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Arab-Norman Palermo and the cathedral churches of Cefalù’ and Monreale

Date of Submission: 18/10/2010
Criteria: (i)(ii)(iv)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Permanent Delegation of Italy to UNESCO
State, Province or Region:
Ref.: 5565
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- Palazzo dei Normanni: 38°06'39N 13°21'11E

- Cappella Palatina: 38°06'39N 13°21'13E

- Church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti: 38°06'35N 13°21'17E

- Church of Santa Maria dell'Ammiraglio: 38°06'53N 13°21'46E

- Church of San Cataldo: 38°06'53N 13°21'45E

- Cathedral of Palermo: 38°06'51N 13°21'21E

- The Zisa Palace: 38°07'00N 13°20'29E

- The Cuba Palace: 38°06'29N 13°20'35E


- Cathedral: 38°02'24N 14°01'24E


- Cathedral: 38°04'55N 13°17'32E


The site denominated 'Arab-Norman Palermo and the cathedral churches of Cefalù and Monreale' is a collection of monuments with a decorative apparatus of mosaics, paintings and sculptures that resulted from a socio-cultural syncretism which, during the period of Norman domination (1071-1194), gave birth to an extraordinary artistic and architectural heritage of outstanding value.

  Historic, geographic, political and cultural contingencies brought about an extremely unusual concentration of syncretisms on this site, generated by heterogeneous elements as they combined. The individual buildings we are putting forward are not merely an ensemble but a "stratum": the typical socio-cultural world of a place and a time, preserved in the memory of the stones and bricks of the buildings, and in the tesserae of the mosaics with which they are decorated.

From the Greek colonisation to the Unification of Italy, the history of Sicily has been marked by an uninterrupted succession of rulers who came from the greatest imaginable variety of other cultures, each of whom left behind their own physical traces that built up the incredible stratification that now gives this island its character. Other parts of Italy, too, were affected by the same periods of domination which, in a wider sense, also extended to cover an area that includes all the Mediterranean countries, but Sicily was especially influenced by the Islamic conquest (827-1091) and later by the ways in which the Norman domination of 1071-1194 was conjoined to it, and that led to the emergence of a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multilingual culture in whose architectural and artistic expressions we observe its two components, the Western and the Islamic, admirably fused together - without forgetting that there was also a third Byzantine component.

The elements in the group. The group consists of ten buildings that strongly represent "Arab-Norman" cultural syncretism between the eleventh and twelfth centuries. The components we have selected as the group are based on their excellent state of conservation (and this is one exceptional case in which buildings of the period have not degraded to the level of archaeology) and on the particular variations of the "syncretic" style that each of them assumed. In fact whilst each building is part of an organic whole, they individually assume unique characteristics that in each case are conjugated in new, different ways, each reflecting autonomously on the cultural traditions of this place, from the Islamic to the Byzantine, the Roman, and the Latin.

Of the ten buildings identified and which establish the configuration of the area as a whole, eight lie within the city of Palermo; the others are in the nearby cities of Monreale and Cefalù.

The ancient name for the fulcrum of Arab-Norman Palermo was Panormos (the "all-port" city), founded by the Phoenicians in 734 BC. Never subdued by the Greeks, it was conquered by the Romans in 254 BC. The ancient Panormos consisted of two fortified nuclei: Paleopolis (the older of the two) and Neapolis. They were built on a rocky peninsula bounded by two now-vanished rivers, the Kemonia and the Papireto, which formed a deep, well protected natural harbour where they joined the sea.

Under the Arab domination (9th-11th centuries AD), Panormos was greatly expanded to become the principal urban centre of Sicily, one of the most important emporiums in the Mediterranean. Arab chroniclers have left us descriptions of a legendary oriental city richly filled with mosques, sumptuous palaces, and crowded markets piled high with valuable merchandise: a place comparable in size and splendour to Cordoba or Cairo, and reputed to number more than three hundred thousand inhabitants. Some signs of that Arab period are still visible in Palermo, particularly in its urban fabric, which still preserves some Islamic components. But very little remains of the buildings: only a few parts that survive because they were incorporated into Norman buildings. After the Normans conquered the city in 1071 they made Palermo an important place for trade and contact between the Byzantine East, Muslim Africa, and the Christian West. Amalgamating diverse artistic tendencies, they developed an original architecture known as Arab-Norman, in which Arabic architectural compositions, methods for constructing roofs, and decorative motifs of Islamic origin are combined with the rational equilibrium of Byzantine planning or the severity of Romanesque building. On the site of the ancient Paleapolis, the old castrum of the Aghlabid era (9th century) was enlarged and equipped with towers and transformed into a palace worthy of its new rulers: Palazzo dei Normanni. On flat land behind it, stretching as far the first slopes of the hills, the Normans established a complex system of parks (the Genoardo), dotted with palaces such as the Zisa and the Cuba and with pavilions, fountains, and fishponds. The whole city became a vast construction site, in an aim to reinforce the authority of the crown and its alliance with the cathedra of the bishop. Physical evidence of this activity is apparent in the numerous religious buildings of the period, most notably San Giovanni degli Eremiti, San Cataldo, the Cathedral, and Santa Maria dell'Ammiraglio ("La Martorana"). Each of these is the product of a unique combination of heterogeneous elements. Assisted by Muslim, Byzantine, and Latin craftsmen, an extraordinary cultural, artistic, and architectural synthesis was able to flourish at this time, of which the highest expression is the Cappella Palatina.


Under the House of Anjou (1266-1282) Palermo entered a period of decline but then under the House of Aragon (1282-1513) there were ambitious building programmes and a general reorganisation of the urban structures was undertaken. Later in the baroque period, Palermo again underwent profound transformation; palaces, churches, monasteries, and oratories all flourished in a period of new construction that was intended to glorify those in power. After the city passed to the Bourbons in 1734, eventually becoming Italian in 1860, there was a neoclassical phase followed by an especially rich period of new Art Nouveau building. But even though Palermo experienced this highly articulated urban and architectural development from the Middle Ages onwards, it was above all the Arab-Norman phase that gave the city its basic configuration and equipped it with a founding ensemble of religious and secular buildings that as a group and a style are unique in the world.

The same historical phases that affected Palermo are also found further east at Cefalù, an indigenous centre that was inhabited in antiquity by the Greeks and was later conquered by the Syracusans and then the Romans. In the Byzantine period the inhabited part of the city was relocated further uphill; during the Arab conquest it was named Gaflundi and incorporated into the Emirate of Palermo, and then in Norman times the inhabited part moved back down to the shoreline, where it reconnected with the pre-existing urban structure. Cefalù's most important buildings date from that time, of which the most outstanding is the Cathedral and its cloister, founded by Roger II as a place of burial for himself and his successors. In the interior of the basilica, the timber roof bears traces of pictorial decorations by Islamic craftsmen; the extraordinary mosaic decoration of the chancel walls, and the great middle apse with its imposing figure of Christ Pantocrator, are Byzantine.

Monreale is of Norman origin, if we exclude an earlier Arab settlement on the slopes of Mount Caputo. Located about 8 km south-west of Palermo, the whole of Monreale developed around a monastic Cathedral complex built by King William II in 1172 to meet his needs for prestige and security. The Cathedral follows typical Romanesque planning and is characterised by the imposing mosaic decoration of its interior, which is again Byzantine. The exterior is dominated by the quasi-Islamic motif of interlaced arches, and the cloister of the Benedictine convent exhibits a profusion and variety of forms, techniques and decorative motifs derived from various models.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value


The ensemble of buildings that make up this Arab-Norman itinerary constitute an outstanding and universally valuable example of how diverse cultural components of heterogeneous historical, cultural and geographical provenance coexisted and interacted (cultural syncretism).

This phenomenon generated an original architectural style in which Byzantine, Islamic and Romanesque elements were admirably fused together, and in each case were able to generate unique, remarkably unified combinations of the highest artistic value.

 Criteria met:(i) (ii)(iv)    

 Criterion (i):

The Byzantine mosaics of Palermo, Cefalù, and Monreale are among the most important and best preserved examples of Komnenian mosaic art. In particular, the mosaics in the Cathedral of Cefalù are a supreme example of mosaic art. The painted wooden muquarnas ceiling of the Palatine Chapel in Palermo is an artefact unique in the world; its combination of constructional expertise with the elegance of its forms and decorations mark it out as a masterpiece.

 Criterion (ii):

At the time when the Normans were establishing their domain in Sicily, they had no cultural identity of their own to impose. There were already three principal cultural components existing on the island: the Byzantine, later reinforced by the arrival of Graeco-Oriental workers; the strong Arab presence, particularly well rooted in the artisan classes; and a Latin element that was emerging via the monastic orders and the court. The residential and religious buildings of the period fully reflect this cultural situation.

The particular political and cultural condition generated in Sicily during the Norman kingdom, when peoples from different cultures coexisted (Muslims, Byzantines, Latins, Jews, Lombards, and French), favoured the development of a vibrant period of cultural syncretism that generated, in the arts, a conscious, original combination of architectural elements and artistic techniques taken from the Byzantine tradition, the world of Islam, and western culture.

 Criterion (iv):

This original architectural re-elaboration gave rise to a wholly new conception of space and volume and brought about the development of innovative technologies in vaulted roof systems for buildings.

Arab-Norman buildings express the consistent use of an extraordinary artistic syntax, manifested externally in the compact massing of the buildings, in the modulations of the masonry, in hemispherical cupolas, and internally in a characteristic method of constructing the corner junctions of domes, in the mosaic cycles and decorations in opus sectile, and in the frequent use of the muquarnas decorative technique. The conjugation of all these aspects, which is an outstanding example in the medieval architecture of the West, strongly characterises the Norman period in Sicily.

This particular cultural climate also generated a new urban typology: the synergistic realisation of buildings and pavilions within a system of gardens equipped with water pools and fountains (the Genoardo).

This "syncretic" style went on to influence the architectural development of the Tyrrhenian coast of southern Italy.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

 The authenticity of this "syncretic" character is what gives life to the group of buildings that most completely embody it, which we have denominated 'Arab-Norman Palermo and the cathedral of Monreale and Cefalù' and of which most parts are still in their original configurations, as are also the structural and decorative elements of each building in the group.

The integrity of each building or element in the group, and the group as a whole, is guaranteed by legal measures for the protection of monuments, and is overseen by regional bodies constituted for that purpose. Almost all of the parts of the group that lie within the city boundary of Palermo (except for the Zisa Palace) also fall within the area denominated "Historic Centre" which in turn is protected by specific municipal planning regulations. The sites of both cathedrals at Monreale and Cefalù have legal measures for the protection of landscape.

Finally, a landscape conservation plan is currently in preparation for the territories of Palermo, Monreale and Cefalù.

Comparison with other similar properties

When we compare Arab-Norman architecture, of which the proposed group embodies significant and exemplary testimony, with the architecture of any other aesthetically important setting in medieval western civilisation, it emerges as extremely unique because of how it fuses together different traditions: it is a witness to the crucible of civilisations that was twelfth-century Sicily.

The next section compares the site of 'Arab-Norman Palermo and the cathedral churches of Cefalù and Monreale' with a number of other sites in western culture at which, in a particular historical moment, elements of heterogeneous origin, particularly Islam, were grafted on to a purely autochthonous technological, formal and figurative heritage.

Listed UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

The Mudejar Architecture of Aragon: influenced by the Islamic tradition, Mudejar art was the product of a particular political, social and cultural situation that prevailed in Spain after the Reconquista. But Mudejar art also reflects various contemporary European styles, particularly the Gothic, and could be described as reinterpreting western styles through Islamic influences. But in their general arrangement Mudejar buildings are essentially western; the ornamental Islamic element remains at an epidermic level, only as appearance. This is what principally differentiates it from "Arab-Norman" architecture, which is instead the outcome of fusing together a variety of forms and decorative systems that originate from different sources and creating an original, unified synthesis of three different traditions that is then able to establish its own new artistic expressions and thereby determine the genesis of singular, unique manifestations.

The Alhambra, Granada: this is an exceptionally important instance of fourteenth century Islamic Spanish art. Constructed in the medieval period as an Arab royal residence, it is a priceless Nasrid monument distinguished by the wealth of its decorative apparatus, particularly its sophisticated muqarnas decorations. The same features are also found, albeit in more modest form, in the twelfth century buildings of Palermo, where they sometimes perform a structural function and sometimes a merely decorative one. In the context of western art the Alhambra can be understood as one example of an exotic style in which the architectural element is wholly unified with its decorative and naturalistic features, in accordance with the Islamic concept of the garden, and in Palermo this is also the distinguishing feature of the Genoardo (from the Arabic Jannat-al-ard, heaven on earth): we find the same system of gardens, palaces and pavilions, of which there are various written accounts by Arab travellers and chroniclers of the time. The important buildings and monuments include the Fawar or Maredolce (Fresh Water), the Zisa Palace, the Cuba Palace, the Cuba Soprana and the Piccola Cuba. Another distinguishing feature at the Alhambra is the glazed ceramic tiles (azulejos and alicatados), notable for their virtuous interlaced geometric ornamental forms. In the group of buildings in Palermo we again find Islamic geometric motifs, fused n this case with the Byzantine opus sectile technique. The marble inlays in these Arab-Norman buildings is the outcome of a synergy of different knowledges from different provenances and is in fact the antecedent, in stone, of the ceramic tiles at the Alhambra.

Other places

Elsewhere in southern Italy (in the Cathedral of Salerno and the cloister of the Cathedral of Amalfi) a few other buildings exhibit affinities with the Norman architecture of Sicily, or make use of some elements of the same formal language. But these affinities are not sufficient to imbue them with the complexity and variety of the Arab-Norman architecture of Palermo. They are of a lesser order not only because of the peculiarities of their design but because of their different size, their lesser degree of stylistic affirmation, and the different way in which these phenomena were diffused in those local settings. In any case the Cloister of Paradise at Amalfi (1266-68) refers to a different historic climate.

The complex of the "Arab-Norman" monuments in Palermo, Monreale and Cefalù is an organic whole which at the same time is diverse and multifaceted. Extraordinary of its kind, it represents the highest artistic expression of the Norman kingdom in southern Italy.