In the Halls of the Norman Kings

Ted and I just got back from a 3-week trip to Sicily and central Italy.  We consumed vast quantities of pasta, ice cream and various alcoholic beverages.

Oh, you want to know more?

(More pictures available here.)

A Brief Initial Misadventure

We had booked a three-flight itinerary to Sicily (always a risky move) and arrived in Frankfurt only to find that our next two flights, both into and out of Rome, had been cancelled.  Apparently there had been a major fire at Rome’s airport.  No one was hurt, but it took several days for normal flight schedules to return.

With the assistance of an extraordinarily helpful (!) Lufthansa agent and some genius smartphoning by Ted, we put together a substitute itinerary through Milan, booking a flight on EasyJet from Milan to Palermo the following morning.  Vacation saved.  And we got to visit Milan’s wonderful cathedral and sample some risotto as well.


(Our smartphones saved us more than once on this trip — but very little of it had to do with using it as an actual phone.)

Palermo (and the Other Norman Invasion)

I was somewhat apprehensive about visiting Palermo — “seedy” and “scruffy” are some of the nicer things the guidebooks say about it.  I certainly wasn’t expecting a city with broad streets, palm-shaded parks, and lots of greenery — the place is a virtual clinic of drought-tolerant landscaping.  And despite all the warnings about crime, we didn’t feel remotely threatened while we were there (or anywhere else in Sicily, for that matter).  It was a little weird when the street musicians started playing the theme from The Godfather movie, though.

We went to Palermo to see the mosaics, and they did not disappoint.  But first, a bit of history.

Capella Palatina

The Normans arrived in southern Italy in the early 11th C, and in 1071, the Norman Robert Guiscard (a real person, not an Asimov robot) conquered Sicily, which had been held by Saracens for 250 years.  Unusually for Christian rulers, the Norman kings of Sicily allowed the Greek Orthodox and Arab communities to practice their religion freely.  There was also an unprecedented amount of collaboration among Greek, Arab and Italian artisans.

The mosaics of the Palatine Chapel (in what was the Norman royal palace in Palermo) and in the cathedral of Monreale, about 6 km up the hill, are outstanding example of Norman cultural fusion.  They combine Byzantine mosaics, Arab decorative arts, and Italian figurative art in an extraordinary combination that I haven’t seen anywhere else.  Many of the mosaics (particularly in Monreale, which features many scenes from the Old Testament), had a dynamism that is quite different from the typically static Byzantine style — a style which in some ways prefigured the Renaissance.

Mosaic detail -- God gives Adam Garden of Eden (upper right)

When the last Norman king of Sicily died in 1190 with no offspring, Sicily began a long slow decline, and its unique artistic traditions proved to be a dead end.  The world had to wait another 150 years for Giotto.

Piazza Armerina

The Villa Romana del Casale, just outside this small town in central Sicily, is a late Roman villa featuring mosaics of astonishing quality.  The villa’s large size indicates it was owned by someone really important — the local governor, perhaps even a co-emperor.  The villa was buried by an earthquake in the late 4th C, and later landslides essentially protected it from despoliation until the 1950s, when it was carefully excavated.

We had seen Roman mosaics before, and were familiar with their complex and wonderful geometric designs.  But we were unprepared for the numerous depictions of exotic animals — wild beasts such as lions and leopards as well as somewhat less fearsome ducks and flamingoes.  The depictions of the animals were astonishingly lifelike and showed the artists had some familiarity with the living animals.  A scene depicting wild animals being loaded on boats featured a beast-wrangler struggling with an ostrich.  (This is not the case in medieval and early Renaissance bestiaries, where it is clear that the artists were working from written accounts, rather than from life).  The mosaics even included depictions of tigers — I had no idea such animals were known in ancient Rome.

Mosaic depicting loading wild animals onto boats; note ostrich wrangler in the middle

Most interesting of all was the figurative art — depictions of hunting and fishing scenes that seemed more like medieval tapestries than what we think of as “ancient art.”  A famous mosaic known as the “Bikini Girls” is actually one of the earliest known depictions of female athletes — including one pair playing what appears to be an early version of beach volleyball.

Some of the scenes were also somewhat bawdy — be aware that if you’re flipping through our pictures, some are definitely Not Safe for Work.

Hill Towns

We visited several hill towns of southern Sicily — Ragusa, Modica and Noto.  This part of Sicily was heavily damaged by a major earthquake in 1693, which means much of the architecture dates from the 18th C and later.  I’m not a big fan of Baroque architecture generally, but Sicilian Baroque is more restrained than its mainland equivalents  — there’s more focus on the architectural elements, and less over-the-top decoration.

View of Noto Infiorito from bell tower

In Noto, we were lucky enough to visit during the annual flower festival.  For three days every year, the city devotes an entire street to works of art realized in flowers.  You can think of it as the apotheosis of sidewalk art.  Or as a major civic project like the Tournament of Roses (but without the football game).


Historic Syracuse was Greek for several centuries before the Romans arrived, as the number of Greek ruins around the city attest.

We were lucky enough to see a production of an Ancient Greek play, Iphigenia in Aulis, in the city’s Ancient Greek theater.  There were some concessions to modern tastes (the actors were miked, spotlights were used, and there were cushions on the stone bench seats).   But the minimalist staging was very similar to what we know of ancient productions.  It’s as close as we can probably come to seeing this kind of play in the setting for which it was originally intended – an amazing experience!

Entrance of Clytemnestra and Iphegenia

Food and Wine

The guidebooks are right– the food and wine in Sicily are quite good.  If you’ve spend any time in and around the NYC metro area, the food in Sicily is more similar to what you likely think of as “Italian food”  (tomatoes, garlic, eggplant)  than anywhere else in Italy. That makes sense — most Sicilian immigrants to the US settled in and around New York.  In Piazza Armerina, I was served a dish called “Veal Siciliana” (veal with a slice of eggplant, tomato sauce and melted Sicilian sheep cheese) which may be the origin of the Italian-American dish “Veal Parmigiana” — with mozzarella and Parmesan cheese being used to imitate the more difficult to obtain native cheese).  Somewhat more unusual are the pasta sauces made with the locally-grown (and justly famous) pistachio nuts.

Fresh fish, which is becoming a luxury item in much of Europe, is readily available in Sicily and relatively reasonably priced.  Sicily has retained the older custom, now more rarely seen in other parts of Italy, of displaying the fish on offer and allowing customers to choose their own.

Fish market

In Siracusa, Ted sampled “couscous trapenese”, a dish of couscous and fish cooked in fish broth, and served with the reduced broth as a sauce.  You can think of it as an inspired cross between Spanish paella and French bouillabaisse,  In Ragusa, we had an unusual dish of spaghetti with sea urchin (ricci) and mustard greens.  The chef said it reminded him of Japanese sea urchin (uni) with wasabi. 

Sicily is one of the few places in Italy which offers a wide variety of desserts and sweets — probably a result of the Arab influence.  We saw people eating brioche with gelato for breakfast, but somehow they are not all 300 pounds.  Haven’t figured that out yet.

Sicily has a long history of winemaking, going back to ancient times.  In recent centuries, Sicilian growers often sold their grapes in bulk to other countries (where it was sometimes sold as “French” wine). But in recent decades, Sicilian winemakers have been selling their own wines, with traditional grapes — grillo, malvasia, nero d’avola, frappato — all quite wonderful, either alone or in combination.

General Thoughts on Travellng in Sicily

Sicily spent 600 years as a Spanish colony, and missed pretty much every important cultural development  in Europe.  The Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, even the Industrial Revolution — left little trace on the island.  The reunification of Italy under the house of Savoy (regarded as just another bunch of foreigners by the Sicilians) resulted in nearly a century of domination by the Mafia.  The power of the Mafia on the island was broken during an astonishing series of major prosecutions in the 1990s.  The Internet has been embraced — free wifi was readily available, and we found it easier to communicate electronically with folks in Sicily than in many other parts of Italy.  But in many ways, infrastructure — roads, rails, public transportation — still lags well behind the rest of Italy.  English is not as widely spoken here as in other parts of Italy, either.  It’s possible to get around on your own, but patience (and smartphone-enable GPS) help a lot.