Tag Archives: Norman architecture

What is the Norman art? The Monreale case

Am I an independent traveler-explorer? No, I’m not. Although some of the best moments of my trips I’ve mentioned here are visits to some sunken villages or walks through the city alleys ignored by tourists, let’s face an obvious fact, namely, tourist attractions are attractions because they are attractive.

The note before the last one was about Erice. I complained about the herds of tourists marshalling through the town. I’ve received many comments from the readers saying that I must have been very unlucky because when they visited the town there wasn’t almost anyone. Anyway, I kept stumbling over some organised tours.

Yet, I know that I wouldn’t forgive myself if I hadn’t called at Erice. I’d read so many good things about the town that I wanted to see this little something situated on the rock. Well, all the pros and cons considered, all in all, I don’t regret going there.

And such a scenerio is very common. You can go to France and not pay a visit to Versailles. It will save you money and nerves then. But knowing that millions of people in the world believe the palace to be a real miracle on earth, knowing what kind of history took place there and the importance of the place both for France and Europe, maybe after all it’s worth dropping in?
In my opinion it is. As so many people recommend something, it means this something has to be really something. So I take a deep breath and go into the tourist crowd, after all, in a few hours I’ll escape into the woods.

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The Knowledge and the Life, a guide to Italy, devotes 26 pages to Sicily, including two pages related to Monreale. It gave me a reason for some thought over the place. Our approach was as following: if we could get there without any problem let’s go then. If not, we won’t push ourselves to do it by all means.
So we asked Salvatore whether he’d be passing Monreale. He wouldn’t but he could give us a lift. And so he did.

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Monreale is a small town on a hill with an amazing view on Palermo that is located below. It’s known for its 12th century Norman cathedral situated here.
Sicily is unbelievable in the sense of its cultural confusion. For centuries, the island was boosted by succeeding nations: the Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Vandals, Ostrogoths… phew, the list could go on and on. In the 11th century the time for the Normans came, which still keeps amazing me. This brave nation of the Vikings, from whom the French Normandy took its name, incredibly contributed to the looks of Sicilian landscape today.

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The Cathedral of Monreale was built by the Norman King William II, who wanted to undermine the growing influence of the Palermo diocese. In the temple you can visit the interior of the church and the adjoining cloisters (admission: normal 6 euros/ reduced 3 euros). The latter, in my opinion, a tourist who cultivates sightseeing in a budget version can skip, especially if the medieval cloisters are news to him. Oh yes, they weren’t bad, but please keep in mind that at a fixed budget of 10 euros per day, these 3 for the entrance make a fortune :).

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I don’t know too much about the Norman art and as I entered the cathedral in Monreale, I realised I knew even less. I would associate the Normans more with the northern raw stone and dark interior. The Norman architecture is eventually that of the London Tower and other similar places taken almost directly from medieval legends. That’s why I got really surprised when, instead of a heavy stone I saw a kaleidoscope of colours and mosaics. For a moment I was wondering if I hadn’t confused something. In my head there were swirling such question as where the hell those Normans came from, because the answer couldn’t be simply Scandinavia. I thought that I’d mixed something up. That maybe there was just some coincidence of names. In front of my eyes there was a masterpiece of something that I – after all, a person who’s passed A-levels in history of art at over 90% and studied the history of art for a year – would describe as the Byzantine art.

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The Normans turned out intelligent and tolerant beasts. They had capacity to learn. They knew how to assimilate the culture of the lands defeated by them and how to take the best of them. As a result, the northern coast of Sicily is full of structures called Norman-Arab-Byzantine style. An explosive mixture. Unique and original of its kind. By the way, a gorgeous one. Such things can be seen only in Sicily.

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Oh, and is it worth it? It is, but I wouldn’t call it Top 5. The next note will be about Palermo. And this one is to be called that, for sure.

Hitchhiking tips:
From Monreale to Palermo there’s just a few kilometre distance and only one road goes there. The square in front of the cathedral is actually at its drive out of town. We walked along the road for a few hundred metres, and at the place where there was a bit more space for the car we put our thumbs up. A relatively quickly caught Italian guy (few people were going out of the town – some big gun was visiting the cathedral, an archbishop, I guess) gave us a lift to the very centre of Palermo.