (father) Norman-Sicilian (mother, daughter of Roger II) Holy Roman Emperor and King of Sicily, Swabia and Jerusalem Frederick II (1194 - 1250), nicknamed "stupor mundi".


Link to Wikipedia Page on Roger II



Not a mosque but a Saracen influenced church design - the Chiesa di San Giovanni degli Eremiti, which Roger II built next door to the Palazzo dei Normanni (on the right).



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