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Palermo and Monreale Cathedral

Property names are listed in the language in which they have been submitted by the State Party.

Italy (Europe and North America)

Date of Submission: 01/06/2006
Criteria: (ii)(iv)(v)
Category: Cultural
Submission prepared by:
Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities
State, Province or Region:

Regione: Sicila - Provincia: Trapani

Ref.: 363


The entire historic district of Palermo can be considered a unique and exceptionally important urban fabric, which has survived the long succession of various rules to which the island was subjected over the centuries and that have left extensive primary evidence.

"All-port" is the translation of the ancient name of the city, Panormus, which was founded by the Phoenicians in the eighth century BC, never conquered by the Greeks, but won by the Romans in 254 BC. The city was constituted by two fortified nuclei, the older Paleopolis and the Neapolis, which occupied a rocky headland bounded by two rivers - long since disappeared - that flowed into the sea in a deep and sheltered natural harbour.

Palermo underwent great expansion beneath Arab rule (ninth-eleventh centuries) that made the island's chief city and one of the leading trading centres of the Mediterranean. The image handed down by the Arab chroniclers is that of a mythical Oriental city, brimming with mosques, sumptuous palaces and crowded markets packed with precious goods, comparable in size and splendour to Cordoba and Cairo, and it is claimed that it counted over 300,000 inhabitants.

While extensive traces of the Arab city can still be seen in Palermo's urban fabric, which retains several Islamic urban features, little remains of the buildings constructed during that period, excepting the remains incorporated in the Norman architecture. Indeed, the Normans, who conquered the city in 1072 and made it an important trading hub between the Byzantine East, Muslim Africa and the Catholic Empire, skillfully merged different artistic trends and promoted an original architectural style, appropriately known as "Arab-Norman", in which domes and Moorish decorative motives are superimposed on the severity of basically Romanesque buildings.  The old Arab castle was extended and equipped with towers to become a fitting palace (Palazzo dei Normanni) for the new sovereigns, who also created a complex system of gardens on the plain beyond, as far as the hillsides, dotted with palaces, pavilions, fountains and fish pools, as testified by the Zisa, Cuba and Cubola. The city too became a great building site, with the purpose of consolidating the authority of the Crown and the episcopal see, particularly through the construction of religious buildings, such as San Giovanni degli Eremiti, Santa Maria dell'Ammiraglio (the Martorana) and numerous other churches. The collaboration of Arab, Byzantine and Latin craftsmen allowed the flourishing of that extraordinary architectural synthesis which finds its highest expression in the Palatine Chapel and Monreale Cathedral. The monastic complex of Monreale, founded in 1174, was the citadel of Norman power in Sicily. The church was flanked by the royal palace, a building described by the chroniclers as "multa dignum admiratione", i.e. worthy of great admiration, and indeed no other king could boast anything similar. Each individual culture of the heterogeneous Norman kingdom left its trace there: the cathedral has a Norman plan and façade, Byzantine mosaics (over 6,000 square metres of them), Arab and Norman-style apsidal decorations, classical columns, and a cloister that combines Lombard, Islamic and French elements.

Although Palermo experienced a period of decadence under Angevin rule, the city once again benefited from ambitious building schemes and general urban reorganisation under Aragonese in a display of power by the dominant aristocracy, despite having lost the title of capital to Naples.

Palermo underwent another great transformation during the Baroque period, with a process of renovation that celebrated the glories of its ruling class in a burst of palaces, churches, monasteries and oratories. The creation of the square known as Piazza Quattro Canti dates to this period, following the intersection of Via Maqueda, and features corners richly adorned with fountains, decorative elements, windows, niches and statues, which form a spectacular architectural complex.

The city fell under Bourbon rule in 1734, finally becoming Italian in 1860.

Justification for Outstanding Universal Value

Satements of authenticity and/or integrity:

The advent of the industrial age caused very little damage to the urban fabric and has been limited to outer areas, as have demolition and rebuilding projects.

Since 1993 all the buildings of the walled city have been protected by detailed city planning schemes, approved by decrees of the Regional Council Territory and Environment Department, with the aim of restoring and valorising the entire urban fabric. The protection of individual monuments is also assured by regional legal provisions regarding conservation.

Comparison with other similar properties:

In some respects the historic centre of Palermo has similarities with those of Seville and Cordoba (Spain), Fez (Morocco) and Naples (Italy), which also experienced a succession of Arab and/or Spanish rules, but differs from them in its extremely complex stratification and the consequent greater stylistic variety of its architecture.

In comparison to all the other building styles of the medieval West, Arab-Norman architecture, of which Palermo conserves significant and exemplary traces, appears distinctly unique, characterised by the fusion of different traditions, testifying to Sicily's contemporary role as a melting pot of civilisations. There are few similarities with Apulia, the home of the previous Norman kingdom in Italy, and only a few buildings in Calabria (such as the Roccelletta in Catanzaro) and Campania (Salerno Cathedral and the cloister of Amalfi Cathedral) display some degree of likeness with the Norman architecture of Sicily, featuring certain elements of the same formal language.

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