alermo Cathedral is famous all around the world thanks to its beautiful matchless facade. When a tourist comes to our city and all of a sudden sees this work of art he is not only charmed, but most of the times also ‘overawed’. In fact, the whole Cathedral gives such a sense of grandeur that cannot be compared to any other monument of the Norman Arab Palermo.
It has a very ancient history and dates back to the beginning of Christian era (4th century AD), when the Emperor Constantine issued an edict granting toleration to all Christians, therefore allowing the people of Palermo to build their own church. This first structure was destroyed in one of the notorious Vandals incursions, during the barbarian invasions (5th century AD). Therefore nothing of it is left now.
Nevertheless already in 6th century AD, while Palermo was under the domination of the Byzantine Empire, Christianity regained strength and power so that they began the construction of a new church in the same site where the previous one had been destroyed. Therefore at the begin of the 7th century (604 AD) the new building was consecrated to the Virgin Mary, but nowadays only the square crypt remains.
This second phase of the history of our Cathedral is a series of alterations (structural modifications were already made by Byzantine builders) and drastic changes: as a matter of fact as soon as Arabs conquered Palermo the first thing they did was immediately converting the main Christian place of worship into a big mosque that was named ‘Gami’ (831 AD). It is very likely that also Muslims have changed something in the inner and outer style (even if we actually do not have any evidence), nevertheless we are sure that they did not demolish the whole building, on the contrary they left quite unchanged the original features of the main church of Palermo in the Byzantine period.
However, when the Norman conquered Sicily, as a matter of fact bringing it back to the European Middle Ages, things changed again because Robert Guiscard and Roger I decided neither to build any other new structure nor to demolish the old church profaned by the ‘infidels’, they rather converted it again back to Christianity. Because of two centuries of Arab nomination, there were no bishops in the city so they had to go to Monreale and beyond it in the open countryside to find an old priest whose name was Nicodemo, who still celebrated Mass for the few Christians left. Nicodemo did not even speak Latin, but only Greek as well as the rite he performed. Nevertheless, being short of priests, anybody would have been suitable for the Normans so they took Nicodemo and made him consecrate again the church of Palermo. He also became bishop of the city and the church his dwelling, from a day to another poor Nicodemo completely changed his life from being a country priest to the prominent politic and religious status of a city bishop responsible for the whole diocese.
Normans din not modify the old building and perhaps they would never do, but about a century later took place a famous disagreement about the history of the Cathedral between the Norman king William II, called the Good, and the archbishop of Palermo Walter. In fact, at the end of the 12th century William conceived the idea of building a new magnificent church and wanted it to become the main of religious place of the area, but he wanted to build this cathedral in Monreale not in Palermo. Archbishop Walter had already planned to build a big cathedral in Palermo in order to reassert his prestige (actually more temporal than spiritual). Therefore, totally ignoring that the king had already started to build the structure of the place that would become the Cathedral of Monreale, the Palermo archbishop ordered to begin building the new cathedral. The old church, dating from 6th century AD, was almost completely destroyed (only the crypt is still the original one) and Walter erected the new church regardless of expense (he even pretended to have found a treasure to justify the great amount of money he was spending). Indeed, the outcome was amazing: artists and architects working on the cathedral had very different cultures, but created a balanced ensemble of wonderful elements. Finally, Palermo Cathedral was finished during the reign of Frederick II who wanted to be buried inside it. The external part isthe most similar to the building of the 12th century (except for some adjustments we will discuss further): for instance you can admire the beautiful twisted arches typical of the Islamic style; you can see these arches also in the external sides of the Cathedral and they seem precious Oriental fabrics. In general, the Arab elements merge together with an architectural style that is similar to the first phase of the European Gothic architecture; this was the result of the collaboration with architects from Northern Europe called by Walter. Nevertheless, this superficial lack of homogeneity between two different cultures does not influence the visitor’s perception of the whole building that appears consistent and harmonious. In 14th and 15th century they added four corner towers, the facade and its portal; this elements suited perfectly the style of the whole. On the contrary, the wonderful eighteenth-century dome is much less appropriate, it clashes altogether with the rest of the monument. The dome was added during an artistic period when medieval art was despised by the intellectuals of the Age of Enlightenment. Therefore, when they added the dome, totally ignored the original style of the Norman Cathedral. The circumstances concerning the steeple on the keep of the archbishop’s palace are very different. It was built in 19th century by the architect Emanuele Palazzotto: it was designed to adapt to the original medieval style. Indeed, they did it very well because it is not easy for a visitor to realise that the steeple is an almost contemporary structure. Obviously, also the famous statues outside the cathedral do not date back to the Norman period and, although they were added during the post-medieval period, are consistent with the whole. In general, the outside of the Norman cathedral is a good example of ‘architectural syncretism’.
On the other hand, the inside of the church does not have any feature of the original structure and of the medieval style, in fact it is the result of adjustments made between 18th and 19th century. At the beginning the cathedral inside was a basilica with a wooden covering and three aisles separated by tetrastyle cluster columns made of granite that supported a series of lancet arches. In 16th century Antonello Gagini had renovated the inside of the cathedral, but in 1799 it was totally destroyed and replaced with a neoclassical architecture that clashes completely with the outside. One of the strangest thing of the new inner style of the cathedral is a sundial that was strongly wanted by the astronomer Giuseppe Piazzi, founder and first director of the Astronomical Observatory. So, when you are inside the cathedral you can roughly tell the time because the hours of the day are marked on the floor of the church and the sunlight indicates them.
A lot of outstanding people of the history of Palermo and Sicily wanted to be buried inside the Cathedral, for instance: Constance of Sicily, Roger II, Frederick II and Henry VI. Inside you can also admire the royal treasure (from various periods) of the cathedral.