isa Palace is not an ‘Arab’ building, contrary to popular belief. For a very long time this amazing monument was considered an outcome of the Muslim domination. Actually, it was built during the Norman period (12th century) by the king William I who needed a summer residence near the city. Then, besides Zisa Palace there was only the royal game reserve: it was the Genoardo (‘Paradise on Earth’) royal park that stretched to the west of the city.
They finished the building under William II.
When William I decided that he wanted a building for his own entertainment, he immediately thought of the wonderful Muslim residences in North Africa. Therefore, he called almost only Arab architects and artists who satisfied the desires of the sovereign: in fact, Zisa Palace looked like the mansion of an Emir.
When the Arab workers finished their work, suggested to the king to name the amazing building as they used to do in the Muslim world. William took up the suggestion immediately and the new palace was named ‘Zisa’, that probably is derived from the Arab word ‘Al-Azîz’ meaning ‘wonderful’.
Zisa Palace was surrounded by delightful gardens that were constantly irrigated and provided with big pools used as fish ponds. Lately, public institutions have created a garden at the front of the building in order to restore the previous magnificence of the palace and convey an idea of the old appearance of Zisa Palace.
Zisa Palace was different in the past. A lot of adjustments have been made over the centuries. The clearest of all are the battlements at the top of the building, made in the 14th century to protect it. This modification caused the almost complete loss (there are still few traces) of the old Arab inscription carved by William’s artists. In seventeenth century became property of Don Giovanni of Sandoval, who wanted to use it as private residence, therefore he modified some inner spaces to adapt them to his requirements. The crest with lions you can see above the entrance arch was added by Sandoval to emphasise his ownership. In 19th century Zisa Palace passed to Notarbartolos, Princes of Sciara, who used it as private residence until the fifties of the 20th century, when the Sicilian authorities decided to expropriate Zisa Palace to give it back to Sicilian people. Unfortunately, in the last century it has been damaged again and again by internal collapse. However, the responsible authorities have repaired and restored all the damaged parts of the building recreating its past grandeur, that seemed to has gone lost over the centuries.
Architecturally, Zisa Palace starts the trend of the high buildings. In fact, it consists of three floors. It is in the shape of a rectangular plan parallelepiped. There is a small avant-corps on either short side of the building. Historical sources tell that medieval visitor were amazed by the unusual high of this palace. The medieval writer Romualdo Salernitano wrote in his ‘Chronicon’ (12th century) his impressions of Zisa Palace, confirming his surprise at its high and wonderful gardens.
In the main facade of the building there is a big lancet entrance. On either side of it there are two similar, but smaller portals. After a vestibule you are in the very heart of Zisa Palace: the large central fountain room, that is two floors high. On the entrance arch of the room there is an Arab epigraph reading: “Every time you want, you will see the most beautiful possession of the most wonderful of the reigns of the world, of the seas and the mountains that [looks over] them, whose top is the colour of the narcissus; and you will see the [great] king of the century in a nice living room, [because] he deserves magnificence and delight. This is the paradise on earth stretching before your eyes; this is Musta’izz and this [palace] the Aziz” (translation by M. Amari). An interesting note of folklore about the pictorial decorations on the vault of the entrance arch of this room: there are some mythological figures (Jupiter, Neptune, Pluto, etc.), in Palermo traditionally called devils. Legend has it that nobody can count the correct number of devils and that if somebody would, than a treasure would be found inside the palace.
The big main room was built on a Greek cross plan with a fountain in a 6,88 feet niche in front of the entrance. The fountain produces an amazing zigzag water effect falling into two squared pools that contain split-level octagons. This first space, used by Normans as function hall, has small columns, capitals, marble coverings and mosaic bands with hunting scenes. All this in elegant symmetry. Above this room at the third floor there is a big space that at William’s time was an ‘impluvium’ that is a big container to collect rainwater.
Inside Zisa Palace there were six private flats in two groups of three on either side of the building, in symmetric position. In Middle Ages the palace was connected to a chapel dedicated to the Trinity.
Inside the palace you can admire some wonderful handmade Arab objects from various Mediterranean countries that at the time were within the Muslim domain. Among the many works on show it is worth linger a while on the unique ‘mashrabiya’ that are carved wood latticework screens made of a large number of crossing strips that form the wonderful typical patterns of Islamic art.