he Royal Palace, known as Norman Palace, was the seat of the royal government of Norman Arab Palermo during the Middle Ages. In fact, it was built on the relics of a previous Arab castle called ‘Qasr’ (this is the root of the word ‘Cassaro’, namely the street of Palermo that leads to the sea) that was erected as well on previous Byzantine, Roman and even Punic buildings (what is proved by the still visible Carthaginian walls).
Therefore, when the Normans decided to build their fortress and seat of government of the city, they just used a previous building, but completely changing it (in fact, we have no idea about the structure of the Arab Qasr).
A the beginning, Normans did not modify much the original Arab structure, but when Roger II took over things changed because the Norman king wanted a magnificent palace and so he started complete makeover that totally transformed the Palace. Roger called Byzantine and Arab artists to supervise building work and they once again created that wonderful artistic mix of cultures now called Norman Arab (perhaps a bit unfairly because this name does not consider the great Byzantine Greek contribution).
A the end of the works ordered by Roger, around the half of the 12th century the fortress became a proper palace with a royal chapel in the middle, the Palatine Chapel, considered one of the most beautiful of the Middle Ages. From then on the Royal Palace became the heart of Palermo and Sicily itself, because every political and administrative activities took place there.
The Palace was very important also during the reign of Frederick II Hohenstaufen who lived there and made it become not only the symbol of the Sicilian political power, but also a cultural gathering place famous in whole Europe: in fact, the great poets of the Sicilian School met there.
After Frederick’s death things changed. Next conquerors of Sicily, such as Anjou and at the beginning also the Crown of Aragon, did not appreciate the value of the Royal Palace, so they did not live there anymore and abandoned it to neglect and decay for centuries. So, already in 16th century the Palace was in such bad condition that it was very difficult to renovate it.
In 16th century Spanish Viceroys decided to transform the Palace into their official residence and began a thorough renovation that probably saved the building The trade-off was that the Palace was completely renovated following the style of the 16th century, deeply transforming it. Nowadays the original Norman structure is gone apart from the Palatine Chapel, the Pisan and Joharia Tower. In particular, the latter contains the amazing Winds Chamber with four columns supporting four arches. Across the hall there is Roger’s Chamber, a wonderful example of Norman Arab Palermo: here Arab artists made typical oriental decorations depicting hunting scenes and various animal and nature shapes. Again in the Joharia Tower you can admire the room of the soldiers and in the Pisan Tower you find the treasure room. Moreover, on the top of the Pisan Tower was built an astronomical observatory in 1791.
The Royal Palace has two main facades one overlooks piazza Indipendenza and the other is in front of piazza della Vittoria; on this side the front of the building was built by the Spanish Viceroys in 16th century (except for the two towers). On the other hand, the facade in front of piazza Indipendenza has a new medieval style of the 19th century that is the result of various renovations made to recreate the original ‘Norman’ appearance of the Palace.
Because of its size the Royal Palace is divided into two big courtyards: the ‘fountain’ one made in 1584 and the ‘Maqueda’ one built in 1600. From Maqueda courtyard you can reach the other floors ascending the 18th century marble stairs built under king Charles III reign. When you arrive to the first floor, near Palatine Chapel, you find an inscription written in three languages (Arab, Greek and Latin) about a water clock wanted by king Roger to mark the canonical hours.
Inside the Norman Arab monument you can also visit a great number of rooms of different periods, but all built between 16th and 19th century. The most interesting ones are the Hercules Hall, decorated in 1799 by the great artist Giuseppe Velasco with ‘Hercules Apotheosis’, the Viceroy Hall that contains a gallery with 21 portraits, then the Hearings Hall is full of neoclassical decorations by the great artist Giovanni Patricolo, the Chinese Hall with frescos also by Patricolo and finally the Queen Room decorated in Pompeian style.
According to medieval sources, during the Norman period the Royal Palace was connected with the Cathedral through a covered passage (ruga magna coperta) next to the walls of Norman Arab Palermo.