The Normans in Sicily

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The Cathedral in Cefalù
  • The Cathedral in Cefalù
  • The Norman Palace in Palermo
  • The mosaics in the Monreale Cathedral
  • Arabic ornaments in the Palatine Chapel (Cappella Palatina)
  • The Cathedral in Monreale

The term "Normans" (“men from the North”) applied first to the people of Scandinavia in general, and afterwards (Northmannus, Normannus, Normand) it is the name of the Viking colonists from Scandinavia who settled themselves in Gaul and founded Normandy. The Normans’ adopted a new religion (became Christians), a new language, a new system of law and society, new thoughts and feelings on all matters.

From their new home in northern France they set forth on new errands of conquest, chiefly in the British Islands and in southern Italy and Sicily.

If Britain and Sicily were the greatest fields of their enterprise, they were however very far from being the only fields. The same spirit of enterprise which brought the Northmen into Gaul seems to carry the Normans into every corner of the world. The conquest of England was made directly from Normandy, by the reigning duke, in a comparatively short time, while the conquest of Sicily grew out of the earlier and far more gradual conquest of Apulia and Calabria by private men, making their own fortunes and gathering round them followers from all quarters. They fought simply for their own hands, and took what they could by the right of the stronger.

They started with no such claim as Duke William put forth to justify his invasion of England; their only show of legal right was the papal grant of conquests that were already made. The conquest of Apulia, won bit by bit in many years of what we can only call freebooting, was not a national Norman enterprise like the conquest of England, and the settlement to which it led could not be a national Norman settlement in the same sense.

The Sicilian enterprise had in some respects another character. By the time it began the freebooters had grown into princes. Sicily was won by a duke of Apulia and a count of Sicily. Warfare in Sicily brought in higher motives and objects. Althought this was before the Crusades, the strife with the Muslims at once brought in the crusading element. Duke William was undisputed master of England at the end of five years; it took Count Roger thirty years to make himself undisputed master of Sicily. The one claimed an existing kingdom, and obtained full possession of it in a comparatively short time; the other formed for himself a dominion bit by bit, which rose to the rank of a kingdom.

Professor Robert Bartlett describes their exit like this in the excellent BBC documentary “The Normans”: “The Normans simply disappeared. This might sound like failure, but in fact it was the key to their success. They weren’t interested in the purity of their blood. They came, they saw, they conquered. Then they married the locals, learnt the language, and assimilated themselves out of existence.”

Links to more information about the Normans

The Normans in South Italy

 999–1017 Arrival of the Normans in Italy
1009–1022 Lombard revolt
1022–1046 Mercenary service
1046–1059 County of Melfi
1049–1098 County of Aversa
1053–1105 Conquest of the Abruzzo
1061–1091 Conquest of Sicily
1073–1077 Conquest of Amalfi and Salerno
1059–1085 Byzantine-Norman wars
1077–1139 Conquest of Naples
1130s Cappella Palatina: Commenced by Roger II
1131 Building of the cathedral in Cefalù begins (Roger II)
1140 Cappella Palatina is consecrated.
1143–1151 The mosaics in La Martorana (Santa Maria dell'Ammiraglio) was made
1160-70 c. Sala di Ruggero (King Roger's Room) in the Norman Palace is made
1166 Death of King William I
1174–1189 The cathedral in Monreale is built (King William II)
1194 Sicily falls into the hands of the Germanic Hohenstaufen dynasty

 

Christ Pantocrator in the Cefalù Cathedral.

Photo: Per-Erik Skramstad / Wonders of Sicily

 

Related links

 

The Norman Rulers in Sicily

  • Roger I (c. 1031–1101 Mileto), also known as Great Count Roger I, Roger Bosso, The Great Count. Italian: Ruggero I di Sicilia.
  • Roger II (1095–1154)
    Rogerios Rex (inscription in mosaic, Martorana, Palermo)
  • Simon of Hauteville (1093–1105), also known as Simon de Hauteville (in French) and Simone D'Altavilla (in Italian). He was the eldest son and successor of Roger I, count of Sicily, and Adelaide del Vasto.
  • William I (1131–1166), also known as William the Bad or the Wicked
  • William II (1155–1189), also known as William the Good

The Normans landed in Sicily as mercenaries in 1061. In 1194 Sicily fell into the hands of the Germanic Hohenstaufen dynasty

 

Byzantine mosaic of the coronation of Roger II in Santa Maria dell'Ammiraglio

The Normans in Sicily: Roger II receiving the crown directly from Christ and not the Pope. Mosaic in the Martorana, Palermo

The Normans in Sicily: Roger II receiving the crown directly from Christ and not the Pope. Mosaic in the Martorana, Palermo. The mosaic carries an inscription Rogerios Rex in Greek letters. After the Sicilian Vespers of 1282 the island's nobility gathered in the church for a meeting that resulted in the Sicilian crown being offered to Peter III of Aragon.

Photo: Per-Erik Skramstad / Wonders of Sicily

 

 

The Normans in Sicily: Christ Pantocrator in Martorana (Santa Maria dell'Ammiraglio), Palermo

Christ Pantocrator in Martorana (Santa Maria dell'Ammiraglio), Palermo. The 12th century mosaics were executed by Byzantine craftsmen.

Photo: Per-Erik Skramstad / Wonders of Sicily

 

 

Islamic inscription on a column in La Martorana

Islamic inscription on a column in La Martorana (Santa Maria dell'Ammiraglio), Palermo.

Photo: Per-Erik Skramstad / Wonders of Sicily

The inscription (in Kufic, the oldest calligraphic form of the various Arabic scripts) reads:

 

In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate, ("Basmala" - all prayers and chapters in the Quran starts with these words)
God is sufficient for me and He is the best advocate

 

Norman Monuments in Sicily (selection)

  • Castelvetrano
    The little 12th Century church of the SS. Trinità di Delia is, according to John Julius Norwich "the perfect fusion of Arab and Byzantine". [Link to the church on Google Maps]
  • Cefalù Cathedral
    "Though much of the inside is now distressingly baroque, the outside is exquisite and the great apse mosaic the most sublime masterpiece Sicily has to offer."
    After Norwich's book was written, the "distressingly baroque" elements have been removed.
  • Forza d'Agrò
    The Basilian church SS. Pietro e Paolo is situated a few kilometres outside Forza d'Agrò. The inscription over the west door dates it to 1171-72. The church was built in the 560, then it was destroyed by the Arabs and it was rebuilt in the 1117. The church was restored by the architect Gherardo il Franco in the 1172 because of an earthquake.
  • Monreale
    Cathedral and cloister
    Castellaccio (12th Century) on the summit of Monte Caputo
  • Palermo
    The Palatine Chapel (In the Royal Palace, also known as the Norman Palace)
    Sala di Ruggero (In the Royal Palace)
    S. Maria dell' Ammariglio (the Martorana)
    S. Giovanni degli Eremiti
    S. Spirito (the church known for the Sicilian Vespers in 1282)
    The Royal tombs of Roger II, Henry VI, Constance and Frederick II (in the Palermo Cathedral / Duomo)

Source: John Julius Norwich: The Normans in Sicily: The Magnificent Story of "the other Norman Conquest

 

 

Capital in the Monreale cathedral

Capital in the Monreale cathedral.

Photo: Per-Erik Skramstad / Wonders of Sicily

 

 

 

Facts about the Normans in Sicily

  • Unlike the Norman conquest of England (1066), which took a few years after one decisive battle, the conquest of southern Italy was the product of decades and a number of battles, few decisive. Many territories were conquered independently, and only later were unified into a single state. Compared to the conquest of England it was unplanned and disorganised, but equally complete.

 

 

Video: Vikings Heritage: The Splendour of Norman Sicily

 

The Normans arrive in Sicily

Monte Gargano, just east of Foggia, is the starting point for the Normans' adventure in Sicily. In 1016 about 40 Norman pilgrims met Melus, a noble Lombard from Bari who had been driven into exile by the Byzantines. Melus appealed to the pilgrims for help in ousting the Byzantines and in restoring the Roman Church throughout the southern part of the peninsula. The Normans returned the next year, and met Melus at Capua, north of Naples. Although defeated at first, the Normans continued to plunder, and in 1038 the Greeks and their Norman allies landed on Sicilian soil. Messina fell at once, and then Syracuse.

 

Coins from the Norman period. (Mandralisca Museum, Cefalù)
Photo: Per-Erik Skramstad / Wonders of Sicily

 

 

 

 

Coronation mantle made for Roger II

 

Coronation mantle made for Roger II in 1133/34 in the royal workshop in Palermo of fabric from Byzantium or Thebes, Samite, silk, gold, pearls, filigree, sapphires, garnets, glass, and cloisonné enamel.

 

 

Arab-Norman bronze pail (c. 1100-1200) from the Contrada Bambina shipwreck

Arab-Norman bronze pail (c. 1100-1200) from the Contrada Bambina shipwreck near Marsala. Beneath the rim, a punched inscription from the Qur'an in early Arabic characters. This pail was part of the exhibition Storms, War and Shipwrecks: Treasures from the Sicilian Seas (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, 21 Jun 2016 to 25 Sep 2016), but is owned by Museo archeologico regionale Lilibeo-Baglio Anselmi, Marsala.

Photo: Per-Erik Skramstad / Wonders of Sicily

 

 

 

 

 

 

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